How do we find our way back to the real world?

Jun 07 2021

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Devoted and Disgruntled

On the 5th and 6th June 2021, I attended a 24 hour online Devoted & Disgruntled Open Space at the Global Improvisation Initiative Symposium.

Improbable Theatre Company had decided to host a 24 hour rolling event where people from all across the globe could gather at a time convenient to them to discuss whatever felt pertinent around the themes of:

How is the world transforming improvisation? How can impro transform the world?

I didn't last very long, having spent most of the week immersing myself in yet another online conference, in between my online teaching and online consultancy. Truth be told, I'm a bit Zoomed out and starting to feel the pull towards real life. But with so many incredible people in attendance with so much experience and wisdom, I decided to stick around and host a meeting, titled:

How to teach / perform impro in the real world now?

I submitted the following report to be included in the Devoted and Disgruntled archive and I thought I'd share it with you too, in case it's useful or interesting for you, perhaps you'll have some thoughts for me too...

Taking part in the discussion were: Huda, Staci Black, Gen, Steven Shinder, Paul, Amy Carrol, Andy, Phelim and a few others coming in and out.


Background

I am a clowning and fooling teacher, dramatherapist, creative process facilitator and Artistic Director of Beyond The Ridiculous; an ensemble of solo improvisers.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I moved all my work online, joining forces with fellow clown teacher Robyn Hambrook to form The Online Clown Academy. Together we've been creating and curating an archive of free video clown tutorials (link below) and running a range of clown courses on Zoom for international groups of clowns. We also organised two online conferences – Clowns In Crisis in November 2020 and Clowning Out Of Chaos in May 2021.

My company, Beyond The Ridiculous received funding from Arts Council England via The Wardrobe Theatre's cultural recovery grant to explore how our solo fooling performances might translate to live online shows. We performed two shows for public audiences – Voices of Lockdown Live and Unleashed in June 2020 and The New 'Normal' in November 2020.

I have learned and enjoyed so much about online teaching, but I'm itching to get back into the real world. But how? I have two major concerns; 1.) I don't fully understand how to provide safety from the virus for all in the room whilst keeping it joyful and 2.) I want to find ways to retain some of the positive learning and development that I've accumulated over the past 15 months and integrate it into real life teaching and facilitation.

So I opened it all up for discussion at The Open Space. The first point someone raised was “Why stop teaching online? If it's working, why not carry on?” Here's what we discussed.

What are the benefits of online learning and teaching?

  • We can connect with people across the globe

Amy spoke about travel no longer being a barrier to great training. I have experienced that having a mix of people from many different cultures makes for a very fertile learning environment. We get to explore universal and local humour and build up our appreciation for both.

  • We can be more inclusive than ever

Some of us have been connecting with people with disabilities and chronic illnesses who might not otherwise be able to access our work. Through The Online Clown Academy, we've had a few people attend our classes from their beds and it's worked well. We've become more and more flexible in our offers, encouraging people to adapt the material to suit their energy, mood and physicality, watching them connect with each other from wherever they are is beautifully radical. This is something I want to retain.

  • The boundaries are clearer

I've had a lot more energy since teaching online – partly because I no longer have to do the epic cycle rides across hilly Bristol with all my workshop gear bungeed onto the bike – partly because my classes are shorter and less intense and partly because the boundaries are clearer. When I finish teaching an online class, I shut my laptop, write a few notes and take myself off to the garden or out for a walk or for a little rest or a stretch. My teaching practice feels sustainable for the first time in my life.

How have we adapted?

We have all had to adapt how we teach online. Amy's worked out that full days are possible if you put in a lot of breaks, Andy has made his classes shorter and snappier, I've gone from running intensive weekends and 5-day courses on my own to co-facilitating smaller weekly two-and-a-half hour doses. 

My content has had to change, to a lighter shade of play, because that's what felt appropriate under the circumstances, with people in their homes during a pandemic – it felt more important to offer opportunities to move and breathe and explore your space through your clowns eyes, than to offer deep therapeutic process (which is what I was offering before). 

It also felt more important to bandy together with co-facilitator Robyn Hambrook as we both forged our way into a the digital realm for the first time. Our collaboration felt really supportive and energising as we explored the middle ground between my work (personal insight through clowning) and hers (political activism through clowning).

What do we miss about real-life learning and teaching?

  • being able to tune in and really feel a connection with each other

Having spent a year exploring ways to cultivate empathy and connection on Zoom, the feedback lets us know it is possible, but there is nothing like the real deal! I can feel empathetically connected when I'm doing one-to-one on Zoom, but I struggle to fully emotionally engage with groups like I am able to do in real life teaching.

At Tracy Burns' workshop called “breathe” at the Global Improvisation Symposium this week, we explored the impact of synchronising our breath to each other during scene work, noticing how it enhanced the quality of our connection and improvisation. It felt like the closest thing I've experienced to real connection with strangers over Zoom. Breath gives us access to our emotions and opens doors to empathy and connection.

  • being able to feel the presence and laughter of the audience

Steven talked about missing feeling the audience and being surrounded by laughter. On Zoom, you can only hear one person at a time – so laughter and applause not only sounds bizarrely sarcastic, but also cuts off the performer's mic. This is a big deal for clowns and improvisers alike. We are guided by the laughter, buoyed and shaped by it. Through the audience's in-the-moment feedback, we create bespoke material to be enjoyed by them and only them. Performing in a vacuum can be scary for us relational beings. It can re-trigger old trauma. 

Towards the end of the first lockdown, I attended a workshop called Resonant Body with trauma therapist Anita Lewis and voice-freer Briony Greenhill. Anita spoke about her realisation that she had been getting triggered whilst delivering workshops on Zoom, because she wasn't receiving any relational feedback from the people listening. As everyone had been muted, she hadn't been able to hear them breathe or make sounds. Her nervous system had noticed this and flared up saying “Uh oh, something weird is going on here! It's not safe, quick, activate Fight / Flight!” Once Anita worked this out, she requested a few of us leave our microphones open so that she can hear us breathing and making occasional “mmm” listening sounds. This transformed us all into three-dimensional humans and helped her nervous system calm down.

  • the improvisation between the improvisation

This is how Gen described all those in-between moments around the kettle, the cue for the toilet or the smoking area. I work hard as a facilitator to offer many opportunities to create group cohesion, but these small casual moments are where the group members really bond. 

When I run my courses in real life, some people stay in touch with each other for years and years. I don't feel like that's happening on the Zoom courses. I might be wrong – I should put out a survey to find out! But I feel like without the in-between chit-chat, they are not making those deep long-lasting friendships. I miss witnessing these friendships being born.

  • Play, expression, breath and touch

Doing courses in your living room or bedroom can feel restricting in terms of the amount of space you have to fling yourself about in and the volume you can use to fully express yourself. Play can be inhibited.

As for breath and touch... My work is rooted in connection and empathy and I include a lot of breath release to help people tune into and express how they feel. I use consensual touch to help people come into closer connection with each other and explore the building blocks of trust, supporting and being supported. It's felt impossible to do my workshops in-person without breath and touch, even when the lockdown eased a bit. It's hard to hold a safe, joyful, free space when fear is in the room and not being able to help people release fear with breath and build trust through touch, has made it all feel impossible.

What's the solution? 

Although the lockdown has eased here in the UK, it still feels quite up in the air whether it will be possible to offer my in-person courses for a while. It takes a lot of time and energy to organise the courses and the situation could still change at any point. It feels too precarious to programme a season of workshops.

Here's some ideas about moving forwards that we came up with:

  • The hybrid workshop

Paul spoke about attending a hybrid dance class where some people were in the studio and some at home.

I don't think this would work for my existing courses, but perhaps there's something I could design specifically for this audience in mind...

  • Designing new in-person workshops that work with the restrictions

Phelim talked about two puppetry workshops that he led where everyone was in full PPE – he said everyone was so delighted to be in the same room, they soon forgot about the PPE and found joy and connection. 

I'm not sure learning clowning would be possible with masks as you need to see each others facial expressions. That being said, the clown doctors around the world have been enormously creative with their PPE – designing masks with red noses and big smiles or simply performing outside windows.

  • stipulate that all participants have to be double vaccinated

Huda and Gen agreed that this could be a reasonable request. 

It feels like a can of worms to me, but I will explore this avenue further.

  • Design workshops that work outdoors

There are teachers and facilitators beginning to do this here in the UK.

It would feel too risky to offer my weekend and week-long courses outdoors because of our charmingly changeable weather, but maybe there's something else I can design for this environment...

  • Carry on online

Phelim spoke about wanting to stay connected with the new audiences he's been cultivating over the past year.

I definitely want to keep offering things online, but I feel like I need to balance this out with some in-person work as I get so much from real life projects.

Things To Think About

I'm really grateful to have had the chance to unpack all this thinking with the marvellous people who attended this discussion. It feels clearer that it's not yet time to get my weekend and week long courses up and running, but I've come away with some great ideas about possible ways to move forward. 

There were a few more little gems from our conversation that I'd like to share with you as questions to support you as you stride out into your next era:

  • How will you look after what you learned? 

Were there any positives for you throughout this last year? How do they translate to your work and life, now that the world is opening up?

  • How might you find / replenish / retain your inner stability?

I believe many of us have had a trauma response to the events of the last year and what I understand about trauma is that in order to heal, we first need to find the ground beneath our feet. What simple things can you do to anchor and nourish yourself as you glide into your next era?

  • How can you support those who have lost a lot?

People have lost loved-ones, livelihoods, health and wellbeing. Might your creative skills be useful in holding space for others to express grief and recover from trauma?

Thanks for reading. Have you managed to get your workshops and performances up and running? How have you done it? How is it working out? If you'd like to share anything with me, please email me on holly@hollystoppit.com

Links

Devoted and Disgruntled

The Online Clown Academy Facebook Group

The Clown Workout Archive on Youtube

Anita Lewis, Somatic educator and body orientated trauma therapist

Tracy Burns, acting, improv, communication and public-speaking skills teacher IG @tracyburns_teaches

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