My Facilitation Story Part 1: The Early Years

Aug 25 2021

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Photo by Gilly Stoddart / featuring me and my siblings in a human pyramid, with our dad presenting.

As part of developing my new online facilitation course, The Well-Held Space: Creative Facilitation Training, I've been thinking about my facilitation journey and all the influences that make up my practice. Here is part one, The Early Years; from Arts Play Umbrella to Oily Cart.

I grew up in the circus known as Arts Play Umbrella which was built on the principle of making arts and play accessible to all. We travelled around the UK performing circus-theatre shows for family audiences as well as offering circus workshops. The young people would come back every day and learn juggling, unicycling, acrobatics and other circus skills and at the end of each week, they'd present a show. I began assisting my dad with the circus workshops at the tender age of 6. I'd spend hours learning tricks so that I could pass them on to other kids, it was my favourite way to connect.

In my early 20's, I trained as a playworker with The Play and Early Years Training Unit. This opened the door to a life-long appreciation of play theory and helped me learn how to hold a wide open space where risks can be taken and great discoveries can be made.

Whilst undertaking training in clowning, fooling and physical theatre, I worked on various adventure playgrounds, after-school school clubs and the Bristol Playbus – a double decker bus full of toys and craft materials that drove out to traveller sites and threw open the doors for play. As a playworker, my job was to provide a safe enough environment, with interesting and exciting stimulus on offer and then to follow the lead of the children, enabling their play as it unfolded.

In my mid 20's, my sister Jesse and I were working part time together in a creche, where we often found ourselves making up stories and clowning with the kids. We talked about wanting to bring our love of play and performance together, so we co-founded Elastic Concoctions, an interactive storytelling company. We went into schools and offered semi-improvised storytelling performances and workshops for children aged 3-11. We delighted in engineering anarchic atmospheres where the kids really did have control over the stories that we told.

Next I spent a year as an Urban Explorer, going into 10 nursery schools a week to inspire children to take an interest in the nature that surrounds them. I'd take groups of children outside to look for bugs and leaves and moss and butterflies, then we'd explore what we'd discovered through singing songs, telling stories, playing with puppets, doing some dancing or getting the art materials out. The beauty of working with 3 and 4 year olds is that they don't have any filters! Through their sometimes brutal and often hilarious honesty, they taught me about pace and rhythm and how to keep my material engaging.

In my late 20's I went back to performing clowning, music and street theatre for various companies, including Ramshacklicious, the street theatre company I co-founded with my brother Jack. 

Between tours, I taught drama workshops for children through The Egg Theatre in Bath, Characters Stage School in Bradford Upon Avon and Travelling Light in Bristol. I started weaving clowning and improvisation into my children's workshops, supporting young people to be bolder and wilder, whilst supporting each other as an ensemble.

I then landed my dream job with Oily Cart, an incredible theatre company who make boundary-pushing work for children with disabilities. I was part of a big project which took place at the Manchester International Festival. I was one of a team of 6 performer / facilitators who were embedded in special schools around Manchester. Brightly costumed with daft hats, we were the “Nest People,” living in huge squishy nests in their school libraries. The children could come and visit us and we'd tell stories, sing songs and offer improvised sensory journeys. Our mission was to get the children used to being around performers and particular equipment (flying chairs to be precise).

At the end of our residency, we accompanied the children on the bus to a theatre where they got to participate in an interactive circus-theatre show performed by Okham's Razor. We were there to support each child as they were strapped into a now familiar leaf-shaped chair and suspended in the air. When the circus performers swang, bounced and span, we swang, bounced and span the children in the arial chairs.

I loved all the care, attention and risk that Oily Cart poured into their work. We were taught to listen to the children's implicit and explicit feedback and tailor our material to their changing needs moment to moment. Oily Cart's balance of structure and freedom and total permission to follow my flow allowed me to really thrive as a performer / facilitator.

Look out for Part 2 later on this week, when I'll write about moving into working with grown ups, teaching, directing and training as a dramatherapist.

To find out about the online version of The Well-Held Space, my brand new creative facilitation course, click this link.

Application deadline: Monday 6th September

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