Playing With Parts

Mar 31 2024

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: selfie

The picture above is of (left to right) Sarah Burns, Holly Stoppit, Saskia Solomons and Angela Hayes (on the screen, beaming in from Nottinghamshire via Zoom), looking VERY serious at the end of our very first experimental Internal Family Systems (IFS) / clown / fool play day, at the Desperate Studio in Bristol.

We’re a group of IFS trained clowns and fools who have been meeting online for the last couple of years, exploring the space where Internal Family Systems (IFS) meets clowning and fooling through experiential play and discussion. If you’re like “What’s IFS?” or “What does she mean by clowning and fooling?” you might want to start back at my previous blog. But if you feel like you’ve got enough of a handle on those modalities, read on for a peek into our process.

In this blog I will be outlining our experiments and describing some of what happened for me during our first ever in-person play day. Read on for tales of grief, gratitude, identity, connection and home.

A Little Context

If you’ve not been following my blog, welcome! Let me give you some context about me, to help you undertsand the experiments below. 

In 2022, overcome with grief and burnout, I took an intentional step away from my work as a facilitator, therapist, director, educator, creative consultant and supervisor and left my beloved Bristol (home for 22 years), to live and volunteer at the Barn meditation retreat centre in Devon for a year. 

The Barn had a profound impact on me in many ways, I learned to slow down, enjoy space and simplicity and accept support. On completing my year at The Barn, I had a wish to bring these qualities to my work and life, but I felt unclear about how or where to do this, so I committed to staying with The Unknown until the next steps got clear. I travelled about for 8 months, doing embodied research, hunting for a place to call home, applying for a range of jobs and organising a variety of workshops and one-to-ones, with the aim of discovering the ingredients of a sustainable life through trial and error. 

In March 2024, feeling drawn back to Bristol by my wonderful community, I found a temporary sublet to feel out whether Bristol could support me to be the person I am becoming. This play day took place a week after I’d returned to Bristol.

The Morning

We began with a check-in, letting each other know where we’re at and what we needed, before taking time to co-create a container that would allow us all to simultaneously explore whatever was present for us, in ways that felt right for each of us. 

Experiment 1

Move to music. Feel into the parts (sensations, emotions, thoughts, fantasies, etc) that are alive inside of you. Map what you find with images and words. Come together to share your discoveries with each other.

What happened for me?

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Me

The image above is of a tear drop with a big pink flower, long brown roots and the words “I am not who I was, nor who I’m going to be, so who am I?” and “In what soil shall I plant my roots?” 

During the exploration I connected with a deep sadness. This was my first time using the Desperate Studio since Jon B, the former space co-manager had died. Jon was one half of street theatre legends, Desperate Men, along with Richard Headen. Jon and Richard had both been important figures in my early artistic development. They took me and my brother Jack under their wings back in 2006, as we were setting up our anarchic musical clown street theatre company, Ramshacklicious. They gave us space and guidance and cheer-led us through our formative years as Artistic Directors of our own company.

Connecting with the grief inside, I let it express itself with my breath. I let it move my body in slow, gentle curves. Tears flowed. 

Memories bubbled up of Jon B, sat at the piano in the morning light, primed and ready for a big bear hug and a chat. As I moved, ghosts of all the shows I’ve rehearsed and directed in this space swirled around me. In the comfy sofa corner, I saw traces of a blanketed huddle of women in fancy dress costumes during my Clown-o-therapy MA research group. Hearing a drum beat from a music studio upstairs, I recalled a wild and unpredictable training session with my company of fools, Beyond The Ridiculous, where each player improvised a duet with the incessant drum beat. 

As I moved with the memories, I felt a warmth in my heart, bursting out like a flower of gratitude, in celebration of all the incredible artists that I got to connect, collaborate and grow with, over 22 years of living and creating in Bristol. My body started taking on expansive movements, moving outwards from my heart into to the space, beyond the walls, into Bristol.

Then came the thought, “I’m not who I was.” My chest crumpled inwards as I tuned into the grief and nostalgic longing for the years when I defined myself by my work, by my role, by the position I held in the creative community of Bristol. 

The thought continued: “I am not who I was, nor who I’m going to be, so who am I?” Panic starting fluttering in my chest, my breath shortened, my movements quickened.

I felt tree roots growing from the bottom of my feet, trying to offer some steadiness. They wanted to root down, but I had a sense that they couldn’t root here. Panic prevailed as the question arose: “In what soil shall I plant my roots?”

Connecting with all this material through sensation, visualisation, movement, breath and then artwork allowed me to really access the feelings behind the stories. I got to understand some of the forces at play as I try to make decisions about where to live and what to do. Through this, I got to understand a little more about the connections between grief, gratitude, my work, my identity, home, The Unknown, panic and rootedness.

Sharing with the other members of the group allowed me to receive compassion and empathy, which validated my experience. I was able to really feel the suffering and tension in my system.

The Afternoon

In the afternoon we took time to reconnect with our parts and each other, before co-creating a second container which would allow us to investigate our parts, to whatever depth felt right. 

Experiment 2

We put on some music and found our own spaces for a while with a bunch of invitations for exploration, including:

  • Get to know the parts that are currently present or go back to the morning’s investigations and revisit those parts.
  • Explore the depth of your engagement with your parts - dive right in and embody them fully if you like, or just taste the essence of them and let them ripple through you if you prefer.
  • Situate your parts in space. What’s their relationship to the space? Where do they belong in this space? 

At the end of our solo investigations, we took it in turns to be witnessed in our discoveries, either recreating what we’d found, continuing our investigations but with witnesses, or just telling the group about how our solo investigations had been. We offered each other feedback with care and compassion, honouring and validating each others’ vulnerability and courage.

What happened for me?

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Clown Sculpture made by one of my research participants in the Desperate Studio during my clown-o-therapy dissertation research in 2013

I rotated and stretched and shook all the parts of my body to music, loosening up and making space for the discoveries to come. Some of the parts I’d discovered in the morning started calling me back for further investigation.

I began exploring the movement of roots in my fingers, wrists, arms and shoulders. My roots stretched out in all directions, searching for good, healthy, nutritious soil. Taking over my whole body, my roots moved me through the space, searching for cracks between the floorboards, and gaps in the walls. As my search for soil continued, I began to feel increasingly desperate.

My roots took me to the window sills, to the comfy sofas, to the kitchenette, to the noticeboard, to the piano. In each place, memories of my former selves were there to greet me. I took a moment to taste the flavour of each, to linger with the young, self-doubting performer, somewhat stressfully rehearsing a comedy street theatre show, the fledgling director, tentatively asking circus performers to put down their equipment and breathe, the clown teacher, beginning to find her groove, whipping up glorious, hilarious chaos, the dramatherapist-in-training, studiously offering deep dives into the therapeutic possibilities of clown and the confident, compassionate fooling facilitator, creating the conditions for magic to happen.

When it was my turn to be witnessed, I gave my storyteller her own spot, sitting close to the other group members and moved between telling them fragments of the stories evoked by the space and embodying the memories in the spots where they had taken place. I interspersed that with being roots searching for soil.

Exploring my parts in relation to the space helped me to deepen my connection with them even more. Roots searching for soil was made more palpable as I scrabbled around the space, physically interacting with the floorboards and gaps in the walls. I really got the desperation of the part of me who is yearning for home. 

Taking moments to taste the essence of the many me’s, without having to fully embody them all, allowed me to connect with a large selection of my previous selves in a small amount of time. This allowed me to get an overview of my whole Bristol journey, without getting pulled too deeply into any one memory. As I felt a sense of my creative development over 22 years, I felt delighted, proud and grateful for all the support I’d received. I felt a sense of having been shaped through these experiences.

Feeling into the connection between the roots’ desperation and the memories of my past selves in the Desperate Studio space, I understood my roots desire to root down into the familiar. There were other parts on the periphery of my awareness who were expressing caution about this, accompanied by the thought, “You can’t go back.”

Being witnessed by the group brought further clarity to my investigations. Their attention heightened my self-awareness and deepened my commitment to my exploration. It also drew out my inner dramaturg / director who enjoyed shaping the material on the fly, in order to take the audience on a satisfying journey. Their witnessing brought a ceremonial quality to my play, which helped me honour my relationship with Bristol and my work and connect deeply with my need for sustainability and home.

Witnessing the other group members in their investigations was a privilege and a joy. I can’t tell you about their work as it was a confidential space, but I can say our pieces were very different to each other, owing to the flexible containers we’d created, which had allowed each of us to explore what we needed to explore in ways that felt right for us.

Closing together

At the end of the day, we took time to write or draw in our journals before sharing what this day had been about for us. Here’s some notes from my journal: 

My roots long to root down, but where?
Bristol? Maybe not!
I can’t go back to who I was.


Meanwhile beauty happens, daring happens,
pleasure happens, connection happens,
Look! A new community is forming!
Aligned, shared responsibility, shared holding,
I can be vulnerable here.

I’ve much to learn and much to offer.
What happens when my stuff meets your stuff?
My bag of tricks meets your bag of tricks?
Nourishment, sparks, connection,
Seeing and being seen.

It was a very rich day and the fruit that grew through this collaborative process was sweeter than any fruit we could have grown alone. I feel very lucky to have found three other people who are as interested in mashing up these forms as I am! This collaborative, equal quality of connection feels like the key to creating a sustainable life for myself.

What happens next?

I have my sublet in Bristol until mid May. I trust this unfolding process of embodied research to guide me towards sustainability, whether that will be in Bristol is something my parts will help me discover. Watch this space…

We four are planning a summer retreat, to immerse ourselves in this exploration for a few days. 

We are each taking inspiration from our shared explorations into our own private processing and creative / therapeutic practice. 

The week after this play day, I facilitated a 2-day therapeutic process, combining clowning, fooling and IFS for a Freelance multi-disciplinary artist, theatre practitioner and community music facilitator in London. 

In a weeks time, our explorations will serve as a starting point for Saskia and I as we co-lead a 5-day Fool + IFS research lab for people who have done my Introduction to Fooling course.

In May, June and July, I’ll be drawing on this research for my Mindful Play weekends - these are open to everyone!

Then who knows? If you’re interested in this work, sign up to my newsletter at the bottom of this page for monthly updates.

Thank you for reading.

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