Reflections on 'Connection'

Apr 04 2017

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: ?

Reflections on “Connection”

On the 2nd April, 2017, I presented one and 3/4 hours of improvised material, using the form of ‘fooling’ (multiple parts of the self embodied and in dialogue with each other), interspersed with original songs and a little theory on the subject of Connection to a full house at The Wardrobe Theare in Bristol. This show was the third of my three monthly work in progress showings, each one made with an entirely different team of collaborators.

A Brief Recap Of The Project 

The first show was about Stage Fright and until that performance, I hadn’t held the stage for 7 years, because of my own stage fright. This performance featured playfully delivered theory, personal stories, character work and a running commentary of my real life stage fright. You can find out more about the making of it here, here, here, here and here

The second show was about Vulnerability and was presented as a performance lecture, featuring various experiments that allowed me to explore my vulnerability, including poetry, very personal storytelling, accapela singing and doing nothing for short periods of time. You can read about the process of making this show here, here, here, here and here.

The theme of each show has emerged from the previous one, based on audience feedback, peer feedback and self reflection. 

Blurb for ‘Connection,’ the final part of the trilogy:

“This final show is about ‘Connection’; how connection enhances our lives, how easily it is to fall out of connection and how it takes courage, compassion and vulnerability to reestablish connection when it’s broken. Some of it may be funny, some of it may be moving, some of it may be informative, some of it may be rubbish, but all of it will be for you.”

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: a fool

The Creative Process for ‘Connection’

The creative process for this show was very different to the other two. I spent the first week on meditation retreat, recuperating from illness (likely to have been caused / exacerbated by the 2 months of sustained stage fright / stress I’d clocked up by this point). I remembered how to breathe and ground myself. After that I came back to Bristol and threw myself open to the flow, in a concerted effort to allow the show to work out what it wanted to be without force. 

I said yes instead of no to offers from friends I’d hardly seen throughout the whole work in progress project, to walk in nature, eat great food, drink wine and have juicy conversations. I attended a workshop on the theme of connection, culture and community and I created an online survey to collect personal stories about connection and disconnection. I wrote a little every day and I read interesting articles on connection.

Serendipity brought Franki Anderson back on the breeze between Berlin and Cornwall. Franki was my original fooling teacher, who I began studying with 16 years ago. Between her teaching commitments in Berlin and her home in Cornwall, we spent 2 days together in Bristol, reconnecting with the fundaments of the form. During this time I fleshed out 8 characters (or “masks” as they are known in fooling); The MC, Healthy Grounded, Unhealthy Ungrounded, Shame, Vulnerability, Grief, The Academic and The Comforter and each found their place on the stage.

In the evenings, I poured over the data collected in the connection survey with my friend, singer / songwriter Jess Langton, who happened to drop by to see if I needed any help. We took the words from the survey and turned them into songs. She wrote a lullaby called ‘I’ve made choices” and I wrote a ballad called “The Ballad of Disconnection.” We worked out harmonies for each others songs and were very pleased with what we’d made.

To keep my playing muscles warm, for the last week, I took every opportunity to improvise with my 8 characters for an audience. Clusters of the fools from Beyond the Ridiculous gathered to watch me on several days and the night before the show, I travelled all the way to Frome to play for 20 minutes in amongst a deck of experienced fools at A Night of The Fool (photo below). Through each of my mini performances, I learned more and more about my masks and their relationship with each other. I found The Academic’s vulnerability and Shame’s exhaustion and the incredible depth of Healthy Grounded’s roots. Each different audience seemed to bring out particular masks to the surface, my job was just to step out of the way and let it happen.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly / Picture of Simon Blakemore during A Night Of The Fool in Frome

The Day Leading Up To The Performance

On the day of the work in progress show, before leaving my flat, I had a meeting with all my masks to find out how they all were and what object they’d like to take to the Wardrobe later to put on an alter. The MC wanted her chimes, Healthy Grounded wanted a statue of Buddha, Unhealthy Ungrounded wanted a 1/2 drunk bottle of wine, Shame wanted the megaphone, Vulnerability wanted her onesie, Grief wanted a box of tissues, The Academic wanted her data and The Comforter wanted her uke.

I met with musicians Jess Langton and Simon Panrucker, to find our connection together as musicians. We started in Castle park, on the first proper jumper-off day of spring, lying under a blossoming tree, looking up at the sky. We set out a way of working for the day which would involve everyone bringing their feelings and needs into the space, to make sure we were working in a gentle, healthy, connected way, both with ourselves and each other.

Jess and I serenaded Simon with our songs, before heading back to the studio so that he could find the right instrument for The Ballad of Disconnection, after many different options (Tenor sax, toy trumpet, double bass, melodica, strange tiny clarinet), multi-instrumentalist Simon Panrucker settled for maracas and vocal harmonies.

The three of us explored the possibility of improvising another number, a vocal jam, using words from the connection survey on the theme of “what does connection mean to you?” We didn’t end up using this in the show, but I think it was a good exercise to connect us all in equal playful joyful expression. 

We shlepped over to The Wardrobe, pushing bikes loaded up with instruments and tat, to set up the theatre space. This is where it would have been good to have had a stage manager. For the last 2 shows, on show day, I’ve had my facilitators in the house, sorting out sound and lighting stuff, but this time I chose to not have a facilitator on show day as I wanted to try facilitating myself. BUT stage fright and naughty electrics don’t mix very well and I found myself getting pretty stressed over minor hiccups. Luckily I caught myself and took myself out of the drama and into my body for a mindful warm up and to set up the alter with all the objects my masks had chosen to bring. By the time the lights and sound had been magically set up by Aisha, Simon and Jess, I was warm and ready to play.

I introduced the team to my masks and together we found the best lit spot for each of them. The MC had the front edge of the stage, The Academic had a spotlight, front left, Healthy Grounded had the centre of the stage, with Grief close by her side, Vulnerability had the back corner and Unstable Unhealthy had the back wall to slide around on and Shame stood on the steps near the audience, off to the right hand side. Jess took over The Comforter mask, replacing it with soothing guitar music and her song, sung from the sidelines.

After seeing the masks, Simon and Jess brought in music, creating a sound pallet between them to use during the show. Each mask had its own particular quality of sound, allowing Simon and Jess a foundation to spring off from.

I set my intentions as:

1.) Make connecting with the audience my priority

2.) Drop back to nothing whenever I have the urge

3.) Trust the masks

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly

The Show

Lets see what the audience thought of it first, quotes from the after-show feedback form, in answer to the question “How would you describe what you just saw to someone who wasn’t here?” 

“A whirlwind journey through the different aspects of self. Hilarious soulful art.” 

“Majestic! A beautifully musical adventure of the mind, body and mirror neurons.”

“Beautiful, brave, raw, humanity at its best”

“Silly, enchanting, moving, uplifting”

“Informative, inspiring and bonkers”


“Amazing in-tune collaborative improv”

“Safe space where Holly explored aspects of her personality + gave them freedom”

“Very engaging, funny at times, soulful exposure of the inner world that I guess we all share”

“Oh my god, you really missed something, it was like wild and crazy with hugs”

“It was amazing! I felt really connected, touched. Laughed lots. Holly is an amazing performer. I have even learned about neurons.”

“An intense portrait of how to exist as a human being who can accept all parts of themselves (thanks)”

“A wonderful amalgamation of learning and connecting through the many parts of a wonderful woman and her team.”

Now lets look at the show through my 3 intensions:

1.) Make connecting with the audience my priority

Yes, I think I did this in many different ways. Having less prepared theory / stories helped me stay more present with myself and the energy in the room. Remembering text is a particularly strong stage fright trigger for me and for the last 2 shows I’ve made myself do it to explore whether a change of attitude to the task could help me feel freer on stage. I think it’s a tough call for any performer to stay alive to the audience whilst also remembering text. For me, because I really struggle with remembering text, it pushes all my “NOT GOOD ENOUGH” shame buttons. When shame is around, I am no longer present to what’s around me, I’m playing out old stories. I’ll project judgement onto the faces of my audience and give myself a really hard time.

So losing all set text made me available to do whatever I felt like doing, making sure I was making my choices in consultation with the audience, this could be a moment of eye contact, a feeling I was receiving or actual verbal contracting. This contracting happened many times throughout the show, I stopped what I was doing and asked the audience “Is this is what you want to see?” Especially when the masks were entering extreme / weird zones. Generally it did seem to be what they wanted to see. Weirdoes.

In my after-show feedback form, there was one section where I asked the audience when they felt connected during the show (to themselves, to me, to the other audience members). Here’s what they wrote:

5 people simply answered “yes”

5 people wrote about connecting with the audience through laughing, crying, ooohing, ahhing and shouting “yep” a lot (can’t remember how that game got started, but I have a feeling they started it)

9 people connected with my grief

3 people felt a connection with the material around shame

2 people felt connected with vulnerability

2 people identified with the The Academic

4 people felt connected to unspecified masks

2 people felt connected to the songs / music

Individuals wrote about feeling connected with the themes of “no-one can do it on their own” “feeling shit and disconnected” “Feeling the need for connection with connection” and 2 people wrote about feeling more connected to me through hearing my stories

One person wrote this;

“I cried when you cried

I felt awkward when you felt awkward

I smiled when you were joyful”

I received a lot of comments on the forms and via email since the show that chime with these:

“It’s comforting to know we are not alone with these struggles”

“Really refreshing to be like “Oh other people have that too””

Thinking about it, the answers to the feedback form’s earlier question “what did you enjoy” also have relevance here, as to have enjoyment must also mean to have connection, no? 

3 people enjoyed "all of it"

4 people enjoyed the songs

4 people enjoyed the music

3 people enjoyed the interplay between me and the musicians

4 people enjoyed all the masks

4 liked the play between the masks / jumping form mask to mask

10 people enjoyed The Academic

2 people commented on The Academic’s development

2 people enjoyed the mask of grief

2 people enjoyed the mask of Healthy Grounded

2 people enjoyed the mask of Unstable Unhealthy

3 people enjoyed my vulnerability

3 people enjoyed the honesty

2 people enjoyed my physicality

Individuals enjoyed it when things went wrong and seeing how I recovered, less theory, material about empathy, the “you’re shit” song + enactment of how shame effects everyday life, eye contact with my boyfriend's mum whilst rubbing my nipples and not seeing my bum (Unhealthy Unstable threatened to get it out a few times).

I think including a range of masks perhaps allowed more people to find their own connection with the work. It’s interesting how even the spread is (apart from The Academic, who was the surprise hit of the night). During my 2 days with Franki, she helped me to take a step back from each of the masks, so that I could find more freedom to play, shifting them from MY masks to THE masks, belonging to the archetypal realm. This gave the masks more flexibility to play for the specific audience gathered, which is perhaps why The Academic (named as Patricia), who was usually a stuffy, tweedy university lecturer accidentally let slip the sexual pleasure she has with her data. Perhaps that’s what this audience wanted to see? Weirdoes.

I enjoyed bringing in some academic research in a lighter, more throw-away fashion than the last 2 shows, Patricia had her slide show about connection but she knew that she might not necessarily get to use all her slides, as I wanted connecting with the audience to be my main priority. She used about 2/3 of her material, on the themes of compassion, empathy, mirror neurons and Rat Park (an experiment which suggests the opposite of addiction is connection) which felt enough to ground the show in legitimate theory, which does seem to be important to me. In all three shows, not many people have said, “I really liked the theory,” on the feedback forms, but I think without it, the shows would have missed a layer. I am an academic and I do really enjoy sharing research with people, so it was fun to let go a bit with this show and find a different relationship with the theory. I hope it was enough to give the audience a ‘connection lens’ with which to view all the nonsense and make sense of it.

I think the music and songs also helped the audience to stay connected. Simon and Jess captured my changing moods and surrounded them with sound to help me commit to and deepen into each state which I think allowed the audience a fuller experience of each mask. Having worked with Simon a lot through Beyond The Ridiculous, we have developed a kind of short-hand that allows us to communicate complex thoughts through a moment’s eye contact. This connection allowed Simon to intuitively feel the moments to record my vocals and build up loops so that I could sing / shout over the top. This mechanism allowed whole scenes to spontaneously emerge, i.e Shame shouting “you’re shit” into a megaphone became a soundtrack to a demonstration of some of the ways shame can effect us all in everyday life, using audience suggestions to show how difficult walking, making eggs and getting ready for a date can be when you are riddled with shame.

Jess’s song felt well placed, the dreamy guitar part was used every time I went to Vulnerability’s corner, so the audience already had a familiarity with it before Jess sang the song as a comfort to Vulnerability just at the right moment. Here’s the lyrics:

I’ve made choices

I’ve made choices

to find some common ground

not to beat myself up

I can’t live like that

I’ve made choices

to be slow and breathe

we’re all learning human beings

I’ve made choices

I was sick of complaining

on all that I’d missed out on

these wounds they run deep

but I don’t have to hide

I’m gonna go out dancing

I’m going for a nice walk

in the trees, rain and mountains

I’m gonna look into the eyes of another

gonna stay in bed all snuggly

I’m having peace and solitude

I’m going to yoga to cry cry cry

cry cry cry

I’m not quite there yet but…

I’ve made choices

From the core of myself

I’ve made choices

Just to be whatever I need

My song was not what I’d originally expected, I thought I was writing a sad ballad, but serendipity had other ideas. After carefully and respectfully arranging the lyrics from the connection survey, my ukulele gave me some fairly chirpy chords. Well OK, I thought, I’ll go with that. When I played the song to Jess and Simon, quirky backing vocals appeared, well OK, so be it, I thought. When Simon found the maracas, the swanny whistle and the kazoos in his studio, I just had to bow down to the fact that I had written a comedy song. You probably won’t be able to get that from reading the lyrics, imagine the three of us as a sort of mariachi band with 50’s surf backing vocals, getting everything wrong and “telling the audience off” for laughing and you’re half way there.

The ballad of disconnection

As a teenager, I had a group of friends 

out of nowhere stop talking to me

no-one would tell me why at the time

but the truth came eventually

It was about some boy

some teenaged boy

I tried to brave it out 

look like I didn't care 

My foundations were crumbling 

and the trust just wasn’t there

I felt utterly lost, 

ungrounded and afraid

I tried to work out what I’d done, 

convinced it was me who was to blame

I felt disconnected,

ashamed and isolated,

part of me died and I wanted to hide

I built walls to keep me protected

In my early 20s I was very disconnected 

from people cos I needed them 

to reassure me cos I couldn't cope alone

but this put too much pressure on my friends

it made it hard to connect 

so very hard to connect

it left me with this kind of chronic loneliness 

a lack of belonging that was so painful

I just couldn't do it by myself

I didn’t love myself

I didn’t have the skills to see

My expectations were impossible

my friends just couldn’t care for me.

I felt disconnected,

ashamed and isolated,

part of me died and I wanted to hide

I built walls to keep me protected

At work I witnessed bullying

I asked for help and nobody came,

I raised my hand, blew the whistle to the powers that be

and all they gave me was a heap of shame

I was singled out 

alone and singled out,

Cast as a troublemaker

who could I trust?

ashamed and disgusted for not coping

so I abandoned myself

I worked harder 

to prove I was enough,

I pleased people, 

got ill and very lost

I felt disconnected,

ashamed and isolated,

part of me died and I wanted to hide

I built walls to keep me protected

I've had a lot of counselling 

I’ve looked at many trees

I took up ballet dancing 

and piano and trapeze

I learned to let myself play

Let myself play

I gave myself the childhood i never had

this filled me with abundance 

made it easier to connect

I feel connected

Connected to the human race


ready to receive the world’s embrace

I’ve found compassion

I’ve found forgiveness

I’ve learned how to breathe, how to love and how to play

and I’ve found a tribe of weirdoes

2.) Drop back to nothing whenever I have the urge

This is something I’ll have to wait and see, when I watch the footage. I have a recollection of wanting to pause a few times and not knowing where to be on the stage for that. Each mask had their place so maybe I should have made a space for zero.

2 audience members said they would have liked more silence and stillness in their feedback.

‘Vulnerability,’ my previous show, had focussed intensely on bringing moments of silence and stillness onto stage, so I hope I retained a bit of what I’d learned through that process. I’ll have to wait and see.

3.) Trust the masks

I feel I really did trust the masks. As discussed above, letting go of personal ownership of them allowed me to have more freedom to play within them. Franki had reminded me that although the masks emerge from my truth, they then have the capacity to grow to become archetypes, thereby belonging to everyone, telling everyone’s truth. This invitation for expansion allowed me to connect more with the room from within each mask, finding out how the audience wanted each mask to appear.

Thinking back to ‘Vulnerability,’ my masks were very close to me and perhaps too much personal exposure brought shame onto the stage, closing down the limits of my play and my connection with the audience. It’s possible to be a slave to authenticity. Wow. I never knew that. 

I had a revelation which I shared during the 'Connection' show, that it had not been possible to bring grief onto the stage during ‘Vulnerability’. A friend had died during the making of the show and I had not processed the grief enough to put it onto the stage. I spoke about my academic side (or Patricia as she’s now known) taking over in that show to protect me from exposing the grief. When I watched the footage for ‘Vulnerability,’ the unnamed grief seemed palpable. In ‘Connection,’ inspired by so many stories about grief that had come to me through the connection survey and feeling I’d done enough processing around the subject, I put grief on the stage as an archetype which actually allowed me to access my real grief and share it safely with the audience.

On top of my 8 masks, I found a few new ones in the moment, including a Bristolian who had just wondered in, but didn’t know much about theatre, one who joyfully ran in circles round the stage shouting “YAY!!!” and Patricia’s own personal version of Shame (a task-master who would not let her have fun, “What would your father think?”). It was great to have the freedom to find new masks and include them all in my cast.

Knowing and trusting the masks and having a designated space for each one gave me enough structure to fly off into entirely knew realms of improvisation, in connection with the audience.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly

Lets now go back to the original research questions from ‘Stage Fright’

(1.) how’s the stage fright now, after all that therapy and the 7 year break?

(2.) do I enjoy performing more or less than I used to?

(3.) what would it be like to bring a high level of support into my process?

(1.) how’s the stage fright now, after all that therapy and the 7 year break?

It was interesting to observe myself in the week leading up to the show. Fear was manifesting as a huge need to read and get clear on all the theory around connection. Even though connection is my bread and butter, my inner academic (Patricia) was terrified at the prospect of me doing an entirely improvised show and wanted to help me out by making a slide show about connection. This internal battle got worse and worse each day as I had chosen to see friends and connect with people in the real world as part of my preparation. Patricia did not want to go out for lunch or walks with my friends, she wanted to endlessly sit on her own and sort through all the data from the connection survey so that she could present a robust argument. She particularly favoured the hours between 4-7 am. 

Physically, I felt OK until the day before the show, when I travelled to Frome to do 20 mins fooling. I felt the familiar shortening of breath, cold sweats and panic rising throughout the day, but I caught myself, lengthened my breath and gave myself gentle grounding nurturing each time.

On the day of the show, I was glad to be able to connect with musicians Simon and Jess and did all in my power to stay open, grounded and available to each moment as it unfolded. However, I felt many little twinges of panic and disconnect throughout the day, mostly fretting about the practicalities of time tabling, sound, lights, etc. If I was to tour with this sort of show, I would want a stage manager to look after all of that so that I could just focus on keeping myself calm and staying connected with my team. 

Everything ran over and I only had 3 minutes to sit in meditation before the audience came in (I usually take 15). So I used the audience’s entrance as my time to connect with myself and the energy of each mask before connecting with the audience. This helped me to feel calm, which I think helped me open the show in a connected, un-panicky way.

I have not watched the footage of the show yet, so I do not have absolutely clear recall of what happened and how I felt. However, I do have much more detail than the other two shows (both of which took about 5 days to come back). I think this has to do with finding the right structure/freedom balance, which allowed me to experience pleasure and connection in performance! I believe the memory loss for the other 2 shows was linked to triggering trauma through intense stage fright in the first show and emotional exposure / shame in the second. 

Having the vulnerability spot at the back of the stage felt useful and safe (last time, in ‘Vulnerability,’ we put it right at the front, which maybe felt too intense, this might explain why I didn’t use it very much). For 'Connection', I think I used the Vulnerability spot a lot when the stage fright came and it felt OK to stay there, supported by Jess’s soothing music, until I was ready to leave.

The day after the show I felt exhausted, tearful, but pleased / relieved. I had a bit of an unstable belly and achy muscles, but even less than last time (which was a lot less than the first time). So perhaps I’ve cracked a few things. I’m not sure it will ever go, bit I have discovered that I can manage my stage fright with the following factors:

  • awareness of what’s happening in my body
  • knowledge of how to calm myself down
  • asking for and receiving the support I need
  • getting the right balance of freedom / structure
  • accepting myself as I am and having the courage to share this with others
  • believing so strongly in the necessity and healing power of authentic connection that I am prepared to make the first move.

(2.) do I enjoy performing more or less than I used to?

Yes! I distinctly remember huge swathes of intense pleasure during this show. I will write in more detail when I’ve watched the footage, but I think I can safely say that I had a ball!

(3.) what would it be like to bring a high level of support into my process?

Amazing! Nourishing! Inspiring! The final section of this show was devoted to support. I shared how important support had been through this whole project. I urged the audience to reach out for support for their endeavours, explaining how it’s not possible to do it all alone. For this show, I’d like to thank:

  • Franki Anderson for introducing me to the form in the first place and coming back to spend 2 days reuniting me with my performer.
  • All the people who answered the connection survey
  • Jess Langton for helping me sort through the data, for your beautiful song and support with mine
  • Simon Panrucker for your brain, sounds, sensitivity and playfulness
  • Aisha Ali for your patience, lights, projections and sound set up
  • Steph Kempson for filming the show
  • Dominique, Chez and Megan for watching me fool and sharing your foolish selves with me.
  • Simon Blakeman for inviting me to play in Frome and all the foolish players for sharing your selves with me.
  • Martin Aylward for your teachings and all the staff for the supreme holding at Gaia House.
  • The Lightning Tree Collective for your workshop on Connection, Culture and Community
  • My friends Sarah, Paul, AJ, Finn, Sita, Tom, Claire and Amani, for giving good chat and sharing great food and views in the run up to the show.
  • All the people who organised and attended A Fond Farewell To Tails
  • My boyfriend, Joe for your endless support and care.
  • My supervisor and my therapist for keeping me on the right track
  • The Wardrobe Theatre for giving me the space to make all these discoveries
  • The audience for coming and giving your feedback

What next?

At this point, I really don't know. I'm going to let it all settle while I focus on picking up all the pieces of my life that I've dropped whilst I've been making myself insane and ill for three months. I'll enjoy finding clarity on what these new pieces are that I seem to have picked up along the way. Is my inner performer wanting more opportunities to perform? Is my inner academic wanting to publish something about this project? What new skills has my inner teacher / facilitator learned that she can share with others? What new collaborations have been created through this project? I will blog again when I have more clarity, but for now, I'm happy to not know. 

I made three solo shows in three months, with a little help from my friends and I'll never be the same again.

Thanks for reading these blogs. I hope they've been useful to you. All the blogs from This Work In Progress Project are conveniently listed at the bottom of the first blog, which you'll find here.

Big love

Holly xxx

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