Reflections on 'Vulnerability'

Mar 06 2017

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Ed Rapley

Reflections on Vulnerability

On 5th March, 2017, I presented one and a half hours of semi structured / semi-improvised material on the subject of Vulnerability to a full house at The Wardrobe Theare in Bristol. This show was the second of my three monthly work in progress showings. The previous one had been about Stage Fright and until that performance, I hadn’t held the stage for 7 years, because stage fright had got the better of me. You can find out more about the making of that show here, here, here, here and here

After doing 'Stage Fright', I reflected on what might have been happening for me during my 5 biggest moments of live stage fright that night (as discussed at the bottom of this post) and guess what I found? VULNERABILITY! This, together with the audience feedback made it clear what the next show should be about.

I got really ill after 'Stage Fright', probably as a result of the prolonged terror leading up to that show, mixed with some bonus extra life-stress. So I did quite a lot of my initial research and writing for 'Vulnerability' in bed. It was only in the final week, that I got to stand my ideas up on their feet, facilitated by the wonderful dream team of Ed Rapley and Liz Clarke. You can read about our process and see photos here, here and here.

Ed and Liz sat in the audience during the performance, offering a little light facilitation to keep me on track. They each had a little bell which they could ring at any time they felt I needed to pause, a technique we’d developed throughout our play sessions in response to Ed and Liz’s desire to see me more still, quiet, connected and vulnerable on stage. 

Musician Sarah Moody improvised a live underscore with cello, percussion and loops, only jumping on board that afternoon. Having played music with Sarah many times, I knew her range and trusted her instinct so we connected during the afternoon of the show to improvise a bit together. I would find a feeling and allow it to grow into a dance and she found the soundtrack to support it. We chatted through the show and pin-pointed some moments where music might fit, but we left it pretty open as to what she would play in these moments and she had permission to jump in if she felt the impulse to at any point. We agreed to allow ourselves to have an on stage dialogue throughout the show whenever either of us needed to talk about the music.

Aisha Ali was in the lighting booth, operating lights and slides. As this was the first time either of us were using projected slides and we had a relatively short tech, we decided to keep the lighting very simple (on / off) and concentrate on getting the slide cues right.

My material was a mix of vulnerability and shame theory, personal stories, character work, self-penned poetry, an accapella folk song, movement and invitations for audience interaction.

We deliniated a space on the stage for ‘I feel vulnerable now’ with a special light on it. I committed to going here and voicing / showing my vulnerability every time I felt it.

At the end of the show we handed out feedback forms as well as conducting a 20 minute Q&A to find out from the audience what they felt about the show and what they thought the next one should be about.

Here’s a poem I wrote for the show:

The Lion and The Pangolin

Photographer Lance Van de Vyver,

Took a picture on his camera,

of a lion in South Africa,

Playing with an armoured creature.

Rolled up in an armoured ball,

Terror stuck by lions claws,

The pangolin stayed tight and round,

Protected from lion’s hungry mouth.

For 14 hours lion tried and tried,

To reach the tender meat inside,

But Pangolin was safe as houses,

Not letting hungry lion gouge his

Precious flesh and beating heart,

His will to live helped him outsmart,

The beast until he did surrender!

Slinking off to find some other

Creature to devour instead,

Leaving Pangolin alone, half-dead.

Parched he was, from the heat of the sun,

Exhausted from the stress of holding on,

In minutes our friend breathed his last breath;

Holding on did not save him from death.

My three research focuses for this show were:

1.) can I allow myself to be vulnerable on stage?

2.) how does it feel to do that?

3.) what impact does it have on the audience when I do that?

To fully answer these questions, I need to watch the film footage from the night and digest the audience feedback fully. Right now it’s 5 in the morning and I’ve barely slept, too full of adrenaline and thoughts and feelings. My memory of the show is hazy. This happened last month too, it took the best part of a week for the memories to come back and even then they were patchy. Maybe this is a neat evolutionary trick to help me take more risks?

In the olden days, having emotionally exposed myself as I did last night, I’d’ve been pinned to the floor by shame for at least a week. But I don’t feel shame for what I did last night. I feel a distinct absence of shame.

Something big has shifted in me over the 7 year break I took from performing and I think it has a lot to do with learning to be vulnerable and how to deal with shame. Vulnerability researcher Brene Brown talks about vulnerability as “the core, the heart, the centre of all meaningful human experiences” and I agree, without vulnerability, we can’t fully participate in life’s bounty and paradoxically, without vulnerability we will always be at the mercy of shame. Shame expert, John Bradshaw explains; “You’ve got to be willing to come out of hiding and be vulnerable…turn to people and take the mask off and the healing will come.”

***One week later*** I still haven't watched the footage, but I have read all the feedback.

Both the feedback forms and the post-show discussion pointed towards these particular moments where the audience felt they detected my vulnerability:

-When Ed or Liz 'dinged' their bells to invite me to pause, feel and be.

-When I was talking about my mum's recent health scare.

-When I sang one of my mum's unaccompanied folk songs.

-When I was locked into battle with the character of Shame (played by me). Shame had taken over the stage and was preventing me from getting on with the show, so we needed to dialogue for quite some time to get to an arrangement that would suit both of us. Shame wanted to stand on the chair in the middle of the stage with his arms folded, "just watching," but I needed the chair for the next bit of the show and couldn't really work around Shame. He eventually begrudgingly agreed to sitting in the audience and watching from the side lines, but it wasn't easy to convince him.

-At the very end, when I'd finished singing and held the audiences gaze for what felt like 300 years, but might have only been 10 seconds.

I'd say I'd agree with this, although I still haven't watched the footage. Memories of the show started coming back after three days, but there are still gaps. It feels important to wait to watch the footage until I am feeling grounded and strong as I detect that particular activity to be an obvious shame trigger. First priority is self-care and then I can analyse later.

Some of the people who gave feedback shared how they felt when they perceived me as being vulnerable:


"I wanted to help"



"I felt deep love and compassion"

"Made me feel very sad"

"Felt touched, wistful and connected"

"It was cathartic and it made me feel alive. I felt sad, I felt human resonance, I felt open + exhausted + loving + compassionate. I felt real."

"Uncomfortable at times"

"Felt connected, sad, protective of holly, felt love"

"The realisation that we are all babies, vulnerable creatures and originally good"

"I felt admiration to this capacity of showing herself"

"I wanted to reach out"

"I felt frustrated and it made me question why?"

“It’s unusual as an audience member to be aware of experiencing genuine vulnerability of someone on stage. I found it awkward at first to witness the vulnerability, but I also felt compassion for Holly and admiration for her facing it and coping with it in front of an audience.”

"It made me want to give you a hug"

"I felt softened"

So an interesting array of deep connection, wanting to help and feeling pushed away. I appreciated the bravery of those who met me with their emotional experience. These comments felt more valuable to me than those who gave me advise or criticism. My feedback filterer / boyfriend weeded the trigger warning forms out immediately after the show to give me time to settle with myself. But I was naughty and impatient and read them the next day, which was way too soon. I was triggered into a mini shame-attack by a few of those comments:

"holly stoppit announces a new show about vulnerability and spends the next 90 minutes avoiding the subject"

"seemed to be mostly friends helping out a friend who is on the stage"

So I reached out to my collaborators for support to unpick the learning and let go of the shame. In response to this; "holly stoppit announces a new show about vulnerability and spends the next 90 minutes avoiding the subject", During a lengthy email conversation where I explored what that triggered for me (mostly feeling like I am not good enough) Liz wrote this:

I Saw Holly

I saw Holly
I saw her in her onesie

I saw Holly
Standing on a chair

I saw Holly 
It was the glitter on her eyelash

I saw Holly
She was really there

I saw Holly
Be brave, be bold, be present

I saw Holly
I saw her really scared

I saw Holly
I saw her soft and open

I saw Holly
Climbing off a chair

I saw Holly
Offering connection

I saw Holly
Really going there

I saw Holly
Her fears & past addictions

I saw Holly 
Kick away the chair

I believe from my vague sense of the night and from the feedback, that I was as vulnerable as I could be. I am proud of myself for offering what I could.

In response to this; "seemed to be mostly friends helping out a friend who is on the stage," Ed wrote this; "The cult of the lone genius? Collaboration is illegal? If someone helps you during an exam that's cheating?"  Trying to put ourselves into the shoes of the person who gave the feedback, we developed more empathy for them and for ourselves. 

I am proud of myself for reaching out for support. I am proud of myself for accepting it. I turn this statement around into a positive mantra! "Friends helping out a friend who is on the stage" not only felt brilliant, but also enabled me to take greater risks. Hey! I'd recommend trying it!

There is something to be said about protecting yourself from obvious shame triggers straight after a show (or having made any vulnerable offer of yourself). Next time I will keep the emotional slant in the feedback questions in the hope of receiving more emotionally connected feedback and wait a little longer before reading what people have written.

***3 weeks later I've just watched the footage***

Now that I've watched the footage, I feel I can say that I was as vulnerable as I could be. I have fierce protectors that have kept me safe throughout my life and for them I'm truly grateful. They were there, for sure, but I still found space to play, to be and to be seen. If I were to perform more, I would probably find it easier and easier to be vulnerable on stage, but for someone who's spent 7 years off the stage, I feel really proud of myself for offering what I could.

I was also dealing with my mum's sudden ill health, the unexpected death of a friend and my own health issues during the lead up to the show. I think I did what I needed to to to keep myself safe, knowing that grief, fear and despair where nearby. In my experience, when I allow myself to be vulnerable, I allow myself to feel and 'feelings' all come as one big package. With the big ones knocking around it's no wonder I shut down a bit. Raw, unfiltered grief, fear and despair for me are pretty private emotions, I wouldn't want to put them on the stage in their raw state. Throughout the creation process for this show, I was taking these feelings to my therapist, Ed and Liz, my other good friends, my boyfriend, my meditation cushion and out into nature, but they were't ready to be seen by an audience. 

How does 'Vulnerability' look through last months research lenses?:

(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?

The stage fright was less consuming in the lead up to the performance. I only started losing sleep 4 days before and I only lost my appetite on the day of the performance (as opposed to one week without sleep and three days without much food for the last one). I felt nervous on the day of the performance, but I managed it with good time-tabling with the dream team to make sure I felt prepared. After warming up and running my material for Ed and Liz for their valuable feedback, I was able to delegate jobs to them so that I had time to run over my material again. I then got to speed run the show a third time in the theatre for musician Sarah and lighting operator / slide master Aisha. So by this time the order of the material was starting to get drilled in.

Improvising movement with Sarah Moody on cello, an hour before we opened was priceless. It got me well and truly into my body and feeling strongly connected with Sarah. I felt emboldened by our connection.

I will have to wait until I’ve viewed the footage to be able to know about the stage fright during the performance. I think it was there, but maybe with one show under my belt I’d internalized the experience of not dying on stage and having a warm reception, so maybe I felt a bit more at home on the stage? This is purely speculation at the moment as I’m still missing a lot of last night.

It's now the next day. I feel ill again. Similar to last time, but the symptoms are not so aggressive. My stomach feels fragile, but does not feel like I’ve eaten barbed wire and my muscles are sore but not throbbing. But I am exhausted.

My supervisor suggested that the total memory loss I experienced after both this and the previous show was perhaps indicative of trauma. Remembering back to the research I collected for 'Stage Fright,' one researcher equated the physical experience of stage fright as similar to "a small car crash." Have I been traumatising myself through this process? Has the fear of being seen created total shutdown? Or is revisiting my debilitating fear with new awareness and maximum support gradually creating new neural pathways? We'll have to wait and see.

***3 weeks later I've just watched the footage***

Watching the footage, stage fright doesn't appear as often as it did in the first show and I wonder whether I wrote and prepared more for this show to protect myself from the stage fright. 

The enforced silence and stillness facilitated by Ed and Liz (using their 'ding' bells) seemed to bring varying results from compliance to surrender to permission to shame- these were the moments that the stage fright got in. I observed myself taking a few of them as criticism and immediately got defensive.

It was interesting to notice my voice disappearing throughout the show, I wonder whether that was linked to stage fright / shame? I hardly had a voice to sing the end song with.

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

Again- I have to wait until I’ve watched the footage to be able to answer this properly, but I think I must have had pleasure at at least some points in the show! Surely! Watch this space to find out.

***3 weeks later I've just watched the footage***

There was pleasure! I saw it! Especially:

  • offering vulnerability / shame theory, using my stories to illustrate
  • playing the character of shame
  • bouncing off Sarah with the Addiction Bossa Nova
  • facilitating the eye contact exercise
  • telling the poem
  • storytelling
  • singing the song
  • spontaneous dancing

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

The vast amount of support I had both in the lead up to the performance and on the night itself, helped me to feel like I was doing something worthwhile and kept me focussed. I was able to take bigger risks because I felt held. Massive thanks to my dream team:

  • Liz Clarke and Ed Rapley- facilitators / collaborators
  • Sarah Moody- musician
  • Aisha Ali- lighting / slides operator
  • Megan Brooks- video 
  • Chris Collier- sound, lights and projector set up
  • Beccy Golding- my administrator
  • The Brunswick Club- rehearsal space
  • The Wardrobe Theatre for letting me use the space
  • Bob for doing the door
  • The bar people at Old Market Assembly for serving the drinks 
  • Everyone who shared my Facebook event  / blogs and helped me get another full house!
  • All the people in the audience for coming and giving me your time and attention
  • All the people who gave written feedback and all the people who stayed for the Q&A
  • My brilliant boyfriend for holding me through this rollercoaster of a process
  • My friends and family for letting me yabber on at you about vulnerability and for your great insights and stories
  • My therapist and my clinical supervisor for keeping me on the straight and narrow.

Some audience feedback:

"An engaging, informative, playful poem of a performance"

"Cathartic, experiential, emotional, dynamic performance based research"

"Brave, human, presence"

“A talented artist on a personal journey of discovery, opening her heart and her history and generously, usefully sharing with (thereby educating) her audience in the process.”

"Part lecture, part performance, part workshop on how to be human!"

"A TED talk on acid"

"An emotional, explorative experience, it made me pause before laughing, helped me understand and experience that there is deeper potential for connection beneath."

If you saw the show and you want to send some feedback: 

Feel free to email me at Here's the feedback questions again. Thanks x

1.) How did you hear about the show? 

2.) How would you describe what you’ve just seen to someone who wasn’t here?  

3.) What moments did you particularly enjoy and why? 

4.) What bits would you like to see developed from this show? 

5.) When did you think Holly was vulnerable and how did it make you feel? 

6.) What themes would you like to see Holly cover in the next show on 2nd April?

Come and see the next show on Sunday 2nd April at 7.30 at The Wardrobe Theatre. Pay what you decide at the end. Venue info here.

Facebook event here.

All the blogs from This Work In Progress Project are conveniently listed at the bottom of the first blog, which you'll find here.

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