Start Close In - Artist Retreat at Hawkwood

Jan 28 2022

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly being a fallen over tree, quietly waiting

In the first week of January 2022, Hawkwood Centre for Future Thinking in Stroud opened its loving arms to me and two collaborators, Dominique and Chez. We spent four days in and around a grand old Victorian stone built house, diving into my continuing exploration of body-based and nature-inspired approaches to writing, which formed the backbone of my Arts Council funded ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ project in 2021. 

For our Hawkwood retreat, we added our shared practice of “Fooling” into the mix. Fooling is a form of authentic solo improvisation, where the performer embodies all the voices in their heads (ie the inner critic, the inner child, the inner diva). I began studying the form with Franki Anderson, way back in 1999. I’ve been developing my own version of it ever since, integrating my training in dramatherapy and mindfulness to provide workshops for adults from all walks of life. In 2014, a group of my students and I formed a live performance company called Beyond The Ridiculous.

My collaborators, Chez and Dominique are both performers, facilitators and members of Beyond The Ridiculous. All three of us were working on individual writing projects. The aim for our retreat was to hand the facilitation baton between us and take it in turns to lead movement explorations, somatic meditations, creative nature investigations, and experiments in fooling, to see how these impacted our writing. We’d move our inquiries from the body to the page and from the page to the body.

The following blog offers a peek into our process.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Artist in Residence - Holly Stoppit

In the beginning

We arrived in our spacious, comfy sitting room to find a huge picture of a fiery phoenix on the wall. This felt like a fitting start for a post-corona residency. What might arise from the ashes?

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: The Phoenix in the Sitting Room

We each brought a collection of objects to create an altar of intentions (including precious stones for courage, self-love and clarity, a candle for peace, a toy that makes the sound of a sheep for irreverence and a heart shaped box for surprises), books to infuse our process with other people’s thinking (poetry, books about the body, spirituality and psychology) and a selection of exercises we might like to share from our own individual practices. 

I arrived with the themes of spaciousness, softening and rest fresh in my body, having just finished an epically transformative New Year meditation retreat. I was intrigued to find out what could happen if we were to encourage ourselves and each other to create from these gentler places, as opposed to the all too familiar tension, adrenaline and frenetic activity of the rehearsal room. To support this investigation, we decided to not make a plan for the week and feel our way through it instead. In our performance practice, we walk onto an empty stage and follow our impulses to create short pieces of instant theatre. We decided to apply the rules of Fooling to our week at Hawkwood and to create the process as we moved through it. 

David Whyte’s ‘Start Close In’ was our jump off point

by David Whyte

Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way to begin
the conversation.

Start with your own
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something

To hear
another’s voice,
your own voice,
wait until
that voice
becomes an
private ear
that can
really listen
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

What did we do?

In the mornings, we started close in, with movement and meditation in the spacious sitting room, finding the “pale ground beneath [our] feet,” tuning into our bodies, our breath and our hearts before connecting with each other through play. We rolled like rag dolls on the carpet, danced like divas with the furniture and sang like three people who haven’t had many chances to sing with other people for two years - for the view outside the window. 

We paused for elevensies, then felt into what our next step would be

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Dominique playing improvised Shakespeare in the woods

Some days we ventured out into the wintery woods, exploring the environment through our senses, embodying the naked trees, the squawking birds, the frozen soil and the clinging vines, before taking it in turns to find our “stage” and Fool for each other amongst the trees. 

We found our own questions as themes began to emerge in our play - boundaries and compassion, how to express anger, surrender and softening, masculine and feminine, grief and joy, knowing and not knowing, the present and the past. 

We sat on tree stumps and transported our embodied discoveries to our journals to find more insight.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Chez writing in the Sitting Room

Some days we stayed in the sanctuary of the sitting room, exploring deeper, more vulnerable topics through longer improvised solo performances, rituals and writing. My brutal Inner Critic took his space on the sitting room “stage,” letting us all know that everything we were doing was in fact a load of old bollocks. My nervous and somewhat eccentric Inner Academic, Patrica, held her own, guarding the process with surprising ferocity. We were all very proud of her, even the Inner Critic.

We took an extravagant hour and a half for lunch each day so that we could rest and digest the gourmet delights and have some time to ourselves. 

In the afternoons, we went for long ambling walks, following our hearts up and down hills, through bogs, over styles, along tracks, across fields. We leant on a gate to do the voices for two lamas, a pig and a horse who all lived together (not so happily, according to our commentary). We swang on swings, sang three part harmonies, played with our lengthening shadows and found spontaneous characters in the landscapes before returning home for homemade cake and writing.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Dominique being a troll under a bridge.

Here’s a few new characters we found along the way:

The warm orange Golden Hour Sunshine - everything she touched became beautiful; the trees, the leaves, the grass, even the mud.
The Hoarder of Grudges - living in a dark cave, taking tender care of everybody’s bitter stories.
The Gatekeeper - refusing entry to “the show” unless we all dropped our knickers and did a wee on the ground (thankfully another canny character showed up just in time and led us to a secret entrance round the back).
The Fallen Tree - waiting patiently on the cool earth, trusting the process and dreaming of new growth.
The Headless Ones - oh there were so many of them, everywhere!
The Shakespearean Lover - lost in the forest, looking for their love, but meeting an old Crone instead.

On the day the rain came, we decamped to the roundhouse and lit a fire. We told our stories and discussed our themes, finding the places where they overlapped and exploring how our patchwork of personal investigations fit into the current political / social landscape

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Dominique and Chez telling tales by the fire

At dinner time, we were nourished by the delicious, nutritious food and the company of a fine array of artists from different disciplines, a writer, a musician, a dancer, three clowns and two experimental mover/musicians, who were all spending their days in their own private spaces. We swapped stories about our days, finding out about each other’s practices and lives.

On the first evening we three sat by the fire in the library and played music together. On the second night, we made multi-sensory dens in the sitting room and took each other on guided tours. On our final night, we invited the other artists into the library for an evening of parlour games

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Chez and Dominique in a den

So much gratitude!

As people who hold space for other people, the three of us were incredibly grateful for having had this rare time and space to reconnect with our practice and to play, discover, learn and grow. What a way to start a year! On our last day, we put into words what Hawkwood had given us, I rearranged them into a poem.

Thank you dear Hawkwood for:

An abundance of everything we could possibly need;
Acceptance and permission for us to drink tea,
Light fires, make noise, make mischief and mess,
Time and space to not know + digress,
A variety of places for us to be,
Inside, outside, earth, sky and trees,
The loving care and attention to detail,
The fresh cut flowers and hot water bottles,
The plentiful, healthy, nutritious food,
So expertly prepared and conscientiously thought through,
A real sense of ownership over our process,
No expectations about what we’ll come up with,
Having opportunities to meet other artists,
Sharing about our creative practice,
Uninterrupted space to explore,
Freedom to play without having a goal!

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly fooling in the sitting room

What did we receive from our retreat?

The generous conditions at Hawkwood allowed us to discover a spacious, intuitive process that allowed us to rest and play to our hearts content. We reconnected with and explored our beloved Fooling form, experimenting with integrating our learning from other forms - meditation, embodiment, dance, voice-play, nature inquiry and writing. These discoveries will no-doubt find their way into our respective creative facilitation and artistic work.

We explored a fluid step by step approach to co-facilitation - trusting ourselves, each other and the unfolding process - passing the facilitation baton between us and switching from facilitator to participant. For me, this was a crucial embodied investigation of sustainable practice, an actual concrete example which I’ll carry in my body to help me cultivate more sustainability in 2022.

Another sustainability research experiment was factoring in rest as a vital component of our creative process. This felt new and risky for all of us and it felt like Hawkwood really supported these explorations, holding us in a caring embrace while we bravely attempted to have radical naps in the middle of the day and go for destination-less walks in the afternoons. It felt like the grounds of Hawkwood were infused with permission for artists to follow their flow in this way.

My creative output during the retreat - as a performer, facilitator and writer - was simple, clear and pared-down. Without the urgency and pressure, the pace of everything was much slower - there was space to notice how I was feeling - which enabled me to make choices based on my intuition. I noticed moments of anxiety when my body clenched and my mind raced around looking for the thing that we should be doing right now and I breathed, relaxed and softened - which allowed me full access to all the resources available in the present moment. Being able to practice this consciously for four days whilst interacting with other humans (as opposed to on my meditation cushion) enabled me to gather evidence of the positive effects of slowing down and softening as a gateway to creativity, to take with me into 2022. 

We all shone a light on our relationships with writing, making discoveries about what supports and hinders our creative processes. There was joy and relief to share our difficulties and delights. During our stay, I began writing a blog entitled “Letting go, letting be.” Parts of the blog were found during the Fooling, other parts were developed in conversation around the fire, some emerged whilst sitting at my laptop. Whilst writing, I allowed myself to be guided by my body sensations, noticing tension and making choices to soften and relax. It was a pleasure to write.

I feel energised to keep going with my writing and perhaps there is a new workshop on the horizon for writers or wannabe writers… I’d like to continue to explore body-based, nature-connected and Foolish approaches to writing and I’ll continue to search for opportunities for collaboration with other writers / creatives. Hawkwood reminded me that connection feeds my writing process (My inner critic thinks connection during the writing process is cheating - he prefers me to suffer alone, so it’s great to have gathered some evidence to present to him when he next pipes up).

Hawkwood gave us the time and space to reflect deeply on big personal themes through play, performance, discussion and writing. We got to tell the stories that needed to be told and bare witness to each other. It felt so important to remember and honour the humans behind the artist-facilitators. So much of our respective work is about holding space for others to explore and express their authenticity, it felt rejuvenating to experience this space for ourselves. 

My time at Hawkwood has made it clear that I need to take my work outdoors again (or at least have access to outdoor space during workshops). The work and I benefit tremendously from being surrounded by nature. The trees, the sky, the mud and the sun all featured heavily in our explorations - offering inspiration and illumination, soothing and support. I’d love to adapt some of what we discovered for other workshop participants. Our four days reinforced my intention to move to the countryside, somewhere where people can come to stay and play. There I said it. That’s what Hawkwood has done to me, it’s made me want to leave my beloved city and plant myself in the country. Any offers?

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly reading on the sofa

Many thanks The Francis W Reckitt Arts Trust for funding our residency.

Hawkwood provide space and support for artists all year round, take a look here for more information.

If you’d like me to bring any of these flavours to your project as a facilitator, check out my Creative Consultancy page.

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