When Holly met Joanne

Mar 20 2020

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Joanne Tremarco, Women Who Wank @ Elgin Fringe / photographer Lance Long

<<This blog was written way back in February 2020, the wettest February on record for years. Do you remember the days before coronavirus, when we could meet in cafes to chat and chew?>>

Another rainy morning in Bristol, what better to do than head out to Cafe Number 12 in Easton for eggs and chat with internationally acclaimed improviser, Joanne Tremarco.

Joanne is a Liverpool-based fool and teacher of fooling, with over 300 live solo shows under her belt. Joanne is from the Jonathan Kay lineage. If you don't already know me, hello, I'm Holly and I am also a fool and teacher of fooling and I'm from the Franki Anderson Lineage. Our two teachers once worked together, then at some point they parted and went on to develop their own versions of 'fooling,' (If you don’t know what that is, it’s a solo improvisation form, this blog will hopefully help you understand more about it.)

Last year, I saw Joanne perform her solo show, The Birth of Death, and loved it. When I heard she was coming back to Bristol, to perform her other solo improvised odyssey, 'Women Who Wank,' I nabbed her to chew over brunch and talk about our performance and teaching practices – to explore where they overlap and where they differ.

I voice-recorded us chatting for 1 hour and 17 minutes and the following blog is an edited version of our conversation. It's the 5th in a series of blogs entitled “When Holly Met...”, capturing conversations with clowns and clown teachers, Joanne is the first fool / fooling teacher I've interviewed. 

For a little context, I'd seen Joanne play 'Women Who Wank' the night before at The Cube, a cool volunteer run cinema, theatre and live art venue in Bristol. During the show, Joanne invited a packed out audience of mostly, but not all, women to participate in a lively discussion around the theme of female masturbation, you could call it a mass-debate (bu-dum-cha!). Beginning in the audience, Joanne chatted to us like old friends, asking open questions and being genuinely fascinated by our answers. From time to time, she'd take fragments of our conversations up onto the stage and play out her version of our stories, deftly morphing in and out of characters and regularly pulling her pink dress over her head to become the often-ignored, some-times side-lined and rarely admired character of Vagina (see picture above).

The next day over scrambled eggs and curly kale at Cafe Number 12, we'd launched right in, chatting about our self-care regimes as artists and facilitators. She'd brought up a technique she'd been learning in reiki, where she visualises a pyramid. At this point I started the voice-recorder.

Holly: Do you visualize a pyramid around you?

Joanne: Yeah, I sort of draw it on my hand... the guy who taught me, I just imagined him putting a pyramid shaped condom over his head...

Holly: ha ha ha ha

Joanne: But yeah, you just sort of draw a flat pyramid on your hand and then you just pop it over your head.

Holly: Ah!

Joanne: I've used it a bit lately when I've been so drained, I can't afford to lose any more energy. But I haven't tried it before running a workshop.

Holly: How is it with your experiences with audiences, because you are inviting the audiences to open up and share some of their stories, you obviously take that on, you're physically and emotionally responding to them... How do you feel at the end of one of those shows?

Joanne: Sometimes I feel really proud of myself like, “Oh, I dealt with that really well!” I had a lady at one show and she had a vibrator in her bag, she was going to see Women Who Wank, so she'd gone and bought one that day. I said to the audience “What are you expecting?” and they were like “Education.” Straight after she was like “I've brought my vibrator.” I think I just put it on my nose and played with it for ages, trying to be a lecturer or something. But then half way through the show, we had a lady who had never had an orgasm and had no interest in having orgasms and a lady who had FGM (female genital mutilation) practiced on her. She brought that up in the audience and I kind of honoured her and did a healing ritual. But it was billed as a comedy gig, so I had all these levels to balance.

Holly: Wow!

Joanne: At the end, everyone stayed afterwards, they were all healing each other, talking to each other, caring for each other and everyone filtered out the door in a really nice, positive way. I don't like doing it in Edinburgh anymore because you can't do any aftercare.

Holly: There's no holding, yeah.

Joanne: It's like one hour, out the door, got to get changed and get out of here. The show needs to have a soft exit.

Holly: YES! I bring up your other show (The Birth of Death) a lot. I talk about that space you and your director created after the show for people to express and process and be together as a community, I was so touched by that, so touched by your offers and your generosity to let the community speak for itself. You asked us; “What do you need?” That question felt really rare.

I've been thinking about aftercare for a long time, for the shows that I make. There's always the question of responsibility. I am a dramatherapist and a director and a teacher and I make work through a therapeutic process. There's always questions about responsibility – where does the responsibility end for the performer, thinking about the audience experience, when they come to watch a piece of work.

For me theatre should be triggering, it should trigger emotions, but then where is the space for people to have those emotions safely and be held? I've been looking at various different models for after show care. Partly for the audience to have a processing space and partly to make sure the performers are protected from the audience’s stuff. We spoke about this last night, these solo performers are up there on the stage, they're telling their stories, they're in their vulnerability and it opens something in the audience and they want to tell their stories, but is it appropriate for the performers to have to catch that?

I was really inspired by your piece and the aftercare. It felt so well thought through.

Joanne: Sometimes I do it after Women Who Wank too, and it has been really nice, especially if something comes up and people don't quite register it, because they're in their unconscious. They suddenly come up with it in the audience, as if they’re telling it for the first time- it's as if they just need to hear it from themselves. So yeah workshops, I've also thought about it, how to hold a workshop afterwards that maybe isn't them learning theatre.

Holly: I've been looking into playback and forum theatre as potential models to then play with the themes, either looking at personal stories or to keep the themes universal. I haven't had an opportunity to bust this one out. The performers I work with put it into their arts council applications, but then they don't get the full funding and it always ends up being a bit of a lip service thing. It's the last thing that people think about, but for me, I wonder if - wouldn't it be interesting if the audience experience was the first thing people thought about? How do they get caught and held? What a wonderful opportunity to have a bunch of people who are attracted to exploring a particular theme to have space to express what they need to express.

Joanne: I heard last night that all of a sudden, at two moments there were tears.

Holly: Yep

Joanne: And it was very strong. Often I make people laugh afterwards, to bring them back to the room, but I didn't yesterday, I just let it be there.

Holly: Yeah, and that felt right, it felt appropriate for the audience. It felt like we were all in. You had a lot of people leaving the theatre, but they all came back. There was something about that- a nonverbal contract maybe, “We've all returned, we're ready, let's go!”

Joanne: Maybe they just needed a break?

Holly: Yeah.

Joanne: That actually happens always at The Cube.

Holly: Aha, that's interesting. [...and true, on reflection, in my 20 years of performing and watching shows at The Cube, audiences have always wondered in and out.]

Joanne: During the Birth of Death, when my mum was taking her last breath, someone went out. I remember saying something to them. I always say to people that run the place, “Will you tell them to go to the toilet beforehand?”

Holly: They just do what they want at The Cube!

Joanne: I often feel like people share so much, what if they go “I wish I hadn't said that!”

Holly: I wondered about that because in my workshops I have a confidentiality policy – you can share the stories outside of the space, but you have to fictionalise the teller – so that the tellers are safe. In Bristol we all know each other, it's a very tight-knit community, so if stuff gets out and about, it's not safe. I was thinking about how brave all your tellers were to just come out with this stuff.

My partner wasn't there, interactive theatre is not his thing, he'd prefer to watch a film of it. When I told him about your show, he asked about the people who spoke - “Who are they to be so confident that they are able to talk about wanking, in public?” I told him I thought there were a few kinks who are really confident talking about sex and a tantra nut... those people, I didn't worry for them at all, because it felt like, “Yeah yeah, I just talk about sex and sexuality all the time, it's not a problem.” But then there were a few people that I think really surprised themselves, the woman at the end who said that she cries when she wanks.

Joanne: Yeah, I spoke with her afterwards.

Holly: It was a gorgeous moment and I imagine that she surprised herself with that. I don't imagine she came expecting to tell that story.

Joanne: No.

Holly: But it was beautiful and it was necessary. But then there's the whole thing about shame. The shame of having divulged something so personal about yourself and is it safe? Is it safe to share something like that in a room full of strangers? Can you do a confidentiality clause with an entire audience?

Joanne: It's possible, isn't it?

Holly: Would they honour it?

Joanne: In the past, when I was in a very small town I've said “You'll see each other on the street and you can just acknowledge each other, just with your eyes.” But maybe there's something there... I've had to change my thinking... when I first started improvising, I could persuade people to just do anything! And then I had to start asking more, to get their consent, double checking, I don't want to coerce people.

Holly: It's lovely to see, I teach on consensual audience interaction, so I really appreciated how careful you were with reading people and checking in. I don't feel like you coerced anything out of anyone last night.

It's one of the things that put me off working with Jonathan Kay, actually. I watched his show at Glastonbury a few times and found his audience interaction to be pretty demanding. [In his shows, he gets crowds of people marauding around the festival as a pack of animals, surrounding innocent bystanders and chanting his words in unison.]

I took a weekend course with him in my early 20's, after training full time with Franki for three months. Franki's work is rooted in permission and acceptance, there's a whole lot of YES in Franki's work. I loved it, it had an incredible effect on me, it was mind blowing. It was the first time I'd had permission to fully be myself. But then I wanted the other side of the coin, I wanted structure, so I sought out Jonathan.

During the weekend course, I felt like Jonathan was poking and prodding me to try and find my weak spots, but I just didn't trust him, I didn't feel like he'd earned my trust, so I closed up like a fan and he ignored me for the rest of the weekend.

Joanne: It felt like he was horrible to me for about two years, but yet I trusted that was where I needed to be.  In reality I don't think he was horrible to me- I was just deeply defensive and up against my own low self esteem. His efforts to connect with me and his calling out of the way I engaged with / blocked the world felt like tough love. And I struggled to feel loveable, so sometimes it just felt tough without the love! The way his directness got beyond my defenses, I felt exposed. Ex-posed; no longer able to pose in a made up version of myself- but actually seen. I needed this. I wanted this and I asked for this but it was hard to take. Hard to see all the smoke and mirrors I was using to disguise the truth that I am nothing but a fool! 

My running judgement was "I am worthless." There was a special moment when I was in Somerset, surrounded by fools. Jonathan was working with me when I discovered that this is the way I talk to myself... "You are worthless".  Finally getting there! To this space I was trying to protect was so liberating. Suddenly my fool was able to answer back to my king (who ruled with an iron fist and knuckle duster to boot) and say, "Yes I AM Worthless. I have nothing to lose".  And so I was off my own hook enough to begin the work. I had felt for 2 years that I was the last person Jonathan wanted to work with, whether he'd agree or not is speculation, but at this point I began to work. 

Fooling with Jonathan involves unlocking the meaning locked in words. Seeing how the spelling of words is actually like making spells.  Work means Double you (w) oh (o) ah (r) I see (the k is made of an i and a c). I say this because when I was able to see the double you (w) on this day, MY double you, my king and fool and get them to talk and listen to each other that was when I began to work.

Holly: It’s amazing to hear about your experience with Jonathan, sounds like the opposite to mine! I have a lot to thank him for, I feel like the level of care in my teaching sprang directly out of that weekend workshop. I think I trained as a dramatherapist largely because of that weekend with Jonathan. I felt his power and I feel that power in me. I felt the potential of what I was capable of doing and I wanted to learn to do it safely because it felt like...wooooahhh! This is big! This could be incredibly destructive, so I learned how to anchor it, so that I'm safe and my students are safe enough.

Joanne: Often I do find knowing that power makes me nervous about leading workshops more often. I haven't stepped into my own power with workshops for that reason. I'm asking how can I take care of myself and take care of everybody, enough to do this as my main thing?

I work with the structure that Jonathan's created – it's utterly fascinating and I don't know where it's come from, it's so deep that I don't think I'll ever depart from that. Would you say you are part of the Franki Lineage?

Holly: Yeah. I've refined the practice through my dramatherapy training and mindfulness practice, I've taken it on a bit of a tangent, but Franki is the source. The basic nuts and bolts of the practice are hers, the whole nurturing environment she creates.

Joanne: It's good to talk about all this. I guess a lot of us feel out on a limb sometimes.

Holly: It's all part and parcel of the bloody archetype, though, isn't it? That's the bloody thing about the bloody archetype of the bloody fool, you are just out on a limb.

Joanne: You are.

Holly: I think perhaps a summit could happen on the limb. Maybe we should have a symposium of fools called “Out On A Limb.”

Franki's doing a lot to gather all her fools together from all over Europe. We're all separate, practicing in our own ways in our own places – so she's trying to find ways to pull us all together.

Joanne: Jonathan's slowly starting to give us teaching work through the Nomadic Academy. I'm enjoying it.

Holly: Franki's really in her Grandma energy now. She's created this beautiful space in Cornwall out of mud and straw and bits of people's houses, it's like the borrowers made it. She literally just sits there in her chair and bares witness. No intervention, hardly any. She just sits and she sits and she sits and she watches. To be seen her gaze, is like opening like a flower. Her practice has really changed from when I first trained with her, 20 years ago. She was very much more active, but now she's kind of letting it happen. It's a very different style, but it gets equally profound results, without much probing.

Joanne: I trained as a doula this last year. A birth doula as well as an end of life doula. Part of that training was active listening and learning how to trust in the other person's wisdom. Listening without trying to answer it with; “I feel inspiration coming...” or “This is something I've discovered...” I wonder how that is integrating with my teaching. I realise all the different practices I have integrate.

Intuition is involved in birthing, teaching and performing – but how do you know whether it's intuition? Or is it fear and anxiety? As an improviser – there's that state of trying to be clear beforehand – so that the impulses are not coming from fear. I don't want to make an entire show out of anxiety – so how do I let that freer part of myself out?

I have my rituals before I do a show and I've had to create rituals for births, to tune into that part of me that's a bit more knowing and a bit more trusting.

Holly: That's funny, I've been referring to myself as a clown midwife of late, I've been thinking about rebranding, but I think that might be a bit far out for some of my students. I used to think of myself as Clown Mamma, but now I feel more like a midwife. There's so much crossover between all these things.

Joanne: Yeah, it's about really having to do nothing... I think fooling is terrific practice for becoming a doula. 

Do you still tour?

Holly: No I've stopped, it's exhausting! It must be especially exhausting as a solo performer. I never really stepped into my power as a solo performer. I guess I'm starting to, with the talks.

It feels like now is our time. It feels we're really en vogue right now. The world is ready to have authentic experiences – it feels like there's a huge backlash to social media – especially the young ones, they just want to get in a room with each other and be real.

Joanne: I'm at a crossroads with workshops and performing. It's difficult to monitor the success of fooling.

Holly: We are really ethereal, the practice is really ethereal. There's no writing on it. It is difficult to feel grounded in it, there's really nothing.

Joanne: There's nothing!

Holly: But that's the point!

Joanne: The point is it disappears again into nothing.

Holly: Yes! I get these surreal moments, when I'm like - I really just do whatever I want, all the time and I'm taking a whole load of people with me. So I'm constantly having to dance with “Is this for good? Or am I actually the pied piper?”

Joanne: That's the responsibility isn't it? Everything we do goes outside. It's the role of the fool, isn't it, to reflect everything? Our audiences and participants can put the stoppers on or they can let it keep reflecting.

Holly: Yeah!

Joanne: I guess we have to trust their journey with it, their autonomy. “Oh my god!” It's like being a mother, isn't it? I can see why you call yourself a mamma. I guess at some point a healthy mother lets go.

Holly: It's the thing about the fool archetype. It is such a solitary being. Is it a blessing or is it a curse to be a fool?

Joanne: I think it's going to serve us on our deathbeds, I think we'll be alright. We'll be like “Yep, nothingness? Not knowing? Yep, I'll go there!”

Watch this space for a summit of fools...

To find out more about Joanne's work and tour dates click here.

To find out more about Jonathan Kay and the Nomadic Academy for Fools click here.

To find out more about Franki Anderson, click here.

To read the other "When Holly Met...." blogs click here.

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