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‘Circus meets the Mind’, Jo Childs talks to Director Mish Weaver about her latest production for CircusFest 2012

[Photo of Lyn Routledge from Box of Frogs: Mark Morreau]

Mish Weaver – celebrated Director of Stumble danceCircus, talks candidly to Run Riot’s Jo Childs about her latest show, Box of Frogs, and the impact of Bipolar Disorder on her life and work.

Bipolar Disorder (Manic Depression) affects around 1% of the population, and is characterized by extreme mood swings that can severely affect a person’s ability to function.

As part of CicustFest 2012 - the best contemporary circus from around the globe, Box of Frogs features 5 acrobats and 2 musicians, and sets out to challenge some of the myths surrounding this much misunderstood condition. Surprisingly, the dark side is not what you might expect…

Jojo Childs: In your latest show, Box of Frogs, you’ve chosen to explore society’s perceptions towards mental ill health. Tell us more…
Mish Weaver:
Well. The precursor to Box of Frogs was a one-man solo show called Bipolar Ringmaster (without a Circus) - a marriage of bipolar and circus, played out with an actor. With Box of Frogs, I wanted to explore this theme using professional circus performers.

Prior to this, I had never made issue based work. I’d always created emotive movement around instability, but it was much more abstract. So, for the first with these two shows, I’m actually talking specifically about Bipolar Disorder.

JC: That’s a brave statement. Why Bipolar? Why Circus?
My obsession and passion is Circus. And my experience is Bipolar Disorder. So on a very personal level - it’s bringing the two together. Because that’s what goes on in my head, pretty much all the time.

But it is NOT a show about me. It’s an abstract marriage between bipolar disorder and circus, and what happens when the two worlds meet. Circus seemed like exactly the right home for bipolar disorder - exactly the right place for it to live and be.

JC: Why do you think Circus and Bipolar make such a good match?
I am not saying that circus is driven by madness and mental ill health, not at all. But I do think that a lot of bipolar qualities exist very well in Circus. Circus is a place of extremes, of highs and lows. It’s a good place for obsession; a good place for extreme risk takers; a good place for very colorful characters, and a great place for extreme confidence.

And, unfortunately, it’s also a good place for very low self-esteem and disappointment in oneself.  So, I think a professional within Circus might hide that very well.

JC: Do you think Circus attracts more Bipolar sufferers than other worlds then?
No. I don’t think so, not any more than life in general. I think the arts might possibly have a higher proportion, but I don’t know that to be a fact.  

No. What I am doing here - is using circus as the person, as oppose to the individual performer.  It is circus itself that represents Bipolar. It houses extremes – the highs and the lows. It’s not really a comment on the people that exist in that world though.

JC: What’s it like working with such a personal and emotive topic?
I’m finding it fascinating. It’s by far, way, way above anything I’ve ever done before.
It’s an extraordinary process. It’s also terrifying…

Before this morning’s rehearsals, I had about 30 panic attacks - one after the other. In a, ‘FUCK, FUCK, FUCK…I’m doing this again, Oh shit,’ kind of a way!

I guess I feel really responsible. I dread devastating anybody. If you are that overt about your message, then you also have a big responsibility to be respectful, and gentle I suppose.

So, I think that concern has made it quite a mild piece in some ways. Some people including myself think it is barely touching the surface. Others think it’s too much.

JC: You have decided to go public about your mental health condition. Presumably Bipolar Disorder has had a huge influence on your life, and your work?
Oh God yeah! Massively. It’s ironic, because my going public has kind of coincided with a period of great inner calm. I suppose in some ways I would describe myself as a Survivor.  

About 3O years of my life, from the age of 7 until about 37 was influenced by Bipolar Disorder. It was a very hectic life  - very depressed, and very manic.

Then about 9 or 10 years ago, I started a program of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), around the same time as having a child - so that was a huge turning point for me. I finally managed to organise myself enough to be able to control a lot of my behaviour.  

JC: How do you manage your Bipolar on day-to-day basis?
Day-to-day, my disorder is much less prevalent. It's always there. I’m on medication. And I am always managing it. I’m at my best when I’m working, and I’ve found a way to work that accommodates my mind and my way of coping and thinking.
JC: Do you think Bipolar has enhanced your creativity?
I’ve no idea, I can’t say, because I know plenty of great artists that don’t have Bipolar Disorder.

When I was a kid, I used to think that the deep depression made me into a great writer. I thought I you couldn’t write fabulous stuff unless you were chronically depressed. But then you go back and read it later - and it’s just miserable stuff!

I think at one time, it may have made me a great performer - a great Aerialist. Because I didn’t give a fuck about myself. I didn’t care physically what was going to happen to me. And I think that can be quite a watchable quality in an Aerialist!  But that makes me feel really uneasy now – uneasy that people were watching that.

JC: Do you think it’s possible for somebody diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder to fully recover, to heal permanently?
I’d really love to say yes. I don’t know though, because you always have that feeling of looking over your shoulder and thinking: ‘Have I still got Bipolar? Maybe I’m cured?’

And I couldn’t find out really - unless I come off my medication. And the last time I did - life was very, very, difficult.

I do have a suspicion that medication creates a deep dependency though. I think a large proportion of people could recover through very good CBT. And I know that there are people out there trying to heal people without medication. I don’t think medication can heal people. It just exacerbates it a lot of the time.

JC: If you could change one thing about society’s current perceptions towards mental health, what would it be?
I think not assuming we should always medicate it - that’s the bottom line for me.

I was on a drug years ago that has since been pulled for causing suicidal tendencies in teenagers. And it turns out, that it’s not that it hasn’t been found to have the same effect on adults - it just hasn’t been researched on adults. It's dangerous shit, really dangerous shit. So yeah, that would be it - to not jump so readily towards medicating symptoms.

JC: So should we be concentrating less on symptoms, and more on cause?
Yes! Although I think it’s easy to sweep medication aside. In some cases it can be life saving.

I have had friends, who have really struggled with depression, and been refusing anti-depressants. And I’ve found myself saying to them: ‘Why not just take some for a while, give yourself a break, a bit of a holiday.’  But I think we often say that, because there isn’t anything else available at the time. I also tell people to find themselves some really good therapy.

JC: Has your art helped you manage your Bipolar?
Well, it works for me. When I was doing trapeze, exercising and training hard, I was a lot healthier mentally.  

Exercise works too, without a doubt. But then some people in Circus do take it to an obsessive level - and then it can become self-abuse. We touch on that a little bit in the show too!

JC: How important is it that artists and celebrities speak out about Bipolar?
Well, I think it became really trendy. And there was a tiny bit of backlash attached to that. So that’s something always in my mind with my work. I do think there is a double-edged sword to some celebrities coming out.

I think to learn that you are in the company of so many wonderful people, can be quite unhelpful for some bipolar sufferers. Because there is a sense that if you have bipolar disorder – you must therefore be a genius! You must be absolutely brilliant. You must be talented. You must be making a great spectacle of yourself, or that you must always have an entertaining side.

When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t really understand it. Because I had never understood the mania, I had only understood about being depressed. So I had never identified that there was this other place that was problematic – and that was actually where things were going much more wrong.

So I think the high point [mania] is often very misunderstood, and that is something that I am really trying to challenge in this show.

JC: How does the show relate to your own experience of Bipolar?
I am trying to be brave enough to show that Bipolar Disorder doesn’t necessarily make you into a very attractive individual. It's a tough thing to play with, and so some people are finding it hard to swallow. But I’ve yet to really offend a manic-depressive, I think!

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who hated themselves as much as I used to, and I don’t know if there is a little bit of me holding on to that. But I do think that Bipolar disorder can make a person behave very badly. One of my performers found that really difficult - being asked to be so deeply unattractive.

A lot of people think that the Aerialist character in the show plays me, which I find really funny. Some people even think she is me, which is even funnier because I couldn’t do what she does in a million years!  

But it’s because she displays temper, a terrible temper. And that’s been a real life-long challenge of the disorder for me. My mania has quite often been fury and aggression.

JC: How are audiences reacting to your honest portrayal of mania?
I think a lot of my attempts to display the negative side of mania goes slightly over some peoples heads.

They understand the big performer, the confidence, the brightness – they understand all that. To a certain extent, they understand the extreme enthusiasm, and the big risk taker. But they don’t always understand that there is no OFF switch, there’s no OFF button with mania.

At one point in the show, one of the performers has a toy, and another performer is begging him to: ‘turn it off, turn it off!’ And he replies: ‘but there isn’t an off switch, there isn’t an off switch!’

We have lots of different audiences coming, and some really get that bit. They don’t all love it - but it prompts debate and interesting discussion. Others are really frustrated and irritated by moments like that.

I’ve been getting a lot of feedback that I need to organize those bits of the show. But that’s the whole point - it’s all about mania. And mania is not something you can organize. Mania is chaos!

JC: And what about your depiction of the Lows in the show?
I thought presenting serious grief and serious depression in theatre was going to be the hardest bit. I thought it might trigger unpleasant things for people. But no - quite the reverse! Audiences are actually very accepting of the down side.

The clearest scene about depression in the show is really painful - yet people find it beautiful. They seem to enjoy empathising with the painful thoughts and emotions. Interestingly, It’s the, ‘up’ stuff people find difficult and unpleasant.

JC: Why do you think audiences find it harder to accept your portrayal of the Highs than the Lows?
I think in general, it’s hard for people to understand sometimes why the highs of Bipolar might be problematic. Why is feeling good such a problem?

People can understand that you could maybe spend loads of money, and get into trouble financially. But I don’t think people completely understand why you might not be able to stop yourself doing that.

And it’s the same when someone is chronically depressed I guess. There’s that inability to understand why they can’t just get up and have a bath, do something more constructive.

I think that’s partly where some of the misunderstanding comes from. Virtually everyone has had some experience of mental ill health. BUT, there are people who can actually just snap themselves out of it - so they can’t always understand why other people wouldn’t be able to.

JC: How do audience reactions mirror your own experience of living with Bipolar?
It’s funny, because you hide. You work really hard at hiding the depressed side.  

I’ve had friends who’ve said to me: 'you’re really good fun when you’re not depressed, but when you are, I just can’t handle it. I don’t want anything to do with it'. Harsh stuff!

Equally, when I first got diagnosed, one friend couldn’t identify the way I was leading my life as being ‘manic.’ I think she had a specific idea in her mind, that a manic person must always be the life and soul of the party.

But I am never the life and soul of the party. When I’m manic - it’s not pleasant, it’s not a pretty sight. I’m not great fun. I don’t wear big bright kaftans! I think that is some people’s experience of mania - but it’s not mine.

JC: How will you know if the show has been successful?
Well, the feedback so far has been fascinating. What I really didn’t see coming, was that it really works for young people.

One teenager wrote: ‘I didn’t know that other people felt that way.’

And I realised, that if I had seen the show when I was 15 or 16, my life could have been incredibly different. Because I had no comprehension then, of how destructive my mood swings were going to be.

JC: What has been the most positive response from audiences?
That people find it very, very funny. I hoped they would. There’s some quite naughty humor at the expense of manic-depressives. When you’re rolling around on the floor, feeling riddled with pain and anguish, crying and hating everything about yourself - you do actually look quite funny!

It’s both funny and tragic at the same time - and that’s where circus copes I think.

JC: So what’s next for you?
I want to make an outdoor show, to go back to pure movement and sculpture.  

I think it might be about awful inevitabilities, not necessarily coming true. I came across this American thing the other day called, ‘The Parade of the Horribles'. I just really like the phrase, so I’m toying with that at moment.

For more info about Mish Weaver and her company, check out Stumbledancecircus.com

Stumble DanceCircus present Box of Frogs
at Jacksons Lane Theatre
3rd, 4th, 5th April, 8pm
Box office: 020 8341 4421

Part of Roundhouse Circus Fest: roundhouse.org.uk/circusfest

The project has been awarded one of thirteen commissions in the second round of awards for Unlimited – the ground-breaking programme that celebrates arts and culture by disables and deaf artists on an unprecedented scale for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.  Unlimited is principally funded by the Olympic Lottery Distributor and is delivered in partnership between London 2012, Arts Council England, Creative Scotland, Arts Council of Wales, Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the British Council.

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