Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Giving birth at home: a piece of cake?

(Different versions of this post were first published in The Journal, and on the Home Birth Association's website.)

My first baby was nearly born at home, although it wasn’t the plan at all, so a home birth appeared as an interesting option when I got pregnant with my second child. I knew I could change my mind until the last minute, so I went ahead and booked a home birth with the community midwives in the closest maternity hospital. And the more I learned about it, the more answers I got to my questions and any concerns I raised, the more certain I became that this was the right choice for me. I didn’t tell my mother about my decision, though. I thought it sad to have to hide such a big thing from her, but I just knew she would fret. Mr Grumble, on the other hand, quickly agreed.

After a miscarriage last year, I couldn’t help worrying throughout the first 3 months of this pregnancy, and I got contractions from week 15. But all went well, except for a low iron count. That meant I might not qualify for a home birth, so I had to work hard to reach the minimum levels, taking loads of iron tablets and assorted folk remedies. I felt like I was preparing an exam.

But being seen by the community midwives was a real treat. They provide amazing care. I barely ever had to wait more than a few minutes at the local clinic, and they were all so nice and easy-going. Amazingly, the first midwife I met at the booking visit had read my file and asked me about my daughter. They all had that person-centred approach that unfortunately most consultants seem to lack. I also got several visits at home. Luxury!

Finally, my baby boy was born in the night (or what some people call the morning) on 21 March — at home like I had hoped. It took a mere 4 hours in all, counting from the first twinges of discomfort, and labour itself only lasted an hour. I still can’t believe it. I’m glad I opted for a home birth, because I would never have made it to the hospital in time.

After watching me give birth so quickly, Mr Grumble tells everyone it’s a piece of cake! Now that’s slightly annoying, but I can’t help feeling I’ve been very lucky.

On 20 March, my grandfather turned 90. A milestone. I had been waiting for that big date. And suddenly, something seemed to unlock in my head. Apparently deciding it was French (they count an extra week of pregnancy in France), my baby was 5 days overdue and the suspense was hard to bear. That evening I felt strange and suspected that the show would soon commence.

Ignoring reason, I watched a film with Mr Grumble and had only got an hour of sleep when the contractions began at 1 am. They felt different from what I remembered. More like intense period pains than a terrible tightening coming in waves. I vainly tried to sleep through them. Accepting that the night was over for me, I phoned the community midwives to let them know things had kicked off. “Call back when the contractions start to bite more,” midwife Annemarie advised. My plan was to call as late as possible, because I imagined it might be harder to stay calm and focused with an audience.

For my first labour, after a long walk and a warm bath, I’d just lain on my bed and breathed through the contractions until I felt an urge to push. I wanted to follow that example. But could it be that “easy” twice? At least I wouldn’t have to worry about getting to hospital.

As a diversion, I started to organise my nest the way I wanted it for the birth, attaching balloons outside to help the midwives find the house, moving furniture about, etc., even if I couldn’t help thinking it was much too early (and neurotic) to worry about such details.

Soon it became impossible to ignore the contractions and I had to go back to bed. I didn't manage to let Mr Grumble sleep through the first hours as I had intended (for both his sake and mine: he’s not very good with sleeplessness), but it was time to forget about the plan and just adapt to how things were. Mr Grumble asked me how he could help, so we covered the mattress with a shower curtain and the carpet with plastic sheets. Afterwards, I was glad we did that then. There would be no time later on.

Yoga proved helpful, even if I never felt like having a proper practice. I coped with the contractions by rocking on all fours, as I found I couldn’t relax enough to lie still. I breathed deeply and tried to erase every tension from my neck, shoulders, jaw… I also kept working on what my brilliant yoga teacher interestingly called a “friendly face”, thinking: “I don’t want to scare my baby away!”

Two hours into it I was shaking. Was it the transition stage, or just nerves? When I had my first baby, I got the shivers just before I felt like pushing, so Mr Grumble thought we should call the midwives again. I was convinced I still had hours to go, but Annemarie decided to come straight away. By the time she arrived, I was feeling pains I definitely recognised, but I knew they were a good thing, opening a way out for my baby. Midwife Katie arrived soon after. “Oh dear,” I said, “two midwives to myself and I’m probably not even in labour yet!”

The contractions had been 1 to 2 minutes apart straight from the start, but only lasted about 30 seconds and still felt manageable. Annemarie examined me and found that I was 1 cm dilated. I was happy enough with that. Labour had started, even if it was still early as I suspected. Little did I know that the baby would be there an hour later. An hour and seven minutes, to be exact.

I didn’t mind having an audience after all. I felt compelled to tell my life story and crack jokes, which helped me relax. My midwives whispered advice from time to time, but stayed in the background and let me do things my way. I improvised a new yoga pose I called “the Gorilla”: kneeling half upright with my arms straight and my hands in fists on the floor, I giggled in the middle of a tough contraction, and Annemarie commented I might “laugh this baby out". A nice prospect for me, who’ve been training to be a clown for the last couple of years.

When the pressure became really intense I decided to go to the bathroom, as I was suddenly worried about the mess when my waters would break. They did as I sat down on the toilet. How neat! But I had no time to gloat over that little achievement. I was already feeling the urge to push. “I can’t have the baby on the toilet,” I moaned. The midwives suggested I stand up, but I didn’t think I could.

The few steps to walk (or crawl) back to my bedroom, as I had planned, felt impossible. So I knelt down right there, in front of the bathtub. Mr Grumble climbed into the bathtub so he didn’t have to stand behind two other people in our cramped bathroom and watch my backside. I looked into his eyes, pushed – or rather breathed out – twice, and the head was out. Really? Already? I was stunned.

© 2014 Niamh Lawlor

The first time I gave birth, I’d been squeamish and hadn’t wanted to touch or see the baby’s head as it crowned. This time when a midwife suggested I catch the baby myself, I didn’t think twice. I felt a soft, wet thing between my legs and pulled the baby up on my chest. It was so empowering to do it myself. Dizzy and exhilarated, I kept repeating: “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it!”

Everybody else in the room seemed to fade away as I started talking to my baby. This time I was already a mum. I was ready for him, and we connected instantly. He gave a little cry, then settled down. I soothed him when he cried. I didn’t realise he was a boy until the midwives asked if I’d seen what I got.

Stooped over my little son, still attached to the cord, I walked back to my bed. I was so happy. I looked at the time, wondering about my daughter. Mr Grumble checked for the umpteenth time that she was still asleep, and cleaned the bathroom to make sure she didn’t see anything scary when she woke up. I had bled more than the midwives liked, so they gave me an injection to speed up the delivery of the placenta. It was a relief when it was all over. So unbelievably fast.

“I feel so lucky”, I said tearfully.

After quite a long while midwife Katie remembered to check the baby, snuggled against me. She counted his ten fingers and toes, and declared him perfect.

Everything was perfect. My daughter slept through it all, just a few meters away, and discovered her new brother in my arms when she got up around 7 am. I was moved to the tears when she shyly stepped into the room. She ran to me, stared at the baby with sleepy eyes and declared him cute. We spent the day together at home, as a family of 4. My daughter got to skip school. Bliss all around.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Dublin’s Clown Choir, or How I Found a Voice

Fragments of “Holy Night” are still echoing in my head. Such amazing voices. The Community Clown Choir Hallelujah! performed a Clown Nativity on the main stage of Draíocht Theatre in Dublin on Friday 29th and Saturday 30th November, after a year of workshops and rehearsals with director Veronica Coburn and musical directors Louise Foxe, Tom Lane and John White. I was part of it. It was exhilarating, terrifying, hilarious, moving, stressful, surprising, educational, exhausting and unforgettable. 

“Are you sociable? Do you like to sing? Do you like to laugh? Are you the type of person who is open to trying new things? If so, then WE WANT YOU!” This is how Draíocht Theatre advertised this project that brought together an incredibly diverse bunch of people. “You don’t have to be a good singer to join Hallelujah! You don’t have to be a performer to join Hallelujah! You just have to be interested and willing…”

About 60 people turned up. Including a sports student still in her teens, a few pensioners, a special needs teacher, a midwife, an IT specialist, an actor or two, a puppeteer, a chemist, a civil servant, a seamstress, a gardener, an events organizer, an accountant, a broadcaster and a builder — from Ireland, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Argentina, to quote just a few examples. A sprinkle of professional performers among a majority who were new to the stage. It was wonderful to meet and befriend such an eclectic array of people. In life, we are usually surrounded by people who are like us — similar job, similar background, similar means, and even similar looks. It’s a rare and special thing to break the barrier and encounter diversity. This experience has brought us close together, however different we all were. We shared so much — laughter and tears, fun, strain, and plain wonder.

Clown Veronica Coburn, who is also involved in Dublin Youth Theatre, was the co-founder of physical theatre company Barabbas with Raymond Keane and now works mainly as a director and a clown facilitator. This Clown Choir was her brain-child, and she dedicated her year-long residency in Draíocht Theatre to setting it up. The unusual choir she envisioned was to be open to participants of all ages and abilities, from all walks of life. The only thing they’d have in common would be a red nose – and the desire to commit to this crazy venture, for better and for worse. There were ups and downs, moments of doubt and frustration, but the magic never ceased. From February to November 2013, even heavily pregnant, painfully ill or stuck in a wheelchair, the members of our motley crew came back to Blanchardstown’s theatre from all over County Dublin and even County Wicklow every Monday night for 3 hours of fun and hard work. And it was worth it.

In the beginning, Veronica explained a bit more about her vision of clown. In general, clowns have a bad reputation. People think they just do silly things, but there is more to it than that. They mirror our own silliness. Being ridiculous, apart from making people laugh, is so human and so beautiful. A clown can be very profound. Historically, the original clowns embodied the ordinary man and woman to give them a social and political importance. That’s the sort of clowning that Veronica promotes. In more ways than one, we were going to be the voice of the community.

So we got down to practicing. Through a range of games and exercises, Veronica taught us how to engage with the audience via eye contact (a challenge for many of us), how to reconnect with our inner innocence and follow our impulses (oh, the joys of playing keepie-uppie with 60 clowns), how to accept and enjoy ourselves as we are, sharing how we feel at every step with a look, because that is the essence of clown. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not just therapeutic or cathartic, it’s the ultimate art form. I will never forget seeing everyone in turn walk forward and declare “I’m fantastic”. “Don’t act. Don't show us a cartoon picture of how you feel. Just be”, Veronica advised. And how hard this seemingly simple task proved to be! But as soon as Veronica gave out red noses, we started to see true clowns appear. It’s amazing how this tiny mask reveals the clown underneath.

Throughout the year, each session would just fly by. Our choral directors Louise, Tom and John even managed to get something quite melodious out of our colourful choir of mixed talent — a few gifted singers among many just belting flat notes blissfully, with no sense of music whatsoever, while the rest scraped by, doing their best. Ever since my first singing lesson with a sadistic opera singer who happened to be my mother-in-law, pitching my voice has always been a challenge; but after a few months with the Clown Choir, I was singing happily all day long — in the car, in the loo, when trying to put my daughter to sleep. The Clown Choir was soon to start its performance programme. We sang “Smile” by Charlie Chaplin during a flashmob in Blanchardstown shopping centre on April Fool’s Day. Then a longer list of songs at the launch of the Ark’s season of circus workshops on 3d July; at the Dublin Harvest Festival near Jervis on 14th September; and off Grafton Street for Culture Night on 20th September — not excepting our rendering of “The M50 Symphony”, composed by Debra Salem, in the foyer of Draíocht Theatre on 6th July.

After a break over the summer, we resumed work in September with the aim of preparing a one hour-long show for Draíocht’s main stage. By then, I had to choose between much-needed pregnancy yoga and the Clown Choir, but this was just too exciting to miss. Two months of exhilarating rehearsals with our warm, positive and funny clown master ensued. We explored the idea of Christmas in various ways — song, text, home-made costumes and improvs. Veronica clearly had something in mind, even if we had no idea what, apart from the fact that it would be a nativity play. A clown nativity. It slowly took shape. Too slowly. At times, like before each performance, we’d worry that we would never be ready in time. During the last few nights before the show, the Clown Choir saw a different Veronica emerge: the Director. Serious, efficient and straight-to-the-point, she organized her anarchic 60-strong troupe with authority. A herculean task. I was majorly impressed, and inspired. Ordering chaos definitely appeals…

The whole adventure was full of blatant flops, big emotions and moments of true grace. Not to mention the laughs. I often cried from laughing so much. I saw a true clown emerge from every person who stepped up. My own clown is elusive, but I’ve seen it at times and will continue chasing it. I get so much from clowning. Not just ideas for a possible show (I’d like to be a clown when I grow up), but even just how to be a better mum, a better friend and girlfriend, a better me. I want to reconnect with the sincere, spontaneous, optimistic and playful creature buried inside me, because it gives meaning to all the shit in my life, and it makes me whole.

In the changing room before the Clown Nativity show.
(Photo by Maureen Penrose.)

Apart from a few appearances in school plays or as an extra in a couple of films decades ago, Hallelujah's Clown Nativity was my first experience on a real stage. A dream come true. I loved it even more than I thought I would. The camaraderie in the wings. The excitement of spying on people entering the auditorium through a peephole. The trepidation before stepping out into the spotlights to face the audience. The joy and relief after the last bow, head buzzing, leaving me to want more. I am hooked.

The show devised by Veronica Coburn was entirely built from material that emerged during improvisational work at rehearsals: personal stories, clownish inventions, unintended touches of ridicule and grace. I was thrilled that she would take input from each of us. And I think it was pure genius on Veronica’s part to keep the auditions for each role in the final Nativity play; as a result, the audience was able to enjoy the hilarious line-up of hopeful Marys, Josephs, Animals (including a Giraffe, a Camel and a Dragon as well as disorderly Sheep and Cows), Shepherds and Wise Men, Stars, Angels and… Sundries, not to mention the incredible Baby Jesus performed by Flavia, and Sandra's unshakable Elvis auditioning for every part. Cuts had to be made in order to stick to one hour as announced, but there was just so much brilliant stuff to choose from. I have to admit I regret the loss of Frances’s fire announcement in sign language “translated” by Anne, of Susan’s Punk Madonna, of George’s ingenuous striptease, and more. But the show Veronica managed to whip up from our sometimes pitiful attempts at clowning and singing was a success. A full house each night, laughter and emotion in the audience, a standing ovation at the end. And the key is that everyone had fun on stage. I know I did. I gained so much from this experience. Confidence. Inspiration. Friends. And at long last, I gained a voice.

I owe a big thank you to Veronica Coburn for this amazing opportunity; to all the participants of the Clown Choir for their solidarity and support; to my family for tolerating my long absences; to Fingal County Council and the Arts Council for funding the project; and to Emer McGowan for opening the doors of Draíocht Theatre to us. And it's not over! Get in touch with Emer, director of Draíocht, or find us on Facebook if you’d like to be part of the Clown Choir in 2014.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Peace and Clown


I’ve just come back from 2 days learning about Clowning and Peace Building at the training symposium organised by Smashing Times theatre company in Carrick-on-Shannon, and I feel so happy. Admittedly the kind of weather we were having in Ireland will do that to you, but this little adventure was the cherry on top.

I’ve always loved to hop into a car and drive. To me, it spells freedom and holidays. And I haven’t travelled around Ireland enough for my liking, so it was exciting to skip work and head West on a Friday morning to discover more of my adopted country and take my clown studies a step further. The 2 hours to myself to think and daydream while I drove were an added bonus ­­– a luxury I never get in normal life, what with my perpetually late book translations and my 4 year-old whirlwind of a child. So the day started well, even if it started at 7 am. Empty roads. Blue sky. Warm sunshine. I was belting at the top of my lungs with the window open whilst whizzing though the cow smells of Meath and the beautiful lakes of Westmeath. I was listening to the uplifting music of the amazing African band of street musicians Staff Benda Bilili when I drove through Longford and saw two little girls walking side by side towards their village school, one white, one black, wearing the same blue uniform. “This is Ireland today”, I thought and drove on, happily drumming on the steering wheel with my fingers.

I found the Dock theatre in Carrick-on-Shannon easily enough. Some friendly-looking people were sitting on the sunny steps outside, but much-needed coffee was awaiting inside. I eagerly pressed and turned different knobs and handles on the coffee thermos, but failed to discover how to operate the thing. Why do such ridiculous things only ever seem to happen to me? I had to ask someone for help. He wasn’t amused. Well, I guess I need to work on my clown some more, even if I have a natural disposition.

The first workshop I attended was “The Mask of Four Temperaments” facilitated by Raymond Keane, a renowned clown and the co-founder of physical theatre company Barabbas. Raymond looks like a graceful and cheeky mixture of Andy Warhol and Samuel Beckett, who happens to be one of his idols. “I will fuck with you”, he warned us at the start of the workshop, “you might need therapy after this!” But he was actually a very gentle teacher, positive and funny. I was curious about masks, wondering how you can perform when you don’t know or control what your face looks like. Raymond told me that masks may magically influence you in some way… Interestingly, when we praised the performance of the first participant who had tried one on, Paul, he said, “Oh, it was the mask.”

But let’s go back to the beginning. Raymond had us play a few games to loosen up – a confusing clapping and finger-clicking routine, and a name game he called “penguins” that, amazingly, I won twice, thus proving I was the stupidest person in the room: When you think too much, you fail. Then Raymond had us explore 4 different temperaments with the corresponding voices and postures, represented by 4 masks:

• Choleric
A mood or personality associated with the colour red, the blood in your body, the fire element, the forward movement and the future. This is the temperament of doers, kings and queens, dictators but also positive leaders like Nelson Mandela, for example. It is linked to anger and to action. We had to go about the room while impersonating that mood and saying “This way, follow me” to each other with authority. Oddly enough, I felt like a fireman trying to show the way to safety. Then we all stopped and closed our eyes while Raymond chose someone to wear the mask. Paul’s performance was interesting. Loud, energetic. He had to play a warlord leading the rest of us into battle, knowing that only very few of us would survive. Then we each got to hold and examine the mask. It did look and feel enchanted, somehow.

• Sanguine
A mood that is associated with the colour yellow, the skin, the air element, the upward movement and the present. We experimented with all these notions saying “Wow! Wow” to everything and everyone. Hilarious. Susan Coughlan, an excellent clowning teacher from Nose to Nose, once aptly suggested the name “the Oops Lady” for my clown, but I was now starting to think that I was also pretty much a “Wow Lady”. I really liked working on that temperament, even though I soon felt it had limitations. Mary later impersonated a very funny sanguine character with the yellow mask on.

• Melancholic
A mood that is associated with the colour blue, the bones, the earth element, the downward movement and the past. Somewhat surprisingly, the melancholic temperament was the one with which I felt the strongest connection. As I had a sore foot and an injured shoulder, I quite naturally stooped and limped about the room, moaning and mumbling “I can’t go on, I will go on” as instructed. I felt so convincing as a pathetic old lady that I thought I should be chosen to wear the blue mask. I was disappointed when Raymond chose Orla, but her performance left a trail of stricken faces and goose bumps around the room. I would never have managed that. Orla is a powerful actress. And her shocked audience was nearly as interesting as her while she was choking out “I can’t go on” with that blue mask on. I was fascinated by the string of faces in front of me: scared, moved, pitying, caring, horrified... They were all so different, so absorbed while they stared at her. Orla’s pathos ended up producing a clown moment that I may have been the only one to see.

• Phlegmatic
A mood that is associated with the colour green, the intestines and the glands, the water element, and again, the present. The phrase we had to practice for the phlegmatic temperament was “I like things just the way they are”. I loved working with that. An example of the phlegmatic persona is the healer, which for some reason I can easily relate to. Amanda made a very convincing (and funny) phlegmatic character.

Raymond explained that the 4 temperaments cohabit in each of us, even if one usually prevails. Interesting improvs to bring the four together include a group therapy, a dance class, a family reunion… He also highlighted how his students seem to get the physical aspect right instantly when they are wearing a mask, and remarked on the intelligence of our body when we stop thinking. Indeed as a clown, I seem to give my best when I improvise and force myself to do just that: Stop thinking.

At the end of the workshop, we all felt like staying for another 3 hours at the very least. It was a captivating taster session. Raymond tries to organise his week-long workshop “I a Clown” every year. I definitely want to go back for more…

Next we got a presentation by 2 members of voluntary aid organisation Clowns Without Borders. For some reason, I burst out laughing when I saw them in the hall. Some people just send out clown vibes even when they’re off stage and dressed in their civvies. And boy, aren’t these people amazing ­– even more so than I thought. We were all moved to tears when they mentioned a stunned Somalian mother whose traumatised child had just laughed for the first time in 2 years during one of their shows. I am determined to work with them one way or another, even if I’m not sure I’m strong enough to face such harrowing misery. One of the things I found the most striking among what they said was that they don’t take sides in a conflict. They just try to bring people together in countries affected by war or extreme poverty, and make them laugh. For me, that was a revelation.

The next day, I went to a workshop with the director of the Clown Choir I meet for weekly rehearsals in Draíocht Theatre, Veronica Coburn: “Clown Through Mask – A Tool for Expression” or “How to Say the Unsayable”. I was thrilled to get 3 whole hours to study clown further with Veronica. And it was interesting to see how new people reacted to her teaching. Playing Veronica’s style of keepie-uppie immediately brought smiles on every face, and I was reminded again how adults are starved of play.

Then we played “Un, deux, trois, soleil” (Sly Fox) with a red nose, focusing on trying to make funny shapes with our little group of allies every time we froze. Such joy in the room. Veronica commented that clowning is an aesthetic art, and went on to explain the notion of “one – innocence”. We each in turn had to snap in and out of it. I find the concept difficult to grasp, but I try to refrain from over-analysing. My interpretation of “one – innocence” is that joyful state of mind you’re in when you are ready for play, open and receptive, like a blank page. “Don’t show us a cartoon picture of how you feel”, said Veronica. “Just breathe and relax your jaw.” Oh, how difficult it is to do nothing, to just be!

There was an interesting little moment. Veronica teased Cliona, who’d asked a daring question after the show performed by Smashing Times in the theatre the night before, and everybody in the room started booing. That was the automatical response. People’s reflex is to smooth things over, to shut up the agitators ­­­­– but clowns are non-conformists by essence. I started clapping instead and everybody instantly switched to clapping, so Cliona finally got the acknowledgement she deserved in a roomful of clowns-to-be.

The core of Veronica’s workshop was a colour exercise like no other: “the world of red”. Veronica talked us through relaxation and breathing exercises, then instructed us to envision a red light entering our body and colouring the world in red. After a while, we had to stand up and move in that red world, saying whatever we felt like saying, doing whatever we felt like doing. “There is no right or wrong, just do what feels right to you.” My red world was a peaceful, sizzling hot beach at sunset. When many people started shouting around me, I thought maybe I should come out of myself more, try to be louder and bolder. That’s what the French clowning master Philippe Gaulier forcefully advised when I attended one of his workshops in London last year. But then I decided to stay true to myself and just danced around the room, feeling elastic and relaxed, while mumbling a sort of mantra. Thinking, “I’m different. And I’m OK with that”. I had to incorporate the loud, angry people running around me into my vision, so I pictured my red beach crowded with naked people. Well, they had stripped naked – metaphorically speaking. A pool of red water appeared and I led the way, jumping in there first and swimming. I felt warm, liberated, erotic and free of pain. When Veronica nodded to indicate that we were sufficiently “hot”, or charged, we had to jot down quick notes about the experience and later read them out loud.

I got a glimpse of how mystical clowning can be. Because it’s about reconnecting with your true self. Veronica explained that the aim of that exercise is to get people to loose their resistance to what comes to them, and express it. “To clown, you must learn how to feel… in public.” Some people didn’t relate to this exercise. Most seemed to express anger and agression, which was slightly scary. But somebody gave me a hug while we were all gambolling around the room, and I loved it. That woman later explained that she felt annoyed by all the negativity and violence she sensed around her, and thought, “The world is beautiful, don’t spoil it! Why can’t you just enjoy it? Just be and let me be.” It was chaotic, it was strange, but I loved how everybody showed their secret self. “What you saw is the world of clown, Veronica concluded. It’s big. It’s beautiful.”

She called that feeling “one – experience” and had us drop in “one ­– innocence” and “one – experience” on a count of 5. Then for the last exercise, a clown student had to enter the stage in a state of “one ­– innocence” and get to the other end in “one – experience”, while connecting with the audience. I should add that different types of food were lined up on the stage: a chocolate roll, a bunch of bananas, a tomato, an onion, a packet of chocolate fingers and a tin of cat food. Who knows what we would have done with all that if only we'd had more time. (Be reassured, all the guinea pigs on stage managed to avoid eating the cat food, although there were some complaints. It was a narrow escape.) There is so much interesting stuff to do with food... My little girl knows that all too well. But she is the best clown I know.

Once again, we all wished we had more time to continue the work. But we were in for a treat. When we joined everyone downstairs in the theatre for a last feedback session, we didn’t know that Veronica was going to perform a short piece for us. It’s a rare and wonderful thing to see your teacher perform... Veronica appeared on stage wearing a black burqa and a red nose. We were stunned. She looked at us and there were a few giggles here and there, but mostly shock and awe. Then she removed the veil that covered the lower half of her face, and child-like, sparkly-eyed Veronica briefly turned into a sad old lady. I was moved to tears. Then giggled when she quietly started to peel and eat a tangerine. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the burqa and the red nose seemed to go well together. Intermittently, the absurdity of the mix appeared to us and we’d laugh. It was powerful.

Now more than ever, I am determined to keep working on my clown. And I want to add a layer of commitment to it. One day I jumped out of a plane to support Amnesty International’s work for human rights, so it only seems logical that the next step should be to clown for peace… Clowning is poetic and political. To quote other participants of the symposium, it’s also mindblowing. So simple. Hilarious. Beautiful. These 2 days were all that. And inspiring.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Sunday Tea and Pussy Riots

Last Sunday, I had tea with Roddy Doyle’s mother.

According to Mr Grumble, this is the sort of thing that you DON’T share. It’s plain name-dropping, and there’s hardly a bigger crime than that in my book. But I couldn’t resist such a catchy first sentence. Besides, I just want to make a point here.

This is Ireland for you. You meet Bono in a shop in Dalkey and he says a casual "Hello". You go to Bewley's café theatre and Ulick O’Connor comes over to you for a friendly chat. You call the Abbey theatre to ask where you can buy the music of a play you liked and they get the sound designer to send you a home-made CD. You bump into the President and he stops to talk and pose for a photo. You drop two lines to Roddy Doyle on Facebook and he invites you for tea with his mum.

No wonder I’m still living in rainy Ireland after nearly 7 years. I love it — all this makes me feel like everything is possible. And it is: since I moved here, I’ve dared things like jumping out of a plane, giving birth to a baby, clowning around in front of an audience… and there is more to come I hope.

But to paraphrase Hamlet, there's something rotten in the kingdom of Eire. I’m ready to take my pink sunglasses off and have a good, square look at my adopted country. It took me a while.

I had just moved here when John Boorman’s film The Tiger’s Tail was released, in 2006. During the promotion of his film, the director had a go at Ireland, reading out a commentary he'd entitled “The good, the bad and the ugly in new Ireland” in which he listed “the conviviality of the pub and the binge drinking. The welcoming smile to the stranger and the rabid xenophobia. The affection for children and their sexual abuse. Poets and scholars and the highest illiteracy rate in Europe. The new prosperity and the vulgar flaunting of wealth. A blue-eyed black-haired Galway girl and a dyed blonde in an SUV with a phone glued to her ear. National neutrality and the raging gun and drug wars. The rule of law and the grotesque greed of lawyers. Stunning landscapes and the plague of ugly bungalows. The Craíc and the crack-up.”

When I read that at the time, I was shocked. I didn’t see Ireland that way. I thought Boorman was exaggerating, and I was mildly disturbed that a foreigner (and a Brit) living here would take the liberty to criticize his host country so harshly. When I read it now though, I think he has a point. Maybe I should watch the film again. But I really wasn't impressed the first time.

Most of the Irish people I meet seem to promote an embellished vision of their country. When I was chatting with a fellow school mum about our children’s teacher, who is French and very nice (or should I say "but"?), she remarked, “He’s been in Ireland a long time” as if that explained his niceness. And when a waitress in a pub proved to be incredibly unpleasant, a friend of mine asked, in shock: “Is she Irish?” If you're a foreigner, it's OK to be horrible. Expected even.

Most people here are indeed amazingly friendly, and that’s why a Parisian girl like me fell in love with Dublin. If you say "Hello" to someone on the street in Paris, they stare at you as if you've just escaped from the looney bin. Normal interaction over there is to push people out of your way. But the fantasy of the perfect Irish is getting on my nerves. A bit of constructive criticism would be welcome. Jeeze, every time I go so far as questioning something, I get: “Where are you from?”

Now that Ireland is in the throes of recession and that the banks have been bailed out with public money, the only thing the Irish will rebel against is the €100 household tax. I wish they would stop saying “Sorry” when somebody steps on their toes. It’s not that cute after all. It's meek. Even back in the day, the Republicans fighting for freedom were but a handful, and the majority wanted a status quo. Mr Grumble likes to point out that the reason why he is not Irish today, even though he has an Irish surname, is that his ancestors fought for this country – and subsequently had to flee. So what does it mean to be Irish? That you're nice? Too nice to rebel?

Until they were disbanded last March, the members of Occupy Dame Street could be counted on your fingers. Each good cause that has dragged me out of home in the past 7 years only mustered a few dozens of protesters. Where’s your fight gone, Ireland?

Now the Irish parliament is shyly debating whether or not to grant abortion when the mother’s health is at stake, a mere 45 years after the UK legalized it, shortly followed by Canada, the United States and the rest of Europe. While the French are joking that their government should grant French citizenship to the Pussy Riot group, now that Putin has given Russian citizenship to poor billionaire Gérard Depardieu who felt he had too much tax to pay in France, it looks like Ireland needs radical activists even more than France to get things to change.

I want a better world where Savita Halappanavar doesn’t have to die, where a woman’s body doesn’t belong to her husband or her God, but to herself, and where gay people can get married if they feel like it. I want food and shelter for everyone, fair trade, wind farms and electric cars. Oh, and a cup of tea, please.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Clowning in Dublin

I had been clowning around among my family and friends for many years (36, if I am to be completely honest) when I decided to look for clowning workshops in Dublin. My excuse was to look into the possibility of creating a clown workshop for toddlers. That was my official reason, but I think I also had a hidden agenda, whether I knew it or not.

So I went up to Belfast on my own for a whole weekend of training, back in January. I met Simon Thompson from the Limerick-based Orchard Theatre Company and learnt the basic principles of clowning. It was fascinating and hugely instructive. Yet the experience, in all, was quite traumatic. Imagine standing in front of a dozen strangers with the ambition to make them laugh – and no script.


Much scarier than the classic nightmare where you suddenly find yourself stark naked in front of everybody you know from school or from work. And even scarier than jumping out of a plane, albeit with a parachute, and that’s saying something – I know that from experience.

In short, they didn’t laugh.

'S'not fair!' I thought. The other ‘students’ all got laughs for their solo skits. Incidentally, they were all professional performers of one sort or another. So was it that they were good and I was crap? Or was it – the most likely explanation, I felt – that they were all ganging up on me? They all knew each other from before and wouldn’t let me be part of the in-crowd, I knew… My rampant paranoia was getting the better of me, and I feared that maybe I’d knocked on the wrong door and clowning wouldn’t provide the sort of therapy I needed.

Although I’d choose a good laugh over a good couch any day.

So I was shook-up and vexed – among other things. I suppose it’s not as painful as breaking your shoulder (been there too), but it was really tough. Not to mention Simon’s verdict: ‘It looks like your clown is childlike and vulnerable.’ (Which is exactly, needless to say, what I don’t want to be.) ‘You seem to need love even more than laughs.’

I felt like I’d seen a shrink and he’d turned on me. But it got me thinking. I started digging deeper. Without medical help, I’ll hastily add. I was bruised, but I was hooked. I decided to go and study with world-famous drama and clowning master Philippe Gaulier, who, as luck will have it, is teaching a workshop in London soon. London is close enough, and I’ve been taught to always get back on the horse after a fall.

I am petrified though, because that week-long enterprise sounds like serious stuff aimed at professionals and Gaulier is well-known for saying ‘This is shit’ when you suck, so I thought a little training in the meantime would help. Luckily a friend pointed out another workshop that would take place before the Gaulier one, and in Dublin this time. This is how I met Susan Coughlan and Piotr Bujak, who follow the approach of Nose to Nose. A wonderful, wonderful day. I left their 8 hour-long workshop at the Lantern Centre with shaky legs and an ecstatic grin on my face.

I’d met really interesting people. I only caught a glimpse of the other ‘students’, even though I chatted with most of them, because each of us were on our own personal journey, but these were moving and meaningful human encounters all the same. You get to know a lot about someone when they (metaphorically) strip naked in front of you. Such beautiful moments, such intriguing characters. ‘I loved being a human being’, one of them commented earnestly after an exercise involving trust and letting someone guide you while you kept your eyes shut.

The teachers were brilliant – hilarious, subtle and encouraging. I’d got lost on my way to the workshop in the morning, ringing the doorbell of sleepy strangers (I won’t go into how street numbers are organised in Ireland, because I might be the only one in this country who does not find it perfectly natural that number 17 is not next to numbers 18 and 19 in an ordinary Dublin street, but all the way over next to number 39), then, when I located the Lantern Centre at last, I was gently but firmly led to a yoga class by a smiley giant – I quite like yoga and smiley giants, but I sure am glad I eventually found what I was looking for. Very few clowning workshops are available in Ireland, Susan told me, and it’s a shame because it can be so beneficial. ‘Especially for Irish people’, she mysteriously added.

Albeit being a Frog, I certainly learnt a lot. But for me, the highlight of the day was the solos. I've done two improvisations in front of the class and they were a hit. Ahem, am still gloating. Everybody seemed to be laughing. It’s a huge deal for a shy little mouse like me. Especially after my first attempt was such a bitter flop. Once on stage, even though it was a makeshift stage, I felt like I had reached a state of grace where I wasn’t scared anymore, and I could stop analysing everything. My body and my instincts took over. My emotions were taking the lead instead of my rational mind. I felt a sort of communion with the spectators, who were helping me along, guiding me with their laughter. I had gotten them to like me because I was true, I was myself and I was everybody else as well, I was sharing universal miseries and turning them into something funny – for my sake and the public’s. Ah, the bliss of hearing the laughs. It felt magical, surreal. I was completely present and yet I wasn’t totally there. I was absolutely myself and yet I was transfigured. All of a sudden, everything seemed to make sense.

Oops, getting lyrical here. At home that night, an unconvinced Mr Grumble asked me what I’d done on stage to deserve such a success. I wish he’d been there. I wish you had been there. I’m not sure I would be able to explain properly, to recreate the sheer comedy of it with words. Hell, I’m not even sure I would be able to do it again. There is no recipe. Basically, I hid behind a blanket. And in the second bout, I dressed up and made a fake phone call. That’s the story line. The rest was… Was it magic? I simply went with the flow.

Piotr had just introduced a notion that was new to me: Grammelot (or Grommelot in French), aka gibberish or gobbledygook – the sort of made-up language that is sometimes used in comedy and that George Orwell might have called Clownspeak – and it opened a huge door for me. Until then, I’d been a silent clown. Because I like the beauty of silence, and because I was too shy to use my voice. But my clown was lacking a dimension, and when I added sound, I added the power of emotion.

(Thinking it would sound hilarious to English-speaking people, I had tried ranting in French in front of a stony-faced audience at my first workshop, and wisely concluded that using my mother-tongue wasn’t working for my clown. Not in Ireland anyway.)

So I went for inarticulate sounds. This allowed me to express myself without thinking too much. I regaled my public with an uncensored flow of squeaky and burbling sounds, and they seemed to get exactly what I meant. They were nodding and laughing and sharing my emotions.

At that stage I was wearing a red rain hat, a yellow robe tied to the front of my body like an apron and a flowery scarf hanging down my back like a cape on top of my normal chequered shirt, black leggings and big (I can’t help it if I’ve long feet) clownish shoes. My emotional level was pretty high and I was feeling quite self-conscious about my attire – but no more than I had when I’d left home with my normal gear on in the morning, unsure I’d found something appropriate and nice-looking to wear. Which is a big problem for somebody as coquettish as I am. Soon after I’d gotten out the door, I nearly turned back to go and change, at the risk of arriving late, until I realised that looking silly was actually the whole point of the day ahead. I used that in my improv.

Piotr interestingly pointed out that clowning is not really about the laughs you get, or about being liked. It’s about being yourself.

Being yourself. A worthy goal.

Life can get stifling when you always bottle up your emotions and do what is expected of you – or what you think is expected of you. Now I look at my 3 year-old Little Miss Sunshine and I can see how she is the perfect clown. I don’t want to be all about the rules and washing your hands and getting to school on time and tidying up the mess in the house. I realise that she is right when she climbs on the neighbour’s wall and dances on the table and stops after every step to admire a dandelion or a stone, and insists on wearing odd socks and a rug for a hat. The world would be a better place if more people were clowning around instead of acting all bland and stuck-up and accepting things the way they are.

This workshop has made me hopeful. At times I feel unsatisfied with my life and I want to change it. I have so many dreams. Impossible dreams, maybe. But clowning no longer seems impossible.

‘I can do this’, I thought giddily on my way home. ‘And maybe I will.’

Friday, 27 April 2012

If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands

I met a wonderful madman outside school today. Little Miss Sunshine was in a huff because I'd just refused to carry her (the bloody shoulder still acting up, added to the fact that the Little Miss weighs a trifling 18 tons), when he started talking to her. Trying to cheer her up, he pointedly addressed her in a heavily accented French even though it obviously wasn't his native language — I guess he is the father of a child attending the same school, because a young boy was sitting in his car, cowering away. My heart went out to him, as I had the same sort of dad when I was growing up: loud, funny and outrageous, saying weird things to total strangers, constantly making a show of himself.

The car, by the way, was quite something as well. I had noticed it before and I loved it: it was very old and decorated with dozens of magnets, stickers and furry toys. Was it for the amusement of the child or that of the parent, I idly wondered. Meanwhile, your man had started pretending that the stuffed shark affixed to the roof rack was devouring his arm and was growling theatrically. That got him a smile from my grumpy offspring. Then she noticed a fluffy cat on the roof of the car and pointed at it with a determined look while miaowing for Ireland. Your man promptly gave it to her, adding that the cat was sad because it only had one eye, and drove away in his old weezing car. He had never said a word to me.

I was left there gaping, open-mouthed. At first, when the man had popped out, I wasn't sure if I should maybe grab my child under one arm and bolt. Finally, I mumbled an awed "Thank you" before he disappeared. As I said, that kind of behaviour reminds me of someone and I find it endearing, now that I have shed my cringing adolescent skin. Little Miss Sunshine is the happiest little girl ever with her new sooty and frayed one-eyed friend. This man is my hero of the day.

It certainly isn't my doctor, because my eyes are worse than ever. I was weary of him from the start anyway, as while I was listing my symptoms, he made several attempts at spelling "nauseous" before he gave up, leaving it at "nauceis". Honestly, aren't these people supposed to study for about a decade before they get their licence? A week on, I still decidedly have that vampire look with my bloodshot eyes. Maybe it's a professional hazard and I should stop translating teen fiction — though my current opus is about firebreathers and not bloodsuckers. Or maybe I am getting magical powers — one look and I can kill you instantly if you don't behave. Watch out, Mr Property Manager...
Ooh, darling, you have such beautiful red eyes

Before you ask, yes, the house is still leaking from various places and the latest development is that the air vent fell off in Little Miss Sunshine's bedroom. I guess I shouldn't be surprised as, typically, it was held in place with sticky tack. Behind the vent, I discovered a ragged gaping hole full of rubble, with a loose bit of rusty wire mesh fluttering in front of it. Basically nothing stops the howling winds and the crawling beasts from rushing into my baby's bedroom. I went crazy with sticky tape, then angrily typed a passionate missive to my BFF from the management company. I know he will just blissfully ignore it, but I am plotting my revenge. The wrathful forces of the County Council will soon be set loose on him. Wait and see. (Told you my ruby eyes are a sign of superpowers.)

As for the car, a wonderful mechanic fixed it for free, but it went on to fail its NCT test. Considering I only just bought it a few months ago, it is rather vexing. But I am looking into the bike issue and in the meantime, we can always walk to school (it would only take about an hour). Never mind the lashing rain, we are hardly going to melt. I will let nothing undermine my morale.

So all in all, a nice, uneventful week. I watched a harsh Canadian film called Incendies ("Fires"), reminiscent of a Greek tragedy even though it is about Lebanon in the last 3 or 4 decades, and I suddenly felt really happy in my life. Lucky, even. I think I might buy a lottery ticket (really need that damned bike).

Monday, 23 April 2012

My house hates me, part II

Today I saw a red and yellow sunset and I thought, How insignificant I am! 
Of course, I thought that yesterday too, and it rained. 
I was overcome with self-loathing and contemplated suicide 
again — this time by inhaling next to an insurance salesman.
Woody Allen

Today I was staring at the latest leak in my home and I got so depressed I contemplated inhaling next to a property manager. In 6 months, TWENTY differents parts of the house have stopped working, fallen apart or started leaking profusely. Naturally, I have to harass the management company for weeks or even months each time to get them to fix it. And they don't go down without a fight. I have to resort to photographic evidence and lyrically detailed correspondence and a stubborn determination. This morning, my incredibly rude property manager informed me that the landlady has had it with us and would rather see us go than pay for another repair. He was yelling at me because I ring him every week about a new problem in the house.

Wait a minute there. Shouldn't it be the other way around?

You've heard about the quirks of our house before. Indeed every week brings new excitement: the lock in the front door gets permanently stuck; it starts raining heavily in the living room, right under the bathtub; the oven won't work; the window won't close; lately, around the time we found suspicious poo in the garden, the flush started producing scary clanking sounds as if the pipes were about to explode, and a faulty heater flooded my daughter's bed. The management company eventually sent us a plumber.

Like many other things, plumbing in Ireland can be... I'm looking for the right word. Poetic? Inventive? Neurotic? Each repairman we've seen was crazier than the next. Our latest has provided a fair amount of entertainment.

For starters, when he rang me, the first thing he said was a flirtatious "Bonjour". I had no idea who was calling me, so I found it a little scary that a total stranger was addressing me this way. He couldn't possibly have found me out just by the way I say "Hello"! (Apparently, as I discovered later, plumbers gossip among themselves and your man had chatted with a colleague.) Yeah, I'm French. So what? And why do non-French people always imagine it's cute to lavish their two broken words of French on any unsuspecting Gallic creature coming their way? Do they think it makes them irresistible? Help!

When he arrived, he started working on the heater in Little Miss Sunshine's bedroom and... immediately proceeded to flood said bedroom. Oddly enough, he wasn't prepared for that, so he just grabbed an empty Lego box that was lying there and used that to collect the water pouring out of the pipe — and I'm talking black, sticky water here. Then he realized the dratted box has little holes in the bottom. Admittedly toy boxes aren't usually meant to be used as a plumbing device, but your man was shocked nonetheless and complained to my stunned friend G., who was visiting. He used up an entire roll of toilet paper from our bathroom to clean the mess and... blocked the toilet with it. But this didn't deter him from emptying the faulty radiator in there too. Oh no. When I found him staring at the black liquid ominously filling the bowl up to the rim, he shamelessly insisted the toilet must have been blocked before he arrived...

I guess I just don't get the Irish sense of humour.

When he ran out of toilet paper, he just used one of our bath towels as a floorcloth to wipe the remaining black goo. And this bundle of fun went on for two days as he didn't have the part he needed to fix the heater. The next day, your man repaired the flush, and immediately after that the cistern overflowed. Apparently, he had never seen that happen. But he did fix it eventually, leaving in his wake a trail of black fingerprints and wet patches around the house. After this memorable visit, the central heating didn't work anymore. And the toilet cistern was leaking.

Here it might be amusing to note that my new best friend — our property manager — angrily wondered why we still have plumbing problems in the house since he sent us a very competent professional plumber a short time ago. I admit I guffawed a bit at that, yet I didn't have the heart to set him straight. But to our landlady's dismay, we do need another visit from a "competent professional", because we still have leaks here, including an abnormal amount of water pouring out of the side of the house. Admittedly, it's gushing outside, not inside. So why do I complain?

As for my mystery pooper, I haven't identified him yet. I did spot a stray cat in the garden, but it was only... eating the lilies.
I know, it's odd.

Ah, well, it's just one of those weeks. I don't know how much more fighting it will take to get a leak-free house, and a sudden bout of conjunctivitis makes me look like a rabbit with myxomatosis or a severe drug problem. To top it all, my car now keeps stalling every time I slow down, so maybe my next post will be "My car hates me". Told you I need a bike... (and maybe a voodoo doll or something.)