Viv Gordon is a professional dance artist who has lifelong mental health issues. As is the founder and Artistic Director of Mean Feet Dance in Somerset specialising in dance for individual and collective wellbeing, Viv’s passionate about working with people of all ages and abilities, particularly those on the margins of society. Viv is currently working on her first solo show I am Joan which she presented at our Watch This Space platform at Exeter Northcott this year. I am Joan is a one woman dance show. A hopeful comedy about a woman in recovery from trauma finding empowerment by connecting with various inspiring Joans such as Joan Collins, Joan Jett and Joan of Arc who embody elusive qualities of resilience and self-belief.
We spoke to Viv about the process of making her first solo show, the subject matter of the piece and how I am Joan has developed since Watch This Space 2015:
Where are you on your journey making I am Joan?
‘I am Joan is still unfinished but nearly there! It’s been developed over 4 years – most of that in my bedroom after watching a film about Joan Jett that really resonated with my emerging sense of resilience, effort and kick ass-ness. Since then I have had the opportunity to R&D my ideas through a series of relationships with The Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury, Ignite Somerset/Somerset Film, My Choreographic Fellowship with GDance and most recently G4A funding. It previewed at Strike a Light Festival in March 2015 and I had another sharing in July at Circomedia aimed at having conversations with mental health service users and venues that want to be more inclusive to mental health artists and audiences.
It’s been a real surprise to me to write a script – I kept trying to get friend to write it but he quite rightly told me to do it myself – it has to be my voice – the whole show is autobiographical and it needs that authenticity. I’m most interested in the theatrical side of dance/physical theatre and enjoy working with movement and text. The show is so theatrical it raises questions about “Is it dance?” but for me the process has been completely dance oriented – dance is how I have mined my story, everything in the show originates in my body not just the movement you see on the stage but also all the words that are spoken.’
Who have you worked with on the project?
‘I’ve been so fortunate to have an amazing team around me – and over the 4 years lots of people have been involved – this all culminated in my R&D process with Tom Roden, Chris Fogg, Mandy Braden and musician Stu MacDonald. I’ve had great support from Dance in Devon and Pavilion Dance SW.
I’ve also worked with 2 producers from Strike a Light Festival (Sarah Blowers and Emma Jane Benning) and this has made a massive difference – that’s a new creative relationship for me and it has just brought real clarity and focus to my process – I just wanted to “play with some ideas” and they quite rightly told me to get on with it and make my show – I like being bossed around a bit!’
Can you tell us about the subject matter in I am Joan, and why have you chosen to explore this?
‘I am Joan is about recovery from childhood trauma – it’s an autobiographical show and in that sense I haven’t chosen to explore it – I didn’t choose what happened to me but I have chosen to speak up about it. I have lived with mental health issues all my life and lots about my experience is very hard to articulate, there’s still a lot of shame and stigma about mental ill health and dance gives me a way of being with myself where I have a voice and that is very empowering.’
– I am Joan trailer
Can you tell us some of the things that have been important to you when creating this piece?
‘The most important thing has been working in a way that is acknowledging and being mindful of my mental health at all times – none of this is easy and all of us who are involved have been feeling our way. This has affected things like our rehearsal schedule and making sure it is spacious and not too overwhelming. I receive supervision from a senior dance movement therapist to support me to explore my story safely and cope with it being very visible and public. I also have some of my best friends on the team – who as well as sharing their incredible talents– are great support.
It’s also been really important to me to present my story in an accessible way – I am very averse to earnestness and of course there is huge potential for a show like this to be really self indulgent – throughout the process we’ve been looking for a way to present difficult stuff in a hopeful and entertaining way – it’s a comedy – but a comedy that doesn’t diminish the seriousness of the content.’
What did you hope to learn from this project?
‘I mainly wanted to find out if this was something I could do – this is my first solo show and it’s extraordinarily exposing and challenging. I’ve become really curious about my process of preparing to perform, of actually getting onto the stage – because my mental health has dissociative elements when I am stressed I feel disconnected from my body – this isn’t very useful if you want to dance – so there is an ongoing enquiry into how I prepare myself, keep myself present and available in the hours and minutes before a show.’
How was performing at Watch This Space in January 2015?
‘Watch This Space was great for me to explore my process of performing and be on such an inclusive programme. It’s just so useful to be able to share where you are up to and see how an audience responds – it’s always unexpected and helps me to get clearer about how the work is received.
We also had a great experience about how to manage the show’s adult content and look after the audience – is there an age guide? Info in the programme? An announcement? Still unresolved but an interesting process.’
What can an audience expect from the piece?
‘The show is very honest and a bit of a rollercoaster – last time I shared it people laughed, cheered (at how dysfunctional I am) and when the lights came up I saw lots of faces damp with tears – this is very heartening – art should make us feel something…..’
What are your hopes or dreams for I am Joan?
‘We’re waiting on another G4A to finish the show with my wonderful team and bring in production expertise to make it tour ready. We then hope to do a pilot tour – again exploring how we can develop a model of making and touring work that is mental health friendly and works for me. I’m really keen to work with venues that want to be more inclusive to artists and audiences with mental health needs and look at wrap around activity to support venues to achieve that. If that all goes well we’re thinking about Edinburgh 2016.’
– Viv Gordon
I am Joan will preview at Strike A Light festival in Gloucester on October 12th. For more information and booking details please click here.