“You only tend to see us when we are at our best.” Spoken word and disabled artist Conor A on Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board, his new one man show about making invisible disabilities visible on stage.
Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board, my first solo show, was commissioned by PUSH festival at HOME in Manchester, UK and had its premiere two days ago (16 January). On the surface, Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board is a comedy about the therapeutic virtues of eavesdropping. It’s a storytelling show about living with an invisible disability, about getting better at not getting better, and about how being diagnosed with fibromyalgia 13 years ago in 2003 had a profound effect on my life.
Up until 2009, I had reached the point where I enjoyed some success as a performance poet – I was finally getting paid gigs. But eventually the strain of pretending to be well, when I was struggling with fibromyalgia, became too much. Whilst I might have been able to make it to Liverpool to perform a 10-minute set that worked magically and got the audience going, the late night Liverpool to Manchester train on a Saturday night wasn’t a good place to be for a poet when he is chronic-fatigued out of his mind and in loads of pain.
On one such journey, as I watched two fellas fighting over a piece of fried chicken, I thought ‘I can’t keep doing this to myself week after week. I will crash and burn’. And I wasn’t talking about a crash and burn for a day or two, a fibromyalgia flare-up would lead to a crash and burn for six to nine months, during which I’d lose my ability to engage with life. A fibromyalgia flare-up (which might take the form of pain, chronic exhaustion, spasms, poor sleep, headaches and more) would leave me feeling depressed, unable to leave the house, and on my own. The payback wasn’t worth it.
By this point, I had also had enough of applying for arts grants and to theatres, festivals or events, where opportunities were offered but no-one gave a toffee about my access needs, let alone knew what the phrase able-bodied bias meant. (To be honest, back then I didn’t know what able-bodied bias was, even though it had been kicking me in the face for six years.)
Then after years of enduring the wasteland of isolation that fibromyalgia brought with it, I thought to hell with this, I’m making a show that will happen in my living room, where my access needs are best taken care of – the venue of my own living room also allowed me to create a deadline for myself that didn’t leave me crumbled, isolated and disillusioned.
Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board began seven years ago. Yes, that is a long time to make a one-hour solo show, but I had to take a good few years off to dedicate myself to the ‘getting better at not getting better’ side of things, or as I like to call them The Be Gentle Years. I got myself back in the game by starting small – almost humiliatingly small – but over time I was able to manage ‘me with fibromyalgia’ and ‘me as an artist’.
I won’t go into the who, what, why, when and where of fibromyalgia [you can find out more on the many support websites out there, like fmauk.org], but as illnesses go it definitely comes under the category of life-altering.
Now, you may be thinking that developing a chronic illness and having your life altered by an invisible disability would be rich pickings for an artist, a funder’s dream, even, but I knew from the half-finished poems that littered my desk, and my defensive ‘I’m grand,’ answer to any question about my health that I didn’t have the words to talk to my friends about what I was experiencing, let alone be creative about it.
During my ‘Push Gently’ era, when I went at my own pace, I relearned so many things. Most importantly, I had to relearn how to create, in a healthy way and on my own terms in way that suited my health.
For any performative artist, it is easy to give over to the ‘creative drive’ and just keep going until you drop. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderful feeling, to be so focussed, so engaged, so enthralled with creating a piece of work. I, too, can become the classic stereotype of the artist consumed by the creative process – but when your energy supply is dubious, this kind of absorption in the process doesn’t tend to work out so well for you.
In order to work with fibromyalgia, I had to learn to do things on a much smaller scale in a way that satisfied my creative desire. When I say small, I mean small: I started with Post-it notes, eventually I moved from Post-it notes, to A5s and eventually to writing a 12,000-word solo show delivered by rote from memory, with prompts – if you read up about ‘fibro fog’ (which causes memory loss and difficulty with recall) this was a tremendous task.
Gradually, I began to see that the physical and cognitive impacts of fibromyalgia on my performance were not something to be hidden, glossed over, or apologised for – they are part of my artistic palate as a performer and creator.
In 2017, I nervously sent out invites for the living room performances of Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board, held at my two-bedroom flat in Hulme. These shows varied from the sardine packed and raucous, to quiet shows with an audience of three, seated on the sofa opposite me sharing a pot of tea.
By the third show, and encouraged by some great audience feedback, I knew I had something – so I started to take the show to other people’s living rooms; I even did a performance to the clinical staff at a major hospital’s pain clinic. The four psychologists in the front row made for an interesting experience. And every now and again a little voice at the back of my head would urge me to ‘think bigger’.
When I saw that HOME’s PUSH Festival was accepting shows that were close to pre-production, I saw it as an opportunity to get back out there as a writer and performer. I made the shortlist and went into the interview knowing, from the success of my living room shows, that I had work people would enjoy and connect with. The living room shows equipped me with the knowledge of what my needs are and how to work around my condition, and so I was able to articulate these to the festival producers.
We began an open dialogue about how we could make reasonable adjustments in the workplace in a way that suited all parties – during rehearsals, HOME even provided me with a cot and allocated times for rest breaks to recover from the inevitable fatigue. When they realised I was on my own, they helped me with staging, direction and even paid for a prompter to be on hand for those times the ‘fibro fog’ moments hit mid-line; a reasonable adjustment in the workplace, if you like. The prompter, Hannah, became part of the show.
How did I manage to deliver a one-man, one-hour, 12,000 word monologue? Pacing diaries, intricate to-do lists, productive napping, and breaks in the performance, have all been essential parts of the process.
Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board premiered at HOME on 16 January to a warm and welcoming audience that laughed in all the right places and ahhhed in unexpected moments. It was the strangest and most brilliant thing for me; I’d spent so long making this show on my own in my living room, that when I stood alone in the centre of this space on stage that was four times as big and twice as high as my living room, I was overwhelmed. I wondered how my intimate show – that had only required a patch of space in a living room for a fold out chair and a TV with HDMI slot for the video screenings – would translate to an actual theatre. The result is a funny, intimate show about living with fibromyalgia that people with a chronic health condition can relate to, and those without one can enjoy. What’s more, getting back on stage hasn’t cost me my health.
Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board premiered on 16 January at HOME, Manchester. The next performance takes place on 22 January.
homemcr.org/production/learning-to-swim-on-an-ironing-board | Also check out PUSH Festival
Conor A can be found at https://www.facebook.com/indoorstoomuch