Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board – “It’s a metaphor for living with an invisible disability”. An interview with Conor A.

Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board is a new piece commissioned by HOME theatre in Manchester, as part of their annual Push Festival, aimed at promoting emerging creative talent across the region. I caught up with spoken word artist Conor A. to discuss his new show and the impact fibromyalgia has on his on his career as a creative performer.

Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board is a comedy story-telling show about therapeutic eavesdropping, which my therapist (known as Terry the Therapist) recommended. It’s about how going out, listening, and looking at the world a little differently. Fibromyalgia had created a complicated situation where I was in pain and fatigue much of the time. My personal attitude towards the world was a little bit off because I was spending all that time in an emotionally tense state. Terry told me to look, and listen, for something better than I was hearing in my head. It changed my life”.

“The show’s title – it’s a metaphor for living with an invisible disability like fibromyalgia”. But it’s not a performance where the audience is going to be lectured about a medical condition. “I don’t have a vested interest in trying to get the audience to understand fibromyalgia. When I started writing the show, the only person I wanted to start understanding fibromyalgia was myself”. Instead, “it’s just me telling a weird, funny story about a weird, funny therapeutic technique. What I really talk about in the show is learning to live again. Trying to learn to how to do things, and allowing things to be done differently. I have found ways of using my life, and how my body works, to facilitate telling a story”.

Fibromyalgia is a condition that affects the body’s nervous system, causing chronic pain, fatigue and forgetfulness. It affects up to 8% of the world’s population. “Fibromyalgia kicked in about 12 years ago, and that certainly changed my creative career. When I got fibromyalgia, I lost my ability to write poetry because it was very hard to articulate the experiences I was having. I tried for years to hold onto performing in some form or another, but the consequences on my body in the long term were really horrific. The level of pain, the level of fatigue, the uncertainty and unreliability of my body meant that I wasn’t able to fully engage. Seven years ago, I stopped everything and rebuilt a life that didn’t involve me being involved in creative pursuits”.

“Letting go of it was hard, but all the time prior, I was pretending to still be capable. I was hiding a huge amount of what was happening to me. I could go to Liverpool and do a ten minute set that worked magically, but the midnight Liverpool – Manchester train on a Saturday night isn’t the place to be fatigued out of your mind, with loads of pain built up inside your body, while two fellas are having a fight about a piece of chicken. I thought ‘I can’t keep doing this to myself anymore. I will crash and burn’, only my burning would be 6-9 months of losing my ability to engage with life. It left me feeling depressed and on my own”.

“I made very small changes, like diet, bits of group work and counselling. I had worked out ways and means of managing the fibromyalgia. After a few years, I learned how to work creatively again. It was very slowly. It was on my own terms. It was a real process of trying to get my creativity back in a positive way. I learned how to make the fibromyalgia part of my narrative devices and part of the pallet of tools available to me as a performer. I used to understand what I wanted to achieve as an artist and fibromyalgia took that away. Now I think I am back in that position again. I know my creative motivation. I have trust in it”.

Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board makes its debut in Theatre 2 at HOME, which is considerably larger than the living room it was created, and previously performed in. Scaling up the show was a difficult process. “There were massive challenges because it is such an intimate show. Literally, I did one show where it was just three people. HOME have been helping to realise the show in a much bigger, broader way than those initial living room shows. Upscaling the show was something I didn’t know how to get past. That barrier to get from a show that has happened in your living room, to getting it into a theatre is a huge jump. On my own, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

“As a performer with a disability, I do need a line of support that’s greater than an able-bodied performer. As much as companies and theatres make changes to include everyone. There’s a real able-bodied bias within the industry, that has been hard to get past. Many opportunities and commissions that I considered would have required me to work at a pace and rate that would have caused me serious health problems. For me, getting past this barrier and going from disabled artist with a living room show, to putting that show on a stage, meant waiting for a commission where that bias was adjusted. It took a long time and involved quite a few phone calls, where the bias would win out. Often these were disheartening phone calls that made me consider giving up, and I know of other disabled artists who have felt this too”.

“Then the PUSH commission popped up in my feed and I knew it was a perfect opportunity for me. Thankfully, they chose me and it has been an amazing, challenging at times but HOME have made this a very safe experience. From the beginning, they listened to me and we’ve been able to have an open dialogue, where I was able to outline my needs and they theirs, and for us to come to the best solutions possible. I am now in the position where I know I will be able to make the best show I can.”

“The advice of the people at HOME has been great. It’s given me a feeling that there’s more to be got from this script, and from this space. It’s not just me in a blank space. It’s us together in a room. We’ve stripped it right down to just me and a big couch. It’s going to be intimate and friendly, safe and warm. It’s going to be a fun night”.

“Oh yeah, and my dad did actually try to teach us to swim on an ironing board, when me and my brother were kids. It was 9 o’clock in the evenings and the swimming pool wasn’t open. He was an avid swimmer. I have that memory of me and my brother being put on the ironing board and taught how to swim”.

Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board is at HOME, Manchester on 16th and 22nd January, as part of the Push Festival. To book tickets, please click here.

You can also follow Conor A. on Facebook @indoorstoomuch.

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