Ex-trapeze artist Mish Weaver’s lifetime struggle with bipolar disorder forms the basis of a new touring circus show. Catherine Scott meets her.
IT’S circus, but not as we know it.
Mish Weaver’s Box of Frogs production uses off-the-wall circus trickery, diverse, zany characters and multimedia displays to convey the chaos, misery, fury, humour, creative highs and disabling depression that she has experienced.
Featuring five acrobats and two musicians from Mish’s Yorkshirebased Stumble Dance Circus, Box of Frogs has been commissioned by the Unlimited programme, part of London 2012 Festival and Cultural Olympiad.
For Mish, the thrills, skills, music and colour of circus makes it “the perfect medium to express the huge extremes of bipolar disorder.”
“I worked in circus for 25 years, and Box of Frogs is my way of explaining the experience through movement, colour, form, music, people and words.
“My passion is circus and my experience is bipolar disorder. Box of Frogs brings the two together.
“A lot of it is from my experience but a lot is from what I have learnt about bipolar disorder from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and reading, as well as the process of writing. Box of Frogs represents my understanding of the disorder.”
“Virtually everything in the show is about behaviour and how you might behave when driven by certain moods. And Box of Frogs is about encouraging audiences to immerse themselves in someone else’s moods and behaviours.”
The show’s characters represent the extreme mental states associated with bipolar disorder – a clown manically talks about his obsession with buying circus toys online, a Ringmaster hides away in the shadows but comes to life under the lights of the big top, a juggler is caught in an endless cycle, and a talented acrobat is plagued by the conviction that she is useless.
The performance – whose style has become known as Bipolar Circus – portrays both the unpleasant and humorous dimensions to bipolar disorder. Mish says: “I don’t think manic depressives like themselves. I didn’t. It is like being stuck with someone who you hate and you cringe when they talk. I wanted the audience to feel that – to be irritated and to dislike the behaviour.
“But there is also plenty of comedy. Box of Frogs is also funny.”
Mish, 46, from Hebden Bridge has experienced unstable moods
I was addicted to the danger of it. I suppose I didn’t really care what happened to me.
ever since she was a “hectic” seven-year-old.
It was in her early 20s that she discovered “Cloudswing” aerial performance.
“I was at university in Newcastle studying Fine Art Sculpture. A group of friends were learning circus skills and so one day a group of us hung up a trapeze in a church hall above a boxing ring with mattresses on the floor to break our fall. I never, ever thought that I would make a career out of it.”
She went on to teach circus theatre in prisons, run a dance theatre company, and become “Head of Aerial” at London’s Circus Space, the UK’s leading circus school.
During this time Mish says “I did not manage myself well at all” and was unable to have any control over her bouts of extreme highs and lows.
“No-one can deny the link between exercise and better mental health. The problem is actually getting out and doing exercise when you have depression.”
And the choice of such a dangerous profession may not have helped her condition, admits Mish.
“I was addicted to the danger of it and the relationship with the audience who know that you could fall and die, as I normally performed without a lunge. I suppose I didn’t really care what happened to me. Also pushing yourself to such limits isn’t always good mentally or physically. It was completely kamikaze I suppose.”
But it was Mish’s fear of the audience which eventually caused her to quit performing and concentrate on designing, directing and teaching..
“I wasn’t afraid of falling or anything like that, I was just terrified of performing and everyone watching me. Every night I would promise myself it would be the last time. In the end it just got too terrifying.”
It was in 2003 that Mish was formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and she had a breakdown while living alone in London, working long hours.
“I was living off coffee and fruit juice and beer. I just came to a complete and utter halt. I could no longer function,” she says.
She became seriously ill in hospital and later admitted herself into a psychiatric unit.
“I don’t think I have ever met anyone who hated themselves as much as I used to hate myself,” she reflects “I used to hate having to be in my own company.”
She “ran away” back to the north to be near her mother who was living in Yorkshire..
“Having a diagnosis of bipolar disorder is helpful in the longterm but at the time it almost added more pressure. There were all these celebrities admitting they had it and then everyone expects you to be brilliant because you have it.”
But it was the birth of her child in the same year as her diagnosis, together with help from a “brilliant” cognitive behavioural therapist, that enabled Mish to find ways to manage her condition.
“It’s a cliché, but having a child was the best thing that ever happened to me.
“Being responsible for someone else made me address my own care.
“I finally managed to organise myself enough to be able to control a lot of my behaviour. It is very hard and I am exhausted a lot of the time. In some ways I would describe myself as a survivor.”