An ex-trapeze artist’s lifetime experience of bipolar disorder is the basis of a high-octane circus show now touring the UK.
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 acrobats and musicians from Stumble danceCircus, Box of Frogs has been commissioned by the Unlimited programme, part of London 2012 Festival and Cultural Olympiad.
For Weaver, 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.”
Box of Frogs features trick-cycling, hula hoop, high-energy rope-work and acrobatic hand-to-hand balancing.
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.
Weaver 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.”
Weaver, aged 46, has experienced unstable moods ever since she was a ‘hectic’ seven-year-old.
It was in her early 20s that she discovered ‘Cloudswing’ aerial performance. 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 Weaver says “I did not manage myself well at all” and was unable to have any control over her bouts of extreme highs and lows.
“The positive thing about someone with bipolar is that when they work, they work really hard, and are often very passionate about their work, as I was,” says Weaver.
“This can be really valuable, especially in the arts. But then I would subsequently crash, and would hide my depression away from other people.”
It was in 2003 that Weaver 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 themself as much as I used to hate myself,” reflects Weaver. “I used to hate having to be in my own company.”
But it was the birth of Weaver’s child in the same year, together with help from a “brilliant” cognitive behavioural therapist that enabled Weaver 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.
“In some ways I would describe myself as a survivor.”