What juggling while balanced on an 8ft ladder taught me about risk and how I’m applying it to a New
I balance on an 8ft Ladder and juggle for a living. It’s one of the things I can do. Not showing off or anything (well maybe a little) It took me 3 months to learn. Then 3 months to do it confidently in front of an audience. Then another 3 months to recreate the paralysing fear I felt at the begining of my training in order to give the audience the theatrics of ‘danger’.
When an audience watches me climb the ladder, balance at the top AND juggle, they are mostly seeing my sudden untimely death as the ladder slips from underneath me and I come crashing down. This is their perceived idea of the risk involved. That's why it's so exciting to watch.
To clarify, this has never actually happened in the 8 years I have been doing it. I am definitely still alive. I have fallen off the ladder several times. I never drop straight from the top to the bottom which is what people see happening in their minds. When I fall, I’m on top of a ladder. The arc of my journey from top to bottom is the circumference of the top of a circle to the bottom. I have quite a long time to adjust my position, think about my landing - and what I'm going to have for tea that evening.
This is the gap that exists between what we perceive to be the danger and what the danger actually is.
All circus performers come across this, as I’m sure others in ‘high risk’ work do. You balance the ‘risk’ with the risk benefit for each activity. In circus we are always looking at the risk benefit whether it's for balancing on a wire, swinging from a trapeze, acrobatics, or being fired out of a canon! Each performer has trained for years to ensure they are able to do this without actual bodily harm. Of course there are accidents, of course there are sometimes tragic events. These however are few and far between. If people focused on the ‘risk’ they would never begin! The risk benefits far outway the risk: the triumphant feeling when you can finally do something you have trained for months to do; the exhilaration of completing a new move; the confidence you get pushing the limits of what you believe is possible both mentally and physically - to name but a few!
The 3 months it took me to learn the ladder:
I spent a lot of time at the beginning, ladder leaning against the wall, me at the top, clinging to the wall staring down at a crash mat refusing to push off from the wall and fall down. (You have to learn to fall before you learn to balance!)
Day 1. Cling to the wall.
Day 2. Push self 1cm away from wall.
Day 3. Stay at home with a sudden bout of unexplainable flu'.
Day 4. Push self off wall, crash to the floor. Realise it wasn’t that bad. Get up do it 5 more times.
Day 5 move to a bigger ladder, spend all day clinging to the wall.
Day 6, move back down to smaller ladder.
It’a a long process and its mostly about overcoming the psychological barrier, the fear of the thought ‘I am actually going to die if I do this’. The work comes in bringing yourself to the reality of what you're doing. Slowly training your body and your head that it's absolutely fine. That you can absolutely do this. It’s just balancing at height. You can balance on the ground, it's no different!
The mind is a power foe and will stop you from doing something it believes is dangerous for you. There is that fantastic video created recently of people diving off a diving board (https://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000004882589/ten-meter-tower.html). It beautifully captures the physical and mental journey people go through when faced with something they understand is doable but the fear gets the better of them. You see what they have to overcome to take that leap. No one who took the leap regretted it. Those who didn’t leap left heads hung low.
There is something very powerful and life affirming about feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Of course we shouldn’t run head first into situations that are ‘actually dangerous’ but we shouldn’t run away from things that make us weak at the knees, that set off fireworks in our stomach and make us want to run for the hills. Those are things we can choose to run towards arms stretched open. That's where the biggest rewards and discoveries lie in life. The things that make us grow a little taller from doing them.
Let's install this in young people. Let's make this part of their outlook on life. Be big bold and brave, it's scary because it feels risky but the benefits of taking that leap are massive!
Almost Always Muddy goes someway to creating a space for those ideas to take shape, for risks to be taken in a safe space, where you can practise in a creative way being a bit bolder/braver than you have been before. The young audience use tools and junk yard materials to build the world of the show. The idea of Almost Alway Muddy is that the audience are invited to face what, to them seem like “really dangerous risks” and then conquer them. It might be asking someone to help build something, lifting something bigger than anything you have lifted before, using new tools, or offering an idea to a performer to use in the story.
They then take that out into the world with them and see how much bigger their world becomes because they dared to take that