TWC – Transformational Women’s Circus

This fall, The Transformational Women’s Circus (TWC) has been busy interviewing and screening new members for the 2020 cohort, which begins in January. TWC is an integrative social circus program which incorporates circus arts with psychotherapy to help women work through traumatic events in their lives. TWC began as an idea in 2017, and now, it is sailing forward into its third year of operations. TWC is a unique program at SANCA, certainly, but it is also a unique program internationally. Though there are a good handful of women’s circus program around the world, TWC is the only one in the world that integrates circus arts with drama therapy and trauma-focused group therapy. One of our new Every Body’s Circus coaches, Trevor Ashbury, sat down with Amber and Sarah, TWC’s lead facilitators, to talk about how TWC was born, how the therapy in TWC works, and what it is like to be inside of The Transformational Women’s Circus.

Trevor: Can you introduce yourselves? Your backgrounds, what brought you to TWC?

Amber: Sure, my name is Amber, and I am the creator and Lead Facilitator of The Transformational Women’s Circus. I am a Psychotherapist, I specialize in Drama Therapy, Family Therapy, Play Therapy, and Trauma-focused, experiential therapies. I began working with Women in 2004, first as a childbirth educator and Doula, then I transitioned into the mental health field in 2012, specializing in residential counseling, mental health first aid, and outreach case management with pregnant women struggling with addiction. I began working as a therapist in the last several years, the Transformational Women’s Circus was my Master’s thesis in my graduate work. Its amazing to me that it began as a dream and is now in its 3rd year.

Sarah: I’m Sarah Wells-Ikeda, co-facilitator and program coordinator for TWC. I’ve worked with women and children in some capacity for the last 15 years — often utilizing creative expression, social-emotional learning techniques, and asset-based skill and confidence building. I have always been both a highly creative and deeply spiritual person. My collegiate and graduate education in Women’s Studies, Psychology, and Creative Expression, paired with a background in theater, focused on reconnecting to authenticity and power through the body, the importance of individual stories and collective experiences, and empowerment through meaning making and connection. My connection to circus started with my introduction to and eventually into a neo-vaudevillian clown troupe (Fou Fou Ha!) in San Francisco, where I lived from 2009-2018. I had learned about SANCA through a fellow circus artist and performer who was a teaching artist here for many years. Shortly after moving to Seattle last year, Amber and I met synchronistically while both attending a friend’s birthday gathering. We sat in a booth together, recognizing one another as kindred spirits, and I was blown away by the powerful alignment of our passions and complementary skill sets. I always say that TWC feels like a perfect gift created by the universe (in the form of Amber). 🙂

Amber: Yes! Sarah coming into my life has been such a blessing, and I couldn’t ask for a better co-facilitator. We also have Emma Curtiss as a facilitator in TWC, and we absolutely love the magic she brings to our work.

Trevor: Could you explain what TWC stands for? Why transformational?

Amber: TWC Stands for Transformational Women’s Circus. I loved that you asked this question, because this program is named after two sources of inspiration that led me to create TWC. First, I was greatly inspired by The Women’s Circus in Australia. They published a book called Women’s Circus: Leaping off The Edge, in 1997. SANCA’s founder, Jo Montgomory, gave me this book when I was a new coach at SANCA and expressed interest in using circus therapeutically with women. Jo said, “here, read this” And I devoured the book. Not too long after this, I began training as a Drama Therapist, and was privileged enough to work under Armand Volkas, who leads an amazing project called Healing the Wounds of History through Transformative Theatre. I took these two ideas- a women’s circus and a transformative theatrical space, and The Transformational Women’s Circus was born.

Trevor: TWC incorporates movement, theatre, story and action throughout the session, why is it important that all of these elements are involved?

Sarah: In laying the foundation for all we dive into in TWC, it is imperative to first ground the body. The body houses our lived experiences, be them ones we have navigated firsthand in this life, or ones that have been passed down to us through our DNA and ancestral lineages, including all of the stories, traumas, wisdom, burdens and blessings. We have a unique power as humans to live and breathe our stories, and we have the ability to carry our stories forward into the future, to change the course of our histories. Theatre and storytelling are particularly effective modalities that allow us a forum in which to tell these stories. Additionally, Theatre and storytelling provides aesthetic distance so that we are able to tell difficult stories safely. We find that in session, a triadic approach (which includes warming up the bodies and emotions, diving deep into transformative process, and then closing with meaning making) is highly effective in navigating complex trauma, difficult emotions, self-actualization, and resiliency.

Trevor: How does TWC’s program design and content meaningfully, and holistically, engage with the (e/a)ffects of trauma?

Amber: First and foremost, we work very intentionally to create bonding and relationships between members of the group to establish a safe container in which traumatic experiences can be explored. Traumatic experiences, particularly childhood abuse and domestic violence, leave lasting, pervasive effects on how we feel in our body, how well we are able to regulate our moods, how we show up in relationships, and how willing and able we are to evaluate those experiences and be open about them. Thus, TWC target every single one of those areas. We move our bodies through circus arts training and learn about how to care for our nervous systems. We work on regulating our moods in session through creative, expressive activities, and gain insight into things that affect our mood, like anxiety and depression. We heal relationship wounds by making new, safe, stable relationships with each other and practice advocating for our needs within those relationships. And, finally, we perform our stories on stage before an audience, which allows us to confront pain we have not been able to look at in the past.

Trevor: Can you talk about how you all help to cultivate and support a sense of safety within the group interpersonally, within the arc of each class session, and within the scope of the program?

Sarah: We are very strategic in sequencing the sessions in a way that provides ample space and time for the group to bond with one another. This is first introduced through a focus on play. We are all intrinsically creative, playful beings — but many times, as adults especially, we are cut off from this sense of wonder and awe and therefore, can often have a hard time approaching the world and life with open eyes and open hearts. Often, in early life, we are given messages by our families of origins, peers, educational systems, and/or society which stifles our innate connection to our bodies, our power, and the creativity which is our birthright. We find in TWC that when we reconnect to these lost and disempowered parts of ourselves, there is often a deep sense of grief and loss for these parts of ourselves which have kept us separate from others as well. Witnessing and holding one another in this process, and allowing ourselves to be brave and vulnerable in this intimate and committed group setting, paves the way for deep bonding to occur between group members and facilitators. It is moving into a sense of gentle rediscovery of ourselves, of a tender exploration into where we experienced heartfelt connection and excitement as a child, that helps us to reconnect first with ourselves, the containers that house our spirits, memories and emotions, and then to use this as a pathway to build connections with others from this place of innocence, wonder, and whimsy.

Trevor: Can you talk about the role of radical self-acceptance in TWC? What is radical self acceptance? Why is it helpful? Could you describe an instance or paint a picture of what radical self-acceptance might look like?

Sarah: I think a poignant way to illustrate radical acceptance within the scope of TWC is to discuss the difference between the words healing and integration. We are wary of the word “healing”, as it is a deficit-based term that presumes that something is inevitably wrong with you or broken within you. Instead, we use the container of TWC to deeply dive into our shadow, the parts of ourselves that may be hidden, stifled, minimized, or cast away to make space for the portion or masks of ourselves that have been deemed appropriate, acceptable and loveable through our lived experience. Integration is the process by which we bring these pieces out of the darkness and into the light, and radical self-acceptance is the process of honoring them as equally valid and important part of ourselves and our experiences.

Amber: Agreed. We hope to challenge normative ideas about what it looks like to care for ourselves, embrace ourselves, and love ourselves. So much of mental health culture is about becoming “better” and eliminating symptoms. Don’t get me wrong- we also hope the members of TWC will have less symptoms after they complete the program. But, for us, it’s less about eliminating part of yourself you don’t like- the symptomatic parts that are anxious and/or depressed, and much more about developing a relationship with those parts of yourself. Depression, anxiety, moodiness, anger, grief- all of these emotions are rich sources of information about what we need. They are painful, certainly, but they are not without value. To me, this is radical acceptance within TWC.

Trevor: In the first TWC the container, or overarching theme, was the Hero’s Journey. The second TWC used the 4 Stages of Alchemy-Darkness, Illumination, Elucidation, and Transformation. How did you come to these themes? And, if you are willing to share, what is being imagined for this year’s TWC?

Amber: While I’d love to tell you, I’m afraid that we are keeping this year’s theme under wraps for now. I can say, however, that we are very excited about it, and we think this year’s theme will be impactful, creative, and effective. In terms of the previous year’s themes, I have learned that it is helpful in Drama Therapy to have a container for the work we do. We focus on the theme and let that guide our process. Both The Hero’s Journey and 4 stages of Alchemy are metaphors for personal transformation, and since personal transformation is our primary objective in TWC, those containers provide a wonderful space for our work together.

Trevor: In Amber’s Master’s Thesis about TWC, she writes “…the women of TWC find that words alone are insufficient vehicles for their healing, words are likewise insufficient to describe the beauty, pain, love, and personal change that occurs in the container of TWC” (Parker, 29). Knowing this, is there anything else that you all would like to say or offer to prospective students?

Sarah: I would just say to trust your heart, your instincts, and your intuition while exploring this as an opportunity for your life. I believe that our higher wisdom knows when it is time to bring things into our lives as vehicles for transformation and to create positive change. This is an intense program, and it takes a lot of time, energy, commitment and perseverance. That said, the personal and collective change possible as a result of traversing this journey, hand-in-hand with your cohort sisters and community is an experience and offering unlike any other.

Amber: I would really, really encourage women to apply even if they don’t think of themselves as “creative” or “artistic” or “athletic”. We really love working with women who say these things about themselves so we can help them write them a new story.