If it’s in the way, it is the way. – Frank Anderson, IFS trainer
A lot of theatre training practices around the world, especially embodied practice spaces, emphasise on the mind-body split polarity. They ask one to “get out of the head”, “stop thinking” and “get into your body”. Given the kind of systems one grows up in, such narrative can force one to exile parts of oneself that are logic-driven, and rationale-first, in order to be a ready enough vessel for learning. But clowns, performers and educators Lucy Hopkins and Saskia Solomons vehemently disagree and believe that there are no bad parts: All parts are welcome.
At a recent Unrehearsed Futures conversation, Lucy and Saskia, two theatre makers, fools and champions of IFS (Internal Family Systems), ruminated on the possibilities of how a therapeutic theatre practice can transform a traumatising theatre culture, and, thereby the wider world, perhaps? Does embracing our multiple inner selves as part of a trauma informed, systemic approach make for a more sustainable, compassion-based, joyful and creative practice?
The pillars of IFS
Saskia’s tryst with IFS began after they graduated from LISPA, when they fell ill for several years and underwent different kinds of physical interventions for what seemed like physical symptoms. It was their brother, an IFS trained therapist, who nudged them towards the psychotherapeutic model. IFS is fundamentally based on the idea of multiplicity that we are many on the inside. Saskia found it very coherent with their experience of being an alive human being and slowly over the years, this idea of multiplicity and its healing modality found its way to their artistic practice.
Theatre trainings and therapy can very much be fellow travellers. Calling it a holistic approach, Saskia whittled IFS down to three foundational pillars:
1) Multiplicity, which is the idea that there are many parts (common parlance in IFS lingo) in oneself. The different voices one might encounter in one’s head during an internal dialogue are all different parts to oneself. We might call them thoughts but they may also show up as sensations in the body, images or impulses; there is no right way for these parts to show up. A dominant narrative in most psychotherapeutic models is that of the mind as a monolith, and anything that diverges from that is pathologized or seen as a fracturing of the mind. However, IFS believes such “fracturing” or multiplicity is natural and a good thing, and this gives clients a huge capacity to adapt.
Richard C. Schwartz, who developed the IFS model in the 1980s, said that internal parts of oneself have roles and relationships within the system, which are not dissimilar to the sorts of relationships that one can see in an external family (and hence the name Internal Family Systems). In one of his recent books No Bad Parts, Dr. Schwartz writes that one contains no bad parts, which is a powerful shift in the way one looks at oneself.
2) The Self. While a lot of psychotherapeutic models talk about the idea of multiplicity, what is unique to the IFS model is the idea of Self. In a lot his literature, Schwartz talks about the change he noticed in his clients when they got curious about their parts and listened to their stories and how they came to be and what they were doing. Schwartz noticed that his clients’ faces changed, and their breath dropped down into their bodies. They seemed to have a capacity, a sort of innate, inner wise elder that just intuitively knew how to be with all of these parts. When he would ask them about who that was, his clients described it as being themselves. What he discovered was that this wise Self was the centre of the system that gets covered up by the other protective parts of the system. “It’s a bit like when clouds cover the sun, the sun is still there,” describes Saskia, “The Self is the undamaged, natural leader of the system which has a powerful healing capacity.”
3) IFS as a systemic model. It means that individuals are not viewed as isolated islands. It is acknowledged that people live within many systems in their lives: “We live in a family system, whatever that might look like for us. We live in perhaps an educational system or a religious system. We live in a community or a culture. We live in a nation. We live in the world. So, there are micro to macro systems that are not separate, and we are not separate,” reiterates Saskia, adding that it is not possible to make a change within one system without the others being affected.
Applying IFS to one’s theatre practice
As a clown, what Lucy Hopkins found in IFS is radical inclusivity and acceptance; that all parts are indeed welcome, and each part has inherent value. Looking at society and humanity in that way also feels deeply helpful, expresses Lucy. “IFS guides my wider community practice and how I want to show up in the world,” they say. Lucy runs a festival of creativity and curious happenings up in Scotland called Vogrie Pogrie. “We built it as a free family festival with an approach of radical inclusivity: what needs to happen for everyone to feel included? What needs to be in place for people to feel peaceful to be there?” they ask, while adding it feels significantly like the work of ‘parts’ in IFS. “It’s very much about how does everyone come together.”
In IFS, there is a powerful link between w(holism) and the acceptance that to be holistic one has to accept everyone and everything in a space – [this doesn’t mean everything is accepted. We can still make healthy boundaries and not necessarily condone all types of behaviour. eg. violence. The difference is that through an IFS lens we can meet damaging behaviour with compassion and curiosity, rather than punishment and shame]. This is something theatre pedagogues, performers and students of theatre can relate to. One is asked to ‘surrender to the moment’, to ‘yes, and’ and more. The principles of IFS also change the way we think about audience interaction. “They don’t have to do anything,” explains Lucy, “They can do what they want. There is no controlling.” On the contrary, there is a sense of invitation, of allowing and encouraging engagement to happen in the room. “It is simply paying attention to the audience,” they continue, “As performers, we get attention by giving attention. If we give our attention to the audience, they will return it. We don’t need to get their attention by being amazing.”
Lucy has been told a lot of times that they ‘totally control the audience’. It is not true, they counter. “I do totally allow them. I feel very sure that whatever [the audience] do will be a contribution, and then it’s up to me to make into something. The audience’s offering is a gift, it’s a sign of their presence and its reality.”
An IFS-generated theatre doesn’t necessarily need to be interactive with an audience. But Saskia’s show Fool’s Gold was very interactive with the audience. The difference was that not all their parts interacted with the audience – those who didn’t want to weren’t forced to. Saskia shares their experience of Fool’s Gold, a solo they created which was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2023. Before every show, they performed a process where they would close their eyes and go into an internal space to talk to their parts – a practice they do daily – and ask them who wants to be on stage and who doesn’t. “Because they don’t all want to be on there. Some of them felt scared or unsafe and wanted to go do something else. One of them wanted to go and eat ice cream on a bus, someone else wanted to go sit on a bench, some of them wanted to be there, but didn’t want to be seen. So, they could sit in the audience or a little gang of parts in the front – I had a little gang of parts sitting in the front row – and maybe some of them wanted to be on stage but wanted to hold my hand. So, I’m coming into the creative process and on stage from a place of ‘internal consent’, so that I’m not battling with any parts of myself to be there, which means that that Self energy that I talked about, is very present and is driving me on stage,” they explain.
Both Saskia and Lucy find IFS to be a deeply transformative, radical and holistic practice that allows them to be with themselves and others in theatre spaces and beyond. As the conversation comes to a close, Saskia asserts that the linchpin of an IFS-generated practice is a true, open compassionate curiosity – towards our own experience and the experience of working with others. “And if we can’t be curious and we’re noticing that we feel frustrated, or we feel stuck or limited, then it is to get curious about what is stopping us from being curious,” they say. If it is in the way, it is the way.
Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
Access the entire session on our YouTube channel: