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Laughing it off: how comedy can aid recovery from trauma

A new free art therapy course aims to help people work through mental ill-health through the medium of standup.

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Photo: Genoveva Arteaga

Trauma is no laughing matter. But Bristol comedian Angie Belcher thinks it could help to laugh about it – or to be precise, to turn it into something other people can laugh about. 

Angie has collaborated with the social prescribing team at the Wellspring Settlement in Barton Hill to offer a free course, called Comedy on Referral. It’s a new kind of art therapy that uses comedy, storytelling and psychology to help people work through mental health issues and past traumas.

“The hypothesis is: does the process of learning standup comedy help your mental health, your wellbeing and your recovery from trauma?” she explains.

Looking at the funniest things that happen in a situation helps that thing not be quite so disturbing

Angie has been doing comedy courses – teaching people to turn day-to-day experiences into standup material – for a few years, but this her first time teaching comedy as therapy. As it’s accessed through social prescribing, where health professionals refer patients to activities in their communities to support their health and wellbeing, people can participate who might not otherwise get the opportunity.

“[Standup is] such an enlightening and inspiring art form,” she continues. “It can really help you think about your life, what’s happened to you, and your mental health.”

Angie has spent three and a half years combining coaching and comedy, since having to put full-time gigging on hold when she had a baby so her partner, a bass player,  could continue his. “Thank you patriarchy,” she says wryly. She looked for ways to turn comedy into a day job and started Aftermirth, a daytime comedy club for parents and babies. Now, she’s a comedian in residence at Bristol University and a standup comedy tutor at Circomedia, as well as running comedy courses for individuals and companies. 

“Personal development and the arts have always been my two things – I love to mash them together – for me comedy is the perfect art form,” she says. “I’m interested in how people access the arts, and how the arts can help them on many levels.”

Finding your ‘inner comedian’

Over Comedy on Referral’s six weeks, Angie will teach participants to produce material from difficult experiences, using games, theory and writing exercises to encourage people to share their stories.

The course, which Angie likens to the process of creative writing, is based on her ‘inner comedian’ theory. This, she explains, “is about how you take stuff you’ve learned about yourself – by learning standup – into your real life.” The inner comedian is “about creating a sense of joy and playfulness in the real world”.

This isn’t meant to replace other therapy or medication, she points out. “This is for people in recovery, at a point where they can handle their mental health and want a new fun way to explore who they are [and] where they’ve come from.”

Unlike with Angie’s other courses, there’s no public performance at the end. “It’s the process of learning, it’s not about putting you in front of an audience,” she says.

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Even so, I ask about stage fright. It must feel incredibly intimidating sharing intimate details of your life with strangers, let alone trying to make it funny. “It’s a process,” Angie tells me. “We play lots of games, and by stealth I get people to perform.

“Games start off easy and get more and more exposing, but you don’t realise ’cos you’re just playing a game,” she adds. “By the end of it you’re standing on a stage and performing, you’re doing improv, and you haven’t really noticed because we do it bit by bit.”

Angie says the course can help people realise they have something to say – and to become confident enough to say it. It’s all about that relationship with your participants, you have to get to the stage where they trust you enough to open up and tell you really personal things.”

While difficult personal situations can leave people feeling powerless, or victimised, standup “allows you to control the narrative”, Angie argues. 

“It’s from your point of view – and also looking at the funniest things that happen in a situation helps that thing not be quite so bright and disturbing for us,” she says. “All the horribleness that happens with grief, with war, with all our different traumas, we want to look at it a different way.” 

The course, ultimately, is not about taking away trauma, but getting some respite from it. “Like all art therapy, the focus is on the art form – and the process is that by concentrating on the art form, the things get worked out,” Angie says.

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