I’ve never really thought of myself as brave but it’s a word that gets thrown my way on a far more regular basis than I would like. Heading to the bar for a drink after a spot at a comedy night, it’s rare that I won’t have a complete stranger exclaim to me; “you’re so brave, I couldn’t do what you just did.”
It often leaves me scratching my head in confusion, I certainly don’t feel that getting up on stage, rubbishing on about failed relationships, sharing crude, debaucherous tales and randomly sprouting out of tune lyrics from my favourite pop divas makes me all that brave at all. Are they being honest or are they saying that I’m brave because I wasn’t good? I don’t think I am brave. More than anything, I feel like it might be a little bit self indulgent. After a recent encounter at gig I began to wonder about the term ‘brave’ –as I explored it within my own mind I started to travel down many paths within my own self.
I decided that to chat to some ladies who I think of as brave and whose life journeys have involved tough choices or hurdles along the way that have helped to define who they have become. Now I don’t know anyone who has run into a burning building or risked their life to save that of another however as I’m sure many of us know, an act of bravery for some is a simple as getting up the strength of get out of bed and face the world each day. Immediately I thought of my best friend Stacey, a lady who I genuinely believe is one of the toughest and most resilient that I have ever met. She hasn’t always been this way – in fact knowing her since we were in primary school, I always kind of considered her to be a bit of a hypochondriac drama queen (sorry babe!) however all of that changed almost two years ago. Stacey and I were living together and despite the warnings to the contrary, living with my best friend was one of the most fun experiences ever – but all of a sudden it changed. I felt like I’d been hit by a train so I can’t even begin to imagine how Stacey felt – within the space of a week, at age twenty four, she was diagnosed with MS and doctors also found a four centimetre tumour at the back of her head, attaching itself to her spinal cord.
The removal of the tumour was horrendous; the tumour was wrapped around the nerve that controlled the left side of her face meaning that it too had to be removed. My beautiful Stacey could only smile with half of her face and all of a sudden it seemed like her amazing flame had been dulled. It hasn’t been easy for her – that much is evident, but even then I still wondered – did she feel brave? When I asked her, she told me, “People call me brave all the time, which makes me feel a bit embarrassed…I never felt like I was being brave, I just felt like I was getting through each challenge.” Which I guess is what being brave actually is – right?
Stacey is basically blowing me away at the moment. Not only has she been through two more surgeries, worked hard to learn how to understand and live with her MS but she has also met an awesome guy – John and while he is certainly more than just a quick fix, Stacey did make me laugh when she explained; “People called me brave for going on blind dates but I don’t think that makes me brave – I just wanted to get laid!”
I don’t think I will ever be able to fully comprehend the level of courage that it has taken for Stacey to get on with her life and not just survive but absolutely thrive and I truly hope that I never have the opportunity to relate, I do however dream of having the bravery of the next two ladies that I spoke to. I first encountered Hannah Collins when I started working in my current day job – in fact she used to do what I do now, and she trained me up to take over her role. Since leaving the role she has volunteered in Africa, subedited a magazine and just recently moved to New York – with no safety net. I can only dream of having the guts to do what Hannah has done and as she explained, “I knew it was out of the ordinary but I also knew it was what I needed to do at the time.” Which once again brings up the idea of bravery versus self indulgence however, as Hannah enlightened me, sometimes to be self indulgent, you have to employ a level of bravery; “I felt a lot of guilt over leaving my family and friends, especially my family but I also knew that if I didn’t go and do it that I would only regret not going.”
There’s nothing more disappointing than a feeling of regret – I know that all too well.
Another clever lady who is taking the world by storm is the wonderful Laura Pietrobon – one of the most outwardly warm people I have ever encountered. I first met Laura when we were both sixteen and doing work experience at a radio station. Our paths crossed again at University but now she finds herself living in London, a dream I have always had for myself. She explained that “The first thing a lot of people said when I announced my move was something along the lines of “wow you’re so brave, aren’t you scared?” To be honest, I never thought this move was particularly brave.” However assessing the situations of others who have also undertaken the same challenge that she has she was able to see the bravery in their choices, “so maybe it’s all about perspective in the end” Laura concluded.
The concept of perspective actually, weirdly enough, put things into perspective for me. There are two aspects of bravery; one is perceived bravery, while the other is acted. So while you might not ‘feel brave’, the question is, if a person describes you as brave relative to how they define ‘brave’ in their own mind, while you might not actually be engaging in an act of bravery you could be brave simply because it is in the eye of the beholder.
At this point I was certainly envying the sheer guts that it took for these two ladies to do what they had done and luckily I had one of my oldest friends Hannah Willsmore (who I have previously described as my womb buddy since we’ve known each other that long) put things into perspective for me. Hannah has recently started her own business – rather sitting idle in a job that she was beginning to resent, she explained “I could’ve just stayed there being unhappy like so many of the others are” however she boldly chose not to – if only for her own sake. I guess this confirmed for me that it is hard, risky and yes, brave, to do something a little bit different but it’s probably harder to let it just pass on by while the world keeps moving.
Finally it was starting to click in a general sense – those around me who I viewed as brave, sure they were overcoming hurdles and individual adversity but each act of ‘bravery’ that I’d investigated had in ways just been a way of moving forward in life rather than choosing to remain stagnant, despite the challenges that may hold. I though, had been called ‘brave’ for the act of performance so I needed to know, is this something that other performers experience? After speaking to several male comedians it quickly became clear that ‘brave’ is a term almost exclusively reserved for female performers or those who deal with challenging and confronting material – it’s rare that a guy gets called ‘brave’ just for picking up the microphone but I think that might be a topic for another day.
In a performance sense I immediately thought of three ladies who I might be able to relate to and from whom I could learn. First up was Haley Brown, a wonderful and talented performer whose direction and style has profoundly affected my own. Haley faces her own physical challenges meaning that ‘brave’ is a word that gets thrown her way and for the first time since I began this exploration, the concept of the term being overtly problematic was raised, as Haley explained; “It’s a very close cousin of what folks in the disability community call “inspiration porn,” when disabled people do fairly ordinary things and are celebrated as being “brave” or “inspiring” for doing it while disabled.” Continuing on that theme of ‘brave’ not necessarily being a compliment, she elaborated “Often the word is awarded to individuals that society deems incapable of doing something who are “doing it anyway.”
I get that. While I may not have the same hurdles to face as Haley (whose work you can find here), there is that matter of my gender. It may be 2016 but don’t even begin to imagine that we live in a world where everyone is used to hearing the female voice as one of power, strength or, god forbid, humour. Sure times are changing however on more than one occasion (many, in fact) I’ve been outright told that “women aren’t funny”. That hurts and I can’t really put into words why – though mostly because it’s outright wrong. I like to think that I can prove those who hold that belief wrong. One woman who I know can do this is Nicole Henriksen whose giddily bizarre show ‘Techno Glitter Penguins’ made me laugh like nothing else ever had, before she slapped me in the face and tore my heart apart with her other totally different but equally brilliant show ‘Makin It Rain’. Despite obvious talent and a drive to succeed that is downright inspiring, Nicole has had experiences that have caused her to feel patronised when being referred to as brave; “I feel especially as a woman, and a woman of colour, the more it’s used “oh you’re so brave… really, really, brave… wow, so brave”… Why am I so brave, you know? Is that person implying that I’m brave for supporting myself, or performing, or what-have-you because my work isn’t good or isn’t financially viable? If so, why is that?” It’s a perspective that echoed my own thoughts, despite our somewhat different performance experiences.
Finally I reached out to the lovely Alice Tovey, wise beyond her years, who helped me to put it all together in relation to my own experiences. She identified the sheer fact that she and her material had been belittled at the discretion of particular audience members, choosing to let the fact that she is a young woman cloud their opinion of the content. However she carries on, continuing to present shows that push the boundaries in one way or another. She explained, “I think when most people are asked what bravery is, you’ll get back a picture of an Alexander the Great like figure, who against all odds conquered the world. Or Oscar Wilde, who opposed a regime to preserve the true self. Or An Sung Su Chi, who stood up to an oppressive and unfair government. These pictures are all perfectly valid and good definitions of bravery, but I think comedic bravery is a completely different thing all together.”
“Comedic bravery, I believe, is making an audience laugh at something, whether dark or absurd or unusual, and asking them why. That’s the power that a comedian has. What an audience laughs at will tell them more about themselves than what makes them cry.” But does Alice consider herself brave? The short answer is, yes – “In a way” How so? She explains; “I hope that I am doing just that, that I am pointing out some of the nastier things in our society. It can be confronting.”
Now I can’t say that I’m pushing the boundaries in the same way as Alice, but on a good day I am making people laugh at some pretty absurd ideas – and hey, maybe that is a braver concept than I first believed. I am yet to feel like I possess the same level of bravery that I believe some of the other women I have encountered do, and while I don’t think I will ever feel comfortable being told that I am brave for doing what I think of as ‘dumb comedy’ I suppose I can make brave my own. I can chose to hear it as a compliment rather than in a patronising manner and I can choose to use it as a motivation to push on. Most of all though I can be bravely self indulgent because with life experience under my belt I now know that without being brave enough to indulge my soul in doing the things that truly make me happy, I would ultimately be facing the tougher challenges of regret, disappointment and true sadness. While life is never as straightforward as simply ‘choosing happiness’ –I’ve learned that it can be pretty brave if you’re able to put in action a path that allows you to do so.