“You can see the ownership and pride they have over this shared space, this circle that we’ve created”
Wolfy looks back at how she got hooked and looks forward to when she’ll next be able to take the Miles of Smiles team on the road for another tour of Europe.
Well, these are pretty strange and unpredictable times, aren’t they? And believe me, as a Seagull I’m used to the strange and unpredictable! But these last few weeks have been unprecedented and I know we’re all feeling the effects. So even though we can’t be out living our lives or delivering projects and creating magic and laughter, I thought I’d give you a little insight into what it’s like as a Seagull. At least then we can imagine that we’re there, and try to keep that positivity and energy going until we can fly again.
How it started
It gets you hooked, shows you a different reality and a different way of being, playing and generally just participating in the real world.
I’m Wolfy, or Izzy. I’ve been with The Flying Seagull Project for about eight years now. It feels very odd to say that, given that I wasn’t expecting my life to turn out quite this way. I joined the Seagulls when it was a much smaller charity than it is now, volunteering at festivals and on projects in Romania and India, while also freelancing independently as a performer and entertainer. But I knew this was something special and unique I had gotten myself into, and that I was part of something that would grow and flourish.
When the refugee “crisis” hit in 2015 (I use the word “crisis” hesitantly, given that they’re still using that word five years later), everything changed for us without us even realising it. Ash moved most of our focus over to Greece, I came over to Ioannina to volunteer with our resident project there, and then Ash asked me to lead it without him. I’m not going to lie, I was terrified! One of the amazing things about what we do is how much fun we genuinely get to have when we’re running sessions and shows, but as a leader you have to be aware of so much more. Things get more complicated—absolutely more rewarding—but also more difficult too.
But I suppose I did a good job because here I am, three years later, full-time leading my own projects! The Seagulls kind of does that to you: gets you hooked, shows you a different reality and a different way of being, playing and generally just participating in the real world. I can’t imagine ever letting go of that or how different and dull my life would be without my bowler hat and stripy socks.
You can see the ownership and pride they have over this shared space, this circle that we’ve created.
One of my favourite projects is my Miles of Smiles tour, which I’ve run every year for the last three years. I haven’t been able to run it this year because of everything that’s happening at the moment, and it’s so strange and sad to think about places and people that are so clear in my head, and know I’m not going to be able to take a show there and visit them. Miles of Smiles is a show-based tour. That means we take a show to as many places as we can following a route from the UK through western Europe, around Greece and back again.
Logistically it can be very complicated, what with moving countries every other day, different beds each night, constantly hauling rogue juggling balls, half-open packets of pasta (and someone’s pants that didn’t quite dry the night before) in and out of the van. But this means we get to visit as many places as possible. We’ve been to pretty much every camp in Greece, and have contacts and centres ready and waiting for our next available show in every country from here to Hungary! We are really able to get up-to-date information and an understanding of the political landscape that all these displaced people are trying to survive in: switches in government, changes to border regulations, restrictions in your movement based on your nationality, your gender, your family … a level of uncertainty that the rest of us around the world are now facing with Covid-19!
One of the other incredible privileges that Miles of Smiles gives me is being able to genuinely see and track the process of people claiming asylum in Greece: to see kids in the terrible conditions in the hotspot on the Greek island of Samos, then six months later to drive into a well-provisioned camp on the mainland and see a face out of the window instantly light up with recognition. An ear-to-ear grin blossoms across their face and then I hear them shout, “My friend, my friend! ME SAMOS, ME SAMOS!” They were there with us in Samos, playing with us, laughing, singing, gasping at magic, and now they’re here, with all the love and enthusiasm they had back then, laughing and singing again! And this time they know the words to the songs, they tell their friends who haven’t seen us before how to play the games, the secrets of the magic. You can see the ownership and pride they have over this shared space, this circle that we’ve created. Because once you’ve played “Quack, Quack, Woof” (our version of Duck, Duck, Goose), once you’ve sung ‘Coma La Vista’, once you’ve seen me pull four umbrellas out of a handful of hankies, you’re not just an audience member … you’re part of the Seagull Flock. It’s like a badge that you can see pinned to the kids’ t-shirts. It’s an experience that gets cemented in their minds and mine. I’m pretty good with names, but even I can’t remember 2,500 names over a couple of months: we can see upwards of 500 children a day! But I recognise that look and that smile and I know, maybe they haven’t seen me or my team before, but they’ve seen US, they know us, and they know that we’re back with the same love, silliness and unbridled ENERGY that they remember.
A day in the life
If we don’t come in with absolutely everything we’ve got, then we’re not showing them the respect that they deserve.
There isn’t really a typical “day in the life” of a Seagull, because every project, place and team is unique and unpredictable, and the leaders all have different styles of how we like to run our projects, the choices we make, the places we visit and the content we deliver. However, I can give you a bit of an insight into what a day on a Miles of Smiles tour might involve.
We probably get up early, bones creaking and shaking off a night’s sleep, good or bad (mostly depending on whether the beds were any good and if there were any exuberant dogs barking their way through the night!). We’ll make our breakfast, get the coffee on and then talk through the day—we’ve got three shows, two places we’ve been to before and one new camp. The new camp will be an unknown, we have no idea what space we have to perform in, how many kids there’ll be, whether we’ll arrive and no-one has told us that it’s market day and everyone’s gone out (that has happened on more than one occasion!).
Then we pack the trusty van—you might think it’s just a case of making sure everything we need is in there, but no! Van-packing in the Seagulls is an art form, and everyone has different ways they like to do it. Woe betide you if you move the battered hoops from the side compartment to the back, or tidy away what appears to be a mangled old bit of string strewn on the floor. Little do you know that THAT PARTICULAR mangled old bit of string has been strategically placed there by someone to be within easy ninja-fast reach when the time comes to tie up the hoops! Bungee cords too. They’re gold dust. If you find a bungee cord lying around, DO NOT LOSE IT. No matter how many we buy and keep replacing we will always only have precisely the amount required to tie up each piece of equipment, no more, no less. So yes, protect the van equilibrium at all costs. Often this is the difference between a smooth exit and extended scenes of chaos where one person is trying to pack up a large rope (which of course the kids take as a tug of war ultimate challenge), while the others are jumping into the van one by one as it quickens pace towards the exit. They should make Seagull Van Driving an Olympic sport – the amount of skill it takes to manoeuvre those beasts through a myriad of different and very challenging environments, all while keeping a bright Seagull smile and acknowledging the kids who are desperately waiting for the goodbye wave and horn honk.
In Romania I once had to reverse the van into a brick alleyway, while on a busy street that ALSO had trams travelling each way, and I kid you not, there were about six inches either side of the van when I was done—I almost had to get out through the window! One of my favourite moments is when you get kids who wave and direct the van, mostly having no idea how to actually direct you, but who have clearly seen their parents or other adults doing this and want to be the one who helps the Seagull van into its spot.
Once you’re in the van most of the day passes in a blur of different heightened states. First is anticipation as we travel towards the camp or centre we’re about to work in. Even eight years later I still get the same fizz in the last 30 seconds before I jump out of the van on arrival, like my body knows what’s about to happen and has set into motion a sequence of chemical reactions to spark up all the energy and focus I’m about to need. Teams often naturally find a theme tune for the last bit of the drive to camp, some song or piece of music that gets everyone ready and into the right mindset.
Next is a sort of split state for me when I’m leading a session. Half is a cocktail of massive energy, adrenaline, passion and excitement. The other half is hyper-focus, extreme attention to detail and strategic planning mode, almost like a computer. I feel like I’m wearing those super spy glasses you sometimes see in movies where holographic information keeps popping up: “Boy on the left, estimated nine-years old, in possession of a football, possibility he will kick it into the circle, be advised action may be needed.’ … EVERYBODY HUP! … “Young girl alone on the right, suspected physical difficulty, some games may be more difficult for her, ensure full facilitation and support to maximise her independence and experience.” … I WANT ENERGY!… “Incoming: relentless cheeky monkey advancing, his target – my hat. Prevent hat theft at all costs, initiate side swerve and raised eyebrow manoeuvre.” … COMA LA, COMA LA, COMA LA VISTA!!!! My brain constantly pinging back between these two states and trains of thought is an experience like no other.
The final state is stunned exhaustion with a layer of subsiding joy. We have so much fun doing what we do. It wouldn’t work otherwise. Kids are emotional sponges and they are sharp as a tack. They know if you’re not bringing your A-game and they will make you pay for it! And rightly so! They have been through so much, spend their lives in a constant state of upheaval, uncertainty and endless hours of empty waiting. If we don’t come in with absolutely everything we’ve got, then we’re not showing them the respect that they deserve.
You should be exhausted at the end of a Seagull day, but raring to go at the thought of another. We’ll get what we need ready for the next day, maybe practise a bit of magic or a new section we want to put in the show—it’s important to keep things fresh and interesting for us too. Then eat some form of dinner—usually something made of chopped onions, garlic, tomatoes and vegetables, fashioned into something that hopefully is different enough from the night before that we forget we’ve basically eaten the same thing for four days!
We have a dinner tradition on the Miles of Smiles tours that each person shares a professional highlight from the day and then a personal highlight. The madness of a session can be quite a solo experience—even though we’re working together like a well-oiled machine (hopefully!), things can get so crazy, you trust and rely on each other so much that you actually don’t have any time to share the experience and special moments as they happen. So, we try to make sure we get to do that each day: individual interactions we’ve had—a funny thing a child said, a moment where a little boy span a plate for the first time, that amazing volunteer for the magic trick who was so good she should just join the crew! We don’t want to lose these moments and they also really keep us going when it gets tough. It’s also important to acknowledge where we are, and the brilliant and surprising events of the tour life we’re on, outside of the actual sessions themselves, so we share those as well—the gorgeous view we passed on the way home, the lovely little Greek lady who gave us a free ice cream because she liked our costumes, the incredible parking job I did in the Romanian alleyway! After dinner and highlights, rehearsals and van packing are done, we all flop into bed, ready to do it all again tomorrow. It will be the same events, crew, show, van … but it will be a completely different day!
So, there you have it! We’re all feeling a little frustrated at the moment, wings clipped, grounded. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t know when I was next going to be out of the UK! But we’ll be back flying again as soon as we can. In the meantime, we can wash our waistcoats, buff up our boots and sew up our socks. We can search out new magic tricks, new ways to make people laugh, new songs and new games. And we can remember that we’ve got a lot of amazing, wonderful people right here on our doorstep to share some love, light and laughter with!