Posted on 14/11/2016 by
In a climate of cuts and low morale, social workers Debbie Greaves and Jim McGrath have turned to standup comedy to help relieve the pressure
If you spend your days dealing with family crisis conferences, child protection hearings or tense mediation meetings, you might fancy some cheering up. Step forward “Debstar” and “Jim McGraw” – the stage names of Debbie Greaves and Jim McGrath, two social workers who are turning the stuff of their working lives into standup comedy.
“We’ve got so many stories people can relate to,” says McGrath, before a sold-out show in Brighton. “People thank us afterwards, saying ‘I really needed that – I was having the worst week’,” adds Greaves, who is a firm believer in the power of laughter to help her fellow professionals maintain a healthy perspective and build resilience in difficult times.
“Putting the social into social work” is the battle cry they carry around Britain on regular tours from their Northern Ireland base, juggling annual leave and work schedules. Greaves quickly scotches any idea that using stage names is about keeping their comedy activities secret. “I just like a distinction between the professional me and the comedian.” She points out, too, that her bosses have seen her in comedy action. “They know I won’t go over the line that will land me in the deregistration zone!”
Both comedians can draw on decades of experience for material. Now 40, Australian Greaves has spent 20 years working in children’s services in her homeland and around the UK, while 54-year-old McGrath has notched up 30 years across youth offending, child protection and neighbourhood dispute resolution.
It's cathartic doing comedy. You get to rant and rave about how rubbish things are
McGrath began performing comedy at a Dublin pub open-mic night a few years ago, while Greaves’ first taste of standup came in 2013 when she did an impromptu 10-minute slot to add a bit of fun to her local social work awards ceremony. McGrath then made contact after hearing he wasn’t alone in the world of social work standup.
“Changes in social work have had a huge impact on morale, compounded by cutbacks and ongoing pressures,” says Greaves. “Comedy should hold up a mirror to life, deconstructing idiosyncrasies to get people to laugh at the system.” And while their profession provides the backbone of their acts, broader material is woven in. “What’s happening in the news affects us as social workers, too – things like the refugee crisis,” points out McGrath.
Any talk of social work and comedy naturally brings up Guardian cartoon strip and Radio 4 spin-off Clare in the Community (see below) and the Channel 4 sitcom Damned with Jo Brand. “Anything that gets the general public talking about social work and the complexities of the job is to be invited, as long as it reflects positively on both social workers and service users – we’ve had too much ‘poverty porn’ on our TVs and condemning of social workers,” says Greaves. She speaks of being angry at “the same old churned-out stereotype of social workers in crisis and disarray ... We’ve all been in situations that have been funny, but there is a fine balance between laughing at the situation and making fun of the person.”
Greaves speaks as someone who has experienced social work practice from both sides – client as well as provider. Raised in foster care in Australia, she claims a (mostly) good experience of social workers. Yet that didn’t stop her feeling the stigma attached to being in care – and getting up on stage, she says, has helped her face inner demons. “It’s cathartic doing standup as you get to rant and rave about how rubbish things are.”
McGrath admits to using comedy to deal with stresses, such as the perils of working in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. “Social workers were expected to go into areas without police back-up because of the security threat [to the police] – but we did it because we had to,” he says. “That said, it’s still more frightening to stand on stage and expose yourself to the judgment of your peers.”
Greaves and McGrath donate £1 from every ticket to the Social Workers Benevolent Trust, which has seen increasing demand from members of the profession seeking help for problems worsened by a difficult political climate and increasing lack of job security. They are also now using their comedic skills as a creative way to work with client groups, particularly to build confidence – McGrath with recovering drug addicts and Greaves with a learning disabilities group.
So what did the punters think after the Brighton gig? “I thought it was good to find humour about the work and the office politics; people in our profession need to be very ‘PC’ when working, but we also need to let ‘real’ feelings out somewhere,” said one fellow social worker.
Greaves sums up their approach to comedy simply. “We’ll have a good old laugh and a whinge,” she says, “and then go away feeling just a little bit better about things.”
Source: The Guardian