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From Social Work to Stand Up, Rachel Creeger (Part 1)

Show transcript from our chat with Rachel Creeger, who went from a career she loved in social work to becoming the only Orthodox Jewish woman on the UK mainstream comedy scene

Kristin: Hi, Rachel, it's nice to have you on the show today.

Rachel: Hello Kristin.

Kristin: How are you?

Rachel: Yeah. Good- in a good zone today, somehow.

Kristin: I feel like it's the time of, you never know what zone you're going to wake up in. I don't know if you're feeling that way, but every morning I've woken up in a different zone.

Rachel: Yeah, it's a roller coaster, I think for everybody right now. but they're just like, I think this has been quite productive week and when I'm busy, I feel better. So, yeah, I woke up quite, quite perky.

Kristin: Yeah, I'm the same. If I'm busy, I'm feeling better.

Rachel: It's been sort of feast and famine, I think through lockdown. So, I started a podcast with my colleague, Phillip Simon, because we were sort of a drift when we lost our work , you know, the comedy industry went into absolute meltdown, right at the beginning of the pandemic and lockdown in the UK and we lost all our work.

Pretty much everybody lost all their work for the entire rest of the year. I described it to someone as being like, you know, when you're watching a science fiction movie and they know the power was gone down in the back of the ship and it's coming to the front and they're sitting in the front with all the panels of buttons and then one at a time the panels go out.

I said, that's what happened to my Google calendar. On about, you know, in 72 hours... there was nothing left. I was meant to be on a tour. I had, I was going abroad to perform. I was going to be performing in America for the first time amongst other places. I had so many things in the calendar and it was really, really an exciting year.

And the loss of that was like, it was like a bereavement in a weird way, particularly because I think, for me, like a lot of comics our identity is so bound up in what we do. it's a lifestyle as well. So that was really, really hard. I found that incredibly painful and difficult, and I'm not belittling people who went through way worse things and actual bereavements and whatever, but it, I sort of went into a bit of shock, I think, and it took me a few weeks to crawl out of that and think I have to do something. I can't just sit here doing nothing. And Phillip and I had had this conversation for years about trying to put something together and we decided that either we can spend the next indefinite amount of time being depressed and sitting on our backsides hating our lives, or we can try to do something productive, but to get it off the ground you'll know yourself, it's been like a full-time job. So. That's taken up a lot of time and learning the skills of it because I'm not a presenter I've had to learn to be a presenter and to ask other people questions, not just talk about myself and to edit.

So that has been a huge learning curve. But also recently bits of work have begun to drift in, you know, over the internet, like zoom gigs and writing gigs and whatever. So slowly, slowly things are maybe getting a tiny bit better.

Kristin: People have done really amazing things, both with comedy and theatre. I feel like when creatives can't work, maybe in the normal sense, everybody just gets creative. That's been one bonus to all of this that we have seen creative, new ways of presenting work, and I'm glad to hear you're getting some!

Rachel: Yeah, little by little, but it's, it will be very interesting to see what happens next year. Interesting to see if they find a vaccine. Does everything suddenly snap back to where it was? Or are we going to continue to work in this new way in collaboration with the old way, or is something completely new going to come out of it?

So while it's very, very challenging. I suppose there's an aspect of it that's quite exciting to see where we'll go. And also because the arts have never been more accessible to people because of everything being online. So people who couldn't afford to go to the West End and see a show, some of those shows have been available to watch online.

And that's a massive thing actually in our society. I know a lot of comedy clubs have the facility to, to produce their work online as well and that's brilliant. It provides a lot of access. I think the difficulty is the financial side for the artists and for venues and producers, et cetera.

And, and all the tech team who are involved in putting anything on. Because if you have people watching from home, there's so much that people who watch at home for free, it's quite hard to get people to pay. And if that's how you make your living, then that's quite hard.

Kristin: Yeah, I do think that we're seeing a lot of free this free that, and I recently was reading something about, you know, artists need to start claiming back that this is my job. So producers need to start charging for things. And yeah, we can't get used to this free culture, but it is nice also that it's become more accessible.

So how do we find that balance? Once, you know, things are back to quote unquote normal or whatever they become . So we got right into it. But obviously I have you here to talk about the changes that you've had in your life, career wise and everything. You're a busy comic now, or were until pandemic anyway. But you started out doing social work and things in education. Can you tell me about your early career and maybe how you ended up there to begin with.

Rachel: [00:05:06] I ended up working with difficult and damage young people because I was one. So I was a truant. I had a lot of emotional mental health problems when I was young that weren't really explored or dealt with because it was the eighties and it wasn't such a thing, you know? And I now know I have like a, processing disorder, slightly with language in terms of, how I write, in, in that it's not noticeable to other people, but there's a delay in my process, but also I had quite bad dyscalculia.

So particularly around maths. That was a really, really big problem for me from when I was quite small. And I come from a very academic family. So no one really knew what to do with that. And also no one was sure what to do with their kids who just wanted to do drama and maybe sing a bit.

So it's not like I was stifled by anybody. It just wasn't in the consciousness that that was a thing that you should, that you should promote and encourage and whatever, on the one hand. And on the other hand, my grandparents were German, Jewish refugees, and they were very passionate about the arts.

That was part of their, the way of life for, Jews in Germany before the war. And when they came here, they, my grandmother took it upon themselves to kind of save their pennies, to expose us to the arts. Like it was important to them. So from very young, I was taken to the theater and the ballet and the opera.

And we always went to pantomimes. We went to art galleries and that was a normal thing for us on the holidays, even though we lived in Essex on a council estate and went to a normal school, whatever. So I had two very opposing forces, I suppose, but I found secondary school very, very challenging.

Kristin: It's really interesting, especially the dicotimy with your grandparents, saving their pennies to expose you to culture , because I don't think that happens very often. when you're not, it's a luxury to a lot of people.

Rachel: It was a luxury and we knew it was a luxury, but they went without other stuff, you know, that's, that's the thing. And my grandfather died when I was quite young, but my grandma still felt that was an important thing. And not just her, actually, it was their network, the people who have managed to get here from, Germany.

That was so much part of the air that they breathed really, was arts. that's just who they were. So even my great aunts and my grandma's cousins and whatever, they would, a whole little cluster of us would go off and do these things. And it wasn't to do with wealth or class. It was to do with the importance . .. this is my theory on it is you see a piece of art, whether that's a painting or music that you hear or a dance or whatever it might be, no one can take that away from you. that's a memory that can stay with you in the worst of circumstances. You've still got that.

So I feel that there's something with survivors. I suppose I can only talk about Holocaust survivors in terms of my family. But, I think people who've survived, difficult things. You see it in, in a lot of literature and in films that it's having, that memories are so important because memories belong to you and whatever your circumstances, they're still yours.

So I wonder if that's an aspect of it. just, just a little thought.

Kristin: It's a really beautiful thought though.

Rachel: I should probably write it down.

Getting the pen. so, after school I was due to go on a gap year in Israel with a Jewish youth movement that I was involved in. And I assumed when my results came out that was going to be a no go. And I was going to be sent to some kind of crammer to get some qualifications, but somehow, everything tumbled out about what had been going on for me and my parents took the very sensible decision to say, you need to get away from everything for a year and just find your path and they more or less said, come back with a plan.

Like if you have a plan, we'll support you, you don't have a plan. That's going to be down to you. Yeah, really. I spent the majority of time on a kibbutz, working, in Israel. And then I also studied, I trained in youth work and I did an actual qualification because that was something I was interested in.

And in the back of my mind, I'd always had the idea that I wanted to work with young people experiencing challenges. That was really important to me. And in fact, at my school, we had, a session with a careers advisor who came to the school.

I think it must've been in the lower sixth or year 12.

Kristin: I have to do the calculation from American to the school system here. So how old would you have been?

Rachel: so it's like 17, 16, 17 not the year you leave school the year before that penultimate year. So , they told us we were going to have a session, a private session with a careers advisor.

And I thought, well, that's brilliant because that's someone not from the school because school was such a challenging space for me. And my behavior was, I guess, cheeky. I wasn't horrible. I didn't bully anybody, but I was quite bullied in my first secondary school and changed to a second school.

And I think that's... the school I changed to wasn't the rights, neither of those really were the right school, obviously. Cause one put me at risk, but the second one, wasn't the right. I wasn't a good fit. I think it was interesting in my show Hinayni I talk about it and the fact that when I started truanting no one did anything about it.

They never once called my parents and told them I wasn't in school. And I, I suspect it's because they thought the day is a lot easier without me there. So when I decided I wanted to change things for myself, the teachers didn't really want to support that. And I was saying, well, I've, I know I've missed a lot, but I would like to still have a career and a chance at uni, they sort of went well, work harder. So when this was suggested that we could meet with the careers advisor, I thought brilliant, because I want to do something with difficult young people, maybe something with arts, maybe something with psychology. And I sat down and I poured my heart out to this woman.

Literally poured my heart out. And she had on her desk, a stack of files about folders, about me and all my terrible behavior. And when I finished speaking, she sort of looked at these documents and she'd obviously spoken to staff as well. She looked at this files and she looked at me and she looked to them and she looked at me and she said, what is it you want to do?

And I said, I think maybe something in social work or psychology. And she said, well, I think you're going to have to set your sights a lot lower than that. I think I would set my sights very low if I was you.

Kristin: Wow.

Rachel: And I think

Kristin: that is NOT the kind of encouragement you probably needed.

Rachel: No, and I think that's been the monkey on my back ever since to make myself successful, but through my own hard work, to sort of show, those people that there was more to me, but at the same time, a little bit of me believes that because you're so impressionable at that age, it's very hard to disbelieve when someone says that you'll never make anything of yourself.

Kristin: you would just think that someone whose job whose career is to advise about careers, what also have some training in here's how to encourage someone that needs some positive encouragement ! If you already were thinking of a career in, you know, social work or working with troubled youth, then the jump's pretty easy...

well, nobody's helping me. I've got to do something about this.

Rachel: The job I had in my head was to be a person in a school environment who noticed those kids like me, who weren't bad enough to be at the forefront of everyone's mind and could slip through the net. Because there were definitely kids with worse behaviour. My main thing was just not turning up.

Either not turning up in school or being there, but not being at all present in the work or in being able to complete stuff or respond to stuff or being very switched off. But, when I went on this year in Israel, apart from the youth work training, you had the option of doing some work experience. And my mum had a cousin who was a psychologist who specialised in what was beautifully termed then as delinquency.

And I had a long heart to heart with her, and she offered me a placement with her, which I assumed was going to be following her around making notes in a book. And, we didn't have phones in those days. We have phones, but not mobile phones. But if I had, I would have thought that that's three weeks of candy crush and occasionally smiling her direction, but I was quite motivated to find out how she did her job and how I might do her job. So, I that's what I thought it was going to be. And then day one, that she took me to a place which was a project for young homeless teenagers, where the aim of the project was to kind of rehabilitate them back to a good life, but not to accommodate them.

There were other charities that would provide a bed for the night . But this charity gave them training and therapy. So you had to undertake some kind of core skill type training. Like they learnt basic sous cheffing, basic hairdressing, basic plumbing, basic bricklaying and whatever, things like that, where you could get a first level job and hopefully never be unemployed.

Like you'd be a very employable person. Plus you had to do some kind of arts related group therapy. And your own personal therapy, whatever. So she took me to this place. She showed me around. She introduced me to the staff there and she said to me, so this week you're working here and you're going to be in the music therapy section with this person.

And like, I'll see you at five o'clock more or less.

Kristin: Surprise!

Rachel: and it was amazing. And I think it was a really, really important because to work with, these were very, some of them, very sad, young people and some of them quite dangerous. Young people is quite big mixture, but for that kind of work, you have to love it.

I mean, you have to have it in your bones, I think a little bit. I'm not sure you can just learn it. And I loved it and I worked in the music department mainly like music therapy and then, a bit with the arts. And then I did a week with her where we were working in different projects where it was families, where there was substance misuse issues.

And they did work for the families where the kids could do different arts things, whatever. She was very clever what she took me to, because it was things that combined my actual skills and interests, or I wasn't going to feel like, well, I don't know anything. I have nothing to contribute but also were the real job, if that makes sense.

And so it did sort of three weeks of few different things with her. And then I thought, okay, so I really want to do this, but what have I got in England that's going to help me do that? Because I've failed at everything and I'd been a youth worker part time and I'd been in community theater, and I'd been in choirs.

I'd been in a band. So I had sorts of random skills, but I didn't have qualifications. So I asked her advice and she said to me, well, there's a course here in Tel-Aviv, a criminology course, which allows for placements and things like that. And, it's a gateway to social work.

And if that's what you want to do, then maybe look at that because there's an international, entrance exam you can take, which doesn't rely on your A levels. So. I thought, well, that might be my, really my only opportunity. So there was actually another girl on the scheme that I was on, who was doing that entrance exam anyway.

She was preparing for it anyway, because she wanted to go to art school in Israel. And she and I studied together and it was kind of verbal reasoning and things like that. So not about do you know physics

Kristin: I probably will never know physics.

Rachel: No. how, how useful is it if you're not a physicist?

Kristin: Physicist. I am definitely not a physicist and probably never will be. So

Rachel: absolutely not. So, yeah, so we studied for this thing together and it was very motivating to be doing it with a peer, not with a teacher, wagging their finger at me and telling me what I couldn't do. And I applied for this university and she helped me get an interview. and the interview was tough.

And they said, what makes you think you'll be able to study here? You've never seen anything through but that was what I needed. I needed that kick and they sent me quite a high pass grade to take the place. And amazingly, I passed it by one point, which was fine.

That was all I needed. And I thought, well, this is amazing. And then it's just like a catalogue of disasters in a way happened, because I did manage to get into university, but I didn't have the money to pay for it. If I'd been in England at the time, I would have been able to go for free. And they said to me, earn some money and defer the place for a year. So that's what I decided to do. Come back to the UK at the end of my gap year work, get a job and put that money into going to university.

But what in fact happened was I came back here. I did get a job. you're not going to be able to in that first year, be like a waitress and do other things to fund this yourself because you have to not just learn the course.

You have to learn how to be a student. You've never done that before, and you need to be able to focus on this. So the suggestion was made that I take a year out. I got a job as a dental nurse trainee, which is a terrible job because it was all the sitting still and concentrating, not for me.

But then I got engaged to my husband, who I'm still married to now after a thousand years. And we got offered a job working in Minsk, in Belarus, in the Jewish community, because I had a youth work qualification and he had experience in teaching and they were looking for people to come and work there on an outreach program.

Kristin: you said WE got offered a job. You don't hear somebody say WE got offered a job very often…

Rachel: It was It was a job for a couple!

Kristin: Oh, that is that's fantastic.

Rachel: So we went because we thought, well, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. So we went and did that. And then after a few months, the project collapsed and then it turns out I was pregnant.

Total side story, but that's what happened. There was no money to immigrate to Israel for me to study . My husband just had to get a job, which, luckily, he did got a job, for a while.

And I was at home with a baby and I was doing , but I just started doing courses. I did courses in whatever I could get into that at all interested me. So I did an art therapy certificate. And I did a counselling certificate in different kinds of counselling, and I worked in substance misuse for a bit, and I worked in youth work for a bit and as a community artist.

And, ran a singing club, I did loads and loads of different things. I was, I guess, trying to find my path. And that went on for quite a few years where I was just doing like a load of different things. And then I got very ill. I have a neurological disorder, as I mentioned.

It's one of those things where it's dormant and you've had symptoms, but you didn't know, they weren't normal things until something triggers it and you get the full blown shenanigans. And that's pretty much what happened that I was fine and then suddenly I lost my mobility and my speech .

first I lost sensation in one leg and then I lost feeling in other parts of my body. And then I had problems with my breathing and problems with my speech and I was in and out of hospital for about six months. More in than out and then slightly more out than in, for a bit. And then it took another year to get a diagnosis.

And I was being treated for the wrong things before it was the right things, because it's something quite rare. And after that, I just felt like I have to find my thing. I can't just keep, you know, dipping my toe into 10 different pots of water while I try out what it is, I have to find my thing. So I'm going to look through The Guardian job section and I'm going to find anything that calls to me and try and get a job that actually means something and combines the skills that I've developed. I might not have a degree by have lot of experience of actually practical work with very specific and interesting areas.

Kristin: My problem is I would go through those ads and start circling everything because the minute I see something I'm like, Oh, that sounds interesting. I think everything would call to me. But like you said, you had a wide range of skill sets. So that probably took a lot of courage as well after somebody telling you set your sights low, you're thinking now, okay. I've learned a lot. I've taken a lot of diverse courses...

Rachel: I just wanted to find something that felt like it was meaningful work. and also it didn't pull me in seven different directions and made me feel like a grownup, I suppose, a bit. I had massive encouragement because my husband and I, we were friends since we were very young. we knew each other very well.

He has had my back for always. So I had somebody in my corner saying, don't listen to that nonsense . So I, applied for, a lot of jobs a bit, like you're saying it was quite scattergun. So I eventually found a job. I really wanted. It was in a family centre attached to a big inner city, terrible reputation boys school.

And I thought that's where I want to be. I want to be with the people who are really finding it difficult and I want to be on the journey with them . So I applied for the job. I got an interview. I got a second interview. And then it came down to two people. And I don't know if in my life I've ever wanted anything as much as I wanted that job, even now.

I really, it was like a hunger in my bones. And I went to this final interview and I felt like it had gone really well. And then I got home and there was a phone call to say, really, sorry, they've gone with the other person. If this was a movie that wouldn't have happened, but I was just devastated.

I really thought I had it in the bag. the next morning I got the letter confirming and we'll keep your details on our records and all this. And I thought, all right. And then in the afternoon I had a phone call from one of the people who'd sat on this panel. The panel was about seven people and he phoned me and he said, you might not remember me, my name is whatever, I was on this panel. And, he said, I just want you to know that the conversation was very difficult and we argued because the one candidate had lots of qualifications and very little experience, and you have very few qualifications and a lot of experience. And in the end it was four, three.

And I was like, well, thank you for letting me know. I couldn't understand why he was rubbing the salt in my wounds.

Kristin: Does that make you feel better? I'm not sure .

Rachel: [00:22:49] It was from a good place, I think. But then he said to me, listen, I also consult to another organisation who are looking for somebody. Would you mind if I referred your details on to them? So I was like, Oh, okay. Thank you very much. And he said, I'm so pleased you said that because they use the same application processes as us and I've forwarded it already, but I thought I should probably get your permission. Are you free by any chance tomorrow afternoon at two? And I said yes. And he said cause they want to interview you. And he said good luck , I'm expecting to hear good things.

Then he disappeared, this stranger, and there was no, I mean, there wasn't really Google or anything at that point for me to look up the place . I didn't know what the job was because I was so shocked. I just had... it's like Fight Club, you know, the address and turn up. So that's what I did. I just went in and probably gave the best interview ever because I could only be myself and just answer the questions they threw at me. And, it was a really, really, it was quite an interesting process. And then at the end they said, do you have any questions? And I said, I suspect you'll know how I've come to be here... what's the job? And they thought that was luckily, they found that funny and it was working as a school home liaison office for a pupil referral unit in North London, and it was the most incredible launchpad for really, that kind of work for me. So I ended up doing three days a week for that organisation, working with really quite difficult and dangerous young people in their families, looking at what are their barriers to progress really and achieve potential, whatever that might be.

And that doesn't necessarily have to be something academic and, and some of that is social and emotional. It's a very holistic view of looking at the person. And it's a role that fits between social work and education. And it's quite independent because your role is to remove barriers for that young person in that family.

So it really was a brilliant job and I did three days a week there, and then they, fast tracked me through very serious safeguarding training through the council and into very specialist training in that area.

And then I did two days a week at another school. It was a mainstream primary school, but in a quite deprived area, where the families experienced quite serious problems and a lot of families, from complicated refugee backgrounds . And obviously I had a connection to them in that I have a refugee background with my grandparents.

So, you know, that was already a way of making a connection with people, even if we spoke different languages where it's like, that was a big bonus to me. it was amazing work and it was very intense. And I worked there for a few years. And then, I moved to a new one and set up one that combined a few different ones together. It became, at the time, the biggest pupil referral unit in the country. it had different sections, dealing with kids with social and emotional problems, but also kids with really quite severe behavioural problems and, kids who were excluded for school for very, very serious offences. the role became much more intense in that I had a team of people. I had, psychologists and social workers working for me. I had, therapists working for me and I was managing the department dealing with really the, global care of those young people.

I had to go into the homes and assess the families I had to be on the estates like in the dramas on television, going into learning how to manage those situations and deescalate things and do restraint training and, I had to work with a vast variety, not only of the young people in their families, but also in terms of the other authorities.

So social services, paramedics sometimes, the child protection police. The court system. I was so often in the local magistrates court, they used to joke I should have my own desk in the corner, family courts, crown court on occasion. And it was as an expert witness on occasion. And that was very adrenaline fueled, but very meaningful work.

And I really, really loved it actually. And so I worked in that unit for, I think about nine or 10 years, and I assumed I was going to do that forever. Really.

Stay tuned for part 2 of Rachel's story, coming next week!

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