Some serious clowning

Some serious clowning

Some serious clowning

They have left juvenile convicts in Java’s prisons a little lighter hearted, got laughter to break through the sound of gunfire at Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, done therapeutic humor residencies for kids with AIDS in South Africa, taught circus skills to disabled kids in Myanmar, raised a laugh among emotionally dazed victims of transnational terrorism, and even made children fighting perpetual battles with painful and disabling illnesses break into a smile.

Clowns without Borders retaliate to pain and trauma with humour. And the joke is on them, of course. This theatre group with chapters in countries across the globe use laughter to relieve suffering, especially that of children living in areas of crisis such as refugee camps, conflict zones and territories in situations of emergency. Alongside, Clowns without Borders hope that their performances will raise society’s awareness and empathy for affected populations.

“It was interesting, and the kids did understand the humour,” says Alain Ligier, member, Clowns without Borders, after performing for underprivileged slum children in Chennai. The cultural milieu, the country or language makes no difference, apparently; in any case, language is not an issue here, as most of the humour is through action, which was supported by music. In fact, every single member of the group seemed to be playing some instrument or the other dominated by the clarinet and drums. Even lighting and acoustics are secondary, as the performance at Chennai’s Gandhinagar slum proved. The single key requirement is just an ability to connect.

The signature red nose, grotesque features, flashy colours, ludricuious clothes and sloppy movements; but there is nothing even remotely funny about clowning around. Though the joke is not always on the ‘clowns’. Sometimes, the audience is drawn into the ring too, and made fun off; as in Chennai, where the Clowns without Borders brigade from France pulled children from the audience into the ring and got them to laugh, even while raising a few laughs among their peers in the audience. “The mind frame to take life and our selves lightly, to laugh at ourselves and others without malice or bitterness — there is a great sanitising effect in that,” says psychiatrist Lakshmi Vijaykumar, founder of SNEHA, an organisation that is trying to stem in the tides of depression and suicides. The sanitising effect of laughter is precisely the mission of Clowns without Borders.

The capacity to laugh at our flaws and follies rather than cry over them can also be a powerful shield for children caught in this dog-eat-dog world of malice and competition. And then there is therapeutic clowning; many hospitals in the west have hospital clowning programs to help children cope with pain.

“A therapeutic clown reduces stress from hospitalisation or institutionalisation. They bring fun into a sterile and potentially frightening environment,” states Paul Hooson, a therapeutic clown on Bowen Island, British Columbia, who helps children and their parents cope with cancer and other serious illnesses. And remember, children will open up to a clown, while they probably wouldn’t to a doctor in a white coat. Shy kids can also be helped to have fun acting like a clown, to come out of their shell and feel free in groups.

Adults too need some clowning around apparently. “Playful humour is an established means of discharge of the partially repressed archaic drives among people. Relieving unconscious tensions, it provides a socially acceptable mode of releasing libidinal, aggressive, and infantile impulses which might otherwise be expressed in antisocial behavior in these societies,” rationalises Dr Jacob Levine, who has been studying the effect of clowns on our psyche.

However, that happens to be one side of the story. At the other side, there is a fear of clowns too that lurks in the minds of some children; and in some adults, for that matter. Like actor Lon Chaney, Sr., who said, “There is nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight.” Coulrophobia is the dictionary word given to this fear of clowns. Coulrophobia may be triggered off by the exaggerated and ghastly costumes, the absence of visible human features, or from early childhood experiences. Indeed, at Chennai, different children reacted differently to these clowns’ antics, though laughter was the predominant reaction by far. One of the kids pulled into the ring was positively terrified.

In a study aimed at improving hospital design for children conducted by the University of Sheffield, among the 250 children polled, every single one of them (aged between four and 16 years) said they found clowns frightening and disliked clowns as part of hospital decor. So, clowning requires careful thought, it can easily become cunterproductive. “We modify clown characters according to the age of the children,” says  Alain. Full make up and costume or modern clowns with less accentuated make up for younger children and those nervous of clowns.

A way of getting over coulrophobia is to begin the show with ordinary clothes and gradually put on clown make up through the show, which breaks up the clown’s ghastly image in our minds. As Canada-based academic and clinical specialists Donna Koller and Camilla Gryski put it in their research paper on clowns, “There is a need to examine various forms of clowning.”

Clowns without Borders, which was founded in Spain in 1993 by Tortell Poltrona, a professional clown, now has chapters in many countries like Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and the US. Moshe Cohen, founder of the US branch of Clowns without Borders states, “Clowning is not just something that’s funny, but anything that’s uplifting or brings warmth. Giving people the opportunity to express humor in a nonverbal way opens up levels of humanity that are often suppressed.”

Though clowning is no recent phenomenon. It goes back time and across cultures, and has evolved its own patterns — from the stately to the macabre. For instance, in the case of the Zuni, clown society of the Pueblo Indians, apparently, the initation into the clown order is by a ritual of ‘filth-eating’, and — hold your breath — mud and excrement are smeared on the clowns’ bodies and even thrown about during the performance!

Then there are the Shriners, a clown society within the Masons; the Soviet circus clowns, who incidentally were the only people allowed to criticise the Soviet government; the clown-like figures in Japanese Kabuki theatre, the native American clowns, the Rodeo or cowboy clown, the pantomimus in ancient Greece, and then of course, there were our own illustrious royal court jesters.