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Book explores clowns who entertain and also empower in war zones, refugee camps

As humanitarian crises rage across the globe, the news is constantly filled with photographs of human suffering. But behind the scenes of these all-too-familiar images, a group of unexpected figures can often be found offering an emotional counterpoint: clowns.

Humanitarian clowning turns out to be a time-honored tradition, and it’s the subject of a new book. “Send In The Clowns: Humanitarian Clowning in Crisis Zones” features interviews with dozens of clowns who’ve dedicated their lives to performing at refugee camps, protests, hospitals and anywhere healing and comfort are hard to come by.

David Bridel is one of the editors of the book, and has been teaching and performing as a clown for over thirty years. He spoke more about it with The Show.

Full conversation

DAVID BRIDEL: I've talked to a hospital clown who said that in one encounter with a child, he walked into a room and said, is it OK if I come in? And the child said no, because the child was feeling grumpy and you know, down on his luck and really not interested. So the clown walked out of the room and scratched his head and said, well, what am I going to do now? And he went back in and he said, do you mind if I come in for a second time? And the kid said, I just told you no. And as the clown was walking out, he saw the hint of a smile on the face of the child. Lo and behold, that game unfolded for about 30 minutes that, you know, consequential to that initial, initial rejection. And what we learned from that exchange is that the clown is there not only to entertain but also to empower.

It's not always about laughter and comedy. It is always about giving agency to the person who is suffering.

SAM DINGMAN: Yes, this makes me think of one of the most fascinating questions in the book, in the chapter where you interview, I believe, it's with Naomi Shafer from Clowns Without Borders. Which some of our listeners may not realize that like Doctors Without Borders, there is a Clowns Without Borders. It's a real thing. We'll get to that.

But Naomi in that chapter says that one of the fundamental questions she asks in her work is, what is the purpose of a performance?

BRIDEL: For a clown in the environment of suffering, the art of performance has a great deal to do with the art of connection and in that connection, an audience member can be seen.

DINGMAN: Well, so let's talk about, you know, things like refugee camps and, and real crisis zones, war zones, where clowns might be found doing their work. What sort of connection is a clown looking to make in that environment?

BRIDEL: Well, it's a very broad area where different artists pursue different means to the same end. Clowns without borders does produce performed material in refugee camps really all over the world. Although noticeably, there's a heavy emphasis on the participation of children who are in the audience. And frequently a Clowns Without Borders show ends up with the spotlight figurative or literal on a child as opposed to on a performer.

However, it's also important to note that in the book, I talked to a clown who's working in the Ukraine truly in the center of a war zone. And he noticed that performances were becoming less and less necessary. He began to discover that what people really wanted was for someone to look them in the eye, for someone to offer them a hug, for someone to listen. And one of the healing things that a clown can do is simply to be present.

DINGMAN: That's fascinating, too, though, because another thing that you write about in the book is this idea that part of a clown's job is to look at what is expected in a certain situation and do the opposite of that thing. And in a way that's also what's going on in that, that hug moment that you just described, which is in this environment where there is no affection, there is no care, to provide care and affection as warm as it is, as loving as it is. It's, it's also a subversive act in that context.

BRIDEL: Yeah, you're exactly right about that. And, you know, more than anything else, we can best describe the practice of clowning as countering prevailing narratives. And it's a really, really fundamental element of the practice of clowning that goes back thousands of years, the original function of clowning showed up in ceremony. So, whether there was a marriage or a funeral or a harvest ritual or a solstice ceremony, the clowns would usually make their presence felt. And typically, what they do is to counter the prevailing narrative of ceremony, which is often a communication with the gods. So the clowns are very earthy and they do very earthy things. They dance around lewdly and they make fun of what is sacred and they offer up a kind of a profane counterpoint.

And you know, there are certain cultures and communities where these acts are accepted as a way to balance the cosmos. That is to say, to make sure we are measuring ourselves equally between what is serious and aspirational with what is nonsensical and of the earth.

DINGMAN: Yes. Well, this is where that idea of clown as humanist gets even more interesting, I think, because sometimes it is about making a human connection from an empathic place. But sometimes it seems it's often about reminding us of the elements of human life that we try to hide or, or, or pretend we're too sacred or holy or evolved or civilized for.

BRIDEL: Yeah, that's exactly right. And therefore the clown is always trying to bring everything back down to earth. And in doing so remind us that, you know, we are actually not quite as important as we think we are.

DINGMAN: But I could also imagine, to go back to that crisis zone example, the refugee camp say that we were talking about previously, that that type of subversive clowning that say mocks the power structure that has led to the refugee camp or whatever the case may be, could quickly acquire a political valence and be seen as a threat.

BRIDEL: However, I would also add to this, that the clown is not a messenger of any kind. The clown sees their role in that context as someone who's more engaged in what connection can be made and less engaged in what outcome is desired. You know, I spoke to a medical clown who said this very, very straightforward and incredibly evocative thing. He said, when I go into a hospital and I encounter chaos and disorder, people running around panicking and you know, living in fear, then I will bring peace. If I go into a hospital and I find boredom, stasis, stagnation and tedium, then I will bring chaos. And I just found this, you know, very simple explanation of his day to day activity to be a really, really helpful, key to understanding the role and the function of a clown.

DINGMAN: What you're talking about a clown being in touch with is deep, you know, it's not balloon animals and shoes that are too big and more people in a car than you would expect. It's drilling down to the sometimes horrifying realities of what is going on in a particular moment and daring to occupy that space.

BRIDEL: I think that's exactly right. And you're reminding me of something so sort of sweet and silly, but at the same time is so profound, that I was told by this Ukrainian clown that I mentioned, his name is Jan Rogala. He said, me and my team are like the toilet of the Ukraine. Everyone can bring their excrement to us and we will flush it away. And it's a pretty remarkable statement given what we know of the horrors that people are having to live through there. So clowns allow these things to be present in order to provide opportunities for healing in ways that maybe you know, other well meaning organizations don't. And that's why the clown is such a unique version of a healer because they don't pretend anything.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.