At the invitation of fellow-clown activist Mariamalia Cob, Institute Associate and Univ. of Washington at Tacoma lecturer Tony Perone and faculty Marian Rich recently returned from a therapeutic clowning tour to the poor communities of San Jose, Costa Rica, led by famed medical doctor and performance activist Patch Adams and members of his Gesundheit! Institute. The 30-some volunteer clown cadre paid visits to a women’s prison, a home for the elderly, a psychiatric hospital and community festival. Joined on their journey by social therapy champion, Lauren Feiner, the week culminated with a workshop led by Tony and Marian at the University of Costa Rica, titled, Building Community Through Play and Performance, and co-sponsored by Gesundheit!, the Univ. of Costa Rica and the East Side Institute. Tony and Marian share their thoughts in the interview, below:
Q: What is the activity of therapeutic clowning?
Tony: It’s about connecting with people – being loving and caring — rather than cheering people up. It’s being human with people.
Q: Say more…
T: Well, in our training, Patch [Adams] didn’t tell us how to make a funny pratfall. He helped us to be human. We hugged each other. We held each other’s faces and said we loved one another. We connected with the person across from us. That’s so central to humanitarian clowning.
“Clowning is a trick to bring love closer.”
Marian: Patch once said: “Clowning is a trick to bring love closer.” It’s about caring and compassion — something that’s missing from the medical model (among other things).
Q: What is the activity of caring and compassion?
Tony: It’s being present with others and honoring the moment you’re in with them – whether it is a brief moment or a more lengthy interaction. It isn’t about trying to make them laugh or feel better – but about the relationship we could have together or the joy we could find together — whether that is tossing a balloon around or speaking in gibberish. I drew upon my skills as an improviser by mirroring expressions and gestures – building something in the moment with people I met, rather than delivering my “schtick.” I’d say that it is more of a mutual giving — rather than me as a clown doing something for a marginalized community. I was clowning with them. This is just as much a caring opportunity for the people we visited as it was for us clowns. I was healed and healing – loved and loving. That’s social therapeutic.
It’s coming into an institution –a prison, hospital or school– and being a “love revolutionary,” as Patch would say.
Marian: It’s allowing yourself to touch people and be touched. Sometimes that means sitting next to someone — and that’s all you’re doing. You don’t have to make something happen. Sometimes it means you’re invading their space. I took a selfie with a cop and made him smile. For one moment, we were two human beings smiling with one another. It’s coming into an institution — a prison, hospital or school — and being a “love revolutionary,” as Patch would say.
Q: Invading space?
Marian: Clowns back in the day were magic people – healers – the weirdos of the tribe. They did weird things. So invading people’s space means that you can walk up to anyone and hug them. It’s an amazing phenomenon.
Tony: Dario [Patch’s colleague] reminded us to be with and engage the staff too, wherever we went. So we hit the balloons to the nurses and the guards. We invaded their space and disrupted how relationships are done in that setting. We’re co-creating the space t0 redefine how we relate to each other — how we redistribute power.
Q: Redistribute power?
Tony: It’s power that we’ve collectively created together. We share in it. An example: I came up with a little game. I had kids give me a fist bump, and with each bump, the whistle in my mouth would go off. They loved the sense of agency – it was a reminder that we were making this together.
Invading people’s space means that you can walk up to anyone and hug them. It’s an amazing phenomenon.
Q: So tell us about your workshop at the university…
Marian: Mariamalia Cob brought us into the university to work with a group of students interested in using a performative approach to community building. We introduced them to the work of the Institute, the All Stars Project and Performing the World and gave everyone a taste of the social therapeutic approach. Certainly, we broadened their understanding of what it means to play and perform.
Tony: We started changing things up, right away — played games to get to know each other. We introduced ourselves and talked about how we (and our bodies!) were doing that day. This created an energy that communicated that people could speak more intimately than they might usually do at school or with strangers.
Marian: I was in a great deal of pain and, instead of keeping it to myself, gave that to the group. One of the students said this helped to humanize our relationship.
Tony: One person said later that Marian’s pain was no longer hers alone, but because of her offer of it, it became “ours.” That was an important part of what we were conveying: We could build with everything.
Marian: You can take whatever you’ve got — a bad back, a bad day, all the crap — and make something new. People really got that.