Teamwork makes the dream work


Some days, my eyes are more open to the gifts the universe has to offer, and to the extreme humanity I am privileged to witness in working with pediatric patients. First of all, every day spent in the Burn Unit carries an extra level of emotion due to the nature of the environment. When someone suffers from burns, their road to recovery is long and arduous. These young folks are facing a lifetime of recovery and learning to overcome their physical and emotional differences. For this reason, the people they encounter at the beginning of their journey greatly impact their ultimate success in learning to live again. One such person is their physical therapist. This person has to convince the patient to reach way beyond their reality to a future place where they can visualize themselves walking again and function as a member of society. I believe that description serves to set the scene for our visit last week.

A young boy of about ten years old, who suffered burns on over 90% of his body, had been in a state of semi-consciousness for nearly three months. During this time, we visited him weekly and played music and sang songs for him. I thought we had had a pretty heartfelt moment when we sang “Somewhere over the Rainbow” to him, and it seemed as though a tear was rolling down his cheek. In general, I felt pretty good about maintaining this presence, because from past experience I know that kids remember that stuff long after their wounds have healed. This made for a surprising moment when one of the other clowns shared with me that when they went to see him a few weeks ago, he was sitting up and able to talk when they arrived. The parents welcomed the clowns with happy anticipation only to hear him say in a tiny voice, “I don’t really like clowns”.

This kind of admission pulls me in two directions. On the one hand, our main goal is to empower children in a place and time when they have no power, but on the other hand, sometimes they say they don’t like clowns based on an image of clowns that has absolutely nothing to do with kind of clowning we do. For a burn patient in particular, the recovery process is so long and filled with so many moments of despair, that I feel compelled to find a way that we can be a positive presence in his life and help instill hope in his heart through the use of humor. So, when I was there last week, his physical therapist was working with him and called us into the room. Not being exactly sure how to proceed, I went straight for honesty. I said to him, “so, I hear you don’t like clowns. Is that true?” He said, yes, and so I took my nose off. “is that better?” I asked. He said yes, and then I showed him a magic trick, and he was engaged almost immediately. My partner and I were able to shift our work to his liking and before long, he invited us to be present for his therapy session where he would walk down the hall, sit in a wheelchair and shoot nerf darts at his doctors and therapists.

Here is where the truly magical moment occurred. Therapists, child life specialist and two clowns guided him through a painful twenty foot walk with music and encouragement and love, and when he arrived at his chair, he was clearly in pain. He sat in the chair, looked at his physical therapist, and through his tears said “I love you”. She said “I love you too.” He said, “And I’m not mad at you for making me walk and hurt because I know you are trying to help me get better.” And the physical therapist and he were locked in a moment of trust while my partner and I fought back tears of emotion. In that moment, the world was filled with only passionate people doing everything they could to help this child heal. It was so beautiful to witness. Of course, we do still look for humor and over the next thirty minutes we all took target practice with this young boy and took turns getting shot in the butt on the bull’s eyes we made just for the occasion. When we said good-bye, I felt an incredible bond had been formed between all of us, and cannot wait to be part of this continued journey.


I believe in clowns


I believe in clowns. Not the Stephen King kind, but the kind who have devoted their careers to the art of inspiring laughter wherever they go. My partner (and husband) often says that the word ‘clown’ has come to represent such a negative image in the United States, that it needs its own publicist in order to create a more positive feeling about clowns in the hearts and minds of people. Personally, I cannot imagine a more fulfilling or rewarding profession for my life, so naturally it makes me sad when people don’t share my view. Every time someone says to me “I hate clowns” or “clowns are creepy”, it is as though I have been stabbed in the heart. My defense against these statements is to make the most out of every opportunity I have to change people’s minds about clowns. Fortunately, I get a chance to do that almost every day.

I was compelled to sit down and write about this when I looked back over the past week, which began by performing a Saturday morning show for about two hundred families with very young children, many of whom are experiencing live performance for the very first time. We have an incredible responsibility to excite young people, not only about clowning, but also about the arts in general. Having the chance to show them how engaging live performance can be – is a gift. The next day, we utilized our clowning and circus skills to bring the math and science curriculum to life in the public elementary schools in our area. Many of these kids are desperate for a chance to see something beyond their normal daily life and will not be a future patron of the arts if they are never exposed to it. We are privileged to be there, and the best part of these shows is being able to combine their all-important academic curriculum with humor. Fact: children learn better when they are having fun.

Fast forward to the evening performance, which is one of many clown shows for grown-ups that we have produced and performed in over the past twenty years. We play in a safe environment where the only rules are to have fun, be relevant, and look for games that inspire laughs! We seem to always find that once you have engaged your audience and sucked them into your insane vortex of frolicking fun and improvisation, everyone has a great time. These performances are like a special journey that happens only for the cast and the audience on THAT night. Other nights are special too, but each one is unique and will never be repeated exactly. These nights serve to feed the soul of the clowns and refill our wells, so that we are ready to receive the gifts offered by the other major environment we work in – the pediatric hospital.

In this same week, we conducted clown rounds at three pediatric facilities in which we encounter children who have everything from a broken bone, to leukemia, to overwhelming traumatic injuries. While the audience is very different, the mantra is really the same: have fun, be relevant and look for games that inspire laughs. In these environments, the phrase “be relevant” takes on a whole new meaning. In some cases, the mood is light-hearted and it is pretty easy for a pair of experienced comedic improvisers to uplift the environment and get everyone feeling better about the hospital stay. In other cases, the expectation and desperate need for us to help in some way is palpable. Whether it is convincing a kid to drink 64 ounces of contrast over a thirty minute period by playing a crazy dare game, or creating a ridiculous musical marching band to help a kid who hasn’t walked for months make it all the way down the hallway, we have to be one hundred percent present and constantly vigilant in serving our mantra. Sometimes, the need comes more from parents or staff than from the kids themselves, but we use our intense listening skills to help us know exactly where the need has arisen, and are ready at all times to jump in head first.

To reiterate, I felt compelled to write all this down as I looked back over my week and realized how intense being a clown can really be. I know that along with my amazing partners in crime, you all know who you are, we set out every single day with the intention and goal of making the day a little brighter for toddlers, school kids, fun-loving theatre patrons, sick kids, parents of dying children, health care workers, teachers, our own families, and each other. And I think I should add to the mantra that each day I hope to convert at least one former clown hater into a clown lover.


I ain’t afraid of no clowns!

People can be very quick to say that someone is afraid of clowns. I am constantly wondering what I can do to minimize those knee jerk reactions. The clowns that I work and I have had the mantra for years that the only way to get beyond the stereotypes that ‘clowns are scary’ or ‘I’m afraid of clowns’ is by consistently doing solid work and finding a way into the hearts and minds of all kinds of people in such a way that they leave the interaction feeling differently about clowns. These kind of turnarounds happen all the time for us. For the person or persons who are directly impacted by this kind of encounter, they leave saying that they never knew clowns could be so funny or that we aren’t the “scary” kind of clowns. Possibly, they connect this to the minimal amount of makeup we wear. Because we don’t cover our faces with a big makeup and wear big wigs and super colorful clothes, that tends to let us slip through many of the barriers that people who have clown fears have put up. Or it could be simply that we are able to make a connection with them that goes beyond what we look like.

Today, I wished that I could have filmed an encounter that my partner and I had during our hospital rounds. We entered the TV Studio at our hospital, and there were two little girls in the studio who were sisters. The older one, probably about nine years old, smiled at us and was immediately engaged by our presence and our comedy. The younger girl, about seven years old, retreated behind one of the studio interns and peaked out only slightly to see what we were doing, and possibly to make sure we didn’t come any closer to her. We continued our work in the room, and while we didn’t ignore her, we also didn’t make much of an effort to engage her directly. Instead, we interacted with the sister and the other people in the room. A few minutes later, the little girl began to open up to me and even started to laugh a bit. However, she still pointed at my partner for that day and said, “he’s the one who I’m afraid of”. We didn’t draw much attention to this statement and continued with our material in the room. In about five minutes, without any further provocation, the little girl came up to both of us and explained how we were doing this dance (the Ne ne) all wrong. She proceeded to show us both how to do the steps, and pretty soon she was standing between us and holding both of our hands. This went on for several minutes, and she was totally engaged and had forgotten to be scared. When it was time for us to go, she blocked the exit with her entire body and begged us not to leave. In a span of ten minutes, she went from being afraid of us to being our best friend. I feel the clown fear phenomena is fed by people who only see the first two minutes of that kind of encounter. They don’t see how experienced clowns use their acute skills of observation along with comedy experience to turn that child around and allow her to be affected by the humor we can share with her. Just my two cents for today.funnyatrics_seacrest_slappy

Dr. Sarah Dippity

In the hospital work, we are confronted with the possibility of death or death itself on a daily basis. Sometimes, we hear about a child who has died. The news can often come with little or no warning. A child life specialist may walk in and mention a loss – they know that we have worked with this child, and that we would want to know about it. Or, we may be working in ICU when a child has passed away. This is always a very delicate moment because I rarely feel this is a time for a clown to appear. I sometimes wish I could disappear in these moments. Of course, that doesn’t happen, and surprisingly often, there is a family member or sibling who is seeking a diversion. Believe me, that is a time when I work to be present as a human and open vessel – not a funny clown. I also tend to look for an exit as soon as I can. It happens rarely, but it does happen. Also, when a child has passed, the staff will often need a laugh or a release of the stress they are going through. It is definitely a part of our job.

However, none of us were prepared for the day we lost one of our clown partners. It could be a little too fresh for me to write about it, but I will make an effort. I think I have to back up to the beginning of this story to really tell the tale. A little over a year ago, we had an audition for an open position on our team. We had 25 people come to the audition, but the strongest person there was a 24 year old girl named Sarah Hale. She was a recent college graduate with a degree in theater and an impetuous spirit. She was beautiful and adorable and a little bit crazy (in a good way). The team agreed that she was the best fit and the strongest candidate at the callback. And so, we began to work with her.

I’ve said this a million times when teaching clowns, but it is my strong belief that before you can be an effective clown in the hospital, you have to become a good clown in general. That means that you have to work hard to learn all you can about clowning, while also developing a strong clown character. This character is almost always an extension or intensification of who you are as a person. So, in Sarah’s case, the clown character was beautiful, adorable and a little bit crazy. During Sarah’s first six months, the team as a whole had their hands full trying to take Sarah’s natural ability and give her a crash course in clowning and in working in the hospital environment. The good far outweighed the bad, but it was still a challenge for everyone. It was a big challenge for Sarah as well, but she took it on 100%. She had such an infectious personality, so much that even one of our doctors got in on the action by tutoring her on the harmonica. He would see us coming, and take time out of his very busy schedule to check her progress and give her a new song to work on.

As Sarah neared her one year anniversary with us, several clowns on our team expressed that she had begun to turn the corner in the hospital work. Her commitment and training were helping her transcend her impetuousness to become a really solid clown. This is a great feeling to see someone begin to understand the art form of clowning. The whole team felt some ownership in helping her develop and grow, and that is a great feeling.

I suppose that has a lot to do with the intensity of our devastation when I received a phone call last summer from Sarah’s roommate. She was hysterical when she let me know that Sarah had been killed in a motorcycle accident the night before. At that moment, the world began to move at slow motion under water, and that pace lingered with all of us for a very long time. It was a tragic accident, and one that we have all replayed in our heads looking for a different outcome. Of course, everyone experiences tragedy, and the pediatric hospital environment certainly has more than their share, but our clowns have never felt a more powerful outpouring of love as we have from the staff at the hospital. It has been off the charts. We overheard the sentiment from the staff that they felt that so often, we were the people who could help heal the pain they felt through laughter, so they felt compelled to find ways to help us heal in similar fashion. I can’t begin to express how much this tragedy bonded us together with the rest of the medical team at our hospital. What a feeling to realize how powerful humanity can be.

Of course, we have had to move on, as we all do after experiencing death, but Sarah will always be in our hearts and on our minds. In retrospect, so many factors support the theory that Sarah represented some touch of divinity – and her Clown Doctor name – Dr. Sarah Dippity – sort of says it all. She blew in and out of our world in a swirling vortex, and left behind a path of love and a greater understanding of the fragile nature of life. We carry on, a little more vulnerable than before, but still looking for levity and a moment of laughter, for ourselves and for those around us. I love being a clown.

_MG_2766 saraheric

Medical Clowning

It’s hard to describe what a day spent in a pediatric hospital is like. There are so many emotions that color each day. There’s not a single person walking the halls there who doesn’t need a laugh. Our job as clowns is to inject humor and levity into every possible situation for the entire day. Sometimes, this is a no brainer, particularly when you encounter a kid who is ready to laugh. But there are plenty of times when a simple smile elicited from a very sick young child is monumental. Today I peered into the window of a room where a young girl – about 5 years old – was tucked into the covers and looked very sick and had a deep sadness in her eyes. At first, my partner and I only made eye contact with her. After a few minutes of building our relationship with her through very simple concertina music and a few bubbles, she sat up in her bed. Her eyes began to dance around the room, popping bubbles and swaying a little to the music. She suddenly became vibrant despite her feverishness. We slowly concluded our visit, and as we backed out of the room she settled back into the exact same position she had been in when we first saw her. This time, though, she had a clown nose on, a little smile and a dreamy look on her face that said – I feel better. Thanks.

Can’t buy that at the store. I love my job.

Don’t go in there!

We have been visiting a new location of our host hospital once a week for a few months now. Day surgery has always been a very solid visit for us. Kids and their parents are very nervous. The kids are about to be put under anesthesia for a procedure or surgery, and many times it is the first time this has happened to them. Anxieties are very high for everyone in the room. One of the jobs of the day surgery nurse is to help alleviate some of that with their calm demeanor and supportive role with the families. That can lead to some resistance where clowns are concerned. Last week, my partner and I entered the day surgery pre-op area, and a nurse came rushing up to us and said, “Don’t go in Room 7”.  My response, as an experienced clown who doesn’t take no for an answer easily, was “why, what’s going on in there?”.  Luckily, our relationship is strong enough that she explained, instead of being rude or blowing me off. She said the kid has autism, and she knows that autistic kids love lights and buttons. So she had taken him a light up robot toy to play with and he completely flipped out at the sight of it. Her assessment was that clowns would cause the same reaction.  I said ok, do you mind if we just try playing a little music from the door? As I began to play my concertina, the child of about 7 years old, peeked his head out to look at me. His expression instantly changed from fear to wonderment – more at the musical instrument than at me. We entered the room, and within five minutes, the little boy was playing notes on my concertina and interacting with us beautifully. When we left, he cried for us to come back.

Fast forward to the following week, same pre-op area, and a little girl who I could see through the window of her room as I walked up to the nurses station. I could see she looked frightened by the setting, and very timid. I approached the nurse, said hello, and she said, “I wouldn’t go in Room 1….oh, never mind, go wherever you want”. That felt like a big success to me. The realization and admission that we have something tangible to offer these families, and that we have the wisdom to recognize a situation and act accordingly in the mission to make life better for children.

Farts are funny…it’s just the truth!

The room was dark, a boy who looked to be about ten years old in the bed. He had a flat affect – fancy word for really depressed. His mother stood at his bedside as we entered. A million thoughts go through my head at moments like this. How can I reach this kid? What would snap him out of this funk? What can I possibly offer in this moment? Think of something funny – he’s mature, don’t treat him like a baby. Quick – come up with something clever before he discounts our presence and casts us off like so many things that have failed to alter his feelings.

First, a bit of witty repartee with my partner, old stand-by moments: hey, we are your new doctors…nothing….we’ve come to ask a few questions…nothing…a little slapstick with my partner….nothing. My tie flips up and hits me in the nose….nothing. It’s a struggle. A huge percentage of our customers would already be laughing at our goofy antics, but not this kid. He’s tough as nails. Nothing will crack him. Then the moment, which feels like an hour, where my partner and I non-verbally start to give up. It’s not the end of the world I tell myself. It happens. The beauty of a regular clown program is that tomorrow I will be back. Tomorrow he may feel better and be more receptive to a laugh. But what if tomorrow doesn’t come? Or, what if he goes home and I don’t get another chance. The future of how this kid will look at clowns rests on me and my partner.

I look at my partner, I start to leave, I take a few steps and then I abandon all my carefully thought out material in favor of some good old-fashioned low brow comedy – the whoopee cushion. It lives in my back pocket and it self-inflates, which allows me to lean against a wall and appear to pass gas – loudly. I do it. Suddnely, the kid whips his head around to see where the intrusion came from. He sees me, sheepishly apologizing for tooting in his room. His head lifts up off the pillow, and he starts laughing. Hard. Then he rolls his eyes at us – then laughs again. Then his mother’s shoulders visibly drop from the intense position they had been in for awhile – like since he was hospitalized. The door is open for us and we have another few minutes of comedy before we leave. And when we look back through the window, mom and son are still laughing. Two points for the clowns.

Dr. Slappy