By Suzie Ferguson

To be a Clown Doctor takes a special kind of clown artist.

It requires not only a high level of skill and clown experience but the maturity to commit yourself to being ‘in service’.

There are no stage lights to focus attention or paying audience to ‘give value’ to your art. No director to give an outside eye. You have to have a strong reflective practice and an exceptional level of listening and sensitivity to do this job well. And when you do, the rewards are remarkable!

For me it is the best job in the world.

Everyday is an adventure into the unknown: A ‘clean floor’ hospital sign becoming a barking dog that can only be controlled by a child in an isolated cubicle; the improvised ‘you’ve got a new Kidney’ song being taken on and sung by nursing staff and children on the ward once the Clown Doctors have left, the boy in oncology who would only speak with his own family and to the Clown Doctors, who made us do high dives into his bedside sink, the corridor that became a river rapid that the Clown Doctors had to navigate down to get to ‘The Queen of the Jungle’ (a girl on Dialysis, waiting for a kidney transplant). The stories are as endless as they are varied.

A clown’s job, as it was the job of Jesters in the courts of powerful Kings in the Middle Ages, is to show those in power another way of seeing the world. When clowns are in hospital, a highly controlled, hierarchical, and rational environment is transformed into one filled with laughter, empathy, playfulness and imagination.

In this way, clowns and Hospitals are a good fit.

Indeed, according to Wellington Nogueira, Artistic Director of Doutôres de Alegria (Doctors of Happiness) in Brazil, the partnership between Fool and Healer has been a part of humanity for Centuries. The archetypes of The Fool and The Healer can be found together throughout history, as Quack Doctors, Mummer Players, Fools and Court Jesters, Medicine Men and Shaman. It was only the Industrial Age that saw the two separated – The Healer became Doctor in a white uniform, confined to the sanitised space of the hospital, and The Clown to the sawdust floored Big Top and The Circus. The two spaces could not be more different, and they remained separate until the 1980’s, when a clown artist from The Big Apple Circus in New York (Michael Christensen) visited children at the ICU for the first time. This first encounter lead to the Clown Care Unit – a professional Clown Doctor programme in New York, USA, that has spread its wings and philosophy all over the world.

Now there are hundreds of Healthcare clowning organisations worldwide employing professional clown artists to visit children in hospital, as well as in palliative hospice care, schools for children with complex additional support needs and people living with Dementia. While each organisation has evolved to suit it’s own culture and environment, professional healthcare clown organisations always work in close collaboration with staff on the ward. Information regarding each person’s condition, and their likes and dislikes, helps healthcare clowns deliver the best possible interventions.

At Hearts & Minds, our Clown Doctors always work in pairs. We visit both long and short stay patients and our practitioners have specialist training to work with young people who have physical and/or learning disabilities, who have life-limiting conditions and/or who present behavioural challenges. Each intervention is ‘made to measure’ and improvised and as in all clowning empathy, authenticity and playfulness are at the heart of what we do.

And laughter. We can’t forget laughter. It has been proven to be good for us. According to Sophie Scott, when we laugh, we are accessing an ancient, evolutionary system that mammals have to make and maintain emotional bonds and to regulate emotions. Research has shown that humour helps us cope with pain, stress and adversity and what is more, Liukkonen (1994) found that humour is a meaningful factor in the day-to-day interaction of nurses and patients and more generally in patients’ overall wellbeing and ability to cope with illness.

Suzie Ferguson
Artistic Director



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