The Tree Elevark
It was so much fun getting to be the voice for this little creature, made by Fergus Dunnet and Roy Shearer for the Edinburgh International Science Festival, 2018.
As soon as I saw it, I knew i'd need to deploy the 'soundhose' trick we sometimes use with children with complex additional support needs. Blowing a raspberry through a long plastic tube makes amazing vibrations, which some children absolutely love the feel of on their skin. It also makes this ridiculous noise...now the voice of the angry Elevark!
Slow down clown
Sometimes the right workshop comes just at the right time.
Before going to Vienna, I had been reflecting on the amazing Martial Art quality of clowning; that we have to be at once still and ready for action at every moment. We have to be ready to improvise, to create, to respond and also still enough to notice everything and connect with our audience in a meaningful way.
Writing this, it seems obvious that this sometimes (lots of times) feels hard. This is a lifetime of learning. This is the work of Zen Mastery. This is the kind of thing that you go into the mountains on your own to learn and come back 25 years later with a beard and infinite wisdom.
What is wonderful is when someone goes and does that for you, distills all their learning into a workshop, and has the generosity of spirit to share it.
Moshe Cohen has 'pursued excellence in the elusive art form called Clown' for the past 35 years, 'seeking to bring more lightness and laughter into the world through his actions'. In a short 3 hour session in Vienna, he shared excerpts from his workshop 'Lightfullness' with us.
He opened by sharing Richard Pochinko's idea of 'The Magic Cirlce':
'The Native peoples say there is a circle around you and a circle around me. Magic happens when our circles meet. So if you are the audience and I am the clown on stage we are never alone because we are both participating in this moment of magic - if we both get there (Wellsman 1987).
'The conversation between audience and performer happens where these two circles overlap and the first thing that must happen for the conversation to commence is that performer must see the audience. Actually see them. See who they are, what they are, their truth, and be affected by that......sometimes people talk about clown reflecting humanity, but for me the idea of a reflection is tricky because reflection bounces off. Clown is not about something bouncing off. It is about connection. It's about recognition. It's about something being shared.' (Clown Through Mask: The Pioneering Work of Richard Pochinko as Practised by Sue Morrison, 2013)
This idea is central to me as a clown and was a revelation when Angela de Castro shared it in her workshop 'How to be a Funny' all those years ago. It has always struck me that it is one thing to experience this magic circle in a workshop or theatre setting. In a black box, with lighting, with an audience sitting down with expectations of being entertained - but what about in hospital? What about when you see 30 children in one day who are distracted & vulnerable, one after the other, and you've been doing this for 10 years...Do we really experience the magic circle in each of these interactions? And isn't this the place when it is most necessary? And if we don't experience it, are we really clowning?
And if the answer to that is No, then how do we get there?
Moshe's workshop went on to give us some clues. It included 'Butoh walks' amongst other things - all to bring awareness and lightness to our sense of being and experiencing. Practical exercises to train the muscle of awareness and lightness, to slow us down and introduce a light, still place where we can really connect. He described level 0 as our internal light and 4 as our biggest expression possible. When we are at level 2, we can see and experience our periphery, notice our feelings and connect with the audience. At 3 we are already reacting/responding. We have to be so aware of not jumping to 3 because we think we know what someone wants - of going into autopilot and missing the connection with our audience and all that juicy stuff comes with that.
As always at the centre of this is practice.
Since I have started to practice more regularly, I can feel slow progress. Slow growth. Perhaps no-one else would notice it, it is so slight and internal. But I feel certain that continuing along this Zenish road will bring me closer to more consistently connecting with rather than performing at. Oh I hope so, anyway!
At Hearts & Minds we have decided to call what we do Therapeutic Clowning. Healthcare Clowning or Hospital Clowning doesn't sufficiently describe us, not only because the work that we do isn't limited to healthcare settings we work in schools and at Maggies Centres too. But not only that. Want to emphasise that what we do has a therapeutic effect that goes beyond entertainment.
It is perhaps important to emphasise the use of the adjective here: Therapeutic.
My Collins English Dictionary says that:
If something is therapeutic, it helps you to relax or to feel better about things, especially about a situation that made you unhappy.
As distinct from the noun Therapy:
Therapy is the treatment of someone with mental or physical illness without the use of drugs or operations.
We are absolutely not therapists. We are not curative. But we encourage the participants we visit to activate their inner resources and resilience through meaningful connection, empowerment, play and laughter (Clowning).
It is part of a wider conversation we are having about how we communicate what we do to people who don't see it, how we raise our profile not only as a charity, but also as a profession in the UK.
This is just the beginning!
open doors: let hope in
There was so much to take in at the conference, it is only now, a few days later, that thoughts are starting to filter-in and settle. I wanted to share some of the discussion from the session: Psychosocial care for children with chronic diseases. It really highlighted to me the value of even a short interaction with the Clowndoctors, as well as all of those long-term relationships we build and care for in hospitals and schools in reducing the effects of long-term trauma that can be caused by hospitalisation.
The session started with a testimonial from a patient of the Clowndoctors in Austria:
When Fabián was 5 years old he came into hospital to have the first of many operations on his legs. The first time, he said it was like going to a hotel – he put his things away, made himself at home. He had no concept of what was awaiting him. When he woke up after surgery, he was in a great deal of pain, and couldn't move from his bed. For him, this was torture – he was used to playing, exploring, running around. It was in this state that he met the Clowndoctors for the first time and made friends for life.
As a 5-year-old boy he didn't know the days of the week, but he knew that the Clowndoctors came on a Thursday, so would ask his parents constantly, 'is it Thursday yet?' To which the reply was usually, 'No...it's Monday....'. Every Thursday when he heard the Clowndoctors playing music in the corridor, he knew they were coming for him. He immediately cheered up. He would sit up in bed, waiting expectantly for his friends to arrive. But one Thursday he heard them in the corridor and they didn't come to his room. He waited. And waited. They had forgotten him! Determined not to miss out on his weekly visit, he sent his parents out to find them, to search the whole hospital. Eventually, they found the Clowndoctors ready to go home. As soon as they realised their mistake, they changed back into costume and made a special visit. 'I was so happy, I think about the Clowndoctors often, about that act of kindness and generosity. It really stays with me'.
He said that with all the medical interventions he had during his stay in hospital - the pain, the boredom, the anxiety - it is the Clowndoctors that he remembers and thinks of the most.
When I heard his story, I immediately thought of several children we are visiting in hospital at the moment - all in for long-term care. It is worthwhile stopping to consider the impact we can have on the lives of these young people, even beyond their time in hospital.
Potential trauma for children going into hospital is real. Dr Peter Krajmer PhD, a Clinical Psychologist at Bratislava Childrens Hospital in Slovakia described talking to a child 10 years post treatment who was 2 years old when he went into hospital for the first time, whose lasting, painful memory was of the fear he felt when the nurses took him to take blood. Dr Peter Ahlburg, MD at the Department of Clinical Medicine, Denmark empahasised that the fear children experience going into hospital and surgery is real and must be treated as such. For a young child it might be fear of being absent from parents, but for a teenager, it might be a fear of dying, of not waking up from surgery.
When children and teenagers are experiencing this level of anxiety, they will often refuse all input from medical staff - staff who often don't have time to address the psychological level of pain the child might be experiencing. Enter the Clowndoctors. While we have to be alive to this anxiety in judging where and how and to what level to interact, we have the unique capacity as clowns to open the door to the possibility of hope and positivity in the here and now. From this point, medical staff who spend the rest of the day/week on the ward, can continue to work to build relationships and good communication.
And if good communication is at the core of reducing long-term trauma in children and young people experiencing chronic disease or surgical interventions, then Clowndoctors clearly form a vital and valuable part of a wider team of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals. We have a shared goal.
It was really inspiring to hear from medical doctors who really consider the Clowndoctors to be an integral and important part of the child's treatment plan.
10 Reflections from vienna
This week, Fiona Ferrier and I went to the Healthcare Clowning International Meeting in Vienna. Here are my initial thoughts. For sure to be mulled over some more and expanded on at a later date, after a nap.
1. Organising one of these conferences must be a mammoth and daunting task. Red Noses Clowndoctors International/Austria did an amazing job and I thank them wholeheartedly.
2. I've not done a statistical analysis, but I felt that in general women were more equally represented across the board, the programme was packed and the quality of the workshops offered was fantastic.
3. Vienna is very clean.
4. Meeting Healthcare Clowns from around the world is hugely inspiring and exciting. I fell in love about 5 times a day. I am bowled over and full of gratitude for the support and well wishes I received, and for the friends I have made from around the world.
5. The artistic interventions at this conference were totally excellent and perfectly pitched. I was laughing for about 80% of the three days I was in Vienna. For the other 20% I was involved in deeply serious conversation...
6. Vienna is bad for Vegans and good for palaces.
7. I wonder! Can we be more creative in the way that we actually conduct the content of these meetings? It is nice to feel inspired and to have the chance to celebrate about best practices, but I'd like to invite and generate discussion that includes ALL the voices present so that the conversation can move forward. I crave the chance to really dig-in and deepen my understanding and interest ('Networking lunches' don't count. They need to be planned in advance - if you don't know anybody when you arrive, how can you know who you want to speak to or what about? It can easily become a club of those in the knows generating the debate and conversation. Hashtag echochamber). There are creative & responsive ways of running panels to make sure that people who have travelled at huge expense across the world, or who have valuable input to offer that doesn't fit the bill for an Abstract submission can contribute in a meaningful way to the debate. Break-out sessions from Panel discussions, for example. Or The Open Space model. This gives space, time and value to all who contribute. We talk about being inclusive, but I think we need to work harder to make sure that we really are. Have the courage to be responsive to who is in the room, ask the difficult questions and really listen to the answers.
8. While of course it is nice to feel like we are all doing the right thing, for me these conferences represent more than an opportunity to connect with what we do well. I am really interested in hearing about our failures. I'd like us to move more confidently towards difficult conversations and debate. Does our tendency to avoid this 'conflict' belie a lack of confidence? We are a strong profession - let's jump in and see what comes up!
9. FOMO is real.
10. Being an Artistic Director DOES NOT make you magically good at Directions. That Fiona didn't throw me in the river the third time we arrived at it by accident is a testament to her great patience and good humour.
I have come home with new friends, new tools, much food for thought, and a new appreciation for Scottish cuisine ;)
Thank you again especially to Monica Culen, Giora Seeliger, Edith Heller & Martin Kotal!
Three months has gone so fast, this all still feels brand new. Being asked about a hundred times a day 'how is it going' at the Healthcare Clowning conference this week ramped up my self-refection to frankly unhealthy levels! Someone even said to me that I was too young to be the Artistic Director of Hearts & Minds (I wonder if they would have said that if I was a man?) My response was, 'you think 75 is too young?? Yeah maybe I'm rushing things'. Guh!
I guess 'Artistic Director' has connotations of someone who has a huge amount of expertise and experience. And let's be honest, probably a man. But I think that we have to get away from this idea that to be in this kind of role we have to be the finished article - a great clown with a huge reputation, a teaching circuit and a methodology all of our own. In my mind, that way the perils of Ego and Power lie.
So I experimented with saying the following; 'wonderful! Everything is fantastic!' and 'I feel overwhelmed and under qualified' and 'good, i think?' These feel like honest answers, but they don't do me or Hearts & Minds justice. The truth is that putting it into words is difficult and always inaccurate. I am still navigating, feeling, sensing my way through it. I feel as though I am riding a huge wave - when it feels right there is nothing better and nothing else, but when I loose my footing the stakes are high and the responsibility weighs heavy overhead. I have always had a strong sense of the path I am walking on when I call myself Clown. I know that path is long, I know I am just at the beginning. And I know I want to stay on it. So being given the title Artistic Director is uncomfortable for me. My biggest fear when taking on this job was that the Director part of the role would divert me away from my centre and my soul.
And the Director stuff is HUGE. We work with so many different groups of people, with different needs and priorities, it is endless.
In the last few months, I have had days or even the odd week when I have felt my delicate, sweet, precious practice hanging on by a thread. And so I have to take a breath and pause. Because it is my strong conviction that whatever my qualifications, the most valuable thing that I have to offer in this role is the fact that I am a clown, and more than that, a clown who is still learning. If I don't continue to work on the floor, and don't continue with my own clown practice, then there is absolutely no point in me being in the job. How can we expect our clowns to have a healthy and strong artistic practice if we don't have one ourselves? If they don't see me trying and failing and learning, how can I expect them to? How can we know what path is the right one, unless we have a strong physical connection to the work? If clowning is our form of creative expression, then how can we be expected to think creatively without our clown practice?
I am so lucky that my partner and CEO Michelle is fully supportive of me in this. I work one day in hospital per week, and carve out time each week to be in my studio - with no goal other than to practice. I met other Artistic Directors this week who don't have this support and I find it worrying. Practice is a hard won thing and easily lost. We have to insist on it and protect it. And of course use it when we are sat in front of our computers, planning, problem solving, supporting & researching.
I am a therapeutic clown and performer. Writing here is part of my wider practice and maybe some of my thoughts will trigger some thoughts of your own and I hope that helps.