In Fall 2019, the Montreal Clown Festival convened a panel of three clowns and creators to discuss the practice of Clown, resilience, and community. The panel consisted of Melissa Holland, the co-founder of Dr. Clown, an organization which trains and hires professional clowns to work in health care settings and specialized schools; Bruce Naokwegijig, the Artistic Director of Debajehmujig Theatre company, the only professional theatre company in Canada located on a First Nations Reserve; and Bill Yong, a newly minted drama therapist and co-creator of the clown duo show Red Leather Yellow Leather.
Each bringing their own unique background and experiences, the panelists unpacked the notion of the clown as a figure of resilience and healing, a source of connection-building within communities, and force of creativity in—and especially outside of—the traditional theatre environment.
The Clown as a Healer
It may seem strange in theory to have an unpredictable, comical figure operate within the rigid and serious confines of a hospital. Holland admitted the proposal to bring clowns into medical institutions wasn’t so warmly received when she co-founded Dr. Clown back in 2002. But when Holland and her team explained the concept of therapeutic clowns, dressed in toned-down costumes and makeup, with the precise intention to form meaningful connections with patients and provide a sense of joy amidst dire, often isolating circumstances, medical staff soon warmed to the idea. As of 2018, Dr. Clown has a staff of 55 clowns, operating in 60 different health care establishments in Montreal and Quebec City.
In Holland’s work as Dr. Keke, a therapeutic clown, the clown is a figure of support and healing, albeit in an unconventional sense.
Hospital inpatients are subject to the demands of nurses and doctors and strict daily regimes, and so “the clown is really the only person that a patient can refuse,” said Holland. This moment of consent or refusal is crucial, she added, and most of the time Holland and her clown partner receive a warm welcome when making rounds on a hospital unit. But in the rare instance a patient feels unwilling to have an interaction, the duo makes a prompt, comical exit – often granting a laugh or two for good measure.
If the patient does welcome the clown duo into the room, the following interaction is largely unscripted. “Within the play (the patient) will be in control of the improvisation,” said Holland. “So, we’ll build on what their interests are, what they like to play, what their background is. But they’re always in charge.”
Laughter isn’t the only medicine the therapeutic clown seeks to administer; it’s the restoration of dignity and hope through the power of choice. In handing over control of the situation to the patient, the clown gives a healing gift that medical staff are unable to: agency, and the empowerment that accompanies it.
“I think particularly within the hospital setting, having the figure of the clown, who can’t do much and who is vulnerable, really meets the patient at the right spot,” said Holland. “All of a sudden because (the patient) has agency, can control and have an effect on others, it goes a long way.”
Dr. Clown also works in specialized schools for children on the autism spectrum. The work there, said Holland, is fundamentally about connection. “We take the person where they’re at. So, if there’s someone who’s verbal or nonverbal, or if they don’t want any loud noise around, or don’t want to be touched, we’re able to find other ways to connect,” she said. “The idea of empowerment is still there. It’s not like we’re there to change them or fix them or do anything other than find a way to connect, to communicate, and to play.” Healing is not about fixing a person, she said, it’s about connecting with them.
“It was very clear for us when we started Dr. Clown that in order for it to work for us it had to be a collaboration between healthcare, business, and artistic worlds,” said Holland. In bridging these worlds, Dr. Clown also offers training to corporate and medical staff. “Not to become clowns,” added Holland, “But to use some of the soft skills of finding joy, of listening, and just being creative.” These qualities, which are strengthened through play, extend beyond the hospital room and in turn feed back into the community.
“My feeling is that our storytelling really goes a long way,” said Holland. “In our world right now, it feels like there’s so much of a disconnection between what’s important and what’s not important. So, when people see stories about connection, heart, and vulnerability it reaches us where we are. The connections that happen within the hospital setting speak to that part of us.”
The Clown as an Educator
When it was founded in 1984 in West Bay (M’Chigeeng First Nation) Manitoulin Island, Debajehmujig was a children’s theatre company, created in response to the severe lack of Native voices in theatre and film. The company quickly garnered so much interest among the local community that it was eventually made to be an all-ages theatre company. In fact, Debajehmujig is where Bruce Naokwegijig got his start in theatre.
Naokwegijig first joined Debajehmujig on a whim, when he was pulled into an audition at 11. Many years of training in clown, improv, and acting later, Naokwegijig is now the company’s Artistic Director, a role he took on in May 2018.
“The Island [Manitoulin] is getting very aware of the idea of the clown, especially our community, because we’ve been creating a few shows that have the clown in it,” said Naokwegijig. Manitoulin Island has also previously been home to the Clown Farm, a renowned training ground for Canadian clowns that Naokwegijig himself attended.
Around 15 years ago, Debajehmujig strayed from scripted work and has instead been focusing on original, collectively devised works. “From that point on we started calling ourselves a “creation company,” meaning that we research whatever someone wants us to create a show about. We gather all of our knowledge, and our own personal knowledge from the heart and the head, stories that we know about our own communities, friends, and families, and create a story from that.” said Naokwegijig. According to its mission statement, “‘De-ba-jeh-mu-jig’ translates as ‘storytellers’ from the Cree and Ojibway languages.”
But creating a show from intimate stories and experience is not always easy. “The last show we created was called The New Elders, and this show was supposed to be about residential schools,” said Naokwegijig. The challenge? The presenter of the show did not want any explicit mention or imagery of residential schools to appear onstage.
“There’s a balance between (people who) want to talk about it, and who don’t want to talk about it,” Naokwegijig remarked about the deep and lasting trauma of residential schools in Canada. “Especially for some of our community members, it is really triggering. How do you create a show so you don’t trigger your audience?” he added.
The New Elders told the story of a mother who had been in a residential school, but never told her children. The weight of this trauma takes shape through the mother’s compulsive collecting; “She keeps all these things she thinks she lost in her past, growing up,” said Naokwegijig, who played the son in the show, “So the idea was, how do we move past that?” As the mother begins to reconnect with her spiritual identity, getting more involved in the community again and bringing along her daughter and son to experience lost parts of their culture, profound themes of intergenerational loss and connection are explored onstage. Residential schools are never overtly mentioned, yet the profound effects of the history are present throughout.
Explicit elements of the clown figure might not be immediately discernible in all of Debajehmujig’s work, but the spirit and methods of clown training remain present even when the characteristic red nose is not. Clown is a practice, a learned technique, an artform, not merely a character acquired in costume.
Like Holland, Naokwegijig believes the clown’s most important function is to form meaningful connections with the given audience. “My main thing with clown is asking, what is your message to the world? If I’m gonna do anything in clown, that has to be really clear. What do you want the audience to walk away with that they understand?” he said. In Naokwegijig’s work, the clown is a figure of education and translation; preserving history, sharing Indigenous world views, and devising new stories that enrich the community.
The Clown as a Therapist
Like Melissa Holland, Bill Yong also has experience working directly in a health care setting. As a drama therapist, Yong brings the technique of clown into the historically sterile, serious world of Western medicine.
Addressing Holland, Yong pointed out the immense value of the clown as a healing figure; “You value human dignity. In the hospitals where patients are being told what to do and are not able to make decisions, you give them the capacity to make decisions, and respect those decisions,” he said. “That’s so important, so healing. As a therapist I think about the importance of dignity, and the importance of making choices.”
Yong described his drama therapy practice as “a form of psychotherapy that combines tools of Western psychotherapy and drama. So theatrical tools like improv, clown, mask making, anything you can use as a theatrical tool.” Like Naokwegijig, Yong trained in the Pochinko style of clown with John Turner at the Clown Farm, a mask-based method developed by the late Canadian clown trainer Richard Pochinko. Yong recalled one observation Turner made during his training that has resonated with him in his work as a clown and a therapist: “This clown work is really therapeutic, but it’s not therapy.”
In Yong’s work, the clown is a therapeutic figure. Clown is by no means is a solution to a client’s psychological issues, but the experience of working with clown’s specific theatrical tools offers alternative creative methods to work through trauma. Yong knows this firsthand from training with Turner. “To be in a group where you’re able to fail, and that’s celebrated, and the audience reacts to that, that is really powerful and really therapeutic,” he said.
A recent experience with one of his clients underscored the value of using clown techniques in a therapeutic setting. “Last year I was working with a two-spirit client, and the client said something that really broke my heart. They said, ‘Every day I wake up in the morning and I have to pick whether I’m going to be Native today or I’m going to be queer,’ and that’s really messed up,” said Yong.
Yong recalled asking the client to imagine an ideal world, and how it would feel to live in it. “They described a work that was accepting and open, and they wouldn’t have to be afraid all the time,” he said. “And I thought, you know what? That’s a reasonable reality to have.”
The problem wasn’t the client, he said, it’s the written and unwritten rules in the world that make people feel afraid to be themselves. “Having trained in clown and learned how to use clown logic, there are a lot of rules that I can challenge” said Yong.
Clown logic is a foundational element of the clown practice, but is often interpreted as merely comical, naive, “clown-like” behaviour. In their book Clown Through Mask: The Pioneering Work of Richard Pochinko as Practised by Sue Morrison,(1) Veronica Coburn and Sue Morrison address the misconceptions about clown logic: “Clown logic is not about refusing to do the obvious. Clown logic is not about doing everything in the most contrary manner imaginable. Clown logic is about trusting instinct, obeying impulse, and believing that choices made in this way will result in a series of moments that will make narrative and structural sense.”
In a therapeutic sense, clients can use clown logic to reimagine their social reality, to consider ideas and expressions that are aligned with their true impulses, desires, and identity. Since clown logic does not abide by the social contract, nor is it premised upon the judgements or expectations of others, individuals are free to engage in unbridled play in a safe space they might not otherwise occupy in the outside world.
“One of the really powerful tools is play. Play is an embodied experience, so you’re able to access the verbal parts of your brain, the abstract parts, the physical parts. You’re able to make metaphors connected to your psyche. Clown has taught me how to do that,” said Yong. “Through play, through being in the moment, we’re allowed to build the resiliency that we need, because we’re training our nervous system.”
Though clown has been a central part of his life and work, Yong says its potential reach and impact is limited by a glaring lack of diversity. “Representation [is] crucial not just for [clown] to be better, but for it to survive as an art form. We are not going to survive if you only see the same kind of people on stage telling the same kind of stories” said Yong.
Tradition is important, but so is growth within and outside of the discipline. Without innovative thinkers like Holland, Yong, and Naokwegijig, it’s unlikely the clown would have been able to become the figure of resilience, healing, and community-wide connection building that it is, in many iterations, today. Because at the end of the day, said Holland, this work is about creating “an authentic encounter and heart-to-heart connection that allows one to feel their personal worth, value, and joy. I think that, in turn, goes a long way towards building creativity and building resilience for whatever situation we’re facing.”
1 Coburn, Veronica and Sue Morrison. Clown Through Mask: The Pioneering Work of Richard Pochinko as Practised by Sue Morrison. Chicago: Intellect, The University of Chicago Press, 2013