Today I had left the hostel early to catch the metro out of General Osorio at 8 in the morning for Alfonso Pena where I was supposed to be meeting Giselle, one of the trained practitioners of UniRio’s Enfemeiro do Riso program. I arrived fifteen minutes before scheduled and paced the area, looking in the platform waiting areas, at the ticketing stations and even at the bus stops on either side of the street above ground to see if she was there waiting. After traversing the entire area and discovering that she hadn’t yet arrived I positioned myself at the exit turnstiles, the best spot for high visibility so she could find me easily. I’m a first year graduate student at the university, but I have been involved in PCAP for the past three years. This is my third trip to Rio, and each of the previous trips I had made my case to be a part of this program, and each of the previous years when the selections were made to participate in this program I was left out. But this year my lot was finally drawn.
After my minder had arrived, I followed her to the Hospital where she and her partner went into the hospital to put on their masks. The clowns never work alone which is a credo of PCAP that we always work in pairs. August and White, they are called, one providing energy and context for the other to build on and the other disrupting the hierarchy of the system with their clowning. Watching the two get ready is something special. They clap into the space between them taking turns until they’ve built up a rhythm, then one touches the other’s shoulder, then the forehead, then the hip, then the floor, then me! Before I know it, they break apart, and Capricia (Giselle’s clown) is off and pacing around the room asking me what time is it? What time is it? Oh my god, we’re late, are we late? What should we do? What should we do? And she and her partner have fully embraced their alter egos.
Some people might find this sort of ritual strange or funny, maybe unnecessary, but for me this was magnificent. I often have to go through a transformation of my own to do my workshops with the Prison Creative Arts Project. Most people who know me know that before I get in front of an audience I have to shake my arms, my elbows, by wrists and fingertips to get ready. It helps me overcome the anxiety and paranoia that I feel when people are looking at me. But the moment is important because to do this work we have to shed certain vulnerabilities and embrace a deeper part of ourselves that can interact with our participants in every way.
The structure is meant to communicate rules in a hospital from the top down, from the administrators, to the doctors, to the nurses, to the patients, and their family. The clowns don’t care. The clowns go up to everyone in the hospital and treat them all with the same silly and idiotic personality.
In the main corridor the clowns shake hands with little children and then forgets to let go. After a minute of shaking hands she can’t let go and asks some of the patients to help pry them apart, and they aren’t able to separate the two. Capricia’s partner flags down a doctor who is walking down the hallway with orders on his clipboard and asks him to help. When he joins in and they all try to blow their breath as hard as they can to separate the two, it still doesn’t work. The clowns will call anyone who is around to help: the nurses, the janitors, the security personnel behind the entry desks. Some will join, and some will continue on their way with indifferent looks. But everyone who engages and blows their breath on the two clasped hands has performed some kind of magic when the clown goes flying down the hallway, tumbling over herself, saying, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” the people she bumps into in the hallway. And we are all better for it.
I’m not sure that I believe creating art in these spaces changes the outcome of the patients, or has a grander effect on the way society will treat someone who is sick, or someone who is labeled a prisoner. But I do believe in life, and when Giselle and her partner put on their masks and became clowns and barrel through the hospital putting smiles on the faces of crying children, easing the stress of worrying mothers who only want their sick babies to get better, inspiring a doctor to make a balloon for his infant patient out of a surgical glove, it reinforces my will to do this work. To seek life among the living, regardless of what they have been labeled.