Not Just Clowning Around: A post by Erich Eberhard

19 Jun

It’s impossible to be mad at a clown.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to shadow the clowns of Enfermaria Do Riso (rough translation “ward of laughter”). This group has been sending UNIRIO students to the local hospital for over twenty years to bring joy to a place that’s otherwise pretty bleak. Wednesday morning, our clowns were Baqueta (“drumstick”), a 6-foot-something junior at UNIRIO who’s costume was carefully curated to exaggerate his lanky limbs – short pants, long socks, and an oh-so-tiny vest – and Caprichosa (“Capricious”) an UNIRIO senior and clowning veteran who’s slight stature and colorful tutu made her a perfectly absurd compliment to her partner.

Erich's hat

Becoming the clown is no easy task. I sat in a backroom of the hospital as Baqueta and Caprichosa stripped out of their street clothes and powdered their faces. Baqueta, who spoke some English, told me a little bit about the art of clowning as he touched up his makeup – a look he has developed himself over the past year.

According to Baqueta, the job of the clown is not to make people laugh – but to interact honestly with the world around him. This is to say, Baqueta had no prepared jokes for the staff or wacky rubber chickens to throw at the children – contrary to the common image of a clown we have in the US. Rather, he and Caprichosa “play” – in the space of the hospital, and anyone with whom they cross paths. This often entails trying to solve a problem, and in doing so, creating a new problem which sparks a cycle of what looks like incredible incompetence, though, in reality, is a clever game requiring the clowns to think quickly on their feet. It’s quite difficult to explain without seeing, frankly. There’s logic to the world of the clown, his actions aren’t random, nor are they rehearsed. Through the right lens, his behavior is perfectly sensible – it’s the disconnect between our world and his that makes him so charmingly funny.

The conversation stopped when Baqueta and Caprichosa slipped on their bright red noses – our UNIRIO friends were gone, and the clowning began.

Wandering the different wings of the hospital, the clowns exercised an impressive amount of freedom – the likes of which you’d never see in a US hospital. We followed closely behind as they stumbled into private meetings between patients and staff, obstructed busy hallways while playing with a door, rummaged through cabinets of medical supplies to find syringes so they could spray a particularly combative child with water, and even sneak up to scare the director of the hospital during a board meeting moments after being told not to interrupt the meeting. There was no hesitation – ever. No second-guessing their actions. The clowns were so fully committed to their roles that every breach of privacy and personal space and professional etiquette felt completely natural. And, most impressively, not a single person was upset.

One of, if not the, best things in the world is seeing someone lose the battle against their laughter. A hospital is supposed to be serious place. People here are ill, families are frightened, doctors are professional and prestigious – an image that many probably find comforting when it comes to their healthcare. When we go to the hospital we conform to this rigidness. Maybe its because we’re tired, maybe it because we’re frightened. Maybe its because it’s what everyone else is doing.

And then come the clowns.

We don’t want to laugh – don’t want to let these obnoxious intruders win us over. After all, we’re tired and frightened and so is everyone else – who do these clowns think they are! Don’t they know a hospital is a serious place for serious business! Can’t they just leave us alone!

You start building up you wall to defend against their antics – you pretend to check the time or read a magazine. But then they find an opening, a crack in the brick, that little sweet spot that tickles you just right. Maybe its something they say or a face they make, but you can’t help but crack a smile (or if its really good, laugh through your nose). And just like that they’ve got you on their side, laughing at their absurdity. For a moment you’re no longer working through that tedious paperwork, for a moment you’re no longer worried about affording a treatment, for a moment you’re no longer a ten-year-old boy who’s spent 6 months in a hospital bed.

And then they go. Despite their best efforts, Baqueta and Caprichosa haven’t fixed a thing – just made it all a little easier.

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