No laughing matter

How the art of care clowning is changing – and improving – lives

By Chandrea Serebro

When Dr Amnon Raviv was young, his dad urged him to study. ‘Go study, or you’ll end up clowning,’ his dad would say. So, he ended up clowning, relates Dr Raviv. And this is how he began a pioneering journey that would lead him from the stages of the world to the corridors of the paediatric and geriatric wards of hospitals around Israel, treating the body as well as the soul, which he says goes hand in hand. Armed with a wicked sense of humour that brings light and hope to so many and a PhD in Medical Clowning (the first practitioner to earn this), Medical Clown Dr Raviv spreads laughter around where people need it most.

He believes that laughter liberates. That it empowers people and gives them strength. “It is an internal survival order,” he tells Yifat Amiel on Israeli channel 1’s news (watch it on “The clown,” he says, “brings out the carnival spirit,” which is one of celebrating life to the very end, something he helps his patients do with aplomb – dressing up with flower crowns and tutus et al, doing whatever he can to entertain – “whatever I can do to make people laugh.”

One of his patients quotes Chaplin as saying that, “A day without laughter is a wasted day.” “If we don’t laugh at least once a day when we get up in the morning, we will have no reason to get up in the morning. So we laugh.” And it is Dr Raviv who brings this about. “I used to sing in Paris, in the Olympia Hall. I used to be a famous singer in Las Vegas. Now, I like to sing here the best,” he answers one of his patients, an 86-year-young Avraham Gedesh, making a film interviewing Dr Raviv with varying degrees of humour ( “Because here, everyone is connected to an IV drip, no one can escape me when I sing. And it makes me feel great.”

Made famous by the 1998 Robin Williams film Patch Adams, medical clowning was indeed pioneered by the movie’s inspiration Hunter Doherty “Patch” Adams, and professional medical clowning first originated at the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit at the Infants and Children’s Hospital of New York over 30 years ago. The Hospital Clowns see patients – especially children – “to introduce humour and imagination into an anxiety-filled and painful experience”. It is a practice that has developed extensively since then, and medical clowns now work in hospitals around the world. “Over the past ten years, the number of scientific studies on medical clowning has increased, with findings showing the important contribution of medical clowns to children and adults suffering from mild to incurable illnesses,” explains Dr Raviv in his book Medical Clowning. And, he tells Amiel, it makes him feel “significant”. “It fills me up.”

Dr Amnon Raviv, PhD in Medical Clowning

Dr Raviv joined the Dream Doctors Project as a medical clown after ten years’ experience in the field. He is also an instructor in theatre arts at the Department of Theatre of the University of Haifa, and, in 2006, he began to teach medical clowning in the pioneering programme for an academic undergraduate degree in medical clowning.

As an instructor of medical clowning, Dr Raviv is currently teaching at the Ben-Gurion University Medical School and at the Tel Hai Academic College, which is offering the first academic Master’s Degree Programme in Drama Therapy and Medical Clowning, under the aegis of the Drama Therapy Department. Dr Raviv also lectures and facilitates workshops in medical clowning throughout the world, an expert in the field based on decades of experience on the art of clowning and using humour to heal.

Adi Shachar as Dr HeartBeat

Six years ago, Adi Shachar armed herself with a red nose and a stockpile of humour and set out to conquer the pain and suffering of sickness by becoming a care clown. From the moment she began volunteering, she “felt that there was a need to grow and develop this into a professional skill”. In the same year, on the ORT JET Women’s Empowerment Programme, she proposed bringing the concept of ‘Care Clowning’ to the Jewish Community as a means to do chesed and bikkur cholim. A training programme was initiated through The Upliftment Programme, and training initiatives within the Jewish Community ensued, facilitated by popular performing ‘heartist’ and ‘joy catalyst’ Nicola Jackman.

“Going back as far as then, it was always my dream to extend this from a voluntary space and enhance on this critical work. My work as a care clown has always held a special place in my heart. It is unique, and offers me the opportunity to connect on a very different level with patients, staff, and caregivers in an otherwise sombre environment. I can honestly say that each visit I make to the hospital, and the time I have spent laughing, playing, and having fun, has been more of a gift to me than I myself could have ever have been to anyone.”

Adi’s passion evolved to a keen desire to bring medical clowning training to South Africa, and so she contacted well-known medical clown Dr Amnon Raviv for his help and guidance. After more than a year-long communication about the possibility of setting up a medical clowning training initiative in South Africa, Adi journeyed to Israel to visit the Dream Doctors Project, visiting several hospitals in Israel to see and understand the medical clowning profession in Israel and the business model employed there. The Dream Doctors have in excess of 100 trained Medical Clowns, who work in 29 hospitals in Israel. With Dr Raviv’s support, Adi conceived of Dr HeartBeat to build the professional skill of Medical Clowning in South Africa, and to be the catalyst to making her dream of turning this from a voluntary space into a fully-fledged profession, as Dr Raviv has done, into a reality.

“Dr Raviv has always remained supportive of my dream to bring the professional skill to South Africa and has given me an enormous amount of encouragement to bring this project to life. Despite it only being a dream, he realised the fundamental importance it could have in the South African society and loved the idea of pioneering the work on another continent. My choice to partner with Dr Raviv comes from his credibility in this work and his experience from an academic and practical background. I am deeply indebted to him for his guidance.” Now, thanks to the Israeli embassy, sponsorship from various Israeli businessmen in the Jewish Community, as well as a donation from the African Jewish Congress, together Dr Raviv and Adi can share the medical clowning experience on his visit to South Africa in August and broaden the horizons here even further.

What’s more, Dr HeartBeat is currently in negotiations with the Witwatersrand University Drama For Life Department to partner in initiating a Health and Welfare Education and Training Authority Seta (HWSETA) and collaborate in a ‘Memorandum of Incorporation’ for Dr HeartBeat to present short courses which are accredited with the National Skills Development Framework in Medical Clowning, based on the credentials of Dr Raviv, “his knowledge, experience, and years of work in the field of Medical Clowning”. “This is a huge honour, and truly a sign of the recognition of the status of Dr Raviv in the field of Medical Clowning. Numerous non-Jewish and Jewish NPOs have also expressed interest in the training that Dr Heartbeat will be offering, to benefit both the patients in South African hospitals with laughter as well as unemployed people who fit the bill and look to become care clowns through Dr Heartbeat’s accreditations.

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Jen and the joy movement

Jen Braun is part of ‘The Joy Movement’ – “We are a joy family for those who love being both human and kind.” And the fundamental way they do this is by being kind, and teaching others to be kind too. “We train and support volunteers to be kind – by doing outreach in old age homes, special needs facilities, orphanages, and hospitals. We like to think that we practice bringing love and joy to ourselves, all those we encounter, and this planet – and we call this the ‘WinWinWin’ practice.”

Five years ago, Jen spontaneously did the ‘Joy Training’ – “and it transformed my life”. Joy Training is an experiential training that gives people of all ages the tools to transform any fear conditioning into love –“with practical approaches to support humankind to be both human and kind”. It is a ten hour long training developed by The Joy Movement over the past 14 years of experience working in hospitals and homes in South Africa where love and care is needed. “This training has transformed lives from a broad spectrum, with our youngest graduate being 13 years old and our oldest 87 years young.” After she had completed the course, “I learned that when I focus on what I can give rather than what I can get out of each situation – it takes me out of my own internal drama and into the true power of love.”

And One of The Joy Movement’s core outreach models is care clowning, which shows the impact of the true power of love on lives that need it. But, the care clowning they practice is one where the focus is less on the art and the performance and more on the heart. “We are more about the care element and a tiny bit the clown.” There are many other organisations, explains Jen, that have professional clowns and artists with performance or drama training, and while The Joy Movement gives its following the tools and professional training to practice the clowning in the strictest and most professional way, they focus more on training “volunteers with heart”. “Then, as they practice our joy tools, they experience the WinWinWin of service and love in action.”

“We wear bright, colourful clothes, minimal make-up (maybe just a little bit of a red nose as a nod to the clown movement from which the ethos of clown care came from), and we go with open hearts.” Drawing from Fred Donaldson, one of the key ‘joy mentors’ and founder of the International Foundation for Original Play, and his theories about the importance of play and having caring human connections, The Joy Movement practices his theory that one must ‘love as much as you breathe’. “This becomes our practice, especially when we go into these needy spaces. We love and play with the children, patients, staff, and parents who need a smile, offering them a brief moment of pure joyous feeling, a true break from whatever difficult space they are in.”

“Ironically, I think I now share joy for selfish reasons, because it makes me feel so good, so enriched. I believe the people we visit give us more than what we give them. Just to see a smile brighten a face is priceless, and, ultimately, my dream is that people will remember the power of love and of giving it freely, and start to practice it everywhere.”

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