Are We Allowed to Laugh?

By Tim Cunningham, CWB-USA Volunteer


I was invited to participate in a very last minute and end-of-year capacity building project with our friends in Turkey who are on their way to forming a new chapter of Clowns Without Borders in Turkey– Sınır Tanımayan Palyaçolar. I arrived the night of December 30th to Güray’s neighborhood, which had not had electricity for two days because of heavy winds. He walked me through the quiet streets of Kadıköy, the ancient neighborhood just on the Asian side of Istanbul. The streets were not quiet only because there was no power—this was a Friday night, the night before New Year’s Eve and we were in the bar district—people had just not been going out. Güray’s friend’s met us at a candlelit bar, one of the few that were open and immediately began cracking jokes about bombings, terror attacks and how no one came to Turkey anymore to visit.

“So what’s wrong with you?” One asked me.

At some point during our second beer the power came back on, the bar came to life with light and sound, but still, not many other people came in that night.

The next day, Güray, Ecenur, Melike, and I met at his apartment to plan an afternoon show for a nearby hospital. Though strong performers, none of them had extensive experience working in hospitals. We planned and rehearsed for three hours and then, in costume, took a cab to the Siyami Ersek Hastanesi, a cardiac hospital. There we were first greeted by a cat that walked from the hospital lobby to rub up against my leg—for those of you who have not been to Istanbul, there are rumors that there are more cats than citizens here; and all cats, those domesticated and those living in the streets are treated like royalty. An anesthesia resident came down from the acute care unit and brought us upstairs for our show.

We had planned, well hoped, for a large room with space to run around and maybe even high ceilings do to some juggling. When are we allowed to laughWe got neither. We were brought into a small playroom with probably the capacity of about 20 people. It was not what we expected; it was perfect.

Children trickled in with parents, some in wheelchairs with central line IV’s coming out of their necks, a gray tone to their skin. One child had two surgical drains pulling bright red blood from his body. As a nurse, I took for granted that situation is “normal” for a cardiac care unit, however, for the other clowns, they had not seen anything quite like it before. A group of five or so mothers then came in with infants; they sat together, and though I doubt that their relatively newborn children will remember any of the show, the mothers laughed heartily throughout the experience.

We opened our show with some quiet music, and when one of the audience members, a child who was maybe five years old, took the stage and began to belly dance to the delight of the rest of the audience, we took that as permission to increase the volume and energy—the show was underway. We played for about 30 minutes, some magic, some juggling, different ways to present and highlight kids in the room and then the four of us split up in the room to give each child direct and undivided attention.

One child, who looked particularly sick, stood for most of the performance. She moved slowly perhaps because of her disease condition and also the multiple IV lines coming from her body, but she refused to sit while we played. She helped me juggle by tossing balls to me when I purposefully dropped them in front of her and she also instigated the disappearance of the magic handkerchief by blowing on the hand in which I had stuffed it (the handkerchief, after vanishing into thin air found its way to the 17-year-old patient in the back of the room and came out from under the collar of his shirt). She played boldly with us and left the room with a huge smile when the performance was over saying teşekkür (thank you).

After the show, the anesthesiologist who coordinated our visit escorted us to a couple of rooms to visit some kids who were unable to leave their beds; she told us along the way that this performance and time at the hospital was far more than what she could have imagined. Her surprise met our surprise when she then told us that the young girl who juggled with me was a patient that had been extremely depressed as of recent, so much so that the doctor did not think that the girl would even come to the show.

We work in a world of surprise, always as clowns and maybe almost always as humans.

That night Güray and I celebrated New Years with a few friends at a neighbor’s home. Just one hour and 15 minutes into 2017 we were met with another surprise, the mass shooting at a night club on the other side of the Bosphorus River from us. We were immediately on our phones texting friends and families, reading news reports, quiet and sad. Eyes wide at the news and hearts sunken low. We knew we were safe. Well, thought we were safe at least.

January 1st was somber except for a few jokes about terrorism. Too soon, I thought, but then reflecting on the fact that this country, since the horrid suicide attack in Suruç in July of 2015, has seen multiple acts of terrorism, I wondered if the threshold for jokes about the violence decreases each time an attack occurs.

When are we allowed to laughThe second part of this short project was offering clown workshops to Turkish clowns who had worked with CWB in the past or who were interested in volunteering for CWB in upcoming projects. We had a total of 15 participants, and for two days we explored character, status, clown choreography and our relationships to objects and playfulness. Though we were practicing and studying clown, the mood was frequently measured. A police car parked outside of the studio during the last few minutes of our workshop. It kept its sirens on and what sense of play was in the room was quickly transformed to an uneasiness until the vehicle slowly drove away.

There are fewer jobs available in Turkey now as the economy is weakening. There are even fewer jobs in the arts. There are drastic changes occurring in this place, many of which are a result of the attacks here and the artists are all feeling a new, uncertain squeeze. But we played hard, and we played well. We played as best we could. After the workshop, some of the artists commented that yes, they learned some new skills that they are happy to practice, but more importantly they laughed, themselves. Many said they had not laughed so well in a long time.

One artist thanked me for coming to Turkey. She said with all that is going on, people are not coming here any longer (she When are we allowed to laughdoesn’t blame them), but because of it, she expressed a sense of loneliness in this unpredictable place.

We at Clowns Without Borders support our artist friends and colleagues living throughout Turkey. We believe that everyone can laugh when the time is right. And as clowns, we recognize we cannot often predict when laughter will arise, but we strive to be ready to nourish and celebrate it when it does.

Leapin' Louie swings his lasso

18th Annual Portland Benefit for Clowns Without Borders

18th Annual Portland Clowns Without Borders Benefit Show


The area’s top variety and circus performers put on an amazing, hilarious, family-friendly show to support a great cause.

Friday, January 27th, 8:00 PM, doors at 7:00 pm.

Family friendly! Beer, wine, pop, and snacks available.

Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St.


$25 Advance, $35 At the door, $15 Kids (12 & under)
$50 Premium Seats (support CWB and sit in the front center section – advance only)


The Scoop:

Clowns have a bad rep these days, but it doesn’t get us down because we know some of the best clowns around! They are performers who can make can make children and adults alike, laugh out loud with few words and a handful props. Good clowns create beauty in a difficult world. For more than 20 years, Clowns Without Borders USA has sent circus and theater professionals to war zones, refugee camps and crisis areas all over the world. And for 18 years the Northwest’s best circus artists, physical comedians, and variety acts have been coming together annually to create a thrilling evening of comedy and circus to support Clowns Without Borders USA. This year’s CWB-USA Benefit Show is no exception, featuring the area’s top acts, with live music by the Shoehorn Hat Band. Last year’s show sold out in advance, so get your tickets now.

18th annual clowns without borders portland benefit show

Paulina Muñoz and Omri Geva come from separate backgrounds working with a variety of circuses and dance companies and have come together in the last year to create an aerial dance duo that displays extraordinary creativity and athleticism.

A Little Bit Off is the 16-time award-winning internationally touring physical theater company co-founded by Amica Hunter and David Cantor. The company devises original comedic shows and acts which combine elements of clowning,  juggling, puppetry, dance, slapstick, and acrobatics. Amica will be going on her first Clowns Without Borders project in Chiapas, Mexico between now and the show.

The incredible Patrick McGuire was a featured juggler for 10 years with Cirque du Soleil, and we are so lucky to have him.

Milagro Theatre will be performing an excerpt from their brand new production, El Payaso, an original play about Ben Linder, the Portland juggler/engineer who was murdered by US-sponsored Contra terrorists in 1987 while building a small hydroelectric dam in Nicaragua to bring electricity to a few mountain villages. El Payaso premieres Jan. 13th at Milagro.

The evening will be emceed by Australian physical comedian Emily Newton. Emily has toured her one-woman comedy shows across the nation. She has settled in Portland now and is one of the funniest people in this town.

Masterful Italian physical comedian Stefano Iaboni will perform his cutting edge silent comedy. Stefano tours the world with his clown duo The Beat Brothers.

Charlie Brown is the funniest of the thick pile of professional comedy jugglers in the Northwest. Former Karamazov Brother, former star in the Broadway hit Sugar Babies, and currently a semi-retired farmer in Damascus, Oregon, he is as funny as ever.

Cowboy Comedian Leapin’ Louie has made them laugh in 29 different countries around the world and is beloved18th annual clowns without borders portland benefit show here for his lasso spinning, whip cracking, and crazy comedy in The White Album Christmas. He spent much of November teaching physical theater to Syrian, Afghan, and Congolese refugees in Dallas, Texas with Clowns Without Borders USA. He’s been working with them for 18 years.

Alicia Cutaia will be performing aerial dance. She is co-founder and director of ARC In Movement and dancer with BodyVox.

Also Rose Festival Clown Prince Angel Ocasio, The A-WOL Aeros Youth Company, and actor/director Noah Veil.

The Evening is directed by Nomadic Theatre director Michael O’Neill

Live music by the Shoehorn Hat Band jazz trio. Michael “Shoehorn” Conley, makes music with his feet and dances with his horn. Utilizing saxophone, tap dance, wind instruments and percussion he plays original jazz and world beat music. Opening for Savion Glover in Russia or playing Jimmy Mak’s (god bless his soul) here in Portland, Shoehorn cooks it.

18th annual clowns without borders portland benefit showAbout CWB-USA in Portland:

All proceeds of this circus vaudeville extravaganza benefit Clowns Without Borders USA which sends professional performers to volunteer in areas of crisis around the world, to relieve stress and suffering through laughter and play. Portland artists David Lichtenstein, Sarah Liane Foster, Michael O’Neill, Morgan Goldberg, Amica Hunter, Heather Pearl, Noah Veil, and Curt Carlyle have performed and taught in dozens of projects in Haiti, South Sudan, Turkey, South Africa, Guatemala, Colombia, Chiapas, the Philippines, India, and more. CWB-USA has its office in New York and utilizes artists from all over the world but Portland, Oregon is perhaps our greatest center of both artists and fan support.

“CWB shows are a chance to have a family night of belly laughs that will help spread joy to children around the world.” Jeannie Zamarripa, 2016 Portland CWB Benefit audience member.

Chiapas 1998 - a clown and children

Coming Full Circle: Our 100th Project

It’s a watershed moment for Clowns Without Borders USA. Our first undertaking of 2017 is also our 100th project since our Rudi and young boy look at the red nose in Rudi's hand. celebrating our 100th projectorganizations’s founding in 1995! Therefore it is fitting that we are returning to Chiapas, Mexico, where it all began for CWB-USA. Founder Moshe Cohen began making trips to this magical part of the world to serve the people of Chiapas in CWB-USA’s nascent days.

chiapas, mexico. boy youth audience member spins a large ball on his finger. celebrating our 100th projectThe indigenous community residing in Chiapas were oppressed in poverty and brutalized by the government of the time because of the land on which they live. The region where they reside and have for hundreds of years, is rich in minerals, water, and crops such coffee and cacao, but the indigenous people are among poorest and most marginalized in Mexico. Chiapas is a jewel, but the people and region have been taken advantage of by power, politics, and trade agreements. The Zapatista Revolution began in 1994 and was the locals way of saying, ‘we want autonomy.’ They succeeded in becoming autonomous, but at significant cost.

Rudi Galindo, a long-time volunteer, professional clown, and colleague of founder Moshe Cohen, is leading the team returning Chiapas this January for CWB-USA’s 100th project. Rudi has been traveling to share levity and moments joyful play, every year for nearly two decades. He is compelled to return and give the gift of laughter and to keep a promise.

Many years ago, on a trip to Chiapas, Rudi and another volunteer, David Lichtenstein, went to a displacement camp for the indigenous people seeking escape from recent massacres at the hands of the military. It was a wet and cold January. Thick mud coated the land. Rudi and David kept falling in the muck and mire as they performed for the audience in the displacement camp. Afterward, at the show’s end, they took their noses off and collected props preparing to exit. A hyper-emotional woman came up to Rudi and spoke rapidly to him in the indigenous language. She was anxious and animated, and Rudi called for someone to translate. What the woman said impressed upon his soul forever. She exclaimed, “I’m frightened that you’re going to leave. I feel so much safer when you are here! Because everyone is laughing and at peace, so we all forgot to be afraid. Please, do not go!” It was tearful for everyone, Rudi and David included.Andres holds up a toddler boy at a late 1980s performance in Chiapas. Celebrating our 100th project

Rudi was so moved that he vowed to come back, and return he has, every year since 1995.

The Zapatista Revolution is quiet now, and while it may not be over, the guns are no longer pointed, and the people of Chiapas have found a new normal. In their autonomy, they work hard to administer government and services. They have taken the concept of education and applied it on a larger scale–both for children and adults. Human rights for all is the cornerstone of their governance. They govern by respecting the earth, each other, the woman and the child. This remarkable place is unique, and if you travel there, it seems as if you’ve left Mexico and entered a different world. It’s a place where the people look noticeably different from Mexicans and where their mannerisms, language, and culture distinguish them as indigenous. It is a place where Rudi is forever connected to the people.

Chiapas_2015_Morgan. celebrating our 100th projectWe encourage you to ally with the people of Chiapas, too. You can follow our milestone project updates, photos, and videos on our social media pages and explore with the clowns. Visit our page about Mexico to delve into the library of information about our past work in Chiapas.

Thank you for your continued support! Make a gift and help fund the team traveling to Chiapas. Share this blog!