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.

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