All the clowns squeeze inside a wooden picture frame. They are performing outside, in Palestine.

Palestine and The Power of Names

Naomi Shafer and Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone wrote this blog post. Learn more about our programs in Palestine, here and here

We frequently answer the question: “Why does Clowns Without Borders write ‘Palestine’?”

Our standard response is: CWB – USA follows United Nations naming conventions for all countries, nations, and territories, along with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This is true. But it is not the full story.

Legal Definitions

Names have both legal and cultural implications. Different legal designations (citizen, refugee, Internally Displaced Person, etc.) impact eligibility for passports, visas, education, work, and housing in a person’s country of residence:

  • Internally Displaced People lack special protection under international law and often disperse into urban centers in their home country. It’s important to acknowledge IDPs as a separate legal category so they can receive necessary services, protection, and justice.
  • The United States, until recently, referred to refugees, former citizens, undocumented people, and more as “aliens.” These groups were subject to very different laws and regulations despite sharing such an imprecise term. Referring to all non-citizens as “aliens” reinforced a culture of dehumanization and otherness.
  • The United States government has called Indigenous people by various names including “Indians,” “American Indians,” “Native Americans,” and more, all while withholding federal recognition from some tribes and granting it to others. These terms ignore the fact that Indigenous people and their tribal names far predate the idea of “America.”

Designations and names specify or homogenize, depending on who does the naming. That’s why CWB considers international human rights standards alongside community self-determination.

Clowns Without Borders follows our partners’ lead, upholding our mission to be in solidarity with the communities we serve. This means using the language they use to describe their own experiences. It means believing that people are experts on their own experiences. In the case of Palestine, it also means following language accepted by the global community.

Staying Specific

CWB’s Black Lives Matter statement included a commitment to specificity. We committed to naming racist and colonial aspects of human rights abuses. CWB shared words of support for our friends and colleagues at Diyar Theatre in Palestine, but we have not upheld our own commitment to specificity.

True, our thoughts are with our partners in Palestine. They are indeed in extreme danger, as we wrote on our social media channels. But occasional statements of support belie Israel’s ongoing, systematic, colonial project. Our Palestinian friends and colleagues describe their experience as apartheid, and so must we. (Incidentally, Human Rights Watch agrees.)  

CWB often says, “We go where we’re invited.” We use this to explain how we plan tours, meaning CWB doesn’t choose where a tour should take place. It also means we listen to communities and respond to their needs. Our project partners in Palestine are inviting the world to step into this conversation. We will do our best to honor their invitation, to amplify their voices, and to be part of their journey towards overcoming injustice.

Fear of Repercussions

Why did it take us so long to get here? We feared accusations of partisan politics and anti-Semitism. We were silenced by our fears, but they’re unfounded.

Non-profits risk losing their 501(c)3 tax exempt status if they engage in partisan politics, such as campaigning for a specific politician:

“The National Council of Nonprofits has long held that the public’s overall trust in the sector would diminish and thus limit the effectiveness of the nonprofit community if individual 501(c)(3) organizations came to be regarded as Democratic charities or Republican charities instead of the nonpartisan problem solvers that they are.” (National Council of Nonprofits)

CWB – USA maintains that human rights are a nonpartisan issue. Allowing people to self-describe is not “political advocacy.” It is basic humanity.

Palestine Is a Place

The United States and Israel are both settler-colonial projects (the treatment of Indigenous people by Brazilian ranchers can also be considered settler-colonialism, among other global examples). Settler-colonialism describes one group’s attempt to erase and replace an Indigenous population. This erasure happens through a variety of tactics, including physical and cultural genocide, obtaining and controlling land, and promoting assimilation.

In United States history, settler-colonialism encompasses the concept of manifest destiny, the federal government’s pattern of broken treaties, the cultural mythology of “the vanishing Indian,” and more. A “vanished” Indigenous population makes settler presence convenient, if not ordained.

Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, tells NPR:

The Palestinians don’t exist in people’s imagination. They’re an abstract thing. And for many people, they don’t exist at all. They don’t have a right to exist. They certainly don’t have a right to tell their stories. And anything that we say is immediately – anything that’s said in terms of the Palestinian narrative is immediately thrown into doubt. –Throughline, NPR

Palestinians did not choose their experience, which includes internal displacement, international refugee status, unequal treatment in their homeland and abroad, and constant threat of violence. They did not choose to vanish from an historical understanding of the Middle East. But they can and do choose to name themselves.

An infographic describing the unequal treatment of Palestinians and Israelis born in East Jeruselum
Source: Visualizing Palestine


Demanding self-determination interrupts a settler-colonial narrative which insists that colonial projects are in the past, rather than ongoing structures of oppression, subjugation, and dispossession.

Native Hawaiian scholar J. Kēhaulani Kauanui writes:

What does it mean to engage the assertion that settler colonialism is a ‘structure not an event’? One obvious case is the Nakba as an ongoing process—rather than an isolated historical moment of catastrophe marking the 1948 Palestinian exodus, when Jewish Zionists expelled more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes and homeland during the war that forged the state of Israel.13 In North America, there are numerous attempts to remove indigenous peoples from their lands for corporate resource extraction ranging from oil to minerals and water, causing environmental devastation with genocidal implications. –Lateral, Spring 2016

How can Clowns Without Borders USA support its Palestinian colleagues in their resistance to ongoing settler-colonialism? One small way is to believe that Palestine is a place, not an empty or unnamed land. If Palestine is a place, then Palestinians must be a people and their human rights must be respected. This is why CWB – USA writes “Palestine.”

World Children’s Day 2020

Es más fácil construir niños felices que reparar niños rotos.

It is easier to shape happy children than to repair abused children.

World Children’s Day

November 20th is World Children’s Day, also known as Universal Children’s Day. It commemorates the anniversary of the UN General Assembly adopting the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). It is a day to increase global commitment to improving child welfare.

Clowns Without Borders is committed to making sure that children’s rights are protected, which is why we are taking this Universal Children’s Day to spotlight a project combining clowning and the right to safety.

Why Children’s Rights?

The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child and Convention on the Rights of the Child asks us to view children as independent citizens and consider their specific developmental needs. Many of the rights in The Convention reflect the Declaration of Human Rights, but they also go further to ensure that children (as individuals and as a group) have the right to express their views (Article 12) and the right to play (Article 31).

Right to Play

Children learn through play. It is essential to their development. It is how they express themselves, build relationships, explore interests, and manage challenges. Often, games are used as an educational tool, to stimulate interest, or to teach critical skills. However, the Right to Play (Article 31) is about play in its purest sense. Play for pleasure.

“That every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.” –Article 31

At Clowns Without Borders, we often work within play for the sake of pleasure. We invite our audience to laugh, to join us in song, to try out an act for themselves. One of the best possible outcomes of a CWB tour is when children start playing with each other.

Right to Safety

Sometimes we use play as a tool for teaching our audience about a challenging topic, such as Land Mine Risk Education. The right to safety works hand-in-hand with the right to play. They are equally fundamental to a child’s dignity and well-being. This summer, Clowns Without Borders partnered with Corporación Humor Y Vida and Recreando Lazos Sociales to address the issue of family violence in Ecuador. Family violence is known to increase in times of stress, and the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare stressors throughout our societies. Lockdown conditions exacerbate family stress, interruption education, trap children in potentially unsafe situations, and isolate them from their peers.

A group of clowns and psychologists worked together to discuss strategies to prevent violence against children. Our goal is to encourage children to advocate for their rights.


You can watch the rest of the series, on our YouTube channel.

Want to do more?

The United States is the only member of the United Nations not to ratify the Convention of the Rights of the Child. You can learn more at the American SPCC.


The team hugs in Puerto Rico

CWB Welcomes Two New Board Members!

“We clowns are well positioned to respond to the unexpected with imagination, creativity, joy, and a sense of expansive possibility.”

– Marisol Rosa-Shapiro, Board of Directors

Clowns Without Borders USA is delighted to welcome Meredith Gordon and Marisol Rosa-Shapiro to the Board of Directors. Both are eager to step on during this unique time, taking leadership as CWB adapts to the current pandemic situation. We hope you’ll join us on September 9th, at 12pm Eastern for a Facebook Live event introducing Marisol and Meredith.

Meredith Gordon

Bahamas 2019
Meredith Gordon (right) with Clay Mazing and Leora Sapon-Shevin, on tour in The Bahamas

Meredith Gordon (aka Squeeze The Clown) is a performer, administrator, and writer, with 20 years of experience as a hospital clown. He led the Atlanta Clown Care team for Big Apple Circus and is a founding member of Humorology Atlanta. Meredith is also one of the co-founders of D.R.I.V.E. Forward (diversity, representation, inclusion, voice, equity), an organization founded to raise awareness around issues of diversity in clown and arts communities.

Meredith, who performed on a recent CWB tour to The Bahamas, says, “I am honored to join the CWB board. Clowning offers a unique opportunity to bring a sense of levity and joy where it is needed. While serving on the board, I hope to continue this tradition and bring the CWB spirit to more people.”

Martha Neighbors, Board Treasurer, first met Meredith while working for Big Apple Circus’ Clown Care Unit. She nominated him to the board because of his empathy as a hospital clown, his decades of professional experience, and his impressive leadership history. After speaking with Meredith for the first time, board member Sayda Trujillo says, “I was left with a lot of inspiration for the way love of clown manifests in different people. Meredith is a clown who listens deeply and is a generous collaborator.”

Marisol Rosa-Shapiro

Marisol Rosa-Shapiro (left) and Darina Robles on tour in Tijuana, 2019

Marisol Rosa-Shapiro is a performer, teacher, leader, organizer, facilitator, mover, and shaker. She has a sensitive and nuanced view of international aid and CWB’s role within the broader context of humanitarianism. She says, “I am excited to join the CWB – USA board at this critical time. As a relatively small organization with a global perspective, CWB can be uniquely agile in addressing the needs of this difficult, strange moment.”

Marisol first learned about Clowns Without Borders when she studied at Helikos School with Sarah Liane Foster. She has since performed with CWB on three tours, all connected to the U.S./Mexico Border. In 2018, following her tour in Tijuana, Marisol helped CWB draft its first anti-oppression statement and adopt new protocols for training and supporting cross-cultural teams. Sarah Liane Foster says, “She brings a deep understanding of the work of a clown in intercultural settings, an infectious enthusiasm, a commitment to anti-racism and anti-oppression, and so much more!”

In addition to her service with CWB, Marisol is currently working to roll out the second season of Adventure Theater Live!, an interactive, Zoom-based show for kids ages five to nine, set in The Great Great Forest. Season Two will launch in early October. You can learn more about it at

A sunlit image of David juggling clubs

Honoring Sarah Liane Foster and Selena McMahan

“If either Selena or Sarah called me at, say, 3:00am on a Wednesday night and said something like, ‘Hey Tim, could you send me your left leg?’ I would wake up, start sawing, and head to the post office.” – Tim Cunningham

It is with our deepest gratitude that we thank Sarah Liane Foster and Selena McMahan for their incredible service to Clowns Without Borders USA. Both women have resigned from the board, after serving for a combined 23 years. “I am so appreciative of Sarah and Selena,” says CWB founder, Moshe Cohen. “On top of their wonderful clowning, their dedication to CWB has been one of the rock-steady foundations of our organization over many years of dedicated service. Always ready to dig into the biggest obstacles and forever taking on challenging responsibilities, they will be a hard act to follow!”

Twenty-three Years of Service!

Selena 2014 Haiti
Selena McMahan (center) in Haiti, 2014

Selena served on the board for 10 years, including as President to CWB – USA and Clowns Without Borders International. Board Secretary Tim Cunningham says, “Selena embodies the inquisitiveness of clown, asking the golden question: What if we tried this differently? She challenges those of us on the board to wonder, ‘Have we ever thought about it this way?’”

Sarah served on the board for 13 years, and is known for taking on hard tasks with determination and a smile. Tim reflects, “Some of the most meaningful lessons on life, love and resilience are lessons I learned while performing in Haiti with Sarah. I always knew that no matter what happened, if the car broke down, or if we were chased off the stage by a herd of goats (which really happened), Sarah would be there to support me, the team, and the organization.”

Clowns Without Borders International

Sarah Liane Foster

In addition to their CWB – USA board contributions, both Sarah and Selena played critical roles on the steering committee for Clowns Without Borders International (CWBI).

Alex Strauss, who replaced Selena as the president of CWBI, says, “She helped me understand the different structures within the organization and introduced me to each chapters’ history and needs. She is an inspiration to many. Just last week, while on tour in Hungary, I met a Hungarian clown who once took a workshop with CWB – USA. He said he will always remember the awesome time he spent with Selena as a workshop teacher!”

Alex also had the privilege of working with Sarah. “Working together with Sarah was a fantastic experience,” he says. “She is one of the key people who kept the organization ‘on track.’ She helped to put together a very detailed history of CWBI, thanks to her precise minutes.”

Invisible Work

Board members’ work is largely unseen. It happens in committee meetings, budget drafts, and phone calls. We can’t possibly summarize all the incredible work Sarah and Selena have done for CWB, but we look forward to sharing some of their tour blogs and remembering some of their experiences as CWB – USA artists.

Clowning and Coronavirus: CWB’s online adaptations

I used to know what my job was. I produced clown tours and workshops for displaced people, migrants, and communities in crisis. Amidst all of the unknowns and intangibles of that work, I knew what I was doing.

Since the coronavirus pandemic started, I have been less sure. Our objective is to inspire resilience through laughter. I am incredibly grateful to the artists, project partners, and audience members who have pioneered this transition to online programming.

So what have we been doing? It is my delight to recap the work and play of the past three months.

Lighten Up: Thirty-minute workshops open to the public.

CWB – USA founder Moshe Cohen offered 10 workshops, or “levity pauses,” to invite moments of reflection, play, and presence. Moshe created the series as a way to recognize, and honor, the challenges of coronavirus, specifically the challenge of staying in touch with one’s joie de vivre.

The Levity Pause was an invitation to be present. Instead of ignoring or covering up the challenge of isolation, Moshe invited participants to explore it. Each session opened with an awareness exercise. We explored feelings of being stuck, disgust, delight, and digital community, all with humor.

Carlos d’BufFo Dædalus, who joined us weekly from Mexico City, commented:

“During isolation due to the pandemic, 30 minutes each Tuesday pierced the darkness and brought me back some light. Thanks to Clown Without Borders USA, I was able to lighten the weight I’ve felt over my chest since March when I was “displaced” from my life. I learned to play and find the fun even in the use of a mask and disgust of the virus. Thanks to Naomi Shafer and Moshe Cohen, I stopped missing laughter. It was a relief to feel the remnants of those minutes’ chuckles for the rest of the week and to know that they would be there (on Zoom) next Tuesday. I don’t really have the words to express my gratitude. I know it’s what they do: ‘relieve the suffering of people’ and they do it without borders.”

Team: Moshe Cohen

Partnership With Diyar Theatre: Workshops for clowns in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan

CWB has a three-year partnership with Diyar Theatre to provide clown training and capacity building for a cohort of 18 Palestinian clowns. While we are unable to continue with the scheduled intensive, we adapted the program to include weekly workshops for clowns in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria.

Mike Funt has previously worked with CWB in Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria. Mike travels the globe performing, directing, and teaching. While he believes that “at its core, clown is an analogue form,” he has built clown activities especially for Zoom. Each week, we take a moment to transform our spaces, and then dive into the work/play of creating an ensemble and exploring our individual clown.

Due to travel restrictions (that predate coronavirus), Zoom is perhaps the only room in the world where this workshop could take place.

Team: Mike Funt, Naomi Shafer, Osama Awwad, Rami Khader

Clowns In Conversation

Part of CWB’s mission is restorative narrative and raising awareness about the Right to Play, the role of clowns, and the lives of displaced people. We used live panel discussions and film screenings to address cultural humility, why laughing matters, and the early years of Clowns Without Borders.

You can watch the full series here.

Team: Adam Auslander, Andrew Horton, Ania Upstill, Arturo Gaskins, Calvin Kai Ku, Cynthia Choucair, David Argüello, David Lichtenstein, Dustin Allen, Eric Rubin, Erin Leigh Crites, Erwan Gronier, Ilana Levy, Jan Damm, Johnny Holder, Jonas Sjogren, Josie Mae, Kolleen Kintz, Leah Abel, Leora Sapon-Shevin, Melissa Aston, Meredith Gordon, Moshe Cohen, Naomi Shafer, Paúl Gomex, Rebecca Ann Hill, Rudi Galindo, Sabine Choucair, Susie Wimmer, Tamara Palmer, Yomara Rodriguez

Proyecto Ecuador

We  planned to spend August in Ecuador working with Corporacion Humor Y Vida, an Ecuador-based organization specializing in clown performance  for  social change. Now, we’re making short videos in conjunction with a group of psychologists, to address how stress contributes to family violence and what families can do to prevent it.

Team: Carolina “Coicoi” Duncan, Eric Rubin, Naomi Shafer, Paúl Gomex, Paty Galarza, Shana Cardenas, Santiago Bello

Mexico Virtual Tour

We  planned to spend May in Mexico partnering with our dear friends at Llaven nü. We would have toured shelters for women and girls who are survivors of sex- and gender-based violence and human trafficking. By the time coronavirus forced us to cancel the in-person tour, the all-female team had already started devising a show to uplift and empower the audience while also honoring the trauma they’ve experienced. While we were not able to travel in person, Mexico-based artists Darina and Vanesa  contacted our partners to see if we could screen a performance.

We created a virtual clown show. Since the women in shelters are quarantined together, they are able to gather and watch as a community. We’re delighted to know we’re still laughing together, even if we can’t be together.

Team: Arturo Reyes, Anaelle Molinario, Darina Robles (Founder Llaven Nü), Maria José Diaz de Rivera, Sadye Osterloh, Stephanie Avalos, Vanessa Nieto

The Zoom Room

Zoom used to be a word I used exclusively with the toddler in my life. We zoomed in the stroller. We zoomed as we animated a spoonful of peas into an airplane. We shrieked, “Zoom zoom!” while racing to put on our shoes. We solemnly observed trains, planes, and motorcycles, and agreed that they were zooming.

We zoomed, whooshed, zapped, bammed, and tra-la-lad our way through most activities.

I now say “ZOOM” more frequently and with much less delight.

Zoom is the place I am stuck while dreaming of the places I want to be.

Zoom is the place I am stuck while dreaming of the places I want to be.

I never expected Clowns Without Borders to have online programming. For me, the core of what we do is physical and in-person. Our shows transform spaces, inviting joy, community, and connection into places defined by pain, strife, and isolation.

Can we do the same with Zoom?

I’ve spent much of the past four months grieving. Each time I logged onto Zoom, even after Clowns Without Borders started online programming, I thought about what was missing. I planned to spend June in Lebanon and Palestine, participating in CWB’s partnerships with Clown Me In and Diyar Theatre. When Rami and I started talking about how we could continue our scheduled training for Palestinian clowns, we both lamented that it would be another year before we met in person. We did what so many producers are doing, and transitioned the program online.

I expected the workshops to be tinged with sadness. To my astonishment, they are full of delight.


I expected the workshops to be tinged with sadness. To my astonishment, they are full of delight.

Mondays are a time when ZOOM is a place of transformation.

On Mondays, Mike Funt and I join clowns from Lebanon and Palestine. Soon we will be joined by clowns from Jordan and Syria. Zoom might be the only room, in the whole world, where we can all gather.

Why? Here’s a gross oversimplification: Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria border each other. Palestinians hold Palestinian Authority Passports, though Palestine is not recognized as a nation. Travel within, and between, all of these countries (territories) is restricted.

Lebanon prohibits entry from anyone with Israeli stamps in their passport. Israel classifies Lebanon as an enemy state and Lebanese passport holders may only enter Israel with a pre-arranged visa and special permission, which prohibits entry to Palestinian territories. The workshop could not happen in Israel, Palestine, or Lebanon.

Israel and Syria do not have diplomatic relations, making travel between the two countries almost impossible. The workshop could not happen in Syria.

Theoretically, the workshop could happen in Jordan, but only with an exceptional number of visas, and the participants putting themselves at personal risk. Palestinians’ travel is restricted within Israel. For a Palestinian Authority passport holder to get to Jordan, she needs both an exit visa from Israel and an entrance visa from Jordan.

I’m ashamed to admit that inviting other artistic partners didn’t occur to me until after the first two workshops with the Palestinian clowns. I was so focused on what I was missing—eye contact, standing in a circle, meeting Rami’s baby—that I didn’t think about the opportunity be truly without borders.

It hadn’t occurred to me that ZOOM has no checkpoints, no visas, no border crossings. Geopolitical boundaries are so ingrained into how I think.

It hadn’t occurred to me that ZOOM has no checkpoints, no visas, no border crossings.

We say we’re “Clowns Without Borders” but really, we’re clowns negotiating borders. COVID reminded me that the borders are also in our minds. It hadn’t occurred to me to have a training for Lebanese and Palestinian clowns in the same workshop. I had accepted that it wouldn’t be possible. I reinforced the border.

In its own way, the Zoom Room has become a place of play. It has also become a place of resistance. A place of resilience. And space for transformation.

Haiti 2020

Know Nonsense: Funny Faces

Know Nonsense is our new program of DIY Clown Activities. CWB can’t come to you, but we still want to clown with you. 

Clowns live in a world that celebrates everything it is to be human, where anything is possible, and where play, discovery and connection are the only currency. Clowns Without Borders brings the clowns from this land of possibility and imagination and into the places that need clowns most.

With the current health crisis, clowns are unable to visit, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t visit the land of the clowns yourself! It’s easy to travel there.

All you need is your imagination and a willingness to play. Through games, activities, and projects CWB’s Know Nonsense! Program aims to provide you with the same joy and lightness you would feel if clowns had visited, without the visit.

Funny Faces

  • Get with a partner and sit cross-legged on the floor with your knees touching.
  • Each of you, look down at your lap and close your eyes. Think of a big, silly face you want to make. The biggest and silliest face you can possibly make. (The only rule is that you can’t close your eyes because you need to be able to see the other person.)
  • On the count of three, both pop your heads up and make your big, silly face. Hold it until one person laughs.
  • Do it all again. See how many times you can make your partner laugh. See how many times your partner makes you laugh. Both are fun!
  • Don’t have anyone at home you can partner with? Try getting on a video chat with someone and play virtually. This is a great way to have fun and connect with someone who you can’t visit in person.
  • Or, sit in front of a mirror and see if you can make yourself laugh. Surprising yourself and making yourself laugh is super fun!
  • Once you have mastered this version of the game, try thinking of two different faces. After you look up and show your first face, try to slowly, slowly, SLOOOOOOWLY shift from one funny face to the next. See if you can make it all the way to the second face before your partner (or you) bursts out laughing.

You can download a printable version of this activity here.

Andres, Naomi and Leah stand nose-to-nose                                                  Four clowns fit into a picture frame

Ecuador 2019

COVID-19 & CWB : Program Cancellation

Dear Supporters, 


Due to the global pandemic of COVID-19 we cancelled our tour to Colombia (scheduled to depart March 12th). We are cancelling all programs through the end of April, after which time we will reevaluate. 


Cancelling the tour 14 hours before departure was a hard decision. CWB – USA spent  months organizing a tour to the Venezualan/Colombian border. Cancelling the tour represents the loss of hundreds of hours of work. However, protecting our audience is our primary concern. Once we framed the decision in terms of our values, and the most recent World Health Organization guidelines, it became clear that our presence could potentially harm our audience. 


  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a global pandemic, and has recommended that everyone cease non-essential travel and cancel public gatherings. 


  • The ethical decision-making for each tour includes the following questions: Will we cause harm? Is this the right time? In this case, it’s clear that the only way we can prevent the spread of COVID-19 is by halting our international travel. 


  • A cholera epidemic hit Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. It was brought to the country by a humanitarian aid worker. The worker was so energized by their desire to help with earthquake relief that they neglected to follow other precautions. I share this example as a reminder about CWB’s commitment to do no harm. In this situation, CWB – USA knows our desire to help can put others at risk. 


As Executive Director, my commitment is to serve the audience. It’s hard to accept that at this moment, that means cancelling the show. We appreciate your continued support as we navigate uncertainty. While we won’t have tours over the next month, we will continue to connect with you over shared experiences of resilience. 


In Gratitude,


Naomi Shafer

Executive Director, CWB – USA


Ahmad wears a clown nose and a bowler hat, and reaches out to shake an audience member's hand

Strategic Partnerships

“In Spanish we say resignificar, which I guess you could translate as ‘redefine.’ I wanted to redefine the role of the clown. To really make a transformation or push a button in society, we need professional clowns.”

– Ilana Levy, founder CaliClown

Over the past year, my conversations with CWB project partners Rami Khader (Diyar Theatre) and Ilana Levy (CaliClown) have returned to the same question: How can we resignificar (redefine) clowning and support artists who want to be professional clowns, if there isn’t access to clown training?

We arrived at the answer together.

Three-Year Programs

CWB – USA is launching a new initiative to support long-term programming. These partnerships focus on capacity building for local clown organizations. We will emphasize clown training for artists working within their home communities—communities experiencing protracted displacement and violence.

To start, we are committing to a three-year program that includes:

  • Six 30-hour training intensives for local artists.
  • The creation of six original clown performances to be toured in refugee camps, schools, and rural areas.
  • Train-the-trainer workshops for social workers and teachers, to bring levity to their work.

Program Goals

Over the past few years, we have frequently partnered with artists living in and alongside the communities we perform for. Our new long-term partnerships are an opportunity to expand collaborations and support artists who live in areas of protracted displacement and ongoing crisis.

This program expands upon our existing partnerships with CaliClown (Colombia)  and Diyar Theatre (Palestine).

The goal of this program is to support the formation and continuation of clowning in these areas, as well as demonstrate cross-cultural collaboration and solidarity to our audiences. Supporting local partners so they can train and perform in place, even after CWB’s tour is over, contributes to that goal.

A panorama shot of Naomi, Andres and the audience

Audience of One

Six months ago, CWB – USA wrapped our last performance in Myanmar. Over the course of the tour we spent 60 hours on planes, six hours a day in the car, and performed for over 9,000 people. Amidst all those shows (and motion sickness) one moment stands out.

Naomi holds hands with an excited little boyAs we drove to our final performance of the tour, I thought, “I’m tired.” I’d spent the break between shows packing and worrying about CWB’s end-of-year fundraising campaign. We were all quiet in the van, taking in our last views of Myitkyina, Myanmar.

Our show format includes a steady parade of volunteers joining us onstage. Anytime a child volunteer comes up, the audience gets more excited. I can feel a little bit of tension, feel the audience wonder, “Will these people make fun of the child?” That’s a fair concern. It’s our job to make sure the child feels supported and validated. It’s our job to make them the star of the show. We have to be worthy of their trust. We invite a chorus of kids onstage for the finale of each show in Myanmar. Together, we say and act out the “Safety Signs.” It’s the moment where the clowns turn the show over to the kids and the kids become the experts.

In our final audience in Myanmar, there’s a young boy with a disability that impacts his motor skills and speech. Throughout the show, he breaks away from the audience and into the circle, momentarily joining us onstage. Sometimes an adult leads him offstage, and sometimes he leaves on his own. There are whole scenes in which he provides the fourth counterpoint to our action. As I approach a section of the audience in search of my final volunteer, the crowd parts to reveal the little boy. He claps his hands and steps forward, but his caregiver holds him back. She’s protective: The earlier volunteers did challenging acts, like holding spinning plates, climbing on shoulders and making foam balls disappear. I make eye contact with her and she looks a little nervous. I feel a little nervous too. I can tell she doesn’t want to set him up for failure. “What if he can’t do it,” we both think.

I kneel down toward his eye level and hold out my hand for a high-five. The whole section of audience is watching the two of us. He eagerly taps my hands, giggling and grinning. We do it again, and the audience applauds.

I know that Leah, Andres, Hla Mo, and a whole crew of volunteers are carrying the show for the rest of the audience, but for me, it’s just about this kid. The section of audience where he had been standing is watching and laughing, acting out the “Safety Signs” along with us. When we take a bow with the rest of the volunteers, that little boy receives a huge cheer.

Aline is encircled by kids in Mexico

2019 Goals: Meaningful Impact and Connections

CWB – USA’s scope is growing. From 2015 to 2018, our audience doubled in size. Each year we steadily increase the number of workshops, performances, and people served. It’s exciting to see that outcome, but it is not our goal.

If we only planned tours with year-end totals in mind, we would fail to reach some of the most vulnerable communities. Our programming is responsive to the invitations we receive. So while I have a pretty good idea of where we’ll tour this year, there’s a lot of flexibility. What I do know is that in January 2020, I will evaluate my work based on these five goals:

Programming reflects the differing types and causes of displacement.

What do you think of when you think “refugee?” A camp with tents? A group of people who all look the same? A certain continent? Displacement is complex. CWB – USA tries to respond to many different types of displacement. Maybe that means communities experiencing generations of internal displacement, within their own country. Or maybe it means people who have survived an environmental disaster or epidemic. Or people who are displaced because of war, politics, and economics.

This year, on our project page, we will make sure to identify what type of displacement or marginalization our audience has experienced or is experiencing.

 Artists feel connected to, and supported by, CWB both on and off tour.

CWB exists because of the generosity of our professional artists. We as an organization want to make sure they’re supported and celebrated. On tour, that includes securing comfortable accommodation, enough meal time, a day off, etc. Off tour, that might look like hosting trainings and workshops, creating media, connecting artists to speaking engagements, transparent administration, and sending birthday cards.

Build diversity in performing teams.

It is important that our performing teams—and organization as a whole—reflect the diversity of our audiences and the world. Part of the strategy for this year is to always work with local artists, actively recruit and support new artists, and collaborate with other chapters from Clowns Without Borders International.

Each tour includes a non-performing team member.

Who holds the car keys? Who keeps track of the money? Who checks in with our host at each location? Who collects audience feedback? Who keeps in touch with the office or local media? Often, these jobs fall to the (performing) team leader. Unsurprisingly, when we have a non-performing team member those tasks can be shared and delegated, so the tour is less stressful for everyone.

Generate professional media from each tour.

How do we share our work with the world? We see a strong correlation between tours with a non-performing team member and tours with great media. Conversely, some tours return with only a handful of blurry photos to document the experience. Our primary audience will always be the displaced people who attend our live performances, but we also want to share our work globally. This means that we will hire local photographers and filmmakers whenever possible, and spend more time reaching out to media contacts.

Ideas? Questions? Comments? Email us at info[at]clownswithoutborders[dot]org!

St. Maarten performance

So You Want To Be a Clown?

Do you dream of running away to join the circus? Have you ever tried on a red nose? If you want to meet your inner clown, or take your craft one step further, come take a clown class with us!

CWB only works with professional performing artists. One of the beautiful contradictions of clown is that it often looks easy and relatable. That ease is the result of hours of training. Take the first steps on your clown journey, or deepen your craft, at one of these programs:

Clown Camp: June 9–14, Lacrosse, Wisconsin

Join CWB Executive Director Naomi Shafer at Clown Camp. Since 1981, Clown Camp has trained over 5,000 aspiring and seasoned clowns from around the world. This program offers a choice of 70+ hours of clown classes.

Information and Registration.

Clown Encuentro : June 27–30, Cali, Colombia

“We believe in the power of the clown to heal, unite and transform our society.” Clown Encuentro is four days of performances, workshops, and presentations. Meet CWB’s long-time partner CaliClown, and take workshops with CWB board member Sayda Trujillo.

Information and Registration.

Dell Arte Summer Intensive : June 24–July 12, Blue Lake, California

Study physical theatre with CWB board member Sayda Trujillo. Each day includes five hours of classes, plus additional rehearsal time. Students will focus on voice, awareness, dynamic play, and mask.

Information and Registration.

Alte Poste Kulturforum : July 23 – 27 Nuess, Germany

Discover Zen Clown Street Work with CWB – USA founder Moshe Cohen. What happens when you take your clown to the streets? This is an opportunity to explore clown and lightness, culminating in clown actions in public.

Information and Registration

Ravensurger Sommer Akademie : July 28 – August 3rd, Ravensburg, Germany

Join CWB founder Moshe Cohen and other world-class teachers for an intensive clown week. Moshe’s workshops will focus on Deep Clown. Through Butoh dance exercises participants will slow down and hone their connection to their inner clown.

Information and Registration.

Clowns shot from the back, facing an audience seated on a hillside

Did CWB – USA Meet Its 2018 Goals?

Laughing Matters! This is the core of our work at Clowns Without Borders – USA. Our artists see and experience laughter’s impact on an audience. You’ve probably glimpsed this in our photos. You’ve read our final statistics from a tour. The total number of performances and participants is the easiest way to measure our work, but is by no means the most important way we evaluate our impact.

In 2018, we had a five part strategy for our programming:

Respond to crisis situations and those who are experiencing current displacement.

CWB’s first tours were in refugee camps and communities experiencing displacement as the result of a crisis situation. Seven of our 2018 tours were for an audience that was currently displaced or had been impacted by a trauma within the past year. Those tours included both of the tours to Mexico and Puerto Rico, the Balkan Route, Lebanon, and Guatemala Volcano Response.

Respond to situations caused/impacted by the United States.

CWB – USA often tours to areas where our country of origin has impacted displacement. Though our mission is to be “without borders,” the nationality of the team impacts our audience’s experience. In 2018, six of our tours were inextricably linked to how the U.S. impacts displacement. Those included both of our tours in Colombia, Mexico, and Puerto Rico.

Respond to situations of protracted displacement.

The U.N. defines protracted displacement as displacement that lasts for more than five years. It’s most comfortable to think of displacement as a temporary phase in someone’s life. Shifting political and global realities mean that the majority of the world’s displaced people have, or will, experience protractions. 2018 tours responded to protracted displacement in both Colombia tours, Lebanon, and Myanmar. The indigenous communities we performed for in Mexico have also experienced generations of displacement.

Build diversity within performing teams.

CWB – USA strives to be an equitable and just organization. In 2018, all tours had teams of mixed nationality, gender identification, and race. All tours except the Balkan Route and Myanmar had local artists. Like any human experience, displacement impacts all types of people. It’s important that our performing teams reflect the diversity of our audiences, and of our world.

Partner with CSF-Canada and PSF-Brasil to strengthen CWB’s presence in the Western Hemisphere.

CWB – USA is proud to work as a member of Clowns Without Borders International. Therefore we work in a spirit of collaboration instead of competition. At the 2018 General Assembly, the chapters from Canada and Brazil put out a call looking for collaborators. CWB – USA joined our neighbor chapters on tours in Mexico, Colombia, Haiti, and Guatemala.

Naomi and Leah read a newspaper

No Comedy Without Conflict

Conflict is at the heart of most comedy. But if everyone gets along, there’s not much to laugh at.

No Comedy Without Conflict?

One of the great joys of physical comedy is watching a fight unfold. Clowns are relatable because they wear their heart on their sleeve, much as a toddler might go from laughter, to shock, to tears, and back to laughter. What may start with one clown mistakenly taking the other’s suitcase can escalate into an all-out brawl.

Clowns Without Borders shows come together very quickly, so we rely on easily accessible, common vocabulary. As a performer, I love slapstick. It’s a nearly universal clown language, and I have so much fun getting carried away in the absurdity of a clown fight. But when clowning in conflict zones, some of the familiar slapstick tropes lose their charm. For communities experiencing acute or generational violence, a punch is not a punchline—it’s an exhausting reality.

Is It Safe?

I noticed this firsthand in Myanmar. CWB – USA toured in partnership with Mines Advisory Group, and part of the show contained safety messages about explosives. Our ideas for the show had to be approved, and also needed to uphold the educational messaging. We couldn’t add anything to the show that made mines look fun, or showed us playing with a mine. Nor could we add anything that made light of an explosion or injury.

This meant that a lot of our initial ideas were cut. One was to pretend the diavalo was a mine and play a comedic game of “hot potato.” Of course, this meant the clowns would have to touch “a mine,” which went directly against the safety message. Ditto for the idea of a ball rolling into an unsafe area, and the clowns using acrobatics to get it back. Finally, after a lot of trial and a lot of error, we found a story that worked: The clowns are arriving in a new place and learning about what’s safe for that area.

Is It Funny?

As we learned about the real-life consequences of living with land mine contamination, it felt considerably less fun to create violence or aggression in the show. In response, we shifted some of the slapstick moments. Instead of overt clown conflict, our conflict was accidental (mostly). This meant that when Andres took a bow, he would accidentally hit Leah and me. Instead of pulling Leah’s pants down, they would fall off “accidentally” as she jumped rope. We decided that it was more fun to be clumsy (very, very clumsy) than overtly violent.

The most violent part of the show was when Leah stole my newspaper. This results in a tug of war, but Leah gets so carried away that she continues the tugging action after I stop. To get her attention, I tap her with the rolled up newspaper, which sends her into a dramatic fall. This leads to “Dead or Alive,” a skit wherein one clown (Leah) pretends to be dead, and the other (me) goes into hysterics. Why is it funny to watch one clown grieve her friend’s death, especially for an audience who shares this experience? Maybe because the outcome (death) doesn’t match the action (a tap from a newspaper). Or maybe because we know all along that this is a joke on me. As I sob, over Leah’s “dead” body, she sits up and makes fun of me. It reminds the audience that this is all a game.

What Do We Want To Leave Behind?

Ultimately, each group of clowns works together with local partners to decide what is appropriate for the team and the audience. Sometimes, like this summer in Colombia, we have a specific request not to include violence. Other times, the team makes those decisions on its own. We always ask, “What archetypes are harmful to uphold?” and, “Is there a way to shift some of the norms around how violence might normally play out?”

So for Clowns Without Borders, “No comedy without conflict” isn’t always true. Rather, we say, “No comedy to promote or normalize violence.”