All the clowns say "Ta-Da!"

First of May Part 2: Dustin Allen, Melissa Aston, and Ania Upstill

In the American circus, “first of May” refers to someone who is in their first season with the circus. In that spirit, we interviewed three artists about their respective first CWB – USA tour. This is the second in a four-part conversation, continuing our discussion with CWB – USA Executive Director Naomi Shafer and artists Dustin Allen, Melissa Aston, and Ania Upstill. Click each artist’s name to learn more about their tour. 

CWB always works in teams. What did you learn from your team?

Ania: I learned a lot from Poki [the other CWB artist on tour] about listening and letting the process happen as we crafted the show. I’ve been working on listening since I went to Dell’Arte [International School of Physical Theatre] because I previously worked as a director and I have a very specific structure in mind. Poki is a wonderful listener and collaborator in that he’s much more willing to look at the flow. This was especially helpful when we worked in multiple languages.

Dustin: My team consisted of David Lichtenstein, an OG CWB clown, and Sabine Choucair, who runs Clown Me In in Lebanon. To quickly distill one thing I learned from each of them: Sabine showed me the power of entering a space. The moment she crosses the threshold, or even gets out of the vehicle, she brings energy. Her eyes grow to the size of the moon and she just radiates. We were told to watch out for the security guards, but they would laugh too. It was such a lesson in presence. David gave one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen. We were in Bosnia and he was really sick. We didn’t even know if he was going to be able to do the show. He was knocked out in the backseat of the car and when we got to our site, he arose from his state and put on one of the best individual performances I’ve ever seen in my life. The whole crowd was all about David for the whole show. They would only cheer when he entered the space. I saw this amazing resilience.

Melissa: My team was really varied and I had a lot to admire from each person. [Palhaços sem Fronteiras Brasil artist] Ana was our leader. She is an extremely capable person who played music for all of our acts and then ran to do her own act in between. That kept the whole show moving naturally. I was awed by that, the way she could switch directions. And then we had Faeble, who’s a wonderful American clown. He could come in and just take up the space, be present, and get everyone engaged with his character in just a look, or a laugh. He really knew how to connect with audience. Sorayla is a Brazilian clown who has a wonderful warmth about her, and the kids all knew her. She really connected with the kids in a way that made me admire her. We had one other person, Ricky, who was generous onstage, really giving a lot. He was someone who would perform a little bit and then run and take pictures. That back and forth isn’t something I could do.

What advice would you give yourself, or what do you want to remember for a future tour?

A: I think it’s important to talk to your team members about responsibilities and to set a check-in time. Make sure people are clear about who is doing what. Be aware that there’s a lot of emotional…people will have emotions about the things they see. These are situations that are not the easiest to witness. Try to allow yourself time to process. You’re going to be clowning and experiencing joy and laughter, and also feel sad and exhausted. Prepare yourself to be in that space.

D: It’s about not being afraid. Sometimes you really feel your privilege. In my experience, the audience members were happy to talk to us. They would ask us to tell people back home what was going on and asked us to share stories about their family, or their country, or their people. I spent a lot time being really self-critical, wondering whether I was good enough for them. A lot of people might say “Oh, you’re a professional performer so the stakes of the tour are probably a little bit lower, it’s a friendly crowd.” But actually no, it’s the highest stakes crowd I’ve ever performed for in my life. Know that people who are going through a hard time are giving you their attention. There’s pressure to make it worth their while; to take them away from what they’re going through as much as you can.

My job is to cast people who will treat every show like it’s their most important show. I need to make sure there isn’t an ego like, ‘Why aren’t we taking pictures of this show,’ or ‘Why isn’t there a program with my name on it.’ CWB seeks artists with skills, integrity, and also the humility and endurance to give each performance and audience member that care and presence. –Naomi Shafer

M: Communication is really key, especially when things come up. If they aren’t talked about or resolved in such a close-knit working environment, they can get more complicated. You should also take the pressure off yourself in terms of perfectionism. Of course you want to do your best, but that attitude can take away from the experience. It puts you in your head rather than being present within the environment. My advice is to look around and be more open. Remember self-care, taking care of the emotional aspects of touring. Make that part of a routine.

Do you view the news—and reporting about displacement and crisis—differently, now that you’ve experienced a CWB tour?

D: It’s been on my mind a lot because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve looked for reporting on vulnerable people and how they’re being treated. It seems so dangerous and our audiences were already living in a dangerous environment. I promised myself that I would be more vigilant in standing up for displaced people and refugees. I want to seriously engage with people who are misinformed. The tour changed my mindset and my goals in a huge way, and I’m trying to find more ways to get involved with human rights advocacy, activism, and policy. Performing is not necessarily the most important part of the CWB experience, and it continues to shake me up to this day.

M: I’m a little stymied in thinking about that question, but it’s deep in my awareness. Before the tour, I didn’t have a clue. Even about situations of displacement in my own country. The experience makes me question how things are in my own country, not just faraway lands. The audiences we met live in fragile, volatile situations but they also have a strength and resilience to live in those tenuous circumstances. I had never thought about that before, what it takes to live like that.

Why does laughing matter?

A: I really think that laughter helps people deal with trauma. It breaks a cycle of anxiety and allows people to take joy in the moment, even under oppressive circumstances. We’re all feeling that now, with most people under some form of restriction. Of course that varies depending on where you are, but we can now see the importance of presence and joy in the little things.

Poki balances on Ania's shoulders, in front of a large outdoor audience

First of May Part 1: Dustin Allen, Melissa Aston, and Ania Upstill

CWB – USA Executive Director Naomi Shafer interviewed Dustin Allen, Melissa Aston, and Ania Upstill on May 1 2020. In American circus, “First of May” is a nickname for somebody who is in the circus for the first time. These three artists went on their first CWB tours in 2019. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

What kind of clown are you?

Ania: I’m Ania Upstill. I’m currently in New Zealand and I’m a very joyful clown. 

Dustin: My name is Dustin Allen. I’m in northern British Colombia, in western Canada. When I was with CWB, I was a musical clown who fell down a lot. 

Melissa: I’m Melissa Aston, from Vancouver British Colombia. What kind of clown am I? I’m Cosmo, very clueless, somewhat conceited, and not very smart.

Where did you go on your first CWB tour and why was CWB touring to that location?

A: My first tour was in Palestine, April 2019. The tour aimed to build skills with clowns who were already there. We partnered with Diyar Theatre company to address the very difficult and traumatic experience of living under occupation.

D: I was on the Balkan Tour in February 2019. We toured through Bosnia, Serbia and up to Romania. We were performing in official and unofficial camps for displaced people who were arriving from all over the Middle East and Africa. They were mostly traveling on foot, trying to get through Slovenia and Italy to Western Europe. People in the camps had stayed there from anywhere between a couple of weeks to over a year.

M: In September 2019 I went to the state of Mato Grosso du Sol, in Brazil. We were there to provide some kind of comic relief to the Indigenous populations, to the Guarnaí people who have been displaced due to industrial agriculture.

How did you learn about CWB?

A: I heard about CWB a few years ago, before I was a clown. I thought it was amazing but didn’t think it was something that I could do. I went to Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre. One of my faculty members at the time, Sayda Trujillo, is a CWB board member. Sayda did a whole seminar on CWB and that made me really want to do it—she was very encouraging of us to apply.

D: I became aware of CWB in 2012 or 2013. I went to Dell’Arte and I always considered a CWB-type project to be a goal or bucket list thing. I sent in an application as soon as I graduated in 2014 and I didn’t hear back until 2019!

M: I’ve been clowning for a number of years and I’ve known about CWB for about 20 years. I went to school in San Francisco at Clown Conservatory—part of Circus Center—and was familiar with [CWB – USA founder] Moshe Cohen. Around 2016, I decided that it was time to try and go on tour. I was scheduled to go to Turkey and Lebanon but that tour fell through for political and safety reasons. I’ve been in the database for a long time and I finally got the chance to go on tour. It worked out really well. 

There are a lot of different timelines for going on a CWB tour. The process of casting a tour involves a magical juggling act: availability; cancellations; personalities; complimentary skill sets, etc.

-Naomi Shafer

How did you prepare for your first tour?

A: The most important thing for me was talking to the other clowns that would be on tour, and talking to our coordinator in Palestine to determine how we wanted to work together. I decided which instruments to bring, which skills and costume pieces, and let that frame my preparation.

D: I was in school at the time, so a huge part of my preparation was rescheduling all of my exams and arranging a month off of classes. I was going with two really experienced people [Sabine Choucair and David Lichtenstein], and I reached out to them. They said, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll go with the flow.” I tried to not psyche myself out too much. I trusted that they would take care of me, and they did. 

M: I like to be prepared. I spent weeks getting new costume pieces, a pile of snacks, and stuff for emergencies. I brought a huge suitcase of props, snacks, and equipment…and I didn’t use hardly any of them! Because you don’t know, right? You just think you might need something, so I brought a lot of toys. 

I guess I really emphasize packing snacks. That’s what I was thinking about on tour last year.

-Naomi Shafer

What was a golden moment from your tour?

A: We visited the circus school in Nablus, in the West Bank. It was amazing to see the community built around circus. It gives young people a place to come and play and what they’ve done with limited resources is really incredible. There was a beautiful, beautiful audience with lots of families and a wide age range. Afterward, we got to talk to circus artists and young people involved in the school. 

D: Romania was the last country we toured. We were able to go really deep into the interior and perform a couple shows for Roma communities. The audiences were the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever encountered in my life. They were so generous. We stayed over one night and I got to play music with two brothers who are touring musicians. They handed me a guitar to play, and I didn’t recognize the tuning. I tried to tune it by ear, and I worried they would think less of me because I was kind of struggling. But then they took it away from me and returned it to the original tuning. They handed it back like, “No, this is the tuning.” That was such an experience and I felt really immersed in a special atmosphere. 

M: Actually, I wrote about this. We had just received some really bad news and it was emotionally affecting the whole group. I had a really bad and hard day. We went out to this little school and did a show there. The kids came out to greet us, and they were so sweet and wonderful. Being around them completely changed my emotional state. I was able to feel the joy that they were embodying. It helped me see the transformative power in some of the stuff we do, and I felt like I was given that gift from them. 

What was hard?

A: I learned a lot about the situation in Palestine and the West Bank from [tour partners] Rami, Osamaa, and Ahmad, and from the communities we visited. Poki [the other American clown on tour] and I processed by taking really long walks to talk through how we were working fully as a team, how we were working with just the two of us, and how to best communicate. We wanted to be careful to collaborate but also lead the process as the more experienced clowns. There was a lot of walking and talking around Bethlehem. 

D: I was lucky to be with two really experienced humanitarian clowns. That’s not to say they were unshakable, because some of the places we went, things we saw, and conditions that migrants are living in—it would shake anyone. I had my eyes torn open the most, though, because I was the youngest and I’d never seen anything like that. We had really long drives, which were tough. But it ended up as time to sit together and talk through things, and also have silence to contemplate what we’d gone through. A lot of the difficulty was ameliorated by being with two awesomely experienced people to guide me through. 

M: We had a meeting every night in which we talked through stuff that would come up during the day. That was helpful, but there was so much coming at us from the tough atmosphere in Brazil. It can become fairly intense when you’re working in a close creative environment. Everyone felt it if something wasn’t quite right within our group. I’m pretty introverted and I like to go off on my own to write and keep a journal. Writing helped me emotionally process all the stuff that was coming at us. I also have my own physical process of moving energy out of my space, which I do pretty much every day. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this conversation! 


Woman in yellow speaks and looks toward the camera

World Humanitarian Day 2020

World Humanitarian Day

Today is World Humanitarian Day, commemorating aid workers who are killed or injured in the course of their work, and those who continue to serve others despite the odds.

Humanitarian aid is intended to save lives and preserve dignity in the face of disaster, human-made or otherwise. It also seeks to strengthen preparedness for such disasters. Humanitarian aid situates itself within overlapping and accelerating crises: climate change, forced displacement, the COVID-19 pandemic, and global inequality, to name a few. World Humanitarian Day specifically designates the August 19th, 2003, bombing of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, which killed 22 people. That tragedy illustrated the extreme risk to 21st century aid workers.

The Changing Face of Aid

Aid workers were not always considered targets but the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq, plus subsequent overlap among military and humanitarian operations, eviscerated local trust in outside actors. As a result, aid orgs had to prioritize worker safety like never before, separating workers from the populations they were meant to serve. Today, many organizations run remote field offices staffed by locals, while international workers serve in more secure locations, like capital cities.*

As natural and human-made disaster overlap and exacerbate one another, the humanitarian aid sector has learned from local responsiveness. The word “aid” often evokes images of vaccines, pounds of rice distributed, and debris removed. These life-saving services are essential. But another key aspect of humanitarian aid is upholding human dignity. How does an organization deliver aid without disempowering the recipients? Local leaders provide partner organizations and humanitarian aid headquarters with critical insight into their communities.

CWB – USA and Humanitarian Aid

CWB is a small non-profit, and we have the honor of partnering with local leaders who often include the field office employees of a larger NGO or humanitarian aid organization. These individuals champion CWB. They know when it’s the right time for clowns, and when it’s too soon. Field staff work longer hours when they partner with us, buying props, procuring snacks, providing translation, and documenting the show. They also become involved in the whimsy of producing a clown tour! CWB is immensely grateful to recent humanitarian aid tour partners Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados-Ecuador (SJR-EC) and Gift of the Givers, which supported CWB on our Ecuador and Zimbabwe tours, respectively.

We’re able to do our work because we know that aid workers are providing essential services and material support—ensuring survival so healing can begin. Clowns are not emergency providers, and they don’t “make someone laugh.” Instead, CWB artists try to enlarge that healing space by inviting audiences to gather in levity and emotional relief. Aid workers are part of our audience, too. It’s deeply moving to see aid workers laughing alongside the communities they serve and live within.

Humanitarian aid is often talked about in huge numbers and insurmountable odds. Today, CWB – USA celebrates the resilience of aid workers and the intimate moments when we’re able to connect through laughter.

*For more on this topic, see The New Humanitarian: “COVID-19 changed the world. Can it change aid too?” 

Darina chases children in her chicken costume

UNICEF Helps Girls Share Their COVID-19 Stories

What does resilience look like these days? UNICEF’s “Coping With COVID-19” video series highlights sixteen girls from nine different countries, as they document their daily life during COVID. CWB – USA envisions a future in which children are free to exercise their human rights, including self-expression, play and self-discovery. We love the resilience and curiosity on display in these videos. Take a look:


Parents and children laugh during a show in Mexico

When Children Take the Lead: New UN Report

The United Nations Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence Against Children recently published a report titled “When children take the lead: 10 child participation approaches to tackle violence.” This report draws parallels between the development of the internet and the enactment of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Both offer unprecedented participatory access, affecting global perspectives on childhood. But have access and participation generated lasting change over the past 30 years? The report presents a case study of 10 different child-participation programs, each one aimed at preventing violence.

Child Participation

The UNCRC changed the way children are viewed—they are active participants in their own lives, with distinct rights and perspectives on their own best interests. Clowns Without Borders adheres to the UNCRC as a guiding document, and knows that the child leads in every clowning interaction. As any CWB artist will tell you, kids know what they like. Our tours are constant works in process as artists tweak their acts to better resonate with audience reactions .

Perhaps one of the most groundbreaking aspects of the UNCRC is its provision that children express their views on matters concerning their own lives, and that their views be taken seriously by governments and other authorities. The Convention is legally binding. Yet children’s voices are conspicuously absent from global debates and, even worse, prominent youth activists are often derided for their age despite holding unique rights and privileges to speak on issues concerning their own lives. Child participation requires inclusion and mutual respect from adults. The “When children take the lead” report found that children increasingly take initiative and create participatory spaces for themselves.

Internet Access and Getting Results

The report suggests that many children see adults seamlessly interact with their phones, treating them as personal assistants with instant answers—in other words, using their device to exert control over their own lives. As more and more children access the internet and become similarly accustomed to participation, control, and results, how will that influence their expectations of decision-making power? Are governments and other authorities ready to allow children’s participation to yield actual results and policy decisions?

After all, children wield the power of the internet to generate massive and impactful action. They don’t have to wait for adult-granted spaces. “When children take the lead” finds:

This growing power to participate, coupled with the means to do so, is making headlines. For example, in 2009, aged just 11, Malala Yousafzai wrote a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC Urdu service about her life during the Taliban occupa on of Swat, Pakistan, which encouraged a movement advocating for girls’ rights to education and won her the 2014 Nobel Prize.

There are so many others: the Chilean students’ movement in 2011; the ‘bucket challenge’ that went viral in 2014 using social media to tell a global audience about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, with over 17 million people posting videos online; and the ‘Not Too Young To Run’ campaign in Nigeria to reduce the age limit for running for elected office, which has now turned into a larger global movement. We have seen 16 and 17 year-olds expressing their disappointment that they could not vote in the UK’s 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum in 2016; the 2018 March for our Lives campaign, with adolescents organizing one of the biggest youth-led protests in the USA since the Viet Nam war; and Greta Thunberg mobilizing thousands around climate change.

Case Studies

Silenced children cannot self-advocate nor make change. It’s clear that children are eager to participate, but are decision-makers ready to accept what they have to say? “When children take the lead” examined 10 different initiatives, including governmental, NGO and civil society programs. Two are global, two are multilateral (Malawi and Guatemala, and Nigeria and USA), one is regionally based in Europe, and the remaining five hail from Chile, India, Tanzania, Malaysia, Mexico. They cover a range of issues pertaining to violence against children, including bullying, gender-based violence and child marriage, labor, and LGBTQ+ discrimination.

The report goes on to classify each initiative based on its type of child participation. For example, did children come up with the idea? Do they implement its programming? Finally, the report questions whether children are beneficiaries, partners, and/or leaders in the initiative. “When children take the lead” concludes that the most successful case studies are those that allow children to design and lead based on issues they have identified, and which encourage peer-to-peer approaches. The successful initiatives have clear achievements and ongoing participation.

Click here to learn more about the 10 case studies and specific findings!







Kolleen blows bubbles in Lesvos

Ethical Volunteering

Did you know that all Clowns Without Borders artists volunteer their time during a tour? These professionals donate their abilities and expertise to craft responsive, culturally humble performance tours that create space for levity amidst crisis.

Code of Ethics

CWB tours all over the world. Each community is different, each crisis is different, and every volunteer situation is infinitely complex. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, or like we can’t possibly understand everything we need to know about the communities we serve. And that’s true. As outsiders we cannot know what it’s like to live through the crisis our audience is experiencing. Making assumptions will only take us further away from listening to our audiences. Instead, we lead with empathy, local wisdom, and cultural humility.

Clowns Without Borders International has a Code of Ethics, to which all chapters adhere. The Code of Ethics guides staff, performer, and non-performing volunteer behavior before, during, and after a tour. It states that CWB artists are not on tour to impart a “point of view,” nor may they “educate” the population they’re serving. The Code of Ethics also asks that artists continue to share their experiences after they return home, spreading awareness about crises of forced displacement.

How We Work

The ethics of volunteering extends beyond artist and staff behavior, and deep into how we organize a tour from the very beginning. Perhaps most importantly, CWB only goes where it’s invited. That means we know the communities we serve asked for our presence. We trust our community partners to tell us if our presence is appropriate, or if the arrival of clowns could threaten or strain the community. There’s a lot of safety and trust to be gained when we know people want our performances.

We always work with a local organization and almost always include local artists on a performance team. Audiences may connect more freely with performers who look like them and speak their language. A local organization can provide invaluable guidance and leadership for logistics, safety, and cultural sensitivity. The wisdom of our project partners and diverse performing teams allows us to create culturally humble and appropriate performances.


Volunteering can easily transform into voluntourism: when an outside organization creates short-term volunteer experiences solely for the benefit of the unskilled volunteer, and with little regard for a community’s needs. Voluntoursim feeds the volunteer’s ego and sense of accomplishment. CWB addresses voluntourism through the mechanisms described above: Waiting for a community’s request; working with expert artists and educators; and following the lead of local organizers.

But don’t CWB tours fly in, perform, and then leave? Aren’t fleeting clown performances pretty short-term? How do we know our performances are creating the kind of lasting impact the community desires? It’s true that CWB artists enter and leave communities in a short period of time. But we have a few practices to address our short-term presence:

  • CWB doesn’t exchange anything except laughter. We don’t give away supplies, because we’re there to celebrate the abundance of joy within a community. Our performances are always free and everyone is welcome. There’s no queue to stand in or requirements to be met.
  • CWB often returns to communities because our performances and workshops are repeatedly requested.
  • Voluntourism sets the outsider up as the expert. As outsider clowns, CWB artists are the butt of jokes, the listeners, the cheerleaders, and the fools who just don’t get how daily life is supposed to function. Our audiences and community partners are the experts. As CWB – USA artist Leora Sapon-Shevin says, “Hierarchy is a barrier to connecting with others because it denies both parties their sense of humanity. There’s a real sense of presence in social clowning, of openness to what others are offering.
  • Our three-year strategic plan includes developing an assessment matrix for long-term impact and support for long-term partnerships with Cali Clown in Colombia, and Diyar Theatre in Palestine.
  • Audience laughter and post-show feedback gives us an immediate sense of whether our presence is wanted, or not! Read some audience feedback from Palestine, here.

First-time CWB artists talk about their experiences on tour:

Clown School: An Interview With Selena McMahan

In this series, CWB – USA interviews artists and educators about their experience in clown school. Next up, CWB’s Communications Director Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone talks to CWB – USA board member Selena McMahan, a graduate of The Jacques Lecoq School.

Selena is an actor-clown with the Parisian hospital clown company Le Rire Médecin and a teaching artist with Association Peekaboo! She is also the artistic director of “Inclownito.”

Nicole: How and when did you first start clowning?

Selena: My path was kind of roundabout. I went to liberal arts undergrad at Bowdoin, where I self-designed my own major. I was doing theater and dance when I heard that Moshe [Cohen, founder of CWB – USA] was teaching a workshop in Brooklyn. I had seen Moshe perform when I was a child and I knew that CWB existed, so I knew who he was. Certain people stood out to me at the workshop with their strong understanding of clown, and they all had Pochinko clown training in common.

The workshop got me interested in further training. I came across John Turner [founder of The Clown Farm, now known as Manitoulin Conservatory for Creation and Performance, which is rooted in the work of Richard Pochinko], who teaches on an island in northern Ontario, and I did a workshop with the New York Goofs [now Laughter League].

Nicole: What happened next?

Selena: After those trainings, I heard about the Watson Fellowship, which grants funding to recently-graduated students so they can design and pursue a project outside of the U.S. The first thing that came to mind was CWB. I had heard more about CWB at Moshe’s workshop, and I realized that’s what I wanted to do. I got the grant, propelling me into the work itself without having too much formal training. CWB allowed me to join a tour as the “clown schlepper,” but eventually the other artists decided I could just be in the show. I visited and performed with a lot of hospital clowns and was able to do weekly training in Brazil.

Nicole: How did your year as a Watson Fellow impact your future decisions about clown training?

Selena: After that year, I thought I should pursue more formal training and I considered going to Dell’Arte because I was exposed to lots of performers who had studied there. But the people who stood out to me in with amazing listening skills in their hospital clown work, had all gone to the Jacques Lecoq School. I had heard all kinds of not-so-great things about the culture of the school, but I decided I needed to go there. It helped that I spent time in France as a kid, so it was relatively easy to move to Paris.

Nicole: What kinds of not-so-great things did you hear? And despite that, it still seemed like the right place?

Selena: Pochinko went to Lecoq, but might have been kind of kicked out in the middle of the first year. His clown is inspired by that school, but so much freer, more mystical, spiritual, and intuitive. So in a way, I went from the more intuitive training—just going for it with performing—to a much more formal training afterward. I had already broken out, so I wanted to adhere to more formal training.

Nicole: What is the Lecoq School like?

Selena: I learned so much there. The environment is very…strict, or formal. But the pedagogy is amazing. When I think back to the performers I saw who had gone there, they had this ability to make something out of nothing. The school teaches that skill with a strong rigor. It’s about how to build a scene, a universe, write a script, a climax, and create a surprise at the end. It’s the science of building things that are invisible. To do it, you analyze human behavior and see it through different lenses. Each week, I felt like I was seeing a new world. It was an amazing experience.

Nicole: What does the application require?

Selena: It’s pretty straight forward. You write a motivation letter and send a resume. But my first year, there were 90 students to start and they might not ask you back at the end of the first trimester, and then they cut down to 30 students after the first year. The whole first year is an audition. So that part is harsh.

Nicole: How did you feel coming out of that process?

Selena: After school I worked to regain my sense of freedom, to not feel locked into the formality. Today, when I think about myself, I have a balance between the intuition and the formal training. Now, my work as a hospital clown is all improvisation. Recently, I’ve felt able to meld those two perspectives. I don’t lose sight of how to create a strong scenario. It’s in the back of my mind but I’m able to be present and free. I’ve studied with a lot of people since then, but most of the training I’ve done is connected to hospital clown work. It’s about fine-tuning things, like a theater muscle workout. The basic building blocks of my training are Pochinko and Lecoq. Those are the revolutionary ones, and everything since then has been coaching.

Nicole: What advice do you have for people who are researching clown school?

Selena: People need to know whether they want to perform or whether they want to expand themselves. If clown school is to expand your horizons, you might want a teacher who’s more generous and good at watching out for their students. Look for workshops and descriptions that excite you, and that sound like a caring environment. If you really want to perform, you should work with a teacher who understands the building blocks of clown and will help you structure your performances, pull out your best clown character, and push your limits.

Another approach is to seek out alumni of institutions you’re interested in, but which might require more years of training than you’re ready to commit. As the years go by, I really get the sense that great clown pedagogy comes from a specific lineage. I see disciples of clown masters I’ve studied with put their own spin on teaching, and I can see the lineages of pedagogy.


Selena recommends the following teachers and school as a resource for artists interested in the Lecoq tradition: 

Ami Hattab 


Hélène Gustin


Lory Leshin 


Clown school in tradition of Lecoq but much more focused on clown:


Interested in the hospital clown program Selena works for? You can train with them!



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

What Does “Internally Displaced Person” Mean?

Internally Displaced Person, or IDP, refers to someone who is forced to flee their home but remains within their country of origin. Refugees may cross national boundaries to seek safety, but IDPs are unable, or choose not, to do so. They often remain beyond the reach of humanitarian services because of unsafe conditions within their home country. At the end of 2019, 50.8 million people were internally displaced.

Forty-two percent of all IDPs are in three countries: 7.9 million people in Colombia; 6.1 million people in Syria; and 4.5 million people in Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some countries, like Ukraine and Ethiopia, have an IDP crisis but not a refugee crisis. Critically, IDPs lack special status under international law, unlike refugees. Refugees are supposed to be awarded rights specific to their situation. The United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement sets out the obligations of national governments toward IDPs, but it is not international law.

IDPs and Urbanization

The majority of IDPs live outside formal camps, further separating them from services. As the world’s population becomes more urbanized overall, IDPs follow suit. Many flee from rural to urban settings because of livelihood loss due to climate change, natural or human-made disaster, or infrastructure projects like dams or forestry. People are at risk of continued displacement within urban settings because of urban development that pushes into informal, impoverished, or semi-urban fringe areas of cities. In informal, resource-scarce settings, urban residents may see an influx of IDPs as competition, putting them at increased risk of violence and discrimination.

Urban density presents an opportunity for IDPs to access services. However, they may be denied services like education, housing support, and healthcare because of lack of documentation. The registration system within formal refugee camps allows people to be counted and, in theory, receive the services they need.

CWB – USA and IDPs

Clowns Without Borders USA is proud to serve IDPs. We toured to Myanmar at the end of 2018 and performed a mine safety show for IDPs, in partnership with Mines Advisory Group. In Brazil, the Indigenous communities we served survive under constant threat of displacement due to agricultural intrusion onto their lands. We toured Colombia with Cali Clown and worked with youth who are at risk for gang recruitment. Colombia, which is home to 7.9 million IDPs, has experienced repeated displacement due to civil war, gang violence, natural disasters, and climate change-induced livelihood loss. According to UNICEF, the poorest urban children in Colombia are better able to access services than their rural counterparts, yet they are extremely vulnerable to gang and military recruitment or conscription.

Lebanon 2017

Clown School: An Interview with Hannah Gaff

In this series, CWB – USA interviews artists and educators about their experience in clown and circus school. First up, CWB’s Communications Director Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone talks to Hannah Gaff, a graduate of Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre and a faculty member at the Clown Conservatory, part of Circus Center in San Francisco.

Nicole: When did you first go to clown school?

Hannah: I attended the one-year program at Dell’Arte in 2008–2009. It’s a physical theater training program and clowning was one part of it. At the time, the director was a clown, so it was the basis of his teaching. I was accepted into their MFA program but decided not to go because I wanted to start making my own work. I went back five years later to finish my degree.

Nicole: Why did you choose Dell’Arte?

Hannah: I went to Dell’Arte straight out of undergrad. I loved theater, but I didn’t want to enter into the whole audition, memorizing lines thing. It didn’t appeal to me. I chose a physical theater school so I could create my own work and break out of the box I was in, the roles I was allowed to play. The physical aspect was the access point. It served as a tool for storytelling that bypasses the intellectual. My experience at Dell’Arte kind of blew my mind. I started to understand what it might mean to be an artist and not just an actor. I started to understand my strengths and where I needed to grow. I saw the potential of live performance and how much it can impact people.

Nicole: But you decided not to stay and pursue the MFA at that point?

Hannah: I felt like I couldn’t absorb any more information until I went out and made my own work. I moved to NYC for a year, but it wasn’t for me. I moved to California, started a theater company, and learned a ton. I began to understand what I was missing and I developed a vision for the impact I wanted to have. I knew if I studied at Dell’Arte for two more years, I could develop those tools.

Nicole: Now you teach at Clown Conservatory. What should prospective students know about the main differences between Dell’Arte and Clown Conservatory?

Hannah: Dell’Arte, is an ensemble-based physical theater school. The Clown Conservatory is, at the moment, six months of training set up on a part-time schedule, and it’s specifically clown. They call it human cartoon. To my knowledge, it’s one of the only places where you can study clown on its own. 

Nicole: What do you love about the learning environment at Clown Conservatory?

Hannah: There’s something really important about an intensive setting for learning, because you put in an incredible amount of energy and there’s less of a barrier to full immersion. An intensive setting, like a conservatory or degree program, asks you to fully show up every day. It’s great to see how students develop a perspective on the kind of work they want to make, their strengths as a clown, what they want to say in the world, what it means to craft a story, what they want their audience to feel, and how to be with the audience.

Nicole: What advice would you give someone who is trying to choose a clown school, or is wondering whether formal training is right for them?

Hannah: It can be really helpful to write out who you are as an artist. What compels you to be a clown, what pushes you to make that commitment? What do you hope to discover? Do you want to take a class to see what it’s like? Or do you want to create work? It’s never too late, and Dell’Arte sometimes prefers to have older students because they come in with their own perspective.

Nicole: What’s one thing people can expect to gain from clown school?

Hannah: You should be prepared to develop tools of vulnerability. Clowning parallels life, and it’s really transformative. It helps you learn about yourself.

Learn more about the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatere, and Clown Conservatory at the Circus Center

Clowns Without Borders Girl Laughs Hard

How the COVID-19 Pandemic Impacts Refugees

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt and upended people’s sense of security. The unknown, and all its associated stress and fear, has become the new normal.

It’s important to remember that global crises of inequity continue, and worsen, amid the pandemic. Clowns Without Borders International wrote in its statement regarding the human rights catastrophe along EU borders:

“As COVID-19 sweeps the globe, all of us are in search of safety for ourselves and our loved ones. Meanwhile, on the borders of Europe, many people are also in desperate need of safety from war and persecution. How much more difficult is their plight now, in the face of the current global pandemic?”

This statement applies to migrant and refugee crises around the world, not just at the EU border. Displaced people often lack access to basic material resources, face discrimination, and are denied human rights, like clean water, health care, or the ability to travel. How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting some of the most vulnerable people on the planet?

Exposing Weaknesses

According to the UNHCR, over eighty percent of the world’s refugees and almost all internally displaced people (IDP) are hosted in low- or middle-income countries where resources are scarce. If it wasn’t already clear, this pandemic reveals our global community to be as healthy as the sickest person among us and as safe as the most vulnerable. Refugees and migrants often live in crowded conditions where social distancing is impossible, and medical facilities are ill-equipped. The UNHCR has rushed to provide emergency medical equipment and expertise, but it’s a bandaid for a larger wound.

Prevention and Inclusion

The majority of refugees are hosted in countries with weak or inadequate health systems. Stopping the spread of COVID-19 is imperative, and it becomes even more so when few treatment options exist. The UNHCR is using a multisectoral response, which coordinates access to water, sanitation and hygiene, housing, medical care, and more, to support refugee communities and refugee-hosting nations. The agency is also working to stockpile supplies, identify outbreak response teams, and monitor misinformation.

Displaced people experience discrimination and xenophobia, and may even be denied a nationality. Now, fear, a sense of helplessness, and media rhetoric may impact pubic opinion about who “deserves” access to medical care. A coordinated COVID-19 response will not leave anyone behind, no matter their legal status or nationality. A highly contagious disease can only be controlled if everyone is included in prevention and education, and everyone has access to equitable treatment.

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, write:

“Panic and discrimination never solved a crisis. Political leaders must take the lead, earning trust through transparent and timely information, working together for the common good, and empowering people to participate in protecting health.

Ceding space to rumour, fear mongering and hysteria will not only hamper the response but may have broader implications for human rights, the functioning of accountable, democratic institutions.”


Whether a someone is confined to a camp or fully integrated into a new community—or something in between—refugees and displaced people are vital members of society. They are teachers, farmers, care-givers, artists, engineers and more, and they are working tirelessly to subdue the COVID-19 pandemic:



  • Even when resources are scarce, members of refugee camps find ways to care for one another.

Lebanon 2018

What Does “Refugee” Mean?

Do you know what makes someone a refugee instead of a migrant or an internally displaced person? The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) defines a refugee as someone who is forced to cross international boundaries because of war, violence, persecution, or conflict.

Numbers and definitions

The UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention (Geneva Convention) defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” There are 70 million forcibly displaced people in the world, including at least 25 million registered refugees. Sixty-seven percent of refugees come from only five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. More than half of all refugees are children.

Where do refugees live?

Refugees are not “overrunning” the United States, contrary to popular media narratives. The U.S., along with most other Global North countries, doesn’t even make the list of the world’s top refugee-hosting nations. Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Uganda host over 10 million refugees, total. Germany hosts 1.1 million refugees, but Eighty percent of all refugees are hosted by a country neighboring their place of origin.

Not all refugees live in camps. In fact, sixty percent of refugees live in urban settings and Turkey hosts the largest urban refugee population in the world. The UNHCR plays a vital role in constructing refugee camps and providing an emergency response to refugee crises, but camps are meant to be temporary. Unfortunately, protracted displacement is common and many children grow up in refugee camps.

What happens to refugees after they leave their country of origin?

The UNHCR identifies three durable solutions to refugee status. The first is voluntary repatriation, meaning a refugee volunteers to return to their country of origin. This might be impossible due to cycles of conflict, or because the country of origin cannot or will not guarantee the safety of returning refugees.

Refugees may be integrated or assimilated into their host country, but the vast majority of refugees are hosted by a small handful of countries. This can put a disproportionate strain on host countries, most of which are geographically adjacent to conflict zones.

Refugee resettlement is the third durable solution. This means a refugee is permanently resettled in a third-party country rather than their host country. The refugee will never be forcibly returned to their country of origin, they will be afforded rights and liberties to integrate into their host society, and they have the opportunity to eventually become a naturalized citizen of the new host country. Refugee resettlement allows countries to act in global solidarity with areas disproportionately affected by refugee crises.

Unfortunately, the need for resettlement far outstrips the global community’s willingness to resettle people. In 2017, for every 21 refugees in need of resettlement, only one person departed to a third-party country. Global resettlement needs jumped from 690,000 people in 2014 to 1.4 million people in 2019. As a result, many refugees live in limbo, without naturalized citizenship and the social integration (access to jobs and education, a sense of acceptance and belonging) that comes from a secure legal status. For example, an estimated 93% of Syrian refugees in Jordan live below the poverty line.

Does CWB serve refugees?

Yes! In the last few years alone, CWB – USA has been honored to perform for refugees in Lebanon, Kakuma Camp in Kenya, throughout Turkey, and in partnership with Refugee Services of Texas. CWB’s code of ethics states that our tours aim to better the situation of children experiencing crisis, no matter where they are or what type of crisis. During CWB’s 2017 tour to Turkey, the performances created an opportunity for Turkish children and Syrian refugee children to share social interactions through play and joy.

All the clowns squeeze inside a wooden picture frame

Empathy, Humanity, and Advocacy Are Not Cancelled

A letter from CWB – USA Executive Director Naomi Shafer: 

Dear Community,

I hope you are well.

I know many of you are experiencing job insecurity, restlessness, anxiety, and travel restrictions. You may not be able to see your family. You may suddenly be in close quarters with your family. Maybe, like me, you had to choose which family members to be with, knowing as you did that it meant saying goodbye to others for an unknown amount of time. These choices are hard, yet they are the choices and restrictions faced by millions of displaced people every day.

Right now, many of us are limited to local actions. Our attention, by necessity, is focused on our families and home communities. With that in mind, CWB will continue to advocate for and serve displaced people within the constraints of a pandemic. As China, the United States, and Western Europe struggle with the toll of COVID-19, displaced people around the world are more vulnerable than ever. The best practices for stopping the spread of infectious disease, such as hand washing and social distancing, are impossible in refugee camps where crowding, water and food scarcity, and limited mobility are the norm.

In this time of pandemic, Clowns Without Borders is unable to serve its primary audience. I find myself wondering, “How can Clowns Without Borders continue?” Tours and performances might be cancelled, but empathy, humanity and advocacy are not . We can all reflect on a shared experience of scarcity and a shared goal of resilience. While CWB cannot reach its primary audience, our staff has created a number of online resources in recognition that we are all experiencing crisis, and that laughter and hope are a universal human right.

As always, our intention is to offer relevant programming for people of all ages.

Stay connected to us in the following ways:

  1. Follow us on Facebook (Clowns Without Borders USA) and Instagram (@clownswithoutborders) to see photos and project blogs from the archives. We’ll post archival material on Sundays and Mondays, respectively.
  2. Check our website every Wednesday for new blogs from a variety of CWB contributors.
  3. Tune in on Thursdays for zoom screenings and panel discussions, and FB Live events.
  4. Check our social feeds on Tuesdays for a weekly caption challenge, and on Fridays for a new coloring book image.
  5. On Saturdays, we’ll amplify our amazing artists by reposting and sharing their work on our social channels.

FREE Live Event : Thursday April 2nd, 4pm EST

Our first live event is a screening of True Clowns and Laughter, followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers.

Paúl Gomex takes us on a journey about what it means to use clowning and laughter as a vehicle for connecting with our fellow humans, and the actual value theater holds in a world dominated by digital interactions. Produced in Bozeman, Montana, by Paúl Gomex and Johnny Holder, this short film features footage from Gomex’s journey through some of the places where laughter is needed the most. Reserve your spot here! 

A clown rides a tiny bicycle

Coloring Without Borders

Like everyone, CWB – USA is still adjusting to the rapid changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since we made the difficult decision to cancel our tour to Colombia, we’ve worked to set up online and social media resources for our community of artists and supporters.

We’re sharing a drawing by artist Evie King as a coloring book page. Evie contributed this drawing to a social circus coloring book organized by Charlie Whitehead and Kate Magram. We hope that coloring this image gives you a quiet activity to do alone, or with family, and away from your screen for a few minutes.

If you want, snap a picture of the finished product and tag us @clownswithoutborders on Instagram or Clowns Without Borders USA on Facebook, so the world can see your creation. Happy coloring!

Find a downloadable link to the image here!

Coloring book 3


(Drawing by Evie King)

The Bahamas 2019

Hierarchy Is a Barrier

Leora Sapon-Shevin went on her very first CWB – USA tour this past December. The team, which included Meredith Gordon and Clay Mazing, performed for communities affected by 2019’s Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm. 

Leora sat down with CWB – USA Communications Director Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone to talk about her first tour and the magic of social clowning. 

Nicole: How and why did you start clowning?

Leora: I started clowning because I heard about Clowns Without Borders, and I saw a CWB video. That’s why I went to Dell’Arte.

N: So you were inspired by CWB and then you were finally able to go on a tour?

L: The 2019 tour to The Bahamas was a dream come true and a dream realized. It lived up to every expectation.

N: What drew you to clown in the first place? 

L: Clowning is so magical. I love that magic space between a performer and an audience member. We’re two humans entering into a vulnerable space where anything can happen. Hierarchy is a barrier to connecting with others because it denies both parties their sense of humanity. That vulnerable space allows status to dissolve. In social clowning, there’s a real sense of presence, of openness to what others are offering. 

N: Tell me more about The Bahamas tour. 

L: Meredith Gordon, Clay Mazing, and I toured to The Bahamas in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm. First, we went to Nassau, the capital, which had not sustained any damage and was sheltering people evacuated from other islands. We didn’t know the exact situation of many of the people at the shelter, but the aid workers discouraged us from taking photos and doing shows outside. People at the shelter might have been afraid to leave because of their immigration status. 

[Editor’s note: Many evacuees in Nassau were Haitian migrants from the islands of Great Abaco and Little Abaco, which were devastated by the hurricane. After the storm, the Bahamian government moved to resume deportations.]

N: What was it like to step into a post-natural disaster reality? 

L: It was really comforting to know that we were invited to perform by members of the community, and that they knew we were coming. We could trust that they wanted us there. This felt especially important for me as a white person going into communities that have experienced colonialism and oppression by people who look like me.

N: This might be impossible to answer with words, but how do you assess whether a specific audience is interested in a clown show when they’re reeling from disaster? 

L: It’s important to realize that people might not want what you’re offering, or don’t want it at that moment, or that you’re stepping on someone’s toes. When you enter the space as a clown, you know that what you offer might not land. You make that offer and try not to run away from discomfort. You also have to be able to leave at the right time. A lot of successful clowning is reading your audience, being open to other people suggesting things, and letting go of control and expectations. 

N: What is it like to interact with kids versus adults? 

L: It’s easier for kids to jump right in and access play, because that’s their realm. When you have a mixed audience of adults and kids, the adults will help the kids find a way into the “performance” format, but they often see it as geared toward children. I want to connect with the adults when that happens, because they need it more. They put on a brave face during crisis situations, when being able to play might feel like a luxury, or inappropriate—like they’re taking something from their child by playing. But parents and caregivers are carrying a specific kind of heavy load. It can be really liberating for a child to see an adult doing something silly or playful. It can convey that basic needs are met, that the foundation is stable. If an adult is willing to put energy into play, it signals to the child that there’s something to look forward to as they get older. 

N: What do you have to say to people who think clowns are weird or scary?

L: Clowns exist within their own logic and that’s one of the reasons they’re so powerful. They’re operating outside of the norm, which can be very liberating or very threatening. We’re afraid of things that feel powerful, so it doesn’t surprise me that the “scary clown” trope is popular. 

N: How does “clown logic” help in crisis situations, when everyday life might feel totally abnormal? 

L: Clowns have an ability to offer a different perspective. It makes me think of how a clown can defuse a tense situation by “misunderstanding” what’s happening. Because clowns are outside of social norms, they can see difficult situations as a game. Communities have a social understanding of how situations evolve under tension, and a clown can interrupt that trajectory by purposely misinterpreting it, piercing the tension.  

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