Facts on Funny Femmes

With hard work, commitment, and a funny-bone, anyone can be a clown. But, CWB – USA knows that certain histories aren’t as widely shared as they should be. Guest writer Beth Grimes draws on her encyclopedic entertainment history knowledge to talk about just how prevalent female clowns really are.

The history of women and femme-identifying clowns is richer than some may imagine. What follows is only a smattering.

Early History

Women were jugglers and acrobats in the courts of ancient Egypt, as depicted in tomb paintings from around the year 2000 BCE. They portrayed comic roles in ancient Greek theater, including Phylax comic theater, dating back to the 5th century BCE. Women were even fools and jesters for European aristocracy until the 16th century AD, when the church began condemning their roles in theater and comic entertainment by deeming it immodest. “Jest books,” or books of jokes and quips written by men, became popular during this time, redefining the role of a woman in comedy by her ability to laugh at a man’s jokes rather than tell a joke herself.

Female comics turned to the stage with commedia dell’arte, a campy, comical theater form that was free from theological regulation. It was through this medium, originating in the 16th century, that the modern “clown” began to take shape.

The 18th century saw the birth of what we call “circus,” beginning with Phillip Astley’s Royal Amphitheater in London, in 1773. In 1846, The Royal Amphitheater provided a venue for the first performances, and subsequent newspaper mentions, of “female clowns.” Twelve years later, Amelia Butler was considered the first female circus clown in the United States. More names begin to trickle in: Mlle. Emille with Alhambra Circus (1863); Mlle. Silvia Christoff, “The World’s Only Female Clown (1867); and Ada Isaacs (1869) were the toast of Europe for over a decade. By the end of the 19th century, women were proving that they could indeed tell a joke.

Circus and Vaudeville

From 1895–1899 circuses held bidding wars over lady clowns. In 1895, Evetta Matthews (sometimes billed as Evetta Williams) was hired by the Barnum & Bailey show to be a “lady clown” headliner, a previously unheard of stunt. Evetta stated, “I believe that a woman can do anything for living that a man can do, and do it just as well as a man. All my people laughed at me when I told them that I was going into the ring as a clown. But they do not laugh now, when they see that I can keep an engagement all the time and earn as much or more money than they can in other branches of the business.” The tour was such a success that other circuses began to compete over how many lady clowns they could have on their bills, some boasting as many as four. The gender imbalance remained, since some large circuses at that time had 30 clowns or more.

The English music halls of and the American circuit provided other venues for female comics. Some dressed as, or presented themselves as men, even centering their routines on proper ways to treat women. They dubbed themselves “mashers” and were the godparents of modern drag kings. Others were literal mothers to famous comics. Silent comic Buster Keaton’s mother, Myra, was the first female professional saxophone player and also a champion physical comedienne.

Vaudeville gave way to the dawn of film, and women began to own the screen as well as the stage. One such comedienne, Gale Henry (also known as the inspiration for the character Olive Oyl, formed her own silent film company in 1916 and eventually starred in over 236 comedies from 1913–1933. Her films were ahead of their time, dealing with gender roles, exploring the possibilities of women running the city fire department (Her First Flame, 1919), and running a detective agency (The Detectress, 1919).

Movies and Television

The advent of sound brought the dawn of television. Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, and Gilda Radner are just a few drops in the proverbial ocean of commediennes who found fame on TV. Phyllis Diller, a stand-up comic who became a household name through television, wore gloves to designate herself as a clown. She stated “I had to wear gloves because all clowns wear gloves.”

These pioneers set the stage for the women clowns of today. Just to name a few: Iryna Ivanytska has gained world acclaim, with her wild wig and fuzzy shoes, as lead clown “Boom” in the theatrical clown show “Aga-Boom”. Pepa Plana of Catalonia helped develop Cirque du Soleil’s “Amaluna”. Her theater shows range from clown interpretations of classic works of literature to political statements on human migration. Gardi Hutter of Switzerland is famous for her washer-woman clown, and specializes in characterizing “female non-virtues,” tossing poise and beauty aside while still conveying a sense of artistry. Amanda Crockett is a physical comic based in Chicago, Illinois, who incorporates juggling and trapeze into her acts, and is a definitive modern vaudevillian.

There are as many women of comedy as there are stars in the sky. We continue to prove that we, indeed, are funny, and always have been.

Naomi and Sarah smile at the camera as they stand on a green lawn

Better Together

CWB – USA board member and CWBI representative Sarah Liane Foster writes about this year’s General Assembly.

Why Does CWBI Hold a General Assembly?

The 2019 Clowns Without Borders International General Assembly was a smashing success, bringing together representatives from each CWB chapter for three busy days of planning, connections, and reflections.

Clowns Without Borders USA is one of 15 Clowns Without Borders chapters around the world. Each chapter has its own projects, budget, and way of working, but we’re all part of Clowns Without Borders International. We share a common purpose, as well as statutes and a code of ethics. CWBI facilitates communication and collaborations between chapters, so that we can all work more efficiently and share resources and best practices. The Board of CWBI is made up of one representative from each chapter, and I have had the honor of being CWB – USA’s International Representative for the past few years.

Here is a video about CWBIthat we made at the 2017 General Assembly. It gives you a sense of the amazing people who make up our organization.

Our 2019–2020 Priorities

This year the GA was hosted by the Swedish chapter, Clowner utan Gränser-Sweden. CWBI representatives from around the world flew into Stockholm and took a bus out to the Swedish countryside. We headed for a summer camp, which the Swedish government provides so that city kids can spend time in the country each year. How great!

Once we arrived, we rearranged some dining hall tables into a big square and the meetings began. We accomplish so much at these in-person meetings—business is addressed and we reestablish personal connections leading to wonderful collaborations between chapters during the year. Last year, CWB – USA collaborated with sister chapters Clowns sans Frontieres (CWB France) and Palhaços sem Fronteiras (CWB Brazil), and we have exciting shared programming on the horizon for 2019.

As the Secretary General of Clowner utan Gränser put it during an exciting (really!) discussion of CWBI’s 2019 budget, the collaborations that have come out of CWBI have been invaluable. On a practical note, without our inter-organizational collaborations, the costs of running programs without collaborations would be much higher. In 2018, 13 joint projects were led by CWB chapters in nine different countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, India, Mexico. (Read more about these collaborations, and CWBI’s work in 2018, in our Annual Report!) On these tours, we shared artistic and administrative practices, improved cost efficiency, and decreased our environmental impact.

Some other highlights of this GA:

  • We had some great discussions around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, a big priority for us.
  • We shared recent and future impact assessments that chapters are conducting around their programming. This is important for improving the quality of our work, and showing to potential funders.
  • We Skyped with Rupesh, the leader of a wonderful group of artists in the process of applying to join CWBI as CWB India!
  • We formed several working groups for the 2019–2020 year. One will consolidate resources from each chapter so we can more easily share with each other.

Huzzah for sharing, growing, and helping each other do our best work! We really are better together.

Sabine hugs a little girl

World Refugee Day 2019

World Refugee Day is meant to highlight the accomplishments and struggles of refugees. The most recent numbers published by UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) are troubling: There’s been an increase in the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide. In the past 20 years, the number of displaced people has doubled.

Types of Displacement

Clowns Without Borders works with people experiencing crisis, and crisis almost always involves some form of displacement. Internally displaced people (IDP) might be forced to move within their own nation due to political turmoil or natural disaster.

Migrants are people who leave their country in search of a safer or more stable life—their decision to leave is often based on a history of violence or colonialism in their home country. Immigrants seek permanent residence in a new country.

Refugees and asylum seekers are often conflated, but the terms have specific definitions: A refugee is someone who flees their country of origin and is unable or unwilling to return based on war, violence, or persecution. Refugee status is determined by national governments or the UNHCR, and in the United States a refugee may become a permanent resident and citizen.

Asylum seekers are people who request international protection, but their refugee status has not yet been determined. Critically, asylum seekers must ask for protection when they arrive at the border of a new country. There is no way to request asylum, a visa, or entry to the United States in advance, so arriving at a border and requesting entry is legal under U.S. and international law.

Stateless people are those who are denied nationality by their home or host nation. These people are held outside of most economic life, and have limited educational opportunities. Refugees, asylum seekers, migrants and IDPs can all be stateless people.

New Reality

According the UNHCR’s latest numbers, there were 70.8 million people forcibly displaced at the end of 2018. That’s 2.3 million more people than last year, and may not accurately represent global displacement. The economic and political crisis in Venezuela is only partly reflected by these numbers. Watch the short video below to get a sense of where refugees come from:

International Rescue Committee’s president released the following statement:

“With humanitarian budgets continually under-funded, and the laws of war meant to protect civilians constantly broken, we are failing displaced people — especially women and girls — who have fled for their lives and simply want to find safety.”

You can read the rest of his statement here.

CWB – USA’s mission is to share resilience through laughter by providing psycho-social support to people experiencing crisis. We are lucky to see the strength, warmth, and creativity of displaced people all around the world. Today and every day, we stand with them.

Jan balances a hoop on his chin

A Beacon For Play

Nose matter which way you look at it, that bright red honker announces, “Something different is about to happen!”

In the United States, red noses are sometimes associated with negative perceptions of circus. CWB – USA board member Sarah Liane Foster says, “I stopped wearing a red nose in the U.S. because it has become such a weird symbol. People don’t see it as a mask or the way a character looks, they just see a ‘scary’ clown.” That said, CWB performs globally, and non-U.S. communities often have a positive reaction to clown noses. Bekah Smith says it’s a symbol of lightheartedness, an invitation to play, and an opportunity to initiate interactions with strangers.

Some CWB artists wear a nose depending on the type of circus art they’ll perform in a show. “I only wear a nose for my CWB work,” says Montana DeBor. “As someone who identifies primarily as an aerialist, I feel very honored to wear a clown nose.” Once her nose is on, Montana says she’s in character and ready to play and communicate as a clown. “I put it on early and it’s the last thing I take off. The timing matters. In Haiti, we would be in the back of a pickup truck, and put our noses on. I definitely got some strange looks, but it was worth it to arrive and be ready to clown!”

Some CWB artists perform sans-red nose, no matter where in the world they happen to be. CWB – USA founder Moshe Cohen never wears a nose, because he wants to share the human nature of the humor. “I feel I can better do that without a nose,” he says. Moshe points out that the nose exists for audience members to identify the clown as Other. That can be helpful, especially when a clown is living through rough-and-tumble slapstick experiences, or, as Sarah describes it, the “sublime stupidity” of clowning. But Moshe thinks the red-nose clown becomes too separate, and he endeavors to clown without becoming the Other. “If I can do that, it touches a different piece inside people,” he says.

Bekha juggles in a cement bunker

What Is Protracted Displacement?

What does displacement look like?

The UNHCR estimates there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide: 40 million internally displaced people (IDP); 25.4 million refugees; and 3.1 million asylum seekers. There are also an estimated 10 million stateless people, or people who are denied nationality. In these terms, “displacement” means someone who is forcibly moved or removed due to armed conflict, violence, human rights violations or natural/human-made disasters. Displacement mobilizes CWB into action because our tours respond to people experiencing crisis. When a project partner asks us to come share laughter, we do our best to oblige. But as global politics shift and change, late-20th century and early-21st century displacement has started to take on a distinct quality: protraction.

Is displacement changing?

Thanks to our news cycle in the United States, it’s easy to picture acute crises like earthquakes or bombings. It’s more difficult to conceptualize protracted displacement caused by intersecting problems like lack of water resources due to agricultural mismanagement and climate change, or civil war resulting from the legacy of colonialism. The UNHCR defines protracted displacement as displacement for five years or more, yet from 1974–2014 fewer than one refugee crisis in 40 was resolved within three years. In fact, more than 80 percent of all refugee crises lasted for 10 years or more.

How does CWB respond to protracted displacement?

CWB frequently interacts with communities experiencing protracted displacement, including our 2018 tours to Colombia (Coastal Tour and The Department of Cauca), Lebanon and Myanmar. The media image of refugee camps does not reflect reality for many people experiencing protracted displacement. It’s an increasingly urban and dispersed phenomenon, with (in 2015) at least 59 percent of all refugees living in urban settings. The increasing frequency and length of protracted displacement results in migrant and IDP situations that challenge preconceived ideas of what a crisis looks like. For example, many refugee camps are essentially settled, with established systems of support both formal and informal. But does that mean people no longer live in crisis? What kind of role does laughter and levity play in situations that feel intractable instead of sudden?

We’ve found that, along with planned performances, CWB tours help carve out space for communities to come together over joy. Communities constantly build their own resilience, but play and silliness help reinforce an opportunity to forge connections within protracted displacement.

Paused train with migrants standing on top

The Spontaneous Solidarity of Migration

Thank you to Clowns Without Borders USA board president David Rosenthal, and board member Tim Cunningham for their contributions to this blog!

At this moment, CWB – USA artists are on tour in Mexico, traveling north with a caravan of migrants. Within the U.S. media, this caravan, and others like it, is met with a rhetoric of fear and xenophobia. Yet, as CWB clowns travel with migrants who seek asylum, safety and peace, they witness beauty and share joy. Migrants everywhere experience danger, violence and opportunists, and this is amplified in situations of resource scarcity. But when CWB artists put on their red nose and open their heart, they tend to encounter the best in others.

Clowns and Caravans

Historically, caravans were nomadic communities of traders or pilgrims, who crossed large swaths of land, mostly in North African desserts and parts of Asia. The word evoked a sense of community, collectivity and planned migration from one place to the next. Caravans were also traveling circuses. Groups of artists arrived to share a few days of laughter with remote communities, and then moved on to the next town. The arrival of clowns and performers was one of joy—it brought eager anticipation. This tradition continues today. Ringing Brother’s and Barnum and Baileys’ circus travelled by train (actually, two) from 1907 – 2015.

mural of migrant man

It’s fitting that CWB clowns travel with the migrant caravan—a new kind of caravan that has shifted in purpose to reflect recent history. Global stability is threatened by war, poverty and climate change, so asylum seekers, refugees and migrants form caravans. Instead of waiting for the traveling circus to come, or deciding to move when the time is right, migrants are forced to pick up and find a new, hopefully better, home. While our clowns perform for communities in protracted displacement, they also walk along streets, trails and dried river banks to be with migrant communities. Both the clowns and the migrants bring only what they can carry. And when the clowns stop to perform, a spontaneous group forms around them, sharing laughter and joy.

Clowns pose on grassy train tracks

People in Search of Peace

In the U.S. media, the migrant caravan is described as dangerous. In the experience of CWB clowns, that’s simply not true. The migrant caravan, like caravans throughout time, is a group of people joining together in search of a better life. Derrick Gilday, an artist currently on tour in Mexico, writes about a beautiful moment in which the clowns performed for a migrant community, and then saw the same people a few days later, further north. “We saw people from all three locations that we had performed at, along the way, and we began sharing blessings, smiles and memories as if we had known each other for many years. The energy was incredibly intense, beautiful and life-changing.” When people gather for a CWB – USA performance, relative strangers come together, playing, singing, and dancing. Shouldn’t everyone have that opportunity?

Clowns make heart hands with teen students

Puerto Rico’s Power Grid Is Still Unstable

June 1st marked the official beginning of Puerto Rico’s hurricane season. This is an annual cycle on the calendar. However, many of many of our fellow U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are still reeling from last year’s hurricane season.  They have gone 10 months without power.

The long term damage from Hurricane Maria is mind-boggling. Approximately 1,000 homes remain without power on the island, while Puerto Rico’s electric utility company, PREPA, struggles to find a CEO. In the ongoing battle over electric power administration on the island, Governor Ricardo Rossello recently signed a bill to privatize power generation but retain government control over its distribution. The infighting and instability is felt by the thousands of people who still don’t have reliable power.

The team hugs in Puerto Rico

In February, CWB – USA performed for many of these communities. Their rebuilding process was in limbo thanks to the politics of getting the lights back on. Thousands of Puerto Ricans who emigrated to the mainland U.S. say that they may never return. The lack of economic opportunities on the island, coupled with the slow infrastructure recovery, have forced people to permanently uproot their lives.

CWB – USA was founded to bring levity and laughter to children in international crisis zones. By our own definitions, touring to Puerto Rico in February was a domestic project in response to a natural disaster and immediate crisis. However, with the continued lack of power, the situation is morphing into one of protracted internal displacement and emigration. Those who remained on the island in the aftermath of the Hurricane Maria face ongoing trauma and potential economic ruin. The displacement is ongoing, long after the hurricane passes. But now, with a new season looming, the impact of a storm has the potential to be even worse.

While the mission of CWB – USA may be simple, we embrace the complexity of the crises faced by our community partners. Even now, as we plan a return tour to Puerto Rico, to continue the healing process from Maria, we know that the island may be impacted by another hurricane. CWB – USA is proud to share laughter with people around the world, and at home. We are inspired by the resilience of the Puerto Rican people, as they face the daunting task of rebuilding.

A Confluence of Clowns

What do you get when clown-delegates representing fifteen countries meet in a medieval, Catalan village at an event modeled after the United Nations? Why, the Seventh Annual General Assembly of Clowns Without Borders International (CWBI), of course! For four rowdy, music-filled days, we met around a large conference table to discuss the organization’s future and how to respond to emerging and protracted displacement. CWB – USA Executive Director Naomi Shafer recently returned from this year’s assembly, to report back on what she learned. 

What is Clowns Without Borders International?

There are fifteen chapters of Clowns Without Borders. While each operates independently in their own countries, they also share a vision and common goal under the umbrella of Clowns Without Borders International. Each chapter has a representative on the CWBI board, and once a year the representatives come together for an annual meeting. This year’s meeting was held in Caldes de Montbuis, a town in Catalonia, Spain. It was a joyous event, with thirty clowns (and clown administrators) coming together to discuss the organization’s future. 

Clowns sit at circular tables to discuss CWBI

A Story From Tortell:

The meeting opened with a story from Tortell Poltrona, the founder of Payasos Sin Fronteras:

“Let us remember that our work was the idea of children. It was children in refugee camps in Croatia who wrote to their pen-pals in Spain to say, we miss laughter. It was children in Spain who came up to me and said, ‘You should go to the camps.’ And so I did. Clowns Without Borders exists because we listened to the children.”


Protracted Displacement

With this frame, we started to discuss the changing landscape of displacement, and how CWBI—and each of its member chapters—can meet the current needs of displaced people. All chapters share two values: We only go where invited, and we always work in partnership with a local organizer. One of our longest group conversations was about how to build on this framework to increase the diversity of each performing team, CWB chapter, and CWBI, overall. CWB – USA prioritizes partnerships with local artists as a way to increase the impact of our work. 

In addition to setting long-term policies, the General Assembly is an essential opportunity to meet the leadership of other Clowns Without Borders chapters. All of our project collaborations are a result of forging these personal relationships. Partnering with other chapters (such as on our recent tours to Mexico, St. Maarten, and South Sudan), is an invaluable way to increase our impact and learn from each other. 

Want to know more about Clowns Without Borders International? Visit CWBI’s Website.

Erin laughs while riding a bike with an audience member

Sole/Soul Purpose

Welcome to an ongoing blog series of contributions by CWB – USA’s wonderful board members!

Erin Leigh Crites, Vice President of Clowns Without Borders USA, is an international theatre artist, educator, and purveyor of make believe. In the past ten years, Erin has traveled extensively to explore the global community and create bonds through theatrical play. She splits her time between Los Angeles and Idyllwild as an ensemble member of Fiasco! Physical Theatre and a full-time instructor in the theatre department at the international boarding school, Idyllwild Arts Academy. She joined Clowns Without Borders in 2010 after receiving her MFA in physically-based ensemble theatre from Dell’Arte International.

When I was a child, people frequently told me I was too sensitive. Too shy. Too worried. I had a hard time relating to other kids. I was always asking questions that nobody cared about, taking an interest in global things, rather than local. I even developed insomnia by age 11, because I was worried about world conflict: Israel and Palestine; Northern Ireland; India and Pakistan. These issues of the 90s kept me up at night. And I cried. A lot. I cried because I felt helpless. I was too small. The problems and people were far away, but I felt them so intimately. I felt like my heart was constantly squeezed by a world unable to listen to its own need.

I couldn’t articulate that at 11 years old. I was just a kid with no power, surrounded by kids who thought I was weird for caring. I felt like that a lot. Weird for caring. I still do. Watching people interact, I would think, “Aren’t there bigger things to worry about?” Or, “I don’t think you’re even listening to each other.” I didn’t know what all of that meant, or how it would manifest in my sense of purpose, until after I pursued physical theater at Dell’Arte International.

I had never taken a dance class or moved my body in expressive or dynamic ways, other than through sports, until I went to Dell’Arte at 23 years old. During my audition, I was told to “just sit and speak,” because I was trying so hard, and failing, to be physical. When I just sat and delivered my autobiographical piece, I connected. It was because I was talking about the need to connect with others. I was on fire about the power of theatrical expression to unite people through imaginative play, through the creation of an interpersonal feedback loop. And I realized that if there can only be one lesson, it’s listening. I need that loop to look deeper into myself. I need to connect. And listening allows me to connect to others and to myself.

Erin smiles before being pied in the face by her students

Flash forward through three years of rigorous physical theatre training, including clowning, and I met Adrian. Adrian Mejia was a graduate of Dell’Arte and a performer for CWB. We had one of those beautifully wandering late night conversations that ended with him telling me, “You know, listening to everything you’ve said, I really think you should go on a Clowns Without Borders tour.” I didn’t know anything about the organization, but I lit up inside as he continued to describe the work.

I’d like to take a moment to honor Adrian’s memory. He was a bright light in this world and the catalyst for my work with CWB. When I heard of his passing, a fire was stoked in my innermost being.

I emailed Clowns Without Borders again. I had already submitted my application, but now there was urgency. During a phone call with Dianna Hahn (who I believe was program director at the time) I was asked if I had any preferences about where I’d like to travel. “Nope,” I said, “just the next available position. I just need to go.” The conversation ended with her telling me that all of the trips in the near future had been filled, but that she would keep me on CWB’s radar. This felt like an important step, and it was.

In November, Diana called and said, “Someone dropped out of the next trip to Haiti and it leaves in two weeks.”

“I’m in,” I replied.

My first CWB trip to Haiti, in 2010, changed everything. I found a deep resonance, an echo of my childhood self. That lonely, only child, who wanted to connect with the world, stepped into the lives of the people she had worried about in the middle of the night. I was no longer helpless. I no longer felt too small or that the problems were too far away. In fact, the problems themselves dissolved in favor of connection with the very people who remained resilient against them. Connecting to an individual magically lifted the crushing weight of trying to “solve” the global problems squeezing my childhood heart. That’s how connection through laughter operates.

The word levity comes from the Latin levitas which translates to “lightness.” If I can connect with one person at a time, through laughter, we all get lighter. And it doesn’t matter how short the interaction is or how small my contribution seems, compared to the grand scheme of the universe. When the nose is on, I am on, and my soul/sole purpose is to connect.

Gabi and girls watch Faeble in Mexico

Can Clowning Cure Burnout and PTSD?

Welcome to a new blog series, with contributions by CWB – USA’s wonderful board members!

Board member Tim Cunningham is a graduate of the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre (’01) and has performed with CWB in 11 countries outside of the United States. Within the borders of the US, Cunningham has performed, lectured and facilitated workshops about CWB’s mission and work at universities and high schools. He received his doctoral degree from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Board president David Rosenthal is currently an Associate Professor and the Director of Management Programs in Health Policy and Management in the Mailman School of Public Health and a behavioral faculty member in the Center for Family and Community Medicine, Columbia University.

If you read anything about hospital care nowadays, specifically about physicians and nurses, you’re likely to read about B.O. 

No, not body odor, but burnout! It’s a major issue, and unlike body odor it can be contagious. If you want to read some journal articles, search for names like “Dyrbye, Shanafelt and West.” (Here’s a good one.) Burnout is nothing new and as with many things, interest in its effect ebbs and flows. It was popularized in the 1970s by Herbert Freudenberger, and in the early 1980s, when Christina Maslach helped define our current understanding of burnout. Now, we find ourselves talking about the same thing as though it’s a new crisis. 

Burnout also occurs in the military and can be related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In fact, the New York Times Magazine recently published a haunting but important read about rates of burnout among some of our nation’s drone pilots. The story highlights people who work out of remote offices, limiting their interpersonal connections.  

If you want to do a deep dive into medical research, nursing research, and military research, you’ll find lots of papers about the prevalence of burnout and PTSD. You’ll find far less conversation about what we can do about it, and how it can be treated. Honestly, we social scientists are pretty good at measuring the existence of something, but it’s more difficult to study interventions and create evidence-based strategies.

So what does all of this have to do with clowns? We’ll tell you.

Clowns Without Borders just might offer a unique tool to fight burnout and make PTSD a little less painful. It’s neither costumes, nor magic tricks. It’s not our acrobatic routines or the famous “newspaper bit.” Nope. It might actually have little to do with us and more with how clowning brings people together.  

Lots of papers (including one that we published) scramble to understand how we can treat burnout or PTSD. One common thread is that people with a sense of camaraderie fare better when it comes to these two phenomena. Nurses who treated patients together during the Ebola outbreak, physicians who worked in a refugee setting in Greece, soldiers who fought with people they know and trust, all report a stronger ability to deal with life’s stressors. Drone pilots, on the contrary, find themselves working alone, thus losing all sense of camaraderie. That loss can rip people apart, emotionally, when they go through traumatizing experiences. Many people struggle with PTSD once they’re no longer surrounded by a team with similar experiences. The power of relationships and social support, as a healing and coping tool, cannot be minimized.

Clowns work with MSF caregivers in Haiti

In fact, CWB has a special workshop called Find Your Funny. This workshop is specifically designed for care providers, educators and humanitarian aid workers—anyone whose job consists of a lot of emotional labor. In December, 2017, CWB – USA led just such a workshop for Médecins Sans Frontières-France (MSF-France) healthcare providers in Haiti. Aid workers and health care providers are impacted by Secondary Trauma Exposure, which can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout. CWB’s “Find Your Funny” workshops address how these professionals can use laughter to alleviate the stress of their jobs and have a compassionate response. The project objective is not only to bring levity to patients, but also share tools with care-providers so that they too can spark moments of joy for themselves, each other, and their patients. (You can read more about the clowns’ experiences teaching the workshop, here.)

During CWB tours, which most frequently focus on the needs of a community in crisis, these relationships are highlighted and celebrated. CWB clowns set a stage, wherever that stage needs to be, and they welcome anyone who can squeeze into the audience space. Sometimes our shows are for 10 people, sometimes they’re for 1,000. When CWB clowns set a stage, people gather. People who have been ripped apart by governments, by war, by poverty and by disease, sit, stand, and play with us. People who have been forced to migrate from their homes or forced to move from their neighborhoods and their social supports, have an opportunity to connect. In that togetherness, people laugh. Children laugh at the clowns, parents laugh at the children laughing at the clowns, and the clowns laugh at refugee camp guards who often laugh along. Spending time together begets camaraderie, which begets mutual trust—laughter is icing on the cake. 

As for our claim to “cure” burnout and PTSD…well, our work is really more of a balm, a treatment for emotional wounds. But that’s just one of clowning’s many ethical interventions that can help our brothers and sisters along their own journeys towards healing. As for the “common cold” claim, some suggest that social support and relationships (and possibly chicken soup) can make a difference!

Kids at St. PJ's in San Antonio, TX

Family Separation: What We Can Do Now

When are you going to Texas? Should I just get in my car and drive to the camps? What can I do to support these kids? 

These types of inquiries have flooded our inbox for the past few weeks. We try to answer some questions here, knowing full well that for many, our answers may be unsatisfactory. 

Why aren’t you performing for the children who have been separated from their parents?

Children who are currently held at temporary camps in Texas (and elsewhere) are under the jurisdiction of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Access to the children is limited to CBP personnel and legal counsel. Even the American Red Cross has been denied access, making the camps more impermeable than refugee camps in warzones. CWB – USA does not have access to the camps. If we are able to make contact, and are invited on a tour, we will go.

When are you going to Texas? 

We have been in touch with Refugee Services of Texas, a former project partner, for the past few weeks. Refugee Services (in Texas and every other state) works with refugees, including undocumented minors, who have refugee status within the U.S. In November 2016, CWB – USA toured to Dallas, Texas, and performed for members of these communities. The three-person team taught physical theater and circus to three different groups within the refugee community in Dallas. The tour’s second focus was to help adolescents and adults work through language barriers and connect through physical movement and play. Dallas receives a high number of refugees, mostly from Syria and Congo. CWB – USA has also led multiple tours at St. PJ’s in San Antonio, Texas. St. PJ’s houses children who are victims of abuse and neglect, and its International Program is a government-funded, Health and Human Services approved, facility that cares for a large number of unaccompanied migrant minors. These children have crossed the southern border of the United States, fleeing unspeakable violence in Central America. They reside at St. PJ’s while awaiting their court dates, deportation proceedings, or entrance to the foster care system. We hope to return to Texas this fall in partnership with Refugee Services of Texas.

Should I just get in my car and drive to the camps?

One of CWB – USA’s core values is to only go where invited, and to always work with a partner. For us, filling a van with clowns and driving to the camps would be outside of our Code of Ethics. Having a partner and an invitation is essential for the safety of our team and our audience. We welcome an invitation from Customs and Border Protection, and also any local organization working with refugees within the U.S. 

Sometimes after receiving an invitation, we can mobilize a team within weeks. Other programs take longer to plan. In August, we will be performing in Guatemala, for those impacted by the recent volcano eruption. 

What can I do to support these kids? 

We are inspired by the words of our project partner, Chris Cambises, of Refugee Services Texas: “If you are feeling feeble, take comfort in knowing that from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Miami, Florida, and everywhere in between, there are Refugee Services Agencies. Every community has refugees in it, along with organizations to support those people. You don’t have to look far to get involved.” Click here for more information about refugee resettlement in your state. 

Naomi crouches among the tulips

CWB – USA’s New Executive Director

Clowns Without Borders USA is thrilled to welcome Naomi Shafer into the role of Executive Director!

A Letter from Naomi

Dear CWB Community,

It is an honor to be the Executive Director for Clowns Without Borders. For the past three years, my work with CWB – USA has been a source of inspiration, challenge, and joy. I’m humbled to continue advancing the organization’s mission, inspiring resilience through laughter. I am lucky to have worked with all of CWB – USA’s past Directors. Their continued relationships with the organization is inspiring.

As we plan for the year ahead, on one of the questions we ask is, “how do we offer support in this time of protracted displacement?” Many refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people will never be permanently resettled. Over 65 million people face the uncertainty and inequity of displacement. Each of those people has the right to play, to dream, to laugh. It’s a privilege to share laughter with these populations and to learn from their resilience.

Naomi and a MSF patient sing together in Haiti
Naomi sings with a young boy recovering under MSF medical care in Haiti, December, 2017

Since accepting the Executive Director position, I have had the privilege of getting to know more of the supporters who make this work possible. In addition to the volunteer artists who you know through their blog posts and tour photos, CWB exists thanks to hundreds of people in less photogenic roles. From the local fixers who help us find bottled water, the web-developers who troubleshoot our technical glitches, the travel agent who finds the best deals, and the lawyers and accountants who donate their services, our behind-the-scenes help is endless, and immensely appreciated. Thank you for your support!

Thank you to everyone who takes the time to send us a comment or question about our work. I can’t wait to get to know you better.



Honoring Molly Levine

Molly is surprisedClowns Without Borders is shaped by its volunteers and often, we talk about how these professional artists share their performance skills. Today, we want to tell a story about a very different type of volunteer. 

Five years ago, Molly Levine started volunteering with Clowns Without Borders USA in the office. Since then, she has filled many different roles, including Executive Director, and played a critical in role creating a long-term vision for the organization. Part of her vision was to evolve CWB from a volunteer-run organization to one with staff, as we are today. 

In addition to championing the strategic growth of the organization, she attended to the details of coordinating our tours. Molly is the person who, with grace and patience, waited on hold for hours when flights were missed or baggage lost. She worked with each artist to make sure they were supported before, during, and after tour. Whether the issue at hand was homesickness, heartache, or bellyache, Molly made herself available. 

In addition to serving CWB – USA, Molly has also been a valuable asset to Clowns Without Borders International. Through her participation in the General Assembly, she helped create a shared emergency response protocol, among many other contributions. Sarah Liane Foster, current CWB – USA board member and CWBI representative, shares that Molly listened astutely across linguistic and cultural boundaries to people from 12 different countries, and held space in which everyone felt heard and understood.

Today we are honoring Molly because she has accepted a stupendous new job, and is stepping down from her role as Program Director. We have learned so much from Molly, who can often be heard saying, “Collaboration is greater than competition,” and “Rising tides lift all boats.” Molly epitomizes these adages in all of her work. We can’t wait to see what she does next, even as she continues to support CWB – USA as an advisor during this transitional period and beyond. 

Leapin Louie with kids in Guatemala

CWB – USA Will Go to Guatemala

Clowns Without Borders USA is honored to announce that we will tour to Guatemala later this year. On June 3rd, Volcán de Fuego erupted, annihilating a golf course and the village of San Miguel Los Lotes. Ninety nine people are confirmed dead, with at least 200 still missing, as rescue workers continue to search for survivors. CWB – USA received a message from a local partner, asking us to come for an emergency tour to the region, and we are thrilled to make it happen.

Leapin Louie in Guatemala 2006

We are still in the early stages of planning this tour, and will continue to update as more details are confirmed. Thank you to our members, donors, and volunteer artists for their ongoing support, allowing CWB – USA to be as responsive as possible in times of crisis.




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