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Watercolor drawing of CWB in Less

Laughter Is a Renewable Resource

Whenever possible, we take engagements to share our work by giving workshops and presentations, like we did at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and University of Virginia.

Program Director Molly Levine and Development Director Naomi Shafer recently presented to an informal employee group at the United Nations. Each month, this group gathers for brown bag lunches with different artists whose work aligns with the U.N. goals. Clowns Without Borders International maintains official relations with UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

UNESCO logo

“When we give presentations, we share our favorite stories and we want to share some of them with you! Of course, the hour wasn’t spent just talking…we also did group juggling and even formed a clown band. As usual, we had our hands full with bubbles and instruments, so we forgot to take pictures!

The Stories We Tell:

Our story starts in 1993 during the Croatian War of independence. There was a group of school children in Barcelona who had been pen-palling with a group of children in a Croatian refugee camp. Our founder, Tortell Poltrona, was and still is a well known performer in Spain. The Spanish students received a letter from their penpals which said: ‘We’re OK, you know we have everything that we need, water and food, and we are safe for now. But what we really miss is having fun. We’d really like some clowns or something to come.’

The children reached out to Tortell and showed him the letter. A few weeks later, Tortell got in his car and drove out to the camp, and when he arrived there were hundreds of people waiting for him at the gate. He performed a show for over 700 children, and realized that there was actually a great need for clowns and entertainment in crisis situations. He went home, called his artist friends, and went back to that same camp a few months later. This was how CWB was born.

Fast–forward to 2017, and there are now 15 chapters of Clowns Without Borders International around the world. Naomi and I work for the USA chapter, which was founded in 1995.

Clowns Without Borders is a registered nonprofit which aims to share moments of laughter and levity with people in refugee camps, conflict zones, natural disaster sites, and communities in crisis around the world. We only go where we are invited. We work in partnership with individuals and organizations who are already trusted and working in the areas we visit. The artists we work with are professional performing artists who make their living through their craft, and who want to volunteer their time to perform for these communities.

It can be hard to understand the value of what we do, the value of the moment of levity for an individual in crisis. Our free performances and workshops are designed to bring together communities, and share moments where humor and relaxation are given a space to flourish.

Our shows encourage distraction away from the present crisis, offering the audience time and space to not think about it, thus decompressing and building resilience to endure.

People ask us: What does it look like when clowns go into a crisis zone? Our audiences are often made up of folks in the midst of crisis. They are a-stay-at-home parent whose home no longer exists; an engineering student whose university has been destroyed; a nurse who will never return to her country of origin.

What does it mean when these people are not refugees or individuals in crisis, but audience members? What does it look like when this is the face of an aid worker:

CWB in Kenya
At CWB, this is what an aid worker looks like!

Every place that we go faces different logistical challenges. Sometimes we drive for seven hours to reach a remote town, or walk for miles when the road is too steep for a car.

We perform for the children of guerilla fighters, the children of police, the children of war, the children of earthquakes.

Clown performs in front of police in Colombia

Our audiences also include aid workers and field staff, people struggling to make sense of displacement. We hear from these workers that our performances are the first time they’re able to stand side-by-side in community with the other residents of the camp. During a show, for a moment, the tension of resource scarcity can fade. During a show, laughter is abundant: Renewing and renewable.

Amy Rosvally is a writer and performer

A New Children’s Book Benefits CWB

Who would have thought the the worlds of clowning and pole acrobatics would overlap? Author and performer Amy Rosvally is bringing them together through her new children’s book, which benefits CWB!

Rosvally—aka The Pole Comedian—says that comedy and pole aren’t that dissimilar. “There has always been a vast array of styles to choose from,” Rosvally says, “but very few people actually pursue what’s called ‘pole comedy.’ ” During her first-ever competition, Rosvally channeled Charlie Chaplin for a routine full of pole dancing problems with silly solutions. Later in her career, her pole dancing T-Rex act went viral. It’s better experienced than described, and the giggles from the audience speak for themselves.

Amy's book coverAs it turned out, Rosvally won first place at the Southern Pole Championships in the Entertainment Level 3 Junior category
with her Charlie Chaplin routine. The success convinced her she was on to something. “I realized how much I enjoy making people laugh and the healing power that goes along with that,” she says. “If I can make someone happy, if I can inspire them somehow to try something new, even if it’s only for a moment in time, then I feel that I have done my job as ‘The Pole Comedian’ ”

That desire to inspire lead Rosvally to write her very first children’s book, BElieve in YOUrself! The story encourages kids to never let anyone dim their sparkle. “I want to inspire others to pursue what makes them happy and to believe that they actually can do it. That’s what this book is about. Whether you’re an adult or a child, I truly hope that this book incites you to pursue your dreams and feel unapologetically proud of who you are,” Rosvally says.

When her co-author suggested that she donate part of the proceeds to an organization that aligned with her personal mission, Rosvally thought of Clowns Without Borders! She had heard of our work through a colleague at the New York Renaissance Faire, and remembered videos she had seen of our tours, highlighting the impact of laughter. “I loved seeing the work your clowns do with those kids in the refugee camps. It felt like the perfect fit and I’m really excited that I can not only support kids in their own happiness journey with my book, but I can also financially assist an organization doing the same with the kids who need it most.”

Curious about Amy’s book? Buy it here!

Meet Nicole

Welcome Nicole!

We are delighted to welcome Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone to our team as our Communications Director. Nicole has the unique perspective of being both a communications professional and a performing artist. She grew up watching performances of Pickle Family Circus and San Francisco Mime Troupe, and has a deep appreciation for the transformative power of performance.

You’ve probably already seen her exceptional writing on our blog. Her first piece was about the importance of why we go only where invited. She also worked with CoiCoi and Ana on their stories about El Salvador.

Nicole studied resource politics and dance performance at Hampshire College, and is interested in climate-induced migration. She regularly performs and choreographs in New York City, where she founded the roving performance series The Bunker Presents… to provide a platform for underexposed choreographers.

As the Digital Content Strategist for Pointe magazine, Nicole managed layout and updates to the website, edited the bi-monthly newsletter and executed various social media campaigns. She has extensive experience writing for both print and digital outlets on topics ranging from chamber music to civil rights.

Meet NicoleWe asked Nicole to share a little more about herself:

What’s your first memory of the circus?
I remember attending Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus when I was about four years old and being completely mesmerized by the tightrope and trapeze acts. But my favorite circus memory is of sitting in the park to watch the San Francisco Mime Troupe performance each summer, with my friends and family.

How does being a dancer influence your writing?
I try to remember that experimentation and failure lead to new (maybe better!) places, both in the studio and on the page. I also regularly ask myself, “what purpose does this (anecdote, movement phrase…etc.) serve toward the overall impact and composition of the work?”

What part of the job are you are most excited about?
I know I’ll be building relationships with amazing artists around the world, and I can’t wait to brainstorm ways of getting the CWB message out to even more people who never knew they were excited about social circus.

 

clowns perform in an auditorium full of children

The Importance of Being Invited

What does a war zone look like? When the artists who work with Clowns Without Borders return from scenes of crisis or conflict, they’re often confronted with incredulity. How, people wonder, can CWB have a relationship with the horror and tragedy of life while still maintaining hope? Of course our answer to that is, with humor.

Recently, CWB Program Director Molly Levine spoke to a group of 150 public health students at San Jose State University, in collaboration with TeatroVision. We shared stories about our current project in El Salvador and afterward, as the students left for their following classes, one woman approached and asked, “How do you send your artists to tour in a war zone like El Salvador?”

The question gave Molly pause. “Reflecting on my own time in El Salvador last year, I don’t think of the country as a war zone,” she says. “We experienced tenderness, resilience, stoicism and generosity. The violence touches everyone, but I didn’t witness the constant chaos and uncertainty that I would associate with a ‘war zone.’” Often, the picture painted by news media is not comprehensive, focusing only on instances of violence. When CWB visits communities around the world, we’re able to see the rich and complex lives that people are living—the moments in between.

Despite that, El Salvador is considered the world’s most dangerous place outside of a war zone, and is sometimes cited as the murder capital of the world. In fact, many humanitarian aid organizations don’t go to El Salvador. So why do we go to dangerous places? Or more importantly, how do we stay safe?

 

The answer to both questions is the same: Because we are invited.

 

When we are invited to a community in crisis, we do everything we can to get there. (Think you might be our next project partner? Read here.) Being invited means that we know our presence is wanted, which is critical for team safety. In El Salvador, for instance, we work with the Ministry of Health in a neighborhood which is controlled by one of the gangs. Through their work in developing resources and a health center, the regional team from the Ministry of Health has strong relationships with the local gang leaders. Though the gangs are in conflict with each other, they are not in conflict with us. Just as they want medical resources for their children, they also want laughter.

This invitation means that we have already established trust before we arrive. We maintain trust by making sure our performances and workshops aren’t controversial. We respect local customs, and most importantly, we keep our work non-political. “When we know artists will be working in gang-controlled territory, we do our best to prepare them for what it might be like,” Molly says. “When we arrive in a neighborhood and park in front of the Health Center, we expect that some individuals from the community will come check us out. They look at our car, they ask about our work and our props. They ask where we are from. We say hello. We welcome them to the performance venue. We smile and show respect in the way that is customary for where we are. We show them that we are at ease, that we remember that we’re welcome there, that we are safe there. That they are welcome with us as well. That they are also safe with us.”

Clown performs in front of police in Colombia

Of course, this can be a lot easier said than done. It’s hard to feel safe when you’re putting your body in a place that our news media and public opinion consider violent. Our artists are humans, and often times they’re totally out of their element. Sometimes our invitations bring us to places where the local police department doesn’t go. In these moments, as in every moment on a CWB tour, our invitation is our strongest safety net.

But our invitation to be there is just the first step in staying safe. There’s also a lot of groundwork, including respecting the conflict as it’s happening. We—with the help of our local partners—make sure to know which gang territory we’re in and make sure that our costumes are neutral (i.e. not the colors of one gang or another).

In some regions in El Salvador, it’s been common for gang members to observe our workshops and performances to make sure we uphold our promise to stay neutral. These members are known to the Ministry of Health. We follow basic safety protocols, like staying with the group and traveling with our local contacts. While the safety of our team is paramount, we’re always performing a balancing act: We have to react to the situations presented to us with clear eyes, not ones clouded by stigma or fear of “what we know about these people from the news or the police.”

It can, of course, be unsettling to perform under these conditions. Part of keeping the team safe means being aware of how our own body language impacts others. You’ve probably heard of fight or flight, the body’s natural response to a threat. When we become agitated, even with fear, someone else can perceive it as anger. So we tell our artists that if they feel unsettled, the first thing they should do is exhale. Then, do a physical inventory, and make sure to stand in a neutral position. This trick of exhaling is a common part of physical performance. A handstand, partner lift, or inversion often starts with an exhale. We use our performance training to assess the impact of our physical presence, and we embrace our vulnerability with honesty.

clowns perform in an auditorium full of children

Working in gang-controlled territory also requires us to re-pattern some behaviors and expectations. In most news media, “gangs” are “evil”. Gangs are talked about en masse, but when we worked in Distrito Italia, we had to remember that gangs are actually made up of individuals: humans who have not had access to the same resources as us.

When we talk about the gangs as a performing ensemble, we need to make sure that we don’t use the term “gang member” as a blanket term to mean “people we are afraid of,” or, “dangerous people.” In order to do our job well and to truly work in allyship with our audience members, we have to remember that these “gang members” are the parents of the children we are performing for—parents who want their children to be safe and have opportunities that they did not have. They are the older teenagers who participate in our workshops, laughing and playing like the children that they are.

Many young people enter gangs in El Salvador because of the promise of safety, the promise of community, and access to resources, money and technology that seems inaccessible from any other way. The young people in El Salvador are most at risk because many family units have fractured, with one or both parents moving away to find work abroad. To us, a warzone is so much more than a simple narrative of victimization and fear. To us, a warzone includes stories of resilience and individuals looking to restore their communities.