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Laughter Led by Women: Flipping the Script in Turkey’s Earthquake Zone

Laughter Led by Women: Flipping the Script in Turkey’s Earthquake Zone

Following the February 2023 earthquake, children in southern Turkey withdrew and showed reluctance to play. A year later, the ground of playfulness has lightened.

Funny women have played starring roles as catalysts in the transformation.

Clowns Without Borders (CWB)-USA has had all-women teams before. But we’ve only begun to explore how audiences respond to shows directed, produced, and performed entirely by women.

This post introduces you to the women who shared laughter with people of all ages in southern Turkey (May 2024) and gives you a front-row seat to the best audience reactions from the tour.

Does an All-Woman Laughter Team Matter?

Four women clowns in Turkey performing for audiences recovering from the 2023 earthquake
CWB Artists. From left to right: Luz Gaxiola, Yasemin Ertorun, Sabine Choucair, and Çağdaş Ekin Şişman.

Clown has traditionally been men. And in a US context, white men. CWB-USA is flipping the narrative here and is finding even better connections, deeper laughs, and longer-lasting meaning in the work.

We think women-led laughter matters and this blog post shares stories to underscore that idea.

Meet the Team

Five women made CWB’s Turkey Tour 2024 a smashing success. Four of them were no strangers to Turkey, and all five were familiar with clowning in areas of crisis.

Anchoring the team were Yasemin Ertorun and Çağdaş Ekin Şişman, talented performers from Istanbul’s SOS clown group. Their familiarity with the Turkish language and culture was invaluable. Gamze Akça Özcan, also of SOS, served as the tour manager, ensuring smooth operations and building on existing connections with NGOs and civil society groups in southern Turkey.

Sabine Choucair, a powerhouse Lebanese-American performer, joined from her base in Turkey. Sabine is a co-founder of Clown Me In, a community-based organization in Lebanon. Completing the team was Luz Gaxiola, who has been on CWB tours in Lebanon, Greece, and Mexico. Luz arrived from Olympia, Washington, with her accordion and clown props ready.

In just ten days, CWB’s all-female team brought laughter and joy to over 2,200 people, including roughly 1,800 children, across Hatay, Kahramanmaraş, and Islahiye, Turkey (May 8th-17th, 2024).

Now that you’ve met the team, let’s meet the audience.

Touching Hearts in Southern Turkey

Women clowns perform in a tent in southern Turkey where people are still living in temporary housing.
Tents offer spaces for large groups to gather in southern Turkey.

Of the three million people displaced by the 2023 earthquakes, over 600,000 are still in temporary housing. Usually, that looks like rows and rows of converted metal shipping containers.

The containers are vulnerable to the cold and heat. However, a move to permanent housing is cost-prohibitive due to a shortage of safe property and the inflated cost of rent.

You love to laugh — and you know how much laughter has helped you through difficult moments.

You can give the gift of laughter to a child in crisis every month with a donation of just $11 monthly.

Unexpected Guests

Clowns from Turkey and elsewhere have spent time in Hatay and nearby regions that were hardest hit by the earthquake. So some people have met clowns, while others haven’t.

“We surprised many people going about their day. They seemed shocked and amazed to find a parade of clowns and children playing music and blowing bubbles in the streets. Some people just shared a silly moment with us, and others gathered their friends and family, followed the parade, and joined us for the show.”

“One kid came at the end of the show to take a photo with Sabouny (Sabine’s clown character). She was 5 years old and didn’t want to look at the camera at all. She just wanted to be near the clown and looked at her in awe for a long moment.”

Luz Gaxiola

“Nobody Cared Anymore” was the Transformation

Happy kids running toward clowns in southern Turkey.
Kids running toward clowns in southern Turkey, 2024.

CWB’s impact goes beyond eliciting laughs. We aim to transform.

“[The audience sees] four women onstage being ridiculous and being happy about how ridiculous we are, enjoying the failures and enjoying every part of the show and what we were doing…[The show] was like a celebration. We got to a point where nobody cared anymore. We were all just there, together.” 

– Sabine Choucair

“Nobody cared anymore” isn’t negative. It signifies a beautiful moment of transformation in which audience members felt liberated from societal pressures and self-consciousness. Men, women, and children alike could simply be themselves, united in a celebration of uninhibited joy.

A Turkish woman laughs as she holds her baby.

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The transformation was obvious for a particular young woman in the audience.

“There was this teenage girl who was so grumpy. From the beginning of the show, she was like, ‘Who are these clowns?’ ‘Why are there clowns coming here?’ Then, at one point, we were dancing with the girls. We were getting girls from the audience to come and do a silly dance. Then [the grumpy teenager] just decided to come onstage, take my jacket, and put the jacket on and dance with us. [There was] a shift from, ‘Who are these clowns?’ and ‘I’m not going to laugh,’ to being part of the game onstage. 

– Sabine Choucair

The girl’s initial hesitation mirrored cultural expectations about women’s roles. However, the CWB artists challenged these notions by showcasing women leading, laughing, and owning their power on stage.

Seeing women of their background and identity leading in this way validates and normalizes these experiences, inspiring girls and women to embrace their unique talents and reject limitations imposed by patriarchal structures.

From Shy to “Busting Out” a Melody

Women-led play plants a seed: breaking barriers can be a positive and healthy process. Consider this story from Luz:

“After the show, this little girl showed up holding a box with a melodica in it. She was kind of shy, but she was holding it. So we started encouraging her by saying, ‘Okay, great, let’s see the melodica.’ So then she took it out, but she wasn’t playing it. She needed a few more minutes to be okay with that. So then we were like, ‘Play it!’ So she started playing it, but she was just doing little random sounds. 

“Then I, with my accordion, just started copying her. But she was a little shy, so she did that for a few minutes…and then she busted out this melody. [And we realized,] ‘Oh, you actually play this thing.’ So she started playing this melody, Bella Ciao. And I know Bella Ciao, so it was great because she was playing the melody on the melodica, and I was able to chime in here and there on the accordion. And we ended up having this really sweet duet.”

Luz Gaxiola

The connection was between two musicians, but also between two women. Inspired by seeing a woman confidently lead and perform, the girl found the courage to express herself. The rarity of this kind of moment highlights the need for more opportunities where girls can see themselves reflected in strong, talented women, and feel empowered to pursue their dreams.

Women Calling the Shots

Women clowns leading a performance in Turkey.
Shot-caller Sabine performing with an audience member.

Sabine has an act where she playfully challenges a man who comes on stage, asking him to demonstrate both masculine and feminine moves. If he refuses, she humorously dismisses him and finds another volunteer.

“I was like, ‘Okay, you’re not going to do that? I’m not interested in you.’ So he left, and I picked somebody else and he was adorable. It was great to have him onstage. He really played along and was so happy to do that.

“Clowns are about, ‘let’s connect on a more deeper level’ and ‘Ya, I’m a woman onstage assuming my role and kicking whoever I want to kick out.’”

– Sabine Choucair

Sabine’s act is a playful yet powerful critique of rigid societal expectations of masculinity. The audience isn’t just passively entertained; they become active participants in questioning these norms. Those who embrace the challenge, like the “adorable” volunteer, demonstrate a willingness to break free from stereotypes.

Sabine’s act isn’t about putting men down; it’s about creating a space where everyone, regardless of gender, can embrace more creative ways of interacting with each other.

A woman clown with an umbrella wears a dark mustache.
Yasemin Ertorun plays a masculine character to the delight of the audience.


As we reflect on CWB’s all-women team in Turkey, we see that their impact goes far beyond laughter. In a world where men have traditionally dominated clowning, CWB is flipping the script. Women-led performances challenged societal norms, proving that humor can be a powerful tool for dismantling gender stereotypes.

This is the true magic of CWB-USA: creating spaces where laughter breaks down barriers and brings people together.


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