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Ecuador 2019

Migration Is a Human Right

As millions of people flee Venezuela, the UNHCR has categorized the situation as an emergency. CWB – USA worked with Venezuelan migrants and their host communities in Ecuador. Josie Mae writes about the multi-layered power of circus. 

The Storytelling Power of Circus

I arrive at our second show in Ecuador with an open heart and present mind. We’re in a Colombian neighborhood called Esmereldas, just outside of San Lorenzo. My goal for this show: to have no expectations and play in the moment.

As we leave the city center and approach the barrio, my fellow payas@s and I lean out the windows of the vehicle and shout to those in the streets, inviting everyone to come watch the show!

When we arrive, we’re met by an audience of 100 people. It’s mostly children seated on the cement bleachers of a small fútbol field, and much more intimate than our show the day before (500 school children in a enormous gymnasium). We warm up the crowd with some energizing games, magic tricks, blowing bubbles, smiling and giving high-5s. They’re apprehensive at first—one young boy is terrified, crying and screaming—but little by little they lean into our play. After an introduction from our partner organization, Servicio Jesuita a los Refugiados, we begin the show, The Story of the Migrant Hen!

We sing and dance and work together as a team, weaving our technical skills with with a potent message: migration is a human right. I’m reminded of clowning’s power as a storytelling vehicle.

The audience remains quiet during my juggling routine. I try to glance at their faces between tricks, but it’s hard to see. Insecurity kicks in: Am I boring them? Is my juggling good enough? Laughter isn’t the only emotion transmuted through circus. Awe, surprise, reflection, excitement, and inspiration are just as prevalent as joy and smiles.

Staying Grounded

Our music and noise draws in about 50 more people as we continue the show, and they crowd around the side of the fútbol field. I notice a middle-aged man in a white shirt who has just arrived, and he’s laughing from the tips of his toes to the top of his head. His smile remains even during the quieter moments of storytelling. It grounds me throughout the show. When I’m feeling lost and disconnected, I look to this man with his total presence in the spectacle, and I’m able to drop in deeper. Circus can transport someone from their reality into a world of levity, play, and imagination.

We finish up the show to much applause from the public and then take our places in the audience. A dozen local kids have prepared a dance to share. They stand in formation holding paper signs with words like “love,” “family,” “name,” “migration,” “home,” and “happiness.” They’re describing the rights of the child. They dance along to a song declaring their rights while I think about the vulnerability of the people we’re working with and the circumstances they’re in. I’m flooded with emotion while reflecting on the impact of clowning and my privilege to do this work.

The man in the white shirt approaches me after the show and introduces himself. His name is Stalin, and he thanks us over and over for coming. “It’s been a long time since we’ve laughed this hard,” he says. In turn, I thank him for being my beacon during the show.

Bahamas 2019

The Bahamas Tour Diary: Week 1

In September 2019, Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 hurricane, struck The Bahamas. The impact included massive power outages, infrastructure destruction and at least 70 deaths. Thousands of Bahamians and migrant Haitian workers continue to live in temporary housing. Meredith Gordon made his CWB – USA debut on this tour. He writes about the clowns’ first week of shows in Nassau. 

12/9

On Monday we head to the facility where we’ll do our shows and workshops. The staff greet us when we arrive and take us on a tour of the shelter. It’s in a basketball gymnasium next to a bigger athletic facility. The shelter residents stay in the basketball gym and in tents next to the gym. We clown for some of the kids while we’re shown around, and it turns into a “follow the clown” situation as kids play along with me, Leora and Clay.

Clay and I are wearing our clown noses and one of the kids asks to see Clay’s nose. Clay tells the child that he already has a clown nose, pointing out a bottle cap from a water bottle. Eventually, the boy finds a string and manages to tie the bottle cap onto his nose, matching our clown noses. The string is a little tight for his face, but he makes it work.

Later, we practice making juggling balls with balloons and sand. Tomorrow we’ll start our juggling and game workshops.

12/10

Today the three of us work on our show in the morning by putting pieces of our different acts into one cohesive structure. We still have some work to do to finish the final show order, but we make significant progress. In the afternoon, we head back to the shelter for a workshop with the kids. We make juggling balls using the sand and balloon method. The kids are enthusiastic, sometimes a little over-excited, and there are lots of smiles when they finish making their balls.

There’s a group of six or seven teenage boys in the workshop. They leave a unique impression on me as they’re mature and calm beyond their years. Even though there were some very enthusiastic young kids at the workshop, the teenagers waited patiently as we managed the younger kids.

In the afternoon, Leora starts some fun activities with the children while Clay and I work on the juggling balls. The sun is setting as Leora leads the kids in a circle for games and dancing. Tomorrow we’ll return for an adult workshop in the morning and another workshop in the afternoon with the kids. Our show is on Thursday.

12/12

We finish our week in Nassau Bahamas today. We taught several workshops over the course of the week and ended our time here with a show on Thursday evening.

It takes us a while to find the best show location at the shelter, because our original plan to do it outside the entrance is not going to work. Over the course of the week we were able to get used the shelter’s constant state of change. As we look around for a new spot, we juggle and do hat tricks to get the attention of adults in the area. I toss my juggling hat on my head and then announce that I will throw the hat on someone else’s head. Several of the adults see us and ask for their turn, either tossing the hat or receiving it. It’s so refreshing to see the expression on some of these men and women. Many of them are sitting around, looking bored. To see the smiles on their faces is priceless.

Shortly after that we’re told we can do our show in a tent near the shelter. We start the parade to the show, playing music through the gymnasium. The residents are loving it. I see lots of smiles as we make our way across the gym floor. We also go to several other tents so we can announce the show to as many shelter residents as possible.


The parade gets people’s attention. The more we march around, the more people follow us. One of the men watched us during our hat tricks helps us carry our performance bags. By the time we get to the tent, we have a large group of children with us. Many of these children are familiar because they were in our workshops earlier in the week. But there are many unfamiliar adults too—they also want to see the show.

Clay, Leora, and I do the show we rehearsed…or at least as much of the show as we can. The children are very enthusiastic. We saw this kind of enthusiasm earlier in the workshops, so we’re not surprised. We manage to do every act except the finale juggling act.

After the show is over, we go back into the gymnasium. While we’re there, some of the Americares staff asks us to play music for several of the elderly residents in the shelter. We start to play a song for a Haitian woman in her 80s. However, she quickly takes over and sings a song for us. Later I see Leora dancing with this woman. I start to sing “What a Wonderful World,” by Sam Cooke, and I’m surprised when a 10-year-old boy sings the lyrics with me.

One of the Americares workers says that she’s impressed because the adults got up and came to the show, and laughed along with the kids.

Tomorrow morning we fly to Freeport for a week of more shows!

Palestine 2019

The First Arab Bedouin Female Clown

CWB – USA embarks on a three-year partnership with Diyar Theatre, a Bethlehem-based dance company. One of the Palestinian clown students invites CWB artists Ania Upstill and Michael O’Neill to her village, where she and other local women are dedicated to providing arts education. 

Starting a Foundation

Manal, one of the students in Diyar Theatre’s clown program, describes herself as “the first Arab Bedouin female clown.” I was inspired by Manal in class, where her smile lights up the room, but even more so after we visit her Bedouin village to perform for the local school.

When we arrive at the village, we need to ask directions to the school since there aren’t any signs. This Bedouin community was displaced by a settlement, and it feels hastily re-built after the move. We’re directed up a dirt road and at the top, right next to the school, we see a blue container where Manal waves at us from the doorway. She welcomes us inside, and it’s surprisingly bright. The container walls are hung with fabric and we’re offered seats on a few plush sofas or at a table set with chairs.

Manal serves us coffee and we chat for a few minutes. We learn that this container was used by foreigners teaching art classes, before it was abandoned. Once Manal’s sister finished her university degree in social work, the two of them decided to rehabilitate the caravan and set up an arts education foundation for students in their village. They don’t have any money but they do have the help of a few other female Bedouin friends. Now, thanks to the resources they’ve gathered from the community and their own homes, they’re able to offer after-school classes to local children.

Infectious Laughter

We go next door to perform at the school after we finish our coffee. The children all clearly know and love Manal. She helps the teacher bring out the classes into the yard—lines of students following her like ducklings—before sitting them down in orderly rows. Manal helps them behave throughout the entire performance and volunteers for our magic trick, playing along perfectly while spreading joy through her infectious laugh.

After the performance, we return to the caravan and share lunch with the women of the foundation. Our conversation is translated and I’m increasingly impressed with what they’ve achieved, especially considering the conservative social expectations placed on Bedouin women. These women are building something out of nothing to serve the children of their community, and I find myself humbled and inspired by their work.

All the clowns say "Ta-Da!"

Unplanned Clowning

CWB – USA embarks on a three-year partnership with Diyar Theatre, a Bethlehem-based dance company. CWB performing and teaching artist Ania Upstill writes about the unexpected outcome of clowning in a bank, one of the most un-funny places to be…

Clowns Without Borders mostly performs for kids, but adults often come to watch too. Even more are drawn toward the noise we make while performing, and end up watching by accident. Adults deserve to laugh too, and sometimes you just have to take clowning to them.

Clowns At The Bank

Osama, our Palestinian colleague from Diyar Theatre, needs to go to the bank today, after we finish the show. Instead of waiting in the car, we decide to join him in the bank, dressed in full clown regalia. I take bubbles and Michael takes years of clowning experience. We enter the bank and Osama leaves to do his business. At first, we get a few curious looks and smiles, and the floor manager comes to ask us what we’re doing. We explain that we’re waiting. He gives us an odd look but leaves to attend to other business. We go up to where Osama is waiting at the counter, and suddenly the big manager appears. He sternly instructs us that we can’t be near the transactions, but softens when Osama explains that we’re with him. Still, we’re sent back toward and entrance where, naturally, we start clowning around. Michael investigates the water cooler, I blow bubbles outside the doors. 

As we attract more attention, the floor manager has to stop another customer from taking a video of us inside the bank (illegal in Palestine just like it’s illegal in the U.S.). We oblige with a selfie instead, and then we start getting more attention. Suddenly, the security guard wants some photos with us, and then the floor manager does too. The staff are getting into it, so Michael makes a fake appointment with a woman at a desk, and we go over to see her. She offers us a candy, and Michael takes the whole basket to offer candy to everyone waiting in the bank. I see the big manager approaching me again, but this time he has a smile on his face as he asks me to go into a fancy glass office and give the biggest manager a kiss on the cheek! I oblige, and there’s laughter from all the staff inside and outside the fancy glass office. They ask me to do it again so they can film it, so of course I do. 

Brightening People’s Day

You never know what can come from unplanned clowning! A man comes up to us and introduces himself as a doctor from Hebron who’s part of a group having a benefit for breast cancer. Would we be interested in performing? Michael and I connect him with Ahmad, one of our Palestinian clown colleagues, in the hopes that someone from Diyar Theatre can make it. 

By the time we’re leaving the bank, the floor manager thanks us for coming in and says that we can come back any time: “You just made this day so enjoyable for us all!”

Osama, a stranger, Ania and Michael pose at the bank
At the bank!
Clowns cluster together with their red noses on, to take a selfie

Caring For the Whole Community

CWB – USA embarks on a three-year partnership with Diyar Theatre, a Bethlehem-based dance company. During the first week, CWB clowns Michael O’Neill and Ania Upstill lead workshops for artists interested in developing their clowning skills. 

Ania writes about the incredible camaraderie they’ve witnessed among the Palestinian artists. 

Growth

We’ve already seen so much growth in our Palestinian students, after only four days of teaching. Some of it is due to their talent and some of it comes from experience they bring to the room. But I think a huge part of it is the incredibly supportive environment they’ve created for each other.

From the beginning, the students have been encouraging towards one another. For the first few days, a particular student was hesitant to show anything in front of the class. His fellow studentswould chant his name until he went up, and then clap wildly when he was done. By day four, he volunteered to go first to show what he had been working on—and we still all chanted his name.

That’s just one example, and there are too many instances to count. A real sense of support and camaraderie pervades the rehearsal room in a way that I’ve never witnessed before. There’s no sense of competition, or any sense that the more experienced students feel superior. Instead, everyone legitimately seems to want the group to succeed. It’s really amazing, and so generous of them. I can’t but help attribute it to Palestinian culture. I get the sense that here, you care for the whole community, not just for your own well-being.

Beyond the Rehearsal Room

This goes further than the rehearsal room. While some of the students did know each other before the course started, most of them were strangers—but you would never know it. They were all chatting happily together by lunchtime on the first day. Granted, I have absolutely no idea what they were saying, but it certainly sounded like they were enjoying one another’s company. Similarly, one of the clowns told me and Michael that there are no homeless people in Palestine. People here might not be rich, but they end up pitching in to make sure everyone has a place to live.

Whatever exactly has engendered it, I can’t imagine a more cohesive, positive environment to teach clown. I can only hope to somehow recreate what I’m experiencing in Palestine the next time I teach.

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

Zip Zap

CWB – USA embarks on a three-year partnership with Diyar Theatre, a Bethlehem-based dance company. During the first week, CWB clowns Michael O’Neill and Ania Upstill lead workshops for artists interested in developing their clowning skills. 

In this blog, Ania learns something entirely new about Palestinian slang. 

It’s interesting, teaching in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. We’re lucky enough to have a student in the class who is bilingual, and has graciously agreed to do the extra work of translating. We’re adjusting too: we talk more slowly, more animatedly, and demonstrate frequently. But there are some things that you just can’t anticipate.

On our first day teaching, we introduce the well-known and well-loved game, “Zip, Zap.”* The students pick up the concept pretty quickly, despite the language barrier, sending a Zip more or less continuously around the circle. There’s some giggling, but we both assume they’re laughing at minor mistakes made as the game goes on. “Zap,” sending energy across the circle, goes even better. We finish the game and move on.

During our next break, one of the students grabs the translator and comes up to Michael. She explains that “Zip,” in Palestinian street slang, actually means “penis.” The giggles we heard weren’t simple joy at the game. Instead, they were laughing at everyone saying “penis” over, and over, and over. Retrospectively, Michael and I agreed they had actually done really well, given that they were being asked to say a dirty word repeatedly, and with enthusiasm.

The next day we changed the name of the game to “Zik, Zak,” to great success!

*There are actually so many ways to play “Zip, Zap” that, although popular, you can never assume a group of new people are all about to start playing the same game!

Robin Lara's head is inside a giant balloon as she performs in a rural refugee camp in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe Tour Diary: Part 3

Robin Lara writes about performing in both intimate and colossal spaces, and the need to show up with an open heart no matter what. 

September 28, 2019

Today we’re in Harare, Zimbabwe, performing in a children’s cancer ward. But you’d never know it unless you were told. This is the most intimate show on the tour so far, performed in a patient room that has been cleared of equipment and then filled with 16 kids, their families, and doctors. There would normally be more kids, they said, but the doctors are on strike right now and they had to send a lot of kids home.

We don’t always receive much information about people’s personal situations when we arrive at a performance site. Sometimes we know general things, like they’ve lost their homes in the cyclone, or they’re orphans, or they’re struggling with cancer. But we don’t know their individual backgrounds, or what kind of energy and trauma they’re showing up with that day. So we tread lightly, and focus on play and human connection. What we find is that when we pull people into the world of clown, they’re so full of lightness and joy.

September 29, 2019

We have our last two shows of the tour today. There are  3,000+ people at the second show, and wowza can they scream. I start each show by warming up the crowd with a bit of balloon magic. They’re very quiet at first, unsure what to think of this rag-tag group of clowns…a thing that doesn’t really exist in Zimbabwe. But when I eat the magic balloon ball, and then fart it out, it’s the first huge audience reaction of the show. It starts us off on exactly the right foot: Kids double over in laughter, moms and teachers shake their heads and laugh at the same time. I’m learning what works here and what’s different.

After a show, people will often say their favorite part is when I juggle on my unicycle, or balance it on my face. But when it’s happening, they barely react at all! One major exception was a show we did at one of the Chimanimani cyclone camps. The audience was mostly comprised of moms, and they started cheering me on right as I was about to juggle. I was so touched that I stopped what I was doing and thanked them. I’m blown away by the connections we’ve made here, and while I’m incredibly grateful for the memories I’ve made on this tour, I’m so sad it’s over!

Robin balances her unicycle on her chin surrounded by a huge crowd in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe Tour Diary: Part 2

Robin Lara writes about breaking the ice with kids, even when you stand out like “chingua” (white bread). 

September 18, 2019

We have been singing songs in Shona, the native language here. It’s so different from what I’m used to that it takes me a long time to remember the words. I learned new types of sounds in order to get the pronunciation right.

When we show up at a school today, the kids are singing a song to keep them occupied until everyone is seated. One of our clown acts is about a dad and a mom (the two male clowns in our group) carrying water and babies. We use it to talk about gender roles, which are very cemented here.

In fact, a lot of things are strict. We spent the last two days at the immigration office because we found out that even if we’re volunteering, we still need to pay $500 for a temporary work permit. That’s a lot of money. And since you can’t get cash here (there’s a shortage and none of the ATMs work), or use a credit card in most places, I have my fingers crossed I was sent with enough cash for the rest of the tour.

September 21, 2019

Part of my pre-show routine involves putting a black dot above, outside, and below each eye. Today, I’m preparing to perform at a refugee camp with 13,000 residents. I’m so exhausted in the very best way! Recently, we had a ton of time between shows so I played with the kids nonstop. We did nothing and everything. Sorry-not-sorry for starting to teach them how to juggle their own shoes! I’m going to sleep well, with the sounds of their giggles still bouncing around my head.

Later…

We’re having so much fun today! There’s a huge population of folks in this camp, and it’s very spread out. I’m actually surprised by the amount of open space. To adapt, we move around and do shows in lots of new spots in order to reach as many people as possible.

One of the camp leaders heard people talking about how they’re going to follow the show around, since they’re having so much fun. And one very old man told her, “I never thought this could happen in this camp. I’ve only ever seen this on TV!” Word spreads and the audience fills up well before showtime.

I’m having a lot of fun pushing myself to be a pre-show clown for an uncomfortably long time. A core tenet of clowning is to see what’s around you and find the game in it. I’m getting a lot of practice in a place where there’s an overwhelming amount of plain old dirt. This means that I’ve made up a lot of “magic” tricks for the kids, which prompts them to invent their own. I’ve learned hand-clap games and traditional dances from them, improvised new juggling routines, and balanced just about everything on my face. It’s wonderful to have such an engaged audience. I feel like they’re truly with me. It doesn’t hurt that I’m an inherently weird and interesting person to them, since I’m the only white person in town.

September 27, 2019

Right before leaving the rural areas of Zimbabwe most damaged by Cyclone Idai, we perform at an elementary school. Often, kids here are timid about seeing me and unsure how to react. Understandable! These kids are especially jumpy, so I make it into a game and spin through their playground until they scream, giggle, and scatter. Once I break the ice, they follow me everywhere, touching my hair, my tattoos, and asking me questions in Shona—the same things kids do anywhere. I’m so happy and grateful to bring a bit of clown magic to these little ones.

All the clowns make funny faces at the camera

Zimbabwe Tour Diary: Part 1

Robin Lara writes about the culture shock of navigating Zimbabwean rules and regulations, and the universal joy of thousands of laughing kids. 

September 15, 2019

Our first two shows in Zimbabwe are tomorrow! There are four of us clowns: two Zimbabwean, one South African, and me! We’ve spent three days in intense rehearsal, creating tons of new material for kids here in Harare. 

On Tuesday, we begin a long journey to the far reaches of the eastern border. We will spend four days and 8 shows in a refugee camp that currently houses 10,000 people, and will perform in small rural villages along the multi-day drive each way. So far, I’ve loved learning beloved songs in Shona, the language here. Apparently the crowds are going to be very tickled when they see a white lady speaking Shona, and I can’t wait to share their laughter. 

Things are very different here, more so than any other place I’ve been. Africa lives by its own rules. Over the past few days, I’ve had to learn an entirely new and precarious system of using money [At this time, Zimbabwe does not have an official currency]; been woken up at 6am by the hostel telling me I have a phone call, which turned out to be someone trying to lure me to a fake meeting; completely broken my leaf blower charger, which is essential to our show; and spent three hours this morning in intense, vomit-y abdominal pain from my anti-malaria pill, which I have to take again when I wake up. Tomorrow is a new day, and even though it’s been up and down, the ups are so so sweet I genuinely can’t wait to find out what the day has in store.

September 17, 2019

I love my clown name this trip! It’s Chingua, given to me by one of the Zimbabwean clowns. In Shona, the language they speak here, it means “white bread.” It suits me well! Everyone laughs when they hear my name, and after the show they call it to get my attention.

Before our second show, we come up to a long wall of classrooms with big glass windows. As soon as the children see us through the glass, there’s no chance of the teachers holding their attention. I smush my face and body up against each window, classroom by classroom, and the whole school is in chaos. 

As we test our barely functioning speaker in front of one of the classrooms, the kids pour out and it turns into a dance party. The minister of our partner organization even joins in! His wife can’t believe how much he’s cutting loose. 

After we set up at our second show, I walk through the school grounds and find 1,000 kids in orderly lines, on their way to the performance. They’re silent, walking with their hands behind their backs. Much to their teachers’ chagrin, I start making faces and weaving through the lines, saying “excuse me,” over and over. Now they’re much less orderly, and definitely giggling. 

We start the show and They. Are. Ready! There is something completely unreal about a collective scream of delight coming from 1,000 children, all at once. I feel it throughout my entire body and am pulled so fully into the present moment.

It’s been hard these first few days. We’ve had to work through so many obstacles and it’s easy to complain, which I’ve done a lot. But right after the first show I have a moment of realization. These kids—the ones who rush us for a group hug, who are so excited that they yell out a repetition of everything we say onstage, who are breathing in dusty red soil all day with none of the daily conveniences we take for granted—they’re why I’m here. I’m fully reminded that I come on CWB – USA tours knowing it’s going to be difficult and uncomfortable, and I’ll be tired, grumpy, and sore. But I don’t feel any of that in this moment. I only feel joy, and I know that I would do anything to be here. 

We’re the first group to come and offer this type of work as a humanitarian effort in Zimbabwe. There are aid workers who bring food and medicine, but the idea of bringing joy as a healing service is brand new. What a great opportunity to show how impactful this work can be! 

Little boy points at Melissa as she makes a funny face

From Cocoon To Butterfly

Melissa writes about the good, the challenging, and the transformative moments of emotional negotiation while on tour in Brazil. 

A Rough Start

We have a strange start today. In the early morning, one of the slats from this awful bunk bed I’m sleeping on decided to tumble down, slamming onto the floor and landing on Ana, our intrepid project leader. She woke up screaming and yelling in Portuguese, while I stared at her dumbly from my bunk, not knowing what to do. Our two other clowns came running through the door, looking around in desperate confusion. When Ana was finally able to talk again, we determined that nobody was dying and went back to our beds after a good laugh. Ana and I are both now sleeping on the floor, having abandoned the treacherous bunk bed. It was the most comical moment I’ve had in ages. We’re all still laughing about it.

However, I was in poor spirits last night, and out of sorts today, feeling very, very emotional without knowing why. The weather cooled and there was a heaviness in the air. Farmers had attacked a retomada last night, in this area, and it was on everyone’s mind. Retomada is the term in Matto Grosso do Sul for the land that indigenous families are living on and reclaiming. The situation is very unstable for them, and there are many attacks and burnings in these disputed areas. Our first show is at an indigenous CRAS [Centro de Referência de Assistência Social] center for social services in Dourados. I’m grumpy and fairly unfunny, even muttering mean things under my breath when the parade leaves without me—not my best show, though still enjoyable.

Today at lunch, I suddenly ran from the table in tears, and took a few minutes to gather myself before going back and letting the clowns know about my emotional state. They’re very supportive of me. Our second show is a 25-minute drive from our home-base, at a school on indigenous lands. The school is called Panambi, which means “butterfly” in Guaraní­, one of the languages spoken by the local indigenous people. We’re swarmed with excited children from the moment we arrive, and they follow us as we unpack our gear. Some of them grab props to help out, while some just follow and chatter away.

Transformation

I know the show is going to be good. Ana tells me to sit the show out if I need to, but I want to perform. It’s not the first time I’ve smiled through my tears as I don my nose. We parade out together, accordion playing, whistles going, clowns marching, and the energy feels so light and spirited. The kids are grinning and laughing from the beginning, and we amp up the clown energy to get them clapping, screaming, stomping, and giggling.

After the show, the children swarm us with so many hugs that it’s heart-melting and almost overwhelming. Apparently, the kids had been excited for the show all day, jumping up every few minutes to check and see if the clowns had arrived. I feel completely at peace after the show, and the sadness that overwhelmed me earlier has disappeared. I got to experience the transformative power of joy, thanks to the children, my fellow clowns, and the teachers at the school.

The wonderful place the clowns are staying is a cultural center called Casulo, which is “cocoon,” in Portuguese. The show today was in the indigenous land of Panambi, which means “butterfly.” And somehow, my sadness transformed to joy, as a cocoon transforms into butterfly.

Faebel squeezes through a chair as children laugh

Laughter In Our Bellies

CWB – USA joins Palhaços sem Fronteiras Brasil (PSF-Brazil) to perform for indigenous Guaraní communities in Mato Grosso do Sul, where they are displaced and threatened by loss of lands, deforestation, and export-agriculture. Faeble Kievman writes about the Guaraní people’s strong sense of place and identity. 

We perform our first shows in Brazil at the Lacu’y school on the indigenous lands of Aldeia Bororo. It’s a joy to share laughter with this audience. In this region, there are a group of people who call themselves “The Clowns.” They cause trouble, so we’re delighted to be introduced as “Real Clowns” and share the magic, awe, curiosity.

In Dorados, on indigenous land, the earth is red. The people say that the earth has been colored by the blood of their ancestors. We sing a local song together, which says that laughter comes from the earth.

They believe that every child is born with a good soul bird and a bad soul bird. The bad soul bird might lead us off track, but the good soul bird can center us in our bellies. This community is dealing with suicide and drug abuse, and we’ve been told that the soul bird is lost in the sky—not connected to our bodies, hearts, minds, and bellies. The bad soul bird is lost, flying in many directions. I try to imagine a world in which their way of life is free from the dogma and demonization they now face.

So far, we’ve come across two prayer houses that have been burned, while there are over 100 churches in this area. In some ways, the churches help a lot of people get out of intense addictive behaviors and suicidal tendencies. On the other hand, I’m learning that the traditional, spiritual path has a lot of beauty to it. Today, a ceremonial dancer tells us that a lot of people are returning to the old ways. They seek education in school, and return to the ceremonial space for questions and answers about life.

I think it’s important to consider what “education” really means. Do we accept that everyone must live in a society that caters to industrialization and consumerism? If so, is education something that that everyone has to pursue?

When will this industrial giant will learn its lesson. Without indigenous ways, there is no life for humans. When will we make the choice to love where we come from, to cherish connection with the land? When will we touch our hands and feet to the ground, thank our mama and embrace the red earth beneath us? We live in a world of contradictions and opposing views. The more I think I know, the less I actually know. I but I do know one thing: Laughter comes from the red earth at the center of our bellies.

ClownEncuentro participants gather for a family portrait, dressed in their outrageous costumes.

Hearts Wide Open

Hannah Gaff represented CWB – USA at the 2019 ClownEncuentro in Cali, Colombia. 

Prepping For The Show

Following the three-day workshop, we’re invited to perform our show at a home for girls in protective services. We created the show during our workshop, and it was a quick, CWB-style experience. Many of the clowns from my workshop are anxious—they’ve never performed in a social clowning context before. What does it mean to perform for someone in a vulnerable state? What is your responsibility as a clown entering this context? How can you do no harm? What are the boundaries?

I definitely don’t have answers to these complex questions, but I do know that the way in which you enter into someone’s space, the manner in which you engage with them, is key. I respond to my students’ fears with the intentions I set for myself on this trip: presence, listening, connection, and the ability to be flexible as things inevitably change.

Reflecting Back

Following the performance, we circle up to reflect back on our experience. Students are blown away by the simplicity of the exchange, and the depth of play and connection achieved in a mere 30 minutes. They’re amazed by the amount of energy and love the girls gave back to us. And, they’re also completely in love with each other. The space we created during our ClownEncuentro workshop prepared us for our intense connection with the girls. It left our hearts wide open and bonded together. I’m looking forward to seeing the ripples from this experience over the next several years, as collaborations and projects are born from this group. In fact, I’m on a WhatsApp group with all of my students, and they continue to message and share their clowning experiences from afar.

A Mini Tour

On Tuesday morning, the day after ClownEncuentro wrapped up and all the beautiful clowns traveled home to continue their work, we make another show. In just four hours, four clowns from Cali Clown join me to create a 45-minute performance. We plan to tour to marginalized communities in Cali, including Colombians who are internally displaced due to armed conflict, and Venezuelan refugees seeking safety in Colombia. That same afternoon, we set off into Cali to perform together for the first time.

On the way to the first show, the clowns explain that we’re headed to a library. This library is in the middle of gang-owned/run territory. Its boundaries are monitored by opposing gang members, and if you unknowingly cross the boundaries, your life is in danger. This library is a space where people can cross those invisible boundaries and gather safely in community. And wow, do they gather! We have a huge audience. The connection is evident as kids buzz around us, jumping, playing, and laughing after the show. Parents shyly hand us their kids for a photo, and thank us for the laughter. Groups of people stand chatting and laughing, and no one is in a hurry to leave.

 

Five clowns make silly poses on a hill in Cali, Colombia

A Deep and Lasting Bond

Hannah Gaff represented CWB – USA at the 2019 ClownEncuentro in Cali, Colombia. 

ClownEncuentro

ClownEncuentro is a magical clown gathering that takes place in Colombia every two years (or so) and has five major objectives: learning and artistic development, dialogue, research, networking, and cultivating new audiences. It’s a truly great clown community gathering, one of only a few similar events taking place around the world. It provides an opportunity to be in community and connect with other passionate clowns, to have necessary conversations about the art of clown and its purpose in present-day culture, and to forge relationships and connections. These are seeds that will grow into fruitful collaborations, bringing more clown-goodness to the world.

My role at Clown Encuentro (as representative of CWB) is multilayered. Clowns Without Borders has a long-standing and wonderful partnership with Clown Encuentro (since 2010) and with Cali Clown, the humanitarian clowning organization that hosted Clown Encuentro this year. I’m here to deepen our relationship in a variety of ways. I’ll lead 12 hours of workshops to share tools for creating a CWB-style show, culminating in a community performance at the festival. We have partnered with our colleagues at Cali Clown to tour the show to marginalized communities in Cali—all of this in six days, and with my very remedial Spanish-language skills. Whooohooo!

Setting Intentions

On the flight to Cali, I spend some time choosing my intentions for the trip. Of course, it’s my intention to represent CWB well and to run a great workshop for the 20 students who signed up. I want to guide the creation of an impactful show that brings joy and resilience, and to fulfill all of my responsibilities successfully and with grace. I decide that my major intentions, underlying all of that, are to be present, listen, connect deeply, and to be flexible as things inevitably change. What a treat to be thrown into this cauldron of clowns!

So far, my deep take-away is how essential connection is for every human, everywhere. I’m experiencing reverberations of connection, shared experience, and community from everyone I meet. The desire to connect, to play, and to be seen is huge!

The several hundred clowns who travel from all over Latin America and beyond, despite a variety of barriers, arrive in Cali to be in fellowship with other clowns. They’re hungry to be in the same space and to share their experiences. The 19 students in my CWB workshop, Physical Comedy for the Social Clown, meet each other early on a Friday. Three days later our group has formed a deep and long-lasting bond.

Moshe walks with a smiling kid

Meditating In Guatemala

CWB – USA founder Moshe Cohen taught various workshops throughout Guatemala during his March, 2019 tour. He was surprised and delighted to find out that meditation, which Moshe brings through his Zen background and training, was a huge hit with artists and educators. 

Returning to Guatemala

Celio and his taxi are waiting for me at the Guatemala City airport as planned, on a late night in early March. He’s there as promised by Ricardo, the Payasos Sin Fronteras (Clowns Without Borders Spain) logistician who organized a twelve-day project in which I’ll teach five workshops and create a collaborative show with local clowns. My ultimate destination is Escuintla, where the Volcan de Fuego erupted last year. Celio whisks me off to the Hotel Panamerica, a stately downtown hotel. It’s certainly a step up from the cement floors I slept on with Desastrosus Cirkus, when we played the Bhutanese refugee camps back in ’97. Then again, I’m not sure if there even was a hotel in Damak, a town that the Lonely Planet Nepal guide only dedicated one paragraph to. Escuintla, a trucking town on the Transamerican highway, has plenty of hotels, and innumerable long-haul trucks rumbling through. It too is probably overlooked in the guide books––there isn’t a gringo in sight during my four days here.

Immediately after the 2018 eruption, Clowns Without Borders was invited on a performance tour for those displaced by the lava flow. We also did a number of workshops for the first responders, and teachers from those communities. My trip is a follow-up visit, as CWB received numerous requests to return with more workshops. Some of the workshops will take place in Guatemala City, first with Procuraderia Derechos Humanos (Provider of Human Rights), and then with local clowns. We’ll have a show-creation day with several of the clowns, after which Celio will drive me to Escuintla. There, I’ll offer several more days of workshops: one for health care workers and one for teachers. After that, the clowns come join me to perform two shows in the school, and one for the community. Of the 4,800 people left without homes (and community) by the eruption, 1,200 remain displaced.

Lucho, Sayda, Noemi and Stef formed the 2018 Guatemala team, so I had a long talk with Sayda before coming down. I quizzed her about the workshops they offered, trying to determine what I could offer that would be useful. “We played games (theater games, clown-based play) all day, and the participants absolutely loved it,” Sayda told me. I have no doubt the games offered needed opportunities to laugh together, to let off steam, tensions, and trauma due to the disaster. The lava flow ran right through a number of communities, completely decimating their homes, and perhaps more importantly, growing fields and livelihoods. 

“Yes, Please.”

When I arrive at my first workshop with health care workers in Escuintla, certain tensions are palpable. I had encountered similar energies with the human rights workers (psychologists and social workers) in Guatemala City. They support clients facing every kind of abusive situation you might imagine. Listening to them in the opening circle, I had a strong wish to lighten their loads. I had an agenda: fun and funny trauma/stress release exercises, vulnerability affirmations, enjoying frustration, reactivity/response games and more. Ultimately, it made sense to come in not knowing, and hear what they wish to work on.  

Before sending the talking stick around the circle in Escuintla, I offer a menu of possibilities for the day, and ask what resonates, what wishes do they have? To my great surprise, relaxation exercises (Feldenkreis based practices) are high on everyone’s list. When the talking stick comes back to me, I add another possibility: Zazen meditation. To my surprise, the response is quite enthusiastic; in fact, all five workshop groups are of the same mind: “Yes, please.”

I had hesitated to mention Zazen, figuring that meditation might be a little too far outside their comfort zone. Yet there it was, and so with rings from a small Burmese bell, sitting in straight-backed chairs, we meditate for short stretches, several times in each workshop. The practice is well received. I take it a bit further, introducing the possibility of three breath practices as a way to shift one’s state of being when one becomes aware of stress.  

Mischievous Aftermath

With the teachers, I wonder if they might try to bring that quiet into their classrooms. A video shared with me the day after our workshop suggests otherwise.  It’s a short clip of a teacher trying out the monster/victim exercise with his classroom. The practice, developed for a CWB Myanmar project, offers the kids a chance to have great fun reacting in playful/funny fear (enjoy being afraid!) to a supposed monster scaring them. 

In the video, the teacher has taken on the monster role and the kids are fully enjoying his absurd monster-like attempts to scare them. They scream in playful fear, followed by collective gleeful laughter. Then as the students transform into monsters, switching roles according to the game’s design, their eyes fill with mischievous delight. As the posse turns on the teacher, the video suddenly cuts off! Uh oh! What kind of mischief did I instigate?  

Only the nose knows.