Children's hospital therapists heal through humor

Laughs as medicine: Specially trained clowns help make serious situations less serious.

Laughter is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.

Clown therapists from the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization ClownZero are healing through humor by clowning around in the pediatric ward at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.

Yes, they are professional performing artists, but clown therapists are not just everyday circus clowns; they all have a background in therapeutic healing.

“We train all the clowns to be super sensitive because the scale of play is much smaller in a hospital room; it’s like an exclusive performance for the person in the hospital bed,” ClownZero Director Dan Griffiths said. “All our clowns work with children and have a lot of experience in knowing how to govern oneself accordingly.”

To ensure they do not scare the children, ClownZero therapists wear minimal make-up and removable red noses, looking more like goofy regular people than circus performers. They also take their cues from the patients and staff, transforming themselves into the objects of play.

“When we go into a room, we have the kids orchestrate what we do; we’re never doing something to them, we’re always playing with them,” said Griffiths, aka Dr. Schnozensoop.

When ClownZero began in March 2009, goofing-off was limited to the child-life playroom, but now clown therapists make their own rounds, visiting both in and out-patient wards, playrooms and even individual hospital rooms.

“[UCSF] has slowly opened up more of the hospital to us once they saw the benefits of clowning,” Griffiths said.

Humor can have a strong effect on the well-being of ill children, even aiding in their recovery. Medical studies show that laughter can help reduce stress, decrease pain through the release of endorphins, and help patients and families cope with illness.

“By getting everyone to laugh and play a little bit, it helps make a serious situation a little less serious,” Griffiths said. “We play with patients and staff to kind of draw them out of themselves and empower them.”

While the Healing Through Humor Program at UCSF is ClownZero’s main initiative, it also has a Response Team that brings humanitarian clowning to both local and global communities in need.

Following the San Bruno fire this summer, response team members brought humor to children and families while they waited for services at an emergency center. On Thanksgiving, ClownZero partnered with Catholic Charities to entertain homeless families at the Saint Joseph’s Center for Families while they had Thanksgiving dinner.

In January, the ClownZero response team will travel to orphanages and refugee camps in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to work with the Panya Project and the Lotus Flower Foundation — a local organization dedicated to ending child abuse.



Big Apple Circus Focuses on the Senses

Special edition of popular circus caters to deaf and blind audiences

Adam Phillips | New York  January 19, 2011



Children the world over love a circus. But young people who are visually or hearing impaired can find it nearly impossible to join in on the fun. Since 1983, the producers of New York’s Big Apple Circus have been bringing those special needs children into the act with the annual "Circus of the Senses" program.

Midway through a recent performance, all of the action takes place in a small, one-ring production. About 1,200 children - most of them visually or hearing impaired - sit in rapt attention, their faces aglow in the show’s dancing, colored lights.

As they watch the impossible body-bending moves of Mongolian contortionists, announcers describe the action from a sound booth located behind the crowd.  

"Oh, my! There's one young lady on the pedestal and everybody else is balancing in some kind of backbend on her."

"When we say back bend, it's all the way, their legs are almost to their heads."


Paul Binder and Michael Christensen's commentary goes directly into headsets worn by the visually impaired children. Binder and Christensen co-founded the non-profit Big Apple Circus in 1977 to make this traditional and popular form of entertainment more accessible to communities across the country.

"So in that spirit, we want to make the delight, the joy, the wonder, the excitement of the one-ring circus available to as many varied populations as we can," says Christensen.   

He says the idea for the Circus of the Senses arose when they realized some populations need extra help to share in the circus fun. In order to bring the experience to the visually impaired, the two received extensive coaching from professional 'audio describers' and from blind people. Christensen says they learned that their running descriptions had to stay ahead of the action in the ring, and ahead of the excited gasps from the 'seeing' crowd. It's not enough to merely react.  

"If you cannot see our show and we are describing a triple somersault, and we describe that triple somersault as it happens, you may hear the audience around you gasp because they will see the somersaults, so you are kind of left out of that gasp," says Christensen. "So whenever we can, we anticipate that triple somersault, so that you hear it described at the same time people see it so you can join the collective gasp."

Christensen adds that he and Binder take pains to be careful with the speech they use. But the blind people who coach them have warned them against being too careful.

"We were always very sensitive about phrases like ‘Look at that!,’ or ‘Did you see that!' And when we brought that issue up to the blind person who was giving us notes, he said "Don’t worry about that. That’s silly. Just say it like that. It’s fine.'"  

The deaf and hard of hearing are also fully accommodated at the Circus of the Senses. Anne Tramon, who helped create Circus of the Senses, notes performance features several highly-trained American Sign Language interpreters. Tramon also helped to develop a headphone device that uses infrared light to convey sound to listeners faster than sound waves.

"And because you are isolating the sound, you are taking sound directly from the stage through the (audio) feed, you are getting this pure sound and you can still hear the audience because it’s not completely blocked, your ear," she says. "And to see a child truly experience something they could never experience before, it’s just amazing. It does the heart good."


After the show is over, there is a special touch session, where young audience members can enter the ring, meet the performers and touch the animals they may not have been able to see, or see well.

"We as performers actually get to meet the audience. It’s not just the audience getting to meet us and getting to pet a dog or a goat or a horse today," says Barry Lubin, a professional clown with the circus. "Some of these people I’ve seen since they were very young. And now they’re getting older and their families are still bringing them to Circus of the Senses. It’s a neat experience for me every year."  

The Circus of the Senses, which will be performed twice this year in New York and Boston,  is not the only community service performed by the Big Apple Circus. It also sponsors Clown Care, a program which sends clowns and the cheer they bring to pediatric hospitals.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Thanks to Wikipedia for this article about Joseph Grimaldi.

Joseph Grimaldi or Iron Legs (December 18, 1778 - May 31, 1837), the most celebrated of English clowns, was born in London, the son of an Italian actor.
When less than two years old he was brought upon the stage at Drury Lane; at the age of three he began to appear at Sadler's Wells; and he did not finally retire until 1828. As the clown of pantomime he was considered without an equal, his greatest success being in Mother Goose, at Covent Garden (1806 and often revived).
His father was Italian and his performance was reminiscent of Commedia dell’ Arte. He is widely hailed as the founding father of modern clowns, the pantomime. He performed often at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Some people have claimed that Grimaldi himself was the inspiration for Frankenstein’s monster.
His Memoirs in two volumes (1838) were edited by Charles Dickens.
The famous 'sad clown' anecdote was first told of Grimaldi (later also told of Grock): A young man goes to see his doctor. He is overcome by a terrible sadness and doesn't think anything will make him feel better. The doctor says "Why not do something happy, like going to see Grimaldi the clown?". The young man answers "Ah, but doctor," with a knowing look "I am Grimaldi."
To this day every year on the first Sunday in February a memorial service is held for Grimaldi at All Saints' Church, Haggerston, Hackney, North-East London - the home of the Clowns' Gallery. For this service hundreds of clowns flock from all over the world in full 'garb' and the service is followed by a show for the children.
The original editions of the book of Grimaldi's memoirs are very hard to find, either in antiquarian bookshops or even Online. But there are two digital / P.O.D. versions now available. Self-publisher John Haines ( Josh Rogan ) has made available a scanned copy of an 1846 edition, and a full-text version of the 1853 Routledge 'Cheap New Series' edition. The former has its own charm as it is entirely made up of scanned pages and the stained, darkened pages of such an old book evoke the era, but this takes up to an hour to download, whereas the latter is a full-text EBook, which downloads quickly. Both have the illustrations and revisions.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Web site designed by: Concept Web Design