A few days into the tour, the clowns felt exhausted. Port-au-Prince, the capital city and chief port of the Republic of Haiti, lay in ruin. It was March 2010, ten weeks after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake ripped the country asunder, killing an estimated 250,000 people. Twisted rubble disfigured the skyline and 40,000 tents overtook the country’s only golf course. Running water was scarce: The clowns, hot and humid, took small “showers” with purchased drinking water. On tour with an organization called Clowns Without Borders, and sponsored by Handicap International, which provides prosthetics and medical equipment, the clowns brought another kind of crucial medicine: laughter.
They began their shows with a traditional clown parade in makeshift hospital tents, hugging and playing for hundreds of children with new amputations. The city was already ravaged by poverty and political volatility. The earthquake laid bare its flimsy infrastructure and vast inequities. For one clown, Portlander David Lichtenstein – known the world over as Leapin’ Louie – the experience exposed something else: the playfulness and resilience of the Haitian people. “On that tour, I heard the loudest laughter of my entire life, reminding me just how fine the line is between comedy and tragedy,” Lichtenstein said. “Comedy is overcoming and celebrating tragedy.”
The people of Haiti are living proof of what Red Skelton so nicely put into words: “No matter what your heartache may be, laughing helps you forget it for a few seconds.” I like to hope Mr. Skelton had knowledge of the work of Clowns Without Borders, whose beginnings can be traced back to 1993, when school children in Barcelona raised money to send the Catalonian clown Tortell Poltrona to their pen pals in Croatian refugee camps.
The children in the camps had reported how much they missed laughter, so Poltrona performed there for audiences of more than 4,000. Recognizing the import of that experience, he founded the first of fifteen worldwide chapters in existence today. The United States chapter, founded by Moshe Cohen in 1995, and currently under the executive direction of Naomi Shafer, hosts Pandemic Pandemonium, its 22nd annual Portland-based fundraiser, on Saturday, February 27 – this year, an online event. Lichtenstein, now a member of the board of directors and a veteran of twelve Clowns Without Borders tours, was instrumental in bringing the organization to Portland: He hosted the group’s first fundraiser in his living room, twenty-two years ago.
CWB’s mission is to offer joy and laughter to relieve the sufferings of all persons, especially children, who live in areas of crisis, including refugee camps, conflict zones and territories in emergency situations. That goal sparkles with altruism and compassion, and likely accounts for why so many professional artists volunteer their time and talent for annual tours. Prior to the pandemic, CWB–USA booked roughly twelve tours per year—a significant number that required Shafer to wear a hat she’s become rather fond of: putting clown teams together.
The chapters operate independently in each country, but it’s truly an international endeavor, one that has brought laughter and much-needed breaks from trauma to people in forty countries worldwide. Clowns Without Borders International provides ethical standards for all chapters and fosters cooperation among the chapters, which frequently work together by sharing contacts and finding the best options for tours. “I’ll have a request to do a project in Kenya and that’s really exciting, but it makes more sense for CWB-South Africa to do the project, or we will do it as a collaboration,” Naomi Shafer explains.
Shafer’s ebullience transcends the computer screen, which connected us for our virtual interviews. It takes no imagination whatsoever to envision her work. The emotional reserve she draws upon to slip in and out of the clown state—which she demonstrated throughout the interviews—exists close to the surface. Infused with the unmistakable passion of someone doing what she is meant to do, Shafer talks easily and earnestly, and her overall essence reminds me of a characteristic important for any great clown: vulnerability.
Shafer tried to shake clowning for a while, even after she had done some teaching at a school in Beslan, Russia, in the wake of a bombing, but fate intervened by way of a pesky boy in the Brooklyn library. She had just moved to New York City. Wary of searching for a job and writing endless cover letters, “On a whim, I typed in ‘Clown’ to Insight, and this post came up for Clowns Without Borders looking for a volunteer fundraiser. I don’t think I would have applied if there wasn’t this guy who kept trying to talk to me, and I think maybe purely to get out of having to talk, I applied.”
With a huge mission but a tiny staff of two (Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone serves as the Communications Director), Shafer calls Clowns Without Borders’ history as a volunteer-run organization for 20 years “an incredible grassroots effort,” making the fundraiser in Portland—its biggest—all the more crucial. The organization’s vision has begun to shift as “displacement is growing and the need for this work is growing.” Shafer was quick to dispel myths surrounding displacement. “Sometimes we think of refugee camps as tents that people are in for a short time, but there are camps that have been open for twenty years. There are people who are born displaced and who will live their whole life displaced.” She offered Palestine as an example of one place where “refugee camps on the West Bank are part of the city.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there were 79.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide by the end of 2019, or one in every 97 humans on the planet. Forty percent of those displaced are children.
Fitting to the mission, the U.S. chapter doesn’t operate from one central location. Shafer joined the Zoom chats from Bozeman, Montana, where she found herself when the world shut down, and from where she explained, with a broad smile, why Portland is dear to her. First, the fundraiser has historically been a huge success here. Second, she happened to meet her current clown partner in Portland last year when they performed for the first time together.
The pandemic forced Shafer to cancel a dozen upcoming tours and completely reconsider how to still connect to those most in need. It has also offered some time to focus on other aspects of the organization: “In the pandemic, we’ve been building an artists’ training and thinking especially about equity, diversity, inclusion and collaboration, and this understanding that these actually aren’t separate things, especially in performance … the work you do and who you are.”
Building solid teams that can tour under sometimes grueling, emotional conditions requires proactive communication. Using one low-stakes example to illustrate what could happen given higher stakes, she explained, “I think there’s a lot of potential for conflict between the person who thinks rehearsal starts with a cup of coffee together and the person who thinks rehearsal starts with everyone being warmed up, and that is conflict that only gets bigger.” This highlighted an aspect of the work that’s worth mentioning—there is no rehearsal director or stage manager on site to sort out the logistics or tend to the finer points, and in the case of Clowns Without Borders, a tour consists of three or so clowns who quite probably have never worked together before. “We look for clowns who have experience touring, but who in some ways can let go of that, because it’s not just showing up and everything is already set up,” Shafer says. “Be prepared to walk about two miles carrying your equipment, because there aren’t always roads. I’ll say when I send out that initial email, ‘This is a tour where we can’t guarantee that you’ll have electricity and hot water,’ or, ‘This tour you’ll have internet every three days.’ Sometimes the team doesn’t have drivers. On a recent tour in Guatemala and the Balkans, they did their own driving.”
Apart from flexibility, Shafer cited “cultural humility” as the most important attribute for a clown in a CWB tour. It’s crucial for performers who may have to abandon their best-rehearsed material if the show transforms unexpectedly into a place for elders to tell stories or sing. “We come in with all this privilege of having a passport, having a ticket out. We have food. We have water. We have access to medical. But we’re going to places with food and water scarcity. If you are in the audience for one of our shows, something very bad has happened to you. So, we come in with all this enormous privilege. And what do clowns do? We play with power dynamics. Think of the court jester making fun of the king. We flip that power dynamic and it’s that moment of the audience suddenly seeing, ‘Oh, wow! She can’t even walk across the stage without falling over!’”
CWB only goes where it’s invited, understanding that sometimes clowns are not appropriate for certain settings or crises. But where they do go, it is the resilience and the innate wisdom of the children that inspires Shafer. Naomi described a tour that sent a group of clowns to Lesvos, Greece: “Just two days before, the kids had crossed the Mediterranean in lifeboats. They were practically still wet, yet they were the first to flip the lifeboats over and jump on them like trampolines. To use the flotation device as a hula hoop. Look, what else can we make with these?!”
This anecdote gets to the heart of the mission. “Every child has the right to play independent of whether other rights are being met, and in an ideal world, all those other rights would be met, but there’s no reason why a child who doesn’t have access to housing shouldn’t have access to an awesome playground or an amazing clown show,” she said. “One injustice doesn’t then require another string of injustices.”
The pandemic has created extra challenges for the performers, many of whom find themselves creating in isolation. The craft, by its nature, works best with an audience. So much of clowning relies on give and take, magical possibilities of live interaction. Despite this, the performers adapt by doing what they do best. “A good clown can’t deny what’s right in front of them,” Shafer says. “By watching these circus artists create an act and explore their spaces within isolation, it’s that little spark of, ‘Oh? What else can I find?’ After a year of pandemic separation, I keep having these moments of, ‘I got this. I know what this is.’ And then, ‘No I don’t!’ I think the challenge and invitation of the clown is how to be in that space and how to play with that frustration.” In fact, frustration is as welcome a guest as any other feeling: “We want to give permission to express the whole range of emotions.”
When I asked Shafer what to expect from the benefit show, she beamed with excitement. “There are actually two shows, an afternoon and an evening, and without giving too much away, the youngest star of the afternoon show, ‘Children’s Hour’ is only four months old!” Shafer offered some final thoughts about why we should tune in Saturday, “I know right now there’s pandemic fatigue. I know there’s Zoom fatigue. I know some might ask, ‘Why should I attend another thing online?’ and I understand. But I also know what Clowns Without Borders does best is create community and connection in really hard circumstances.”
One such pivotal connection occurred for Shafer in Myanmar, in 2018 when Clowns Without Borders joined the group Clown Me In for a partnership with the Mine Advisory Group to present a show about landmine safety. After 60 hours on planes and six hours a day in the car, the tour reached 9,000 people. For Shafer, one show stands out more than all the others. On the final show, a young child with a disability that made mobility difficult repeatedly joined the clowns on stage. Sometimes others would guide him off, and sometimes he would leave on his own. At the end, in search of a final volunteer, Shafer came face to face with the little boy. Nobody was sure what would happen next, including Shafer herself, but she locked eyes with his caregiver, who tried to hold him back, silently expressing her concern for his safety. Shafer, as clowns so often do, stepped into the unknown. For her, the show narrowed down to an audience of one. She and the boy engaged in a call and response, improvising and playing off one another. The exchange continued to build and culminated with the audience joining in. Eventually, the little boy received sustained applause. “I don’t always know what’s going to happen, but I trust that it can,” Shafer says. “That trust comes from finding ways to adapt. No one should be left out. That’s the great beauty and the challenge.”
Finding ways to adapt sounds especially useful in a year that has taught us to live apart from the people we hold dearest, to learn apart, to work apart, even to die apart. We recognize that some of us are the benefactors of so much privilege that even a discussion on privilege is a privilege. And many of the threats that seemed vaguely futuristic (a global pandemic, the impact of climate change) have consequences that impact millions of lives every second of every day. Perhaps most of all, Clowns Without Borders and the work its performers do remind us that safety is an illusion, and that even the illusion of safety has been a gift for the privileged few.
We’ve adapted a lot during the Great Pause. Only a year ago, the word “Zoom” was a verb that conjured visions of race cars or speedboats, not a lifeline technology that connected us to our loved ones. And the idea that the future of live theater and circus and music could be in peril? Inconceivable. Yet here we are. Still, one thing remains as it has always been: Laughter is, as the clowns say, the most important renewable resource. And we should treat ourselves and others to as much of it as we can find these days. Luckily, this Saturday, we can support the critical work of a phenomenal organization while we’re at it.
- Pandemic Pandemonium, Clowns Without Borders’ 22nd annual Portland benefit, takes place online on Saturday, Feb. 27, with a Children’s Hour at 2 p.m. and the gala performance at 7:30 p.m. Pacific time. There’ll also be a workshop with Naomi Shafer at noon Sunday, Feb. 28; a panel discussion about Clowns Without Borders’ early years, at 2 p.m. Sunday; and a showing of new work by CWB clowns, at 4 p.m. Sunday. All events are pay what you can. Reservations and information here.