The Best Medicine

By John Kelly


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left to right: Scott Smith as Stretch, Amanda Ricks as Goldie, Rebecca Ataya Lang as Ruby and Jim Ricks as Bungle. Photo by: Russ Smith Other Photos by: Sean Doe, Dave Olecko Red Deer Advocate, Judy Smith

“The humanity of relationships is the basis of a clown's existence.”
–Scott Smith

Our first experience with clowns is usually a good one that makes us happy, even if we’re too young to know why. But like many relationships, it sometimes sours over time: “They’re just a bunch of clowns”; “Stop clowning around”. These are the pejoratives we hear when one is not toeing the line, pulling their weight or cutting muster. Clowns become synonymous with the lesser. And today, in many circles, the good name of clowning is being dragged through the mud. Frankly, it’s a circus.

But on Canada’s west coast there is a troupe that not only works to rehabilitate the art form and resurrected a grand tradition, but puts smiles on the faces of everyone to whom they bring their passion. Victoria, BC’s Sunshine Clown Band is making clowning cool and compassionate.

The Sunshine Clown Band’s founding members, Scott Smith, Jim Ricks and his daughter, Amanda, had their first performance in May 2008 during the annual volunteer appreciation party at Victoria General Hospital. Today, the non-profit society has just finished donating a year of clowning to the hospital’s pediatric unit, entertained at community events like Epilepsy Awareness Day and Do It for Dad Father’s Day Runs, and performed at Saanich’s Music in the Park summer events. But the mostly senior all-volunteer members’ main gigs are bi-weekly compassionate clowning visits to the Victoria area’s senior residences.    

If you think it’s all giving, think again. There is a genuine symbiosis between members of the troupe and the seniors they meet.

“The courage and grace [senior residents] show in coming to terms with this phase of their life, the appreciation and playfulness, the willingness to share their stories and feelings; the clowns go with open hearts and are consistently met in kind,” says Scott, a retired early childhood educator and admitted class clown.

In the early days for Scott there were mime lessons, participation in a children’s theatre company, and even a Rent-A-Joke stand with a 100% satisfaction or money-back guarantee, but it wasn’t until retirement in 2008 that he set out in earnest to do more clowning.
 
Amanda Ricks is a registered drama therapist and has worked in mental health for years. As part of an undergraduate degree, she did a clown show tour through schools and clowned professionally for festivals. She echoes Scott’s sentiment: “It is a wonderful feeling to connect on a deeper level with people who are sick or in pain and, in some cases, dying. For a brief time, there is none of that and we are united, lost in the moment of play. That is the best feeling in the world.”

Amanda’s father, Jim, a one-time Oklahoma disc jockey believes, “all of us are moved by care clowning and love to see the positive effects it has on seniors and their families.” There’s your apple-falling-right-next-to-the-tree moment. Jim eventually moved on from spinning wax in the Sooner State to becoming a psychologist with frequent stops in the television and radio industries along the way. Retired from his practice, he now works with seniors in developing fitness and improving mental health.  Oh, he’ll also dust off his fiddle and play some old-time country tunes, if you ask nicely.  

Phyllis McGee, a self-confessed “good girl” and rule observer, had always operated under the constraints of societal conventions. A former researcher at UVic’s Institute on Aging & Lifelong Health, retirement “work” had two conditions: it needed to be fun; and it needed to be meaningful.

“Both my greatest hurdle and my greatest joy have been breaking free of all the constraints I have lived with my whole life. Clowning allows me to drop all the restraints, discover and let the playful part of me come out and shine. I have never known such joy and freedom – until now. Care clowning is a true gift in my life!”

A favourite memory for Phyllis is when they sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to a woman with dementia and the baby doll she was cradling. If the profound compassion and human connection wrapped up in that image doesn’t give you a chill, you’re not wired up right. Meaningful and fun boxes ticked.

Ann Sorensen worked for 26 years at The Queen Alexandra Centre for Children’s Health and has been a Sunshine Clown member for three years. She leapt at the opportunity to work in therapeutic clowning. The poignant moments of connection with another are what touch her most deeply.

“One man told me his lifelong dream had been to fly a plane, and he'd never attained it. So, I started singing “Fly Me to the Moon,” and his eyes teared up, and he held on to my hands so tightly, smiling through his tears. It was a powerful connection for both of us.”

The deep and healing connection with another is not always easily accessed, and the Sunshine Clowns make certain they give themselves and audience members every opportunity to bond organically at a pace that is comfortable for everyone.

“We bear little resemblance to circus clowns that have been used in a grotesque form in horror films to terrify people,” says Ann. “Some performing clowns can be very loud and ‘in your face.’ We are quite the opposite. We ask permission before entering someone's space, and let them direct the interaction through offering choices. We do wear red noses (the smallest mask), and each clown character has their own style.”

Scott adds, “To further reduce the possibility of confusion when visiting older people, many of whom have compromised experiences of reality, we wear very little, if any, face make-up. We want them to see clearly the human being who is visiting with them. We rely on our red noses and outlandish garb to send the message that ‘we're not from around here.’  And we are careful to adjust our energy level to meet theirs. We are not there to overwhelm or even entertain them, but rather invite them to play and be with us in the magical place of ‘Now.’”
 
From the great Russian clowns to Laurel and Hardy and Seinfeld’s Kramer, from Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon to Scott’s own mother with messed hair and blacked-out teeth telling fortunes at church fairs, inspiration for clowning comes in many cloaks. Scott even credits a bad street mime in San Francisco.

“I could do that better than him,” he thought. And he has.

Aside from the care clowns, three of the members have developed shows as performance clowns, where they can pay homage to some of the great clowning traditions. Scott, Jim, and now Phyllis, bring their act to audiences as diverse as Victoria Fringe Festival goers and Syrian refugee families.

Scott and Jim agree that their theatrical clowning owes a great deal to the Commedia dell’arte, a tradition born in Northern Italy that spread across Europe. Sort of like the Crusades only no one dies, unless they kill themselves laughing. And no discussion of clowning would be complete without a tip of the beret to French pantomime.

“It has influenced many clowns, particularly those who don’t speak,” says Jim. “Mime teaches you how to use your body to communicate emotions or thought processes.” And it helps you to think outside the box. (Sorry)

Member Jan Straeder, a professional actress, has toured Alberta with the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival for some 20 years. As a trained therapeutic clown, she has performed in various hospitals, Rehab Institutes, and Extended Care facilities as part of the Edmonton StreetFest Comedy Cares program. Her experience with The Sunshine Clown Band is another example of that keystone brick in an over-arching theme.

“When sick children forget the pain and laugh with joy at the beauty of the bubbles we blow for them; when an Alzheimer’s or stroke patient suddenly remembers a long forgotten song and joins in with us; when we can lighten the day of busy doctors and nurses, it shows that laughter really is the best medicine.”

Clowns exist in the present. They are a pick-me-up and a balm for their audience/playmates. The fundamental human interaction with them eliminates – even if only momentarily – the scars of what has been and the uncertainty of what is to come. For a moment, anxiety and fear get tossed aside like a raggedy and colourful old handkerchief. The Sunshine Clown Band endeavours to lighten one’s load wherever they go, to put cheer in the heart of one who’s been without it and a song in the throat of whoever needs to sing.

Care Clown names: Goldie Rae (Amanda), Ruby (Rebecca), Mimsy (Ann), Mrs. Collywobbles (Jan), Blossom (Phyllis), Bungle (Jim) and Stretch (Scott)
Performance Clown names: Gertie McGee (Phyllis), Moore (Jim) and Holliday (Scott)

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