A Labour of Laugh

Published on 8 December 2015

Medical clowns do much more than act and entertain — they bring a ray of sunshine to places where it’s needed most.

BY PAMELA HO

Laughter is the best medicine. In spaces where sadness, pain and loss hang heavy — like hospitals or disaster zones — sometimes all that’s needed is the permission to laugh.

“Medical clowns are not birthday clowns or circus clowns. We do not have colourful wigs and painted faces. We’re actually parodying doctors, except we have a little red nose,” says Professor Thomas Petschner (right), founder of the International Institute of Medical Clowning (the world’s first specialised academic programme for professional clowning in healthcare settings), Clown Doctors New Zealand. He is also co-founder and artistic director of Clown Doctors Singapore.

More than 60 people signed up for audition in Singapore in July 2014, but only 18 were selected and put through a 30-day Essentials of Medical Clowning programme. One-and-a-half years on, only eight from that first batch have successfully fulfilled the requirements and moved on to do their Level 1 certificate in Medical Clowning, an 800-hour course.

One of them is theatre and television actress, Cynthia Lee MacQuarrie, who has been in show business for 16 years. “Medical clowning is so much more complex and challenging than I thought! Yes, certain artistic talents and skills are needed, but it’s a whole new art form for me,” admits MacQuarrie, who goes by the pseudonym Dr Sum Ting Wong.

“I struggled in the beginning but have learnt so much in the past 15 months,” she reveals. “I’m thankful that I get to use my skills for a purpose beyond pure entertainment. With medical clowning, we are serving the most vulnerable in our community.”

PHOTO  Thomas Petschner

JOY IN SORROW Giving people in hospitals and disaster zones permission to laugh: Prof Petschner with firefighters in earthquake-stricken Christchurch and on hospital visits in China.

PHOTO Clown Doctors New Zealand

SCHOOL OF HEART KNOCKS

“Medical clowns need to have knowledge of medicine, health sciences, psychology, cultural issues; then combine these with artistic elements,” explains Prof Petschner, a health scientist of 25 years, who also boasts 35 years’ experience in the performing arts, as a theatre director and playwright.

“First of all, you need certain artistic skills — improvisational abilities, acting, pantomime, physicality. Another absolute component is compassion for others — to do something for people in a very bad situation, people who are unwell, in hospitals, whose future is uncertain,” he adds, citing examples of how medical clowning has been applied in geriatric and paediatric departments in hospitals and disaster zones like the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.

ASIAN INVASION

While the programme has been successful in Europe and the United States, Prof Petschner was cognizant of the fact that transplanting it into Asia might not be as straightforward. “We were aware of Asia’s cultural diversity, so what we developed was a kind of humour and universal approach that applies worldwide. We managed to put a system in place, so that clowns can go and be really funny without using language.”

When clown doctors enter a patient’s room, they always go as a couple. “This creates a scenario where patients can observe what goes on between the clowns, without them talking,” he explains. “Conflict between clowns is funny in Europe, it’s funny in China, it’s funny everywhere!”

PHOTO Clown Doctors Asia Pacific

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS

MacQuarrie recalls a personal encounter that moved her deeply. “It was when I met my first palliative patient. She was a teenager in the last stages of her illness. Her parents were at first tentative about having us around because she was sedated. But when we created a simple game of ‘scissors, paper, stone’, the girl started to respond and play along. She even smiled and gave us high-fives! Her parents were smiling too, and at each other.”

One evening after her shift, MacQuarrie went back on her own to visit the teenager but was told by the doctor that the patient had passed away that afternoon. “I’m usually quite good at detaching — it’s part of life — but I can’t explain how I felt that day,” she reveals, teary-eyed. “We brought her some laughter and relief for a moment, but she in turn gave me very precious motivating energy. I think that a part of my dedication to medical clowning belongs to her.”

MacQuarrie intends to continue this path more seriously and pursue a degree in Medical Clowning at Steinbeis University in Berlin. When she completes her certification in Level 1 in a few months, she will continue with Level 2 and specialise for work in disaster zones, supported by Clown Doctors Asia, Relief & Recovery Team.

MORE RED NOSES

Clown Doctors Singapore is currently in five hospitals: Tan Tock Seng Hospital, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, National University Hospital, Changi General Hospital and St Luke’s Hospital. The teams of medical clowns are there daily, from Mondays to Fridays, working four-hour shifts.

Despite the high demand and long waiting list of hospitals, Clown Doctors Singapore has not recruited more clowns. There are tentative plans for an audition call in the first quarter of 2016, but that depends largely on whether they can secure funding and sponsorship.

“My vision is to have medical clowns in every children’s and geriatric hospital,” shares Prof Petschner. “I’d like to see humour getting the same recognition in hospitals as washing hands to protect against diseases. Just as physical hygiene is important in a hospital environment, mental hygiene should be too. Laughter is like medicine… with no side effects!”

Clown Doctors Singapore is always on the look out for potential candidates and sponsors. If you’re keen to audition or donate, please email them at [email protected].

DR SUM TING WONG In show business for 16 years, actress Cynthia Lee MacQuarrie says being a medical clown is a whole new art form to her. PHOTO  Cynthia Lee MacQuarrie

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