Saturday, 12 May 2007

Clowning is serious work.

At first I thought it was "part-time". My goal is to perform three times a week and I thought that would be easy enough. But there's a bit more to it than I thought. I've discovered that there are three main aspects of clown work (four if you count the nap).

1. Hygiene
This is a Very Important aspect of hospital clowning. Before going to hospital, I have a headbath. Check nails are clean, clip if necessary, remove nail polish if necessary. Make sure EVERYTHING I take to the hospital (clown costume, bag, shoes, props) is clean, and wear a clean set of regular clothes. After I get back from hospital, there's more stuff to clean - throw all clothes - both the regular set I wore to and from, as well as my clown costume, towels, hair bands, socks, hats, cloth puppets or other cloth props - into the washing machine. Have ANOTHER headbath. While the laundry's being done, wash every prop - juggling balls, flutes, whatever, as well as make-up brushes. Wipe down bags, shoes, toiletries (cold cream, toner, talc, lotion) and make-up kit, with disinfectant. Scrub the soles of my clown shoes with hot soapy water (hospital floors have GERMS). By the time I'm done with it, the laundry's done and I put it out to dry. Later, I must steam iron my clown costume, and then put everything away in its place, usually wrapped in plastic packets (oh yeah, I rinse the plastic packets too!) and then I'm all set for my next Clown Rounds.

2. Practice
Although a lot of our clowning is based on improvisation, it makes a huge difference to have a set of well-tuned technical skills. The skills I use (or plan to use) are juggling, puppetry, music and song, and storytelling. So at least half an hour of juggling practice every day. Sing scales to keep my voice fit. Practise singing and learning lullabies (for when we go to neo-natal to visit the little babies). Practice scales on my recorder, melodica and flute - all three wind instruments (well the melodica is a reed instrument like the accordion and harmonica - but you blow into it to make sound) and also learn and practise suitable tunes and songs to play on them. These include familiar children's songs like nursery rhymes, but also Hindi film music. A lot of the children in the hospitals I visit speak primarily in Tamil, Urdu or Kannada - so I try to incorporate Hindi pop music - bouncy stuff, or sweet old classics like lori's (pronounced loh-ree .. Urdu for lullaby) by Lata Mangeshkar. I haven't yet begun working on my puppetry and story-telling, but for now the music, song and juggling practice is something I try to do every day. I also work on developing skits or props, but don't set aside a specific time for that, just do that as it comes to me.

3. Performance
If I've taken care of all the stuff in Hygiene, then this starts with loading up and driving over to hospital. If possible, have a word with the staff about patients (find out if there are any special cases, e.g. pre-op - who might be afraid and need some reassurance; or post-op - who might be in pain and could do with some light relief but perhaps not boisterous loud clowning). Then disappear into the doctors or nurses changing room and get dressed, put on make-up and accessories. Sometimes we may pick a theme to use as a guideline - e.g. today let's be Bollywood film producers, out to make a movie; today we are searching for a lost elephant; today we are doctors;) - that can help in giving some direction to our improv - but of course, it's ultimately up to what we find waiting for us when we step out as clowns. After the performance is over, we head on back, change back into regular human beings, and walk quietly out of the hospital. Although parents and staff recognise us, the children never seem to connect these normal, serious-faced people with the clowns who only a while ago were making them giggle and smile. I love that. They BELIEVE. Too bad grown-ups lose that incredible talent. Then it's back home to more Hygiene stuff.

4. The Nap
Don't laugh. Clowning can be exhausting. Post clowning, a hearty meal is required, followed by a nice long nap. It helps that most hospital clowning is done in the mornings (after doctors finish their rounds) so this means the nap is usually an afternoon nap, one of the most delightful category of naps known to humankind. And clownkind.

And there you have it, people. My clown job description.

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