by Darcy Jeffery

2010 began in a surprising way for me: a week-long clowning trip called “Clowning and Caring in Ecuador with Patch Adams,” then staying to travel through Ecuador and Colombia on my own. More than just a vacation, a volunteer week, or study-abroad program, this was unlike anything I’d ever done before, and it couldn’t have come at a better point in my life than in this post-graduation “gap” year. Before the trip and even en route I had some reservations. Would I be able to clown? How does one clown, and would I know what to do? There was only one way to know, and I found out that anyone can be a clown, even me! I discovered that it’s not about entertaining people or trying to be funny and humorous. Instead, it’s all about loving people, connecting so that you really see people and they see you, or at least your clown persona.

When you’re an entertainer for people, there is still a barrier between you, the performer, and your audience. However, when you clown with people, the barriers are broken, social divisions disappear, and it seems like anything is possible. One of my favorite examples of this happened on the day we clowned in a mental health facility. At first they thought we were there to perform – the chairs were set up facing the front end of the courtyard like a stage, patients were seated and nurses lined up like ushers along the side. We started by putting on a clown fashion show, but then something else started to happen, something almost magical. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but what began as a fashion show ended as one gigantic joyful dance party! Before the conga line happened, I shared a great moment with one of my dance partners. She threw her head back and laughed when I stuck my foot out, and then stuck her own foot out and improvised with delight. Clowning had melted away the barriers between audience and performers, clowns and patients, creating a new reality for everyone, well, almost everyone! The nurses still mostly stood by like ushers. A few joined in and I got at least one nurse to dance with me! Throughout the week there were many moments like this, and the same clown magic let strangers embrace, an entire village gather, and prisoners share their stories. But what would happen to the magic when our clown group dispersed to go our separate ways in the “real” world?

I’ve found that a red nose can do so much more than make someone smile. It can also create new realities, and carry a message for a better society.

Fast forward one month later and I’m on my own, staying in a hostal in the town of Otavalo, Ecuador. Every Saturday they have a huge textile market, and I was looking forward to exploring it. But this day the streets were a little less festive, and a steady rain seemed to foretell of a dreary day. It was as I was walking around, thinking what a shame it was to have such weather, that I saw the clown. I was so excited that I pulled out my own clown nose, ran up to him and took our picture! That gave me the courage and inspiration to wear my red nose, and suddenly, the world seemed like a very different place. People smiled when they saw the nose, real genuine smiles, and I couldn’t help but feel good and smile back. It completely transformed my day. The best part was that when I returned to my hostal, the three kids who lived there saw me with my nose and that led to perhaps my best clowning experience of all. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that barriers were broken once again, I became a kid, clown and big sister in one, and they became clowns as well.

So what now? I’ve found that a red nose can do so much more than make someone smile. It can also create new realities, and carry a message for a better society. The question I’d like to leave you with is: What kind of difference do you want to make in the world, what can you change right now, what kind of society can you imagine? Maybe all you need to get started is as simple as a red nose.

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Kelli Lynn Shermeyer

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