News / USA

Clown 'Doctors' Fan Out to US Hospitals

Michael Christensen's program brings laughter to ill children

Professional clown Michael Christensen on one of his 'clown rounds,' a parody of medical rounds where laughter is the chief treatment.
Professional clown Michael Christensen on one of his 'clown rounds,' a parody of medical rounds where laughter is the chief treatment.

Multimedia

Audio

Professional clown Michael Christensen doesn't just confine his act to the Big Apple Circus he co-founded. He also brings laughter to a place that is often badly in need of it: pediatric hospitals across the country.

Christensen's national organization, Clown Care, sends costumed circus performers on nearly 225,000 visits to ill children across the country.

Getting into the act

The arc of Michael Christensen’s circus career has taken some funny turns. Born in Walla Walla, Washington in 1947, he trained to be a traditional actor. But he got hooked on the circus spirit during the early 1970s, when he learned how to juggle from the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a politically radical ensemble of street performers.

Michael Christensen and Paul Binder during an appearance on the children's television show, 'Sesame Street.'
Michael Christensen and Paul Binder during an appearance on the children's television show, 'Sesame Street.'

That’s where he met and befriended juggler Paul Binder, who later joined him as a circus act and became his lifelong business partner as well. Together, the two set off for the streets of Europe, where they performed their juggling act everywhere from Paris to Istanbul.

By 1977, the two had returned to America  and raised funds to start their own one-ring circus under a small green canvas tent in New York’s Battery Park City, in the shadow of the World Trade Center. They called it The Big Apple Circus.

"We took off," Christensen recalls. "A year-and-a-half later we were in Lincoln Center. What started out as a couple of ragtag brazen Americans juggling on the streets of Europe as a great adventure has ended up being a great New York institution." 

Michael Christensen and Paul Binder juggling in the early days of their partnership.
Michael Christensen and Paul Binder juggling in the early days of their partnership.

Big Apple Circus

Today, more than 500,000 fans see the show every year during its 38-week tour. Christensen stresses that despite its success, the Big Apple Circus remains a non-profit, grassroots operation.

"We both decided when we created the circus that we wanted it to serve the communities in which we performed. This is important - having a direct, positive, supportive relationship with the community."

In that spirit, the duo launched "Circus of the Senses" in 1983, a special edition of the Big Apple Circus adapted for visually and hearing impaired children. They also started "Beyond the Ring," an afterschool program which teaches kids clowning, acrobatics and juggling. Christensen says circus arts offer children life skills such as teamwork, perseverance and calm flexibility in the face of the unexpected.        

"If a club falls and hits the ground, or you drop it while juggling, instead of being embarrassed that you’ve made a ‘mistake,’ accept it, and find some fun thing to do with that," he says. "And all of a sudden the kid looks up and sees the audience go ‘Yeah, yeah!’ And there has been a shift in the child, a really fantastic one, that goes, ‘These aren’t mistakes. These are things that happen,’ and they can be the source of fun and delight."

Professional clown and Big Apple Circus co-founder Michael Christensen
Professional clown and Big Apple Circus co-founder Michael Christensen

Clown Care

But it was personal grief over the loss of his brother to cancer and the search for a larger purpose in life that inspired Christensen to start his own signature program.

Clown Care brings pairs of clowns and the levity they offer into pediatric hospitals. There are now over 80 "clown doctors" in facilities throughout America, and internationally, hospital clowning has become an established profession. Christensen, whose hospital clown persona is named "Dr. Stubs," says the work keeps him humble.

"In the first week, I came in contact with a nine year old who was heading to Philadelphia for a heart and lungs transplant. And I entertained him for 10 minutes, laughing through his oxygen mask and respirator. And four hours later, he passed," says Christensen. "And you just say, ‘Wow, to be with a child like that, and to fill those moments with joy, celebration, wonder, awe, fun, fantasy, laughter,’ and to know that you were one of the last people on this plane he encountered, and this was the quality of the exchange, what greater honor is there?"   

Clown Care’s gifts don’t have to be raucous, or even funny. On a recent hospital visit he and his partner peered through the doorway of a 10-year-old boy’s hospital room to see him peacefully sleeping while his mother stroked his head.    

"The scene is beautiful and so elegant and so touching. And you take a breath and we played a song. My partner has a ukulele and he just played a lovely song and I was simply with him and present. And we simply added the music, the appropriate music, that would complete that moment in front of us."       

Clown 'doctor'

Christensen believes that clowns achieve much of their humor - and perhaps their healing power - by acting in ways that seem inappropriate.

He might enter a sick child’s room and walk right into a wall, or parody doctors by giving a medical exam to a rubber chicken. He is also aware that children - especially sick children - are often given little power over their lives. So he always asks permission of the child before the room, and sometimes switches roles with a child by acting benignly helpless when at the bedside.

Michael Christensen as his hospital clown persona, 'Dr. Stubs.'
Michael Christensen as his hospital clown persona, 'Dr. Stubs.'

"Now, all of a sudden, I am the one who needs the help and they become the all-knowing authority. Even in something as simple as ‘Do I have my hat on right?’ ‘Is everything okay?’ and they say ‘You have to button that,’ and ‘You’ve got it all wrong!’ And before you know it, they are sitting up in the bed taking charge. And medical people have told us oftentimes this is a turning point in someone’s illness where they have organized themselves to take charge."    

For his pioneering Clown Care program, Christensen has received the Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award, the Red Skelton Award and Parenting Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Christensen’s hospital work has not been limited to children. He offers experimential group workshops that teach the value of playful improvisation and empathic communication to doctors, nurses and health administrators. Indeed, for Christensen and the thousands of people who have been touched by his work, play can be serious business.

You May Like

African States Push to Keep Boko Haram Offline

Central African telecoms ministers working with Nigeria to block all videos posted by Boko Haram in effort to blunt Nigerian militant group's propaganda More

Falling Oil Prices, Internet-Savvy Youth Pose Challenge for Gulf Monarchies

Across the Gulf, younger generations are putting a strain on traditional politics More

Philippines Call Center Workers Face Challenges

Country has world’s largest business process outsourcing, or BPO, industry, employing some one-million workers More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More