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

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book 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.
Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festivali
X
April 24, 2015 4:09 AM
Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Keeping Washington Airspace Safe Is Tall Order

Being the home of all three branches of the U.S. federal government makes Washington, D.C. the prime target for those who want to make their messages and ideas heard. Unfortunately, many of them choose to deliver them in unorthodox ways, including from the air, as a recent incident clearly showed involving a gyrocopter landing on the Capitol’s West Lawn. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.

VOA Blogs