My healing with humour tour with Patch Adams

Apr 15, 2017

Healing with Humour and Art
Patch Adams Tour Russia, November 2004

Send in the Clowns

The song ‘Send in the Clown”s is a curious combination of humour and sadness.  A perfect title then to open on a journey by clowns into poverty and loneliness.  Imagine  36 people from all over the world landing in Russia , in clown persona,  to join Patch Adams  on his 2004 Healing with Humour Tour.   On a mission to visit hospitals and orphanages in Moscow and then St Petersburgh,, Patch Adams aim was for each clown to find and spend his clown self, make Russian friends,  and experience first hand the disparity between rich and poor.  The troupe was lead  through over 30 facilities bringing them  face to face with abject poverty, loneliness and helplessness .

Why Russia?  Patch visits many countries now with a troupe of clowns in tow.  Twenty years ago Patch was chosen to be part of a peace mission to Russia.  He joined 70 other Americans from all walks of life and it was at that time he opted to travel as a clown.  He fashioned his own clown passport and set out to amuse and bemuse everyone who crossed his path, including the 69 others in the delegation.  It was on this tour that he discovered the plight of Russia’s orphans and made a personal commitment to return and take action.  This year was his 20th anniversary of November in Russia.

Russian orphans now number close to one million.  In a country of one hundred and forty million people that’s a large percentage.  Why are there so many?  There is no single answer to that question.  Factors such as poverty and alcoholism figure highly as causative agents.  Poor education and limited job opportunities mean the orphans, on release at age 16,  are reduced to a life of crime and prostitution.  Pregnancies occur and the infants they bear are handed over to the orphanages from which they came.   Sex education is non existent and contraception while available is rarely used.

Jan Thatcher Adams, MD, Minnesota, has been on a number of tours with Patch.  She says “Some things about winter in Russian cities don’t change– the endless gray days, the harsh, fume-filled air, the dingy buildings and Stalinist era block architecture. Life is hard here, and getting harder. Democracy and capitalism have meant, for the average person, an unprecedented poverty in the midst of stores jammed with western goods. Violence has shifted from state-sponsored to Russian mafia and routine criminal activity. The average life span for the Russian male is 56 years–in St. Petersburg, it’s 51 years. One Russian friend tells me that Americans, because they are so fortunate and spend their lives in the pursuit of material wealth, have lost track of their souls. We Russians are married to death. We know how to stay with our souls.”

So how in the face of such lack can the essence of clowning be administered?  Only in the guise of the hospital clown can this persona be evidenced.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a clown is “a familiar comic character of pantomime and circus, known by his (sic) distinctive makeup and costume, ludicrous antics, and buffoonery, whose purpose is to induce hearty laughter. The clown, unlike the traditional fool or court jester, usually performs a set routine characterized by broad, graphic humor, absurd situations, and vigorous physical action”.
Unlike the circus clown, hospital clowns do not necessarily have a practiced routine or perform elaborate tricks.  All wear costume and make up but the emphasis is on being in the moment and responsive to the person being encountered.  The idea is to bring laughter and joy to the bedside of the sick or into the lives of the poor, thereby boosting morale and the immune system to enhance wellness.  The hospital clowns on this tour used song, musical instruments,  balloons, stamps, tattoos, good humour, and the notion of having fun and being silly to pave the way to a personal or small group encounter that delighted.
A story of paradox and synchronicity; of stark poverty and excessive wealth unfolded as the tour began.  Two to three facilities a day were visited.  All buildings were in poor condition and some had dirt floors in some areas.  Interestingly every facility had a hat check area!  There was no soap.  There was no toilet paper or handtowel.  There were light bulbs only in key areas.  Children ate soup they called Borsch; to us it looked remarkably like water with 3 carrot sticks and a sliver of spinach.

In some facilities the care-givers were kind compassionate and committed to their roles.  In many the caregivers demonstrated mans inhumanity to man over and over, ruling with a severe  countenance and controlling authority.  One facility allowed us only one hour ( we usually had two) saying the children had to have their injections!  It was as the children were starting to really enjoy the clowning experience that they were denied further contact.

At Sergiev Posad, the deaf dumb and blind school we saw great love and compassion.  Poor though the facility was the children wanted for nothing in the way of developmental material and a caring environment. Most equipment  had been made or sourced by the caregivers and was astounding in its ingenuity and creativity.  Children were clean, dressed in worn but carefully pressed clothes. 36 clowns and 10 children painted a mural with rainbows,  castles and butterflies.  A child with autism who was also deaf, hummed to me for 45 minutes as she examined my left ear and we both experienced moments of joy and connection as we filled the gaps created in the humming sequence. ( See picture )

At one institution for the intellectually challenged we came face to face with stark post war conditions.  Rolled barbed wire fences surrounded the building that no-one inside ever left.  All 200 “inmates” were sedated with the same foul smelling drug.  They were awake only 5 hours a day.  This was the first year Patch had been allowed to visit this facility.  Half of those we saw wore crude, torn and tattered  straightjackets.  Though denied access I feigned ignorance and insisted on helping with the meal.  I fed and gave children fluids in one area and as I did the caregiver threw scraps of food and bread into the mouth of a boy who was straight-jacketed.  As he opened his mouth to catch the bread I found myself dumbstruck with the inhumanity of this moment. When I looked into the eyes of this boy, aged about 14, I knew he was aware and my heart cried out for his plight.  Photos were not allowed in this facility.

A further facility for orphan teenagers, many with Downs Syndrome was well prepared for our visit.  The lounge had been decorated, balloons were everywhere,  and music was playing.  The doctor played the piano accordion and they formed a welcome “guard of honour””, made all the more poignant by their old fashioned clothes and loving smiles.  No words were needed here.  Music and laughter was the shared experience.  I almost lost Thomas here as a resident made off with him down the long corridors back to her room!

We were arrested twice .  once for clowning on Red Square, a public place,  and again in the underground for taking photos. We were on our way to the Moscow circus and were spending an hour doing some public clowning on the entrance to Red Square, when the alert ran out that the KGB were about to have us removed and to leave the square immediately.  Most escaped into a nearby mall, however  Patch and ten others were taken away.  They were held for 90 minutes, and then released.  In both instances sums of money changed hands and release was quick.

Our hotel rooms were another example of paradox.  In Moscow we stayed in a  pretty second rate hotel, with bare furnishings and few creature comforts.  The bathrooms were abysmal and the room temperature was impossible to stabilize.  An overnight train to St Petersburgh was worth the loss of sleep to enjoy the experience.  On arrival at the hotel in St Petersburgh, there we were astounded by the giant chandeliers and the palatial surrounds.  This hotel was grand by comparison, in stark contrast to the previous hotel in Moscow, and another example of the constant paradox we were exposed to.  In hindsight I think a deliberate ploy to heighten our experience.

We were warned about the water but old habits die hard.  Almost everybody forgot to  use bottled water for everything, including teeth cleaning.  Even opening your mouth in the shower is risky.  Sounds an exaggeration perhaps but almost every clown rued the day they forgot and suffered 48 hours of terrible stomach cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting in some instances.  Giardia is rampant and many in the past have had the lingering effects of repeated episodes.  Even lettuce leaves need to be viewed with suspician, as some facilities may have used tap water to wash vegetables.  We used $360 worth of bottled water a day between us.

How did we clown in the face of this?  I take pleasure in saying it was easy.  A few had tricks,  could juggle or do some magic however this was the least of our performance. We sang our way to the steps of every facility.  Once inside our task was to make immediate connections.  It was about mirroring, exchanging banter, touching, kissing, holding hands, sending love, playing together, observing, listening and absolutely responding to the moment.  With Improv acting training, 4 days clown school and 12 weeks of practical philosophy I was well equipped.

While many of us may never pursue or achieve a life in the performing arts, we can all lead lives enhanced by the performing arts.  Improv acting proved invaluable; no other art form can take you into the moment and support you to be there for indefinite periods.  I failed clown school on purpose…but I did learn to loosen up practice just  being silly.  My experiences at a 12 week practical philosophy class gave me meditations and excercises to use to center after  an emotional experience.  Combining these skills allowed me to find and spend my clown self every day without being depleted physically or emotionally.  In hindsight,  Cirque de Solei we were not but clown we did!

Patchs mission was achieved.  We found and spent our clown selves.  We experienced the disparity between rich and poor.  We made Russian friends.  One was Maria Elyseeva, who has founded an Arts Rehabilitation Centre called Marias Children.

Marias plea to all of us at the auction of childrens art was :- ”We are not afraid to dream, and our dreams sometimes come true.  Friends help us.  People who believe in us.  Then the miracle begins.  To the bed of the incurable child comes the black pony….the boy without fingers creates music….Chechen children put on clown costumes…the walls of the orphanages are covered with rainbows…butterflies take you away on their wings to a magical world where there is no pain and tears.  Where every child has someone who loves him.  You can help …”

And help we did .  In partnership with an Australain clown Gaby Browarcyzyk I purchased a wall mural called “World of Harry Potter” which will tour Australasia in 2005-2006 and be a vehicle to tell the world of “Maria’s children” and help with raising funds for her work.  The auction of art this year was opened by Patch and sold
approximately $42,000 worth of orphan art. The orphans in Maria’s care are fine examples of how humour and art can heal.

The Medical Director ay the Turner Orthopoedic hospital, which was the last facility we visited, said this,  “ There is a very interesting tendency in the 17 years Patch has been coming to our hospital.  Every year the visit  is brighter and better.  Always time flies too quickly.  There is only one negative moment ; tonight the children will not sleep too well!  We love you all very much and always wait for your return. “

I have never felt so vital or alive in my life.  For 16 days solid I was “in the moment” and connecting with others at a soul level.  We laughed and cried together in mute understanding.  Language was not a barrier as we laid open our hearts.  I spoke only 3 words in Russian ..hello goodbye, and thankyou!   Hello is privyet, goodbye is dos vodanyah, and pacibo is thankyou.  I needed no other words to communicate.

The fact that humour influences both business and life is doubly fixed in my mind.  We spent $360,000 to get there. A further $36,000 on giveaways, $72,000 on training and preparation, and $21,000 on incidentals such as phone calls, email and sundry items.  The idea of service does not just belong to the health sector or charity.  The “clowns” came from all walks of life and came together for the sake of humanity.

Pacibo!  My life will never be the same.

Pat Armitstead