Medical Clowning 101: Intro To a Healing Phenomenon

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Class Is In Session

The class starts with a brief lesson in dress-up. A panama hat? Too groovy. A slouch? Too cool. A tiny baseball cap with two messy braids, bound by sparkly pink scrunchies? Just the right amount of ridiculous.

This is Introduction to Medical Clowning, and if you think you’d get away without embarrassing yourself to the bone—then sorry, but you're in the wrong classroom.

It’s 7 p.m. on a Wednesday night, on the University of Southern California campus, and heavy eye bags hint at the levels of motivation and energy left in the small group of students going through the costume box. Five minutes later, their instructors, Zachary Steel and Caitlyn Conlin, are the only ones left in "normal" attire, everyone else is in clown. That doesn't mean they're all wearing red noses, dotted party hats, striped overalls and oversized shoes. Some—yes, boys among them—wear tutus. Others chose neon leggings, ideally with two different colors clashing like black tie and fanny packs. Caitlyn walks around and helps out with the selection of clown attire. Then, after a brief warm-up, it's time for the shows.

"That is, I think, the most challenging thing for the students: to be fools," Zach tells Beyond The Interview.

He and Caitlyn watch closely as one student after the other jumps up from the seat circle, runs into the middle and performs a show—which can be anything. Tipping your shoe on the ground? Counts. An over enthusiastic jump? Sure. Juggling scarves? A bit cliché, but could work.

"A show could be anything you want it to be," Katie Snyder, a veteran clown-class student, says. "It's supposed to be stupid, but you, as the clown, have to think it's the most amazing thing that you and everyone else has ever seen in the entire world." 

In other words: It's all about attitude. (If it's bad, Caitlyn and Zach will tell you, however. In front of everyone. No pity here.)

Caitlyn and Zach's medical clowning class is unique among universities in Los Angeles, maybe even across the country. For the class, the two "professional" clowns—which sounds like an oxymoron—and otherwise dramatic arts professors, teach a group of students the art of medical clowning, a performance aimed at bringing joy to the otherwise joyless rooms of hospitals. For the patients—mostly kids and teenagers who have fallen ill—it's a form of therapy. But, as Katie said, it can be therapy for the clown, too.

At USC, with its second semester over and a third one already scheduled to start in January, the medical clowning class is a success story thus far. Students learn how to clown in a grey, near empty classroom first, and then move on to clown in the hospital for patients in their second semester of medical clowning. There have been articles written about it, and videos produced showing Caitlyn and Zach, accompanied by students, running from room to room of the USC Norris Cancer Hospital and the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center in an almost surrealist fashion.

But there's one thing I—a USC student myself—couldn't quite understand.

How do you teach students who are groomed to be perfectionists, over-achievers, and productivity-radiating machines running the hamster wheel of modern capitalism, to be everything but that?

To be fools, and to enjoy it, to perform nonsense, and believe in it, to be ridiculous, and not mind? To only and entirely pursue maybe the most unproductive thing of them all—play?

"It's a long process, and I think it's a slow process," Zach says. He calls this transformation "the liberation of shamelessness." He tells me the story of a person's first public embarrassment, the moment when we did something without the intention to be laughed at, but everyone did.

It hurts you, it's an embarrassment, a humiliation, according to Zach.

“You are made to feel like that was wrong, and that everyone else knows more and is above you.  And we believe that that kind of laugher, being laughed at, you don’t own that laughter, you’re not responsible for it, it’s not a positive thing.”

And "in clown," that's exactly what you want to have happen.

That reversal of sentiment requires a break for your thoughts.

"It's not about thinking about things, it's about reacting," Liviera Leebong says. As Katie's clowning partner in the hospital, she took Zach and Caitlyn's class in the spring. During the fall, she and Katie mirrored their teachers at the hospital first, and then clowned on their own in front of children—as Dr. Really Really and Madame Mabel Butterfly. When they clown, Katie, or Madam Marbel, wears a green polka dot shirt, a messy tutu, pink tights and a tiara on top of her hat. Her partner Liviera rocks a red silky cape, a skirt made out of knotted scarves, and flower crown that makes her head disappear halfway.

 USC Students Liviera Leebong (Left) & Katie Snyder (Right)

USC Students Liviera Leebong (Left) & Katie Snyder (Right)

In the hospital, they're complete fools, because it's part of their job. Katie jumps an inch and pretends its flying,  Liviera terrorizes her audience with the worst ukulele chord she can think of. They pretend every item squeaks when they touch it and then freak out when one doesn't. They make farting noises. And they're having fun doing it.

It didn't always use to be that way. Katie tells me about a dancing exercise they had to do in Zach and Caitlyn;s class once. The students had to pretend they're auditioning for a ballet show, only that they all had to be terrible at ballet. Katie, who danced since she turned 4, had difficulties with the exercise. After all, that was probably the first time she, as a theatre major, would be downgraded for perfectionism.

"If you consider yourself a very intelligent person and you always wanna make sure that you come across intelligent and that you know things," Zach says. "With clown, I ask you to say goodbye to those things."

Practice, patience and time allowed Katie and Liviera to get there, and while they're still nervous when they slip into hospital rooms in clown attire, it's gotten much better, Katie says.

"It has made me happier and making play in everyday situations," Liviera tells me. She learned that it's okay to be chaotic, to disrupt the flow.

Is clowning therapy?

"Absolutely," Katie says. "Clowning is therapy not only for the patients but also for the clown. It's therapeutic in the way that you get to be a child again. As a clown, you get to return to that state of mind and find that sense of play again."

Back in clowning class, a male student attempts a handstand and falls, his face reflecting a state of confusion about what just happened. The class cracks up. And the clown? There's a sense of insecurity left in his initial reaction, but then he embraces the laugher, boasting himself with a sense pride over the blooper.

"We're trained to avoid failure," Zach says. "But in clown, I'm trying to guide you toward it."