With almost two decades of experience as a therapeutic clown, Joan Barrington of Toronto recently shared some of the tools of the trade with members of the Cuban children's theatre troupe, La Colmenita.
Barrington traveled to the island to hold an introductory workshop on therapeutic clowning for 13 La Colmenita artists, who then put their learning into practice at the William Soler Pediatric Teaching Hospital in Havana.
Using laughter to heal the soul and relieve the pain of thousands of child hospital patients is the goal of Barrington's work.
As one of the founders of the Canadian Association of Therapeutic Clowns, she helped start up therapeutic clown programs in pediatric hospitals across Canada, and is the founder of Therapeutic Clowns International. ”My work is exhausting, but it is a gratifying exhaustion“, she said in an interview after a two-hour visit to the William Soler Hospital, with her Cuban pupils.
When she puts on her makeup and costume and becomes Bunky, her clown persona, Barrington brightens the hearts of children who are hospitalized, sometimes for months, bringing her supreme satisfaction. ”It's very hard to be a clown, especially a therapeutic clown“, she said. ”It's like you're from another planet. You are accompanying children who, in addition to their physical condition, suffer from the anxiety and sadness that come with being in a hospital“.
The La Colmenita members who took her course are 19 to 25 years old, but are seasoned performers, having begun their stage lives as children with the troupe, directed by Carlos Alberto Cremata. One theme they studied with Barrington was ”finding your inner clown“.
”The idea is to put yourself at the level of the sick child, and create a harmonious environment, not just for the patient, but also for the parents, staff and visitors“, she explained. ”Our work is about building trust through offering choices, and bringing imagination and inclusive play to the bedside. This is about the patients, not about the clown. It means being a playmate alongside these children in their journey through their illness“.
The therapy centres on play; it is in the nature of a child to play, Barrington noted. ”Why should children stop playing just because they have to live in a hospital?“
Techniques she shared with the La Colmenita members included how to play with a child who is in isolation, or hooked up to an IV or lying in bed, without invading that child's space. During their visit to the hospital, the group moved from floor to floor, turning heads with their bright costumes, and using skits, tricks and sterile toys to draw smiles and laughter from babies, children, parents and staff.
”Seeing the children laugh has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life“, said troupe member Amalia Rojas, 19, who began performing at the age of 4. ”The clowning workshop gave us a new tool to bring joy to children, like we do every day in La Colmenita“.
The La Colmenita group will begin bringing their laugh therapy on a regular basis to the William Soler Hospital and other health centres, according to the hospital's director.