The first Clowndoctor “on a visit” with RED NOSES

Michael Christensen, the man who in 1986 laid the foundation stone for the professional and methodically organised hospital-clown work worldwide with his “Clown Care Unit” in the USA, visited RED NOSES Clowndoctors in Vienna. He did workshops with our clowns and also went in hosital together with them.

In this interview he talks about the beginning of clowning in hospital and the "must-haves" of a good clowndoctor.

How did you get the idea to visit hospitals as a clown?
I actually never had the idea of becoming a hospital clown. When my brother died, I made a bigger commitment for service and I made myself available. And then, in spring 1986 I got a call from a hospital. They were having an event called “heart day”, where all the children who had a heart surgery came to celebrate that they were alive. The persons responsible for the hospital had seen me perform in the circus, so they called me to ask if I would come and perform for these children. And of course I said yes. So I went to the hospital in plain clothes and I just took in information about the hospital. And I went back to two clowns of the Big Apple Circus and we all put on our white coats and called ourselves doctors. So I became Doctor Stubs instead of Mr. Stubs. We came to “Heart Day” and had fun. We gave silly eye tests and hearing test. And since it was a heart transplant facility, we did red nose transplants. For twenty minutes we did clowning for the children and their parents and it was so great that the chief paediatrician asked us, if we would do this on a regular basis. We got funding for a five-week pilot programme and then it just started. We got more money and more clowns and more hospitals wanted to find out about it. So we had to hire more clowns and we had to figure out what we were doing and we had to train the clowns. And then it just started. You see, I never sat down and said “Oh, I want to be a hospital clown”. It was something I made myself available to.

Did you notice a difference between being a hospital clown and a clown in the circus?
Oh yes, there is a very big difference. In the circus you have a set space and set things you are going to do. The audience there is expecting a show. But in hospital the environment changes constantly. You might be performing and then something happens and you suddenly don’t perform anymore. So you have to be willing to stop performing at any time. You have to be sensitive to hygienic factors and also the emotional part is very difficult in hospital. The aspect that is the same as in circus is the fun contact with the children and the parents.

Do you think that every clown can learn to be a hospital clown?
No, in my opinion not every clown can be a hospital clown. There are people who are very funny, but they don’t have the right set of skills to work in hospital. Besides skills like storytelling, musical and improvisational talent that clowns have to have, you have to be vulnerable as well as open-minded and you have to be able to put your ego aside. How did you learn the special skills for working in hospital? I had the perfect set of skills to do this work, that’s why I was chosen. I had classical training as an actor, I worked as a clown on the street and as a circus clown. Especially working on the street prepares you for the hospital, because there you need to learn how to get in contact with people, otherwise you won’t get any money, and as in the hospital also on the street there is a constant changing of the environment and you have to be sensitive.

So, it’s important that hospital clowns have an artistic training. You were the first who recognized that. Why is it so important?
The reason why the clowns need to be artists is, that it is a profession. A lot of people want to help children in the hospitals, but they have no experiences as a performer. So they think they can put on a red nose and funny clothes and go in and just do it. But this is a profession, so we hire professional artists, professional musicians, professional singers, professional magicians... they all dedicated their lives to some form of performances.

What’s the most important thing a clown does in the hospital?
The most important thing a clown does in the hospital is to transform the energy in the room. We are probably the only aspect in hospital that the children are in charge of. They are in charge of us. One of the things a clown can do is to be more helpless than the children, because then the children become the authorities and they help us. And we know from experience, that a child who helps us is helping him or herself.

Is there a special experience you had as Dr. Stubs, that will always be in your mind?
There are so many experiences that are amazing. The one I tell you is about the little boy Camillo who was featured in Life Magazine. He was very sick, he had a kidney disease. I remember that one day he had a procedure and he was very tired and not in good shape when I came into his room. I said “Camillo, you wanna go to work?” And he just jumped out of his bed and said “Yes, yes let’s go help the little children!” So I made him up as a clown and we went around together as the little clowndoctor and the big clowndoctor.

Michael Christensen and the artistic directors of the RED NOSES group

How did you get in contact with RED NOSES Clowndoctors?
Oh, Monica und die ROTEN NASEN… In the early 1990s, a Life Magazine article was published about me as Dr. Stubs and a little boy named Camillo, who was in hospital. We made him up as a clown and he used to work with us and Life Magazine did a main feature about that. Monica and her colleagues saw this article and thought it was a really good idea, so they contacted us. So, from the very beginning, die ROTEN NASEN and I and the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit have been partners. And in the early years, we helped Monica by sending over clowns to train ROTE NASEN clowns. I’m sure we have a fantastic relationship forever.

What do you think about the work of RED NOSES?
The artistic integrity of the clowns is very high, the artists are excellent. I have had the opportunity to work together with clowns from RED NOSES and they are very, very good. It’s so amazing for me to see these organizations grow. So in the beginning, there was ROTE NASEN and now there are RED NOSES organizations in so many countries. It’s just amazing how this has spread.

In Europe, Patch Adams is very famous because of the movie with Robin Willliams. That’s why people often also think that he was the founder of the professional hospital clown work. What are you thinking about this fact and do you know each other?
Yes, Patch and I are colleagues. Patch is a self-proclaimed political activist. Clowning is his vehicle for political matters. Patch is a professional doctor who dresses up like a clown. I am a professional clown who dresses up like a doctor. He hates it when I say that, but it’s true. Patch is very inspirational in many ways, but we are very different. Patch works on the outside of the medical structure, he hits the structure for change. I work on the inside of the medical structure, integrating a partnership with the medical staff. Patch believes that anybody can be a clown. To a certain extend he is right, anybody can put on a red nose and be happy. But let’s describe it like this: If you have a violin, anybody can pick up the violin and make noises. And some of the noises are gonna be pleasant, some of them are not pleasant. But someone who dedicates his life to playing the violin, picks up this violin and has a distinctly different experience with it. And that’s the same with the profession of clowning. Your body is the instrument and you put on a red nose and someone who has never done that before may do pretty good or not. But someone who has dedicated his life to the craft of being a clown will have a very different experience. So Patch puts a red nose on anybody and says “Just go!” I don’t put a red nose on everybody. I put a red nose on professional artists who are trained in the performance.

What makes you laugh?
Lots of things. Children make me laugh, other clowns make me laugh, life makes me laugh.

Do clowns have a good sense of humour in their private life, too?
Yes, in my experience, clowns are clowns on the inside and the outside, too. So they have a playful spirit. But sometimes you just have a bad day!

The video of the clownvisit with Michael Christensen and RED NOSES you can see here:

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