I knew Dan Griffiths and Danielle Conover peripherally, having stage managed a theatre festival they had been in, and when I heard they were teaching a superhero/clown workshop in La Plata, Missouri this past summer, I jumped at the opportunity to get in the clown van, go on a 14 day roadtrip across the country, and see what they were about.On the drive back from middle America, Dan told me about Clown Zero, an organization he was attempting to build. The first seed, a therapeutic clowning unit at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital had already been planted.
There are so many other places clowns should go, Dan reasoned.So many other places where people need to have joy and levity.
Months went by and I got caught up in the hem and haw of everyday life. Work, eat, sleep, get the art fix when possible but focus on survival. And then the call came. Clown Zero’s response team is going to St. Joseph’s Family Center in December. Want to come?
I responded with a nervous, Of course, donned some striped tights and my red nose, and to St. Joseph’s Family Center I went. I met Dan Griffiths and his friends Anka, a Polish woman and Jim, her American husband in their van around the corner. The staff at Saint Joe’s had requested that we wear no makeup. Anka and Jim looked ridiculous in a strange array of mismatched polka dots and plaid, while Griffiths looked almost non-human in oversized red fleece footy pajamas and the largest clown nose I had ever seen. He hand crafted the nose himself and has affectionately named it, The Sack.
In the van, we discussed our plan of action. Anka was the only one of us who would speak, and she would do so only in Polish. There might be fifteen kids inside and there might be two. Either way, our instructions were the same. Play with them.
Saint Joseph’s Family Center provides homeless families and homeless pregnant women with 24 hour shelter, three meals a day, and a variety of support services designed to help them address the issues of homelessness and work towards a position of economic self-sufficiency and stable housing. Entertaining folks in hard and desperate times can be tricky. You don’t want to condescend. You don’t want to be better than. You want to be there with them, and if possible, exalt the them to a higher status than yourself.
We made our entrance. There were about four kids, ranging in age from around 5 to 12. They had just opened their holiday gifts, and a young boy was playing with his new toy fire truck on the red and gold carpet in the community room. Jim approached him, bent down, and went, Woowoo! imitating a siren. The boy laughed. Dan began entertaining a family with some bizarre finger tricks. I danced with a little girl. Anka, acting as ringleader, kept trying to line us all up to sing Christmas carols. I talked through my kazoo until she took it away from me, at which point I remember lying down on the floor and pretending to nap until a large child jumped on top of me. The four of us, along with the residents and staff of Saint Joseph’s Family Center, created a raucous, festive feeling for a little over an hour. By the end of our time, we had not only the children but also a few adults out of their seats and dancing. One child wouldn’t dance until I started acting like a chicken. He readily joined me in my strange barnyard dance.
When the party was over and we four clowns shuffled out the door, I remember feeling light, as if the people at Saint Joseph’s had given me something, instead of the other way around. I did not feel like I had done any meaningful charity, like I had gone out of my way to lift the disadvantaged out of destitution. The folks at Saint Joe’s had not taken what I had to give. We had had an equal exchange. We had shared joy, and that, I guess, is what it’s all about.