Not Just Clowning Around: Red-Nosed “Doctors” Brighten Up Taiwan’s Hospitals


2016 / February

Liu Yingfeng /photos courtesy of Theatre de la Sardine /tr. by Scott Williams

As we welcome 2016, which moments of happiness, sadness, and regret from the previous year linger in your mind?

The modern Theatre de la Sardine’s “Dr. Red Nose” program, which launched in 2015, surely created many memorable moments. The program sends smiling “doctors”—actually clowns wearing big red noses—into coldly antiseptic hospital rooms, where their jokes and songs bring warmth and laughter to pediatric patients and their families.

On a typical day, the halls of the National Taiwan University Children’s Hospital are filled with young patients and their families shuttling between wards. But today the halls are dotted with several new faces: red-nosed clowns who are popping into patients’ rooms to make silly faces, play the ukulele and sing funny songs. Giggles and guffaws billow from usually silent rooms as patients and parents enjoy a moment’s respite from the burdens of illness.

In 2015, the Theatre de la Sardine’s “Dr. Red Nose” program introduced “clown doctors” to Taiwan. More typically seen in theatrical and street performances, these humorously dressed clowns have begun turning up at hospitals, where, instead of providing medical care, they deliver zany performances aimed at bringing smiles and even belly laughs to patients. 

From theater to hospital

Ma Chao-chi, founder and head of the Theatre de la Sardine, first heard about “clown doctoring” more than a decade ago. Ma had fallen in love with the ­theater as a student, and, after graduating from National Taiwan University with a degree in economics, traveled to France to study at the École internationale de théâtre Jacques Lecoq. During a performance there, one of the school’s alumni told her about France’s Le Rire Médecin, a clown group that performs in pediatric hospitals. Seeing it as a way to incorporate the arts into everyday life, she began thinking about doing something similar when she returned to Taiwan.

Ma completed her theatrical studies and returned to Taiwan in 1999. She soon learned that there were no organizations or troupes providing clown doctor training here, and put her plans on hold. Her Theatre de la Sardine went on to premiere its first original work, Alone in the World’s Room, in 2005. Ma wrote, directed and performed in the piece, which deals directly with questions of life and death through the story of a terminally ill young girl who spends her final days recording her fantasies. Ma acts out the girl’s story while decked out in absurd makeup and a large red clown nose, using a combination of clowning and mime to document the protagonist’s tragic march towards death.

Alone in the World’s Room received positive reviews and marked the start of Ma’s theatrical exploration of death. It also showed hints of her interest in clown doctoring, anticipating the fulfillment of her dream to use “clown care” to console hospital-bound children some ten years later.

When Ma heard that Le Rire Médecin had begun offering workshops with its most experienced clowns four or five years ago, she immediately set aside her theatrical work and flew to France to take the course. ­Hsieh Hui-chun, a member of her troupe, signed up for the training in April 2015.

The intensive course runs from 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. daily for four months, covering performance theory and practice, medicine, and psychology. Hsieh says that for all that the long days were exhausting, she found them very fulfilling.

“Feeling” the room

With their big red noses and rouged cheeks, Ma’s Dr. Red Noses draw belly laughs from audiences. But being a clown doctor involves much more than simply clowning around.

Performers in most theatrical productions have endless opportunities to rehearse before taking the stage. Their audiences also know in advance what they will perform. But clown doctors are never quite sure whether they’ll be playing for pediatric patients, family members, or caregivers, and their every performance is, in effect, an improvised premiere. They are also very exposed. Without a curtain to raise, they are always on. With no stage to distance them from their audience, the audience’s every expression and reaction is plainly and instantly apparent, just as the performers’ own eyes reveal their awareness of efforts that have fallen short.

A clown doctor’s success depends on accurately gauging the “temperature” of the room. But no matter how well prepared and how observant clowns may be, some aspects of their performances remain unpredictable and their audiences sometimes fail to respond.

Hsieh and her partner once arrived just as a doctor was diagnosing and treating an injury to a young boy’s arm. As the clowns peeped in from outside wondering whether to enter the room, they were spotted by the seven or eight adults inside. The doctor beckoned them over to the boy’s bedside, where they began a routine aimed at easing the tension. But the boy was unhappy with being surrounded by a group of adults and became thoroughly stressed out. Seeing his gaze wander from the doctor to his injured arm to themselves, and back around again, the clowns were forced to admit defeat and make a quiet exit.

Facing death

Clown doctors don’t take their misfires to heart. For them, the toughest thing is seeing the ups and downs of life in a hospital on a daily basis. On the first day of Le Rire Médecin’s four-month training course, the teacher asks students to jot down the things that most frighten them about hospitals. After thinking the question over, the sentimental ­Hsieh wrote down “tears” and “tragedy.”

Tears almost never originate with the patients themselves, but with the family members by their sides.

In one case, the father of a pediatric cancer patient couldn’t endure the suffering that treatments were inflicting on his child: he silently fled the room each time a treatment got underway. After seeing this happen several times, one of the clown doctors entered the room and took the child’s hand prior to the start of one day’s treatment, while the other grasped the father’s hand to keep him from leaving. As the treatment progressed, the sight of the sick child left the father so wracked with guilt that he began to sob.

Ma and her partner once dealt with the father of a child in a coma as a result of a plane crash. When they first glimpsed him by the bedside, they had no idea how long he’d been weeping. Before approaching, the two explained that they wanted to sing a song for the child. The father wasn’t interested and at first waved them away. But he changed his mind before they left the room, and called them back again. The father initially seemed to find some consolation in their quiet strumming, but then began first to weep softly and then bawl loudly before calming again. Ma’s partner, an experienced clown, said nothing, but just patted his shoulder and passed him a tissue.

At that moment, Ma realized that clown doctors weren’t simply providing consolation to sick children, but even more so to their suffering parents.

Such scenes are common in hospitals. After seeing a few for themselves, ­Hsieh and Ma’s own emotions began to roil with those of the parents, leaving them sobbing and unsteady on their feet. Fortunately, clown doctors work in teams of two, so one can keep the show going while the other pulls him or herself together. Yet while clown doctors can hide behind a partner in the moment, they often fall apart again after leaving the room, and have to find a corner to weep in.

The power of a smile

Just like medical personnel intimately familiar with every kind of illness and suffering, clown doctors can’t avoid contending with the vicissitudes of life and human mortality. That means that choosing a clown doctor is a bit different than casting a typical performer. The role takes more than skill and experience; it also requires a certain psychological makeup, an optimism and positivity.

The Theatre de la Sardine began hiring performers for its Dr. Red Nose program in early 2015. Shane Hsu, who handles the troupe’s marketing, was particularly moved by one candidate’s response to a question. The candidate said that one day while he was out, he got a call from his mother, who told him that his grandmother was dying and that he needed to hurry to the hospital. Though he arrived at her room expecting a sorrowful scene, he instead found his relatives solemn but smiling as they kept her company in her final moments. The fact that they were smiling even through their pain has lingered in his memory ever since. “The clown doctor program seeks to spread the power of warm smiles, too,” says Hsu.

As we bid farewell to the Year of the Sheep and welcome in the Year of the Monkey, it’s impossible to know what the new year holds in store. But, just as clown doctors spread warmth and humor, we too can plant the seeds of a smile and draw on its power to face every moment that comes.

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