An Arts Care Clown Doctor initiative offers children and young people benefits of humour for health and wellbeing
We see the child, we don’t see the condition, so it’s about being in the present moment… we are just there playing, and it takes them away from the worries of what’s going on in their life,” says Arts Care Clown Doctor, Richie McClelland, also known as Dr Dapper.
Richie (53) works in the worlds of circus and carnival in performing and teaching roles, and has been a part-time clown doctor with Arts Care for 12 years.
Arts Care is a regional, heath and wellbeing organisation that delivers a wide range of arts projects into the heart of health, social and community care services.
One of its most successful programmes is the Children and Young People’s Cartwheel 999, whereby artists and clown doctors visit wards, units and respite facilities weekly, connecting through imagination, play and fun, with vulnerable and ill babies, children and teenagers.
Many of the patients they engage with have complex needs and life limiting illnesses. The clown doctors aim to reduce levels of fear and anxiety in children, young people, parents and staff.
“As far as what a clown doctor does — it’s hard to put it into words,” Richie says.
“We met up a while back with the woman who brought clown doctors to Northern Ireland.
“We were having a chat, and to me, she had the best explanation of what it is that a clown doctor does.
“She just said what we are, are ‘interrupters’ — because a hospital is so regimented, we break that monotony or routine of what can be a very long day, because it starts so early in the morning.
“I remember being in hospital when I was ten and I was getting my tonsils out, and it was 6am and the place was buzzing and I wasn’t used to that, it just seemed so early. I suppose it did feel very long and you were waiting on people to come in and visit you.
“The idea is the interruption is something that doesn’t quite fit. We don’t seemingly follow any particular rule or order, and we are definitely not the bosses, because she also said we’re the only people that the children can say ‘no’ to: ‘I don’t want to play with you’. They can’t really say that to a doctor or a nurse.
“If you are sick, you just have to do what you’re told.
“With us you can boss us around and tell us what to do, and you can tell us if you don’t want to play and how you want to play — the children, they are the boss. That’s the most important thing about what we do. They are in control. It gives them a little bit of playful power.”
Dr Dapper and the other clown doctors engage with their audience on a one-on-one basis at their hospital bedsides incorporating gentle routines.
“We do a little bit of juggling but really the environment dictates a lot about what you can do, so our play is quite gentle,” Richie says.
“We don’t do slapstick for instance, or if we do, we do it in a quieter kind of way, because the environment is so sensitive and our play is child centred.
“We are not entertaining the ward. If there are six children in the ward, we don’t go in there to put on a show. We go in there to engage with the individual child, not the group.
“We do juggling and use scarves because they are gentle and can be used for so many imaginative purposes. We are kind of an interruption, but we really can’t disrupt whatever the medical staff are doing because they obviously take priority. We just kind of fit between the seams and work around everybody without disturbing anything.
“The children are the leader of the play; they tell us how to play and what they want to do. We ask them verbally but often we have to pick up clues from what they are interested in, from what toys they may have around them or if they are drawing.
“We try to find a way into the child’s world. Sometimes it might be just a parent will say, ‘She really likes such and such’. We would find some way of engaging around that.
“If she says she really likes dolls for example, we might have a puppet in our pocket and that would become our daft and silly doll. It can be as gentle as a song; it can be a simple as that there.”
For the clown doctors, every day in the job is different as they are meeting new patients, parents and various staff. Richie’s shifts begin with a briefing led by the play specialist.
“They would normally give us a rundown basically of who’s in and any information that they think is relevant, that we need to know to allow us to do a better job, so that we might be sensitive to what’s going on in the ward,” he explains.
“That gives us the heads up so that we are not going in blind, so that we already know, for example sometimes parents don’t like clowns — it can happen sometimes. There’s this thing called coulrophobia which is a fear of clowns, probably because of all those horror movies and Stephen King’s It, and some gruesome stuff and horrific images.
“If the parents of the child don’t like clowns, then we have to do our best to avoid that bed area not to upset them.
“What quite often happens is the child will sometimes see us, or the parent will see us too, and they will say, ‘Hold on a minute, they’re not clowns’ in the way they were expecting. They were expecting Ronald McDonald pie-in-the-face kind of clowns, but really that’s not what we’re doing.
“We are not there to make fun of them. The joke’s on us. We are not there to make anyone feel silly, we are the ones who are being silly. So, whenever they realise that, you see then sometimes the parent will come up and say, ‘I didn’t actually realise that this is what you were doing’ and ask us to come over — sometimes you get a win. So that’s some of the things that you have to navigate.
“Now it doesn’t happen that often, but it does come up every now and again.”
Richie loves his job and is motivated by the difference he makes to the lives of his young audience and ‘the fun and the connection’ he experiences with the children and their families.
“I remember from doing our training, the idea that we see the child, we don’t see the condition,” he says. “It’s about being present in the moment.
“They can’t think about anything else because there’s two clowns there and you’re having a bit of fun. You’re not thinking about that other stuff. It takes you away for that wee spell.”
Barry Macaulay joined Arts Care as CEO/Artistic Director earlier this year and he feels passionately about the organisation’s various programmes and services, including the clown doctor initiative.
“Although I’ve only been in the organisation six months, I volunteered as a musician with Arts Care, so I would have seen the clown doctors in action over the years,” Barry (53) says.
“To me they just lift the spirit of the place they are in and bring smiles to people’s faces. I personally think they bring joy to people and some of the feedback we get, particularly from parents of ill children, tells us they really do make a positive impact in those environments.
“We are an arts and health organisation and the purpose of us providing the art is to enhance people’s mental health, emotional wellbeing and enable recovery from illness, so it’s not art for art’s sake. It is for their health and improvement of their emotional wellbeing.
“We want to unleash their creativity and build their self-esteem and new skills.
“We are looking to expand the clown doctors into working with older people too via the Skylarks initiative.
“We would have about 20 artists-in-residence employed by us across the five trusts, and they are mostly visual artists, people who do painting, arts, crafts, that type of thing.
“It’s not just visual art, we have three dancers-in-residence and three musicians-in-residence based in health settings right across Northern Ireland too,” says Barry.
For people who are interested in hosting the clown doctors in their hospital, health care or community setting, Barry urges them to contact Arts Care. For information on the wide variety of children’s programmes, the different artist-in-residence programmes, art and health education, training and research programmes, and various initiatives offered by Arts Care, visit www.artscare.co.uk or call 028 9031 1122