WHEN we enter the Children’s Government hospital, we see hordes of tired faces — some angry, some desperate, but most of them anxious. At a children’s hospital, parents are more crestfallen than their sick children. Confusion clouds their face as they see us.

We lead with our red noses, colourful attire, silly smiles and even sillier walks. We remind them of familiar characters that invoke laughter, but they are reluctant to do so given the seriousness of the environment. The children, however, walk right up to us to investigate the mechanism of our squeaky noses. This is how two of the most satisfying hours of complete human interaction begins — for both patients and clowns alike.

Welcome to The Little Theatre’s hospital clowning program, where laughter is a byproduct of ‘restoring control’ back to the patients.

A hospital is not a natural environment for a child or even an adult. It is a place we visit when we have lost the most basic ability to take care of our body to varying degrees. We have no control over the sickness nor the treatment — injections, dialysis machines and feeding tubes can have traumatic effects. In despair, we forget the role of the mind in our ability to heal.

The mind is the power house that sends signals to the body, releasing ‘endorphins’, which are natural painkillers, mood enhancers and major contributors to recovery and healing. Hospital clowning has proven to reduce the use of painkillers and sedation required for simple procedures in paediatric age groups.

Our hospitals are filled with so many people in dire need of medical care that there is hardly any time to focus on the emotional well-being and the mental health of patients. This is where The Little Theatre’s hospital clowns come in, to complete that missing piece of the puzzle. Started four years ago, this outreach program at the Government Children’s Hospital in Chennai, Egmore is a novel initiative which trained professional actors — by Hilary Chaplin of the New York based clowning troupe Goofs — to put on their clown noses.

As the clowns enter the children’s ward, the doctor or nurse briefs us on the patients, and their abilities and challenges for participation. Our bright clothes and brighter noses invite a lot of attention from children, who often flock around us like birds. The sicker ones sit up or even stand on their beds with some support. This level of excitement is alien in an environment filled with sick children.

Using story telling, music, dance, magic, improvisation and other techniques from the clowning vocabulary, the hospital clowns engage the patients. The stories require the active participation of the audiences, in this case the patients, to move forward. In most, the hero is an underdog capable of defeating an all powerful villain, but only with the help of the audience. This can be as simple as uttering a magic word, or engaging in song and dance for key events in the story to progress. This shifts the patient out of their state of helplessness, and gives them a sense of control.

Slapstick comedy and silly magic tricks invite laughter, causing adults and children to loosen up. They introduce themselves and interact with each other during these sessions. Games are played to keep the rapport going, and laughter helps everyone warm up to each other.

The collective experience of laughing is so intimate that it brings people together and they bond with positivity and hope. It elevates them from a sense of despair. Watching the doctors and nurses participate in these activities, humanises them, removing a sense of fear and detachment, bridging hierarchical gaps in the hospital.

Some parts of a session can be more intimate, and focused on a single patient. Often times when a child refuses to cooperate and the nurse is struggling to find a vein to insert a needle, a clown engages the child in deep conversation, a form of distraction, and before he or she knows it, the needle has been put in with minimal struggle and pain. This saves a lot of grief for the patient, the caregivers and the nurse.

Disinfecting our hands with a disinfectant solution, as hospital clowns must very often do, with a mind full of stories and a heart full of emotions, we wave our goodbyes to our enthusiastic friends in the hospital, answering questions like, “When will we see you again?” or firm statements like, “You must stay”.

We thank the doctors, the nurses and the staff who enquire about our next visit. It serves as a reminder that hospital clowning is a responsibility not just towards the patients but to a community — it is a process of rediscovering humanity in a high stress environment.

write to us at editor.provoke@paulsons.in