Myrto Papoulia and Tegan Arazny sat down with Dr Jamie McLaren Lachman, Founder & Executive Director of Clowns Without Borders South Africa, on Wednesday, 21st June 2017.
You can watch the full video (52 minutes) of their conversation here, or you can read the full written transcript below:
<<Keep scrolling down the page for the full written transcript>>
Photos Credit: Clowns Without Borders South Africa
Jamie Lachman (JL): My name is Jamie McLaren Lachman, also known as Jabulani Nene Mshengu, which is my South African name and I’m the Director and Founder of Clowns Without Borders South Africa. Happy to be here.
Myrto Papoulia (MP): DO YOU WANT TO TELL US HOW CLOWNS WITHOUT BORDERS STARTED IN SOUTH AFRICA?
JL: Yeah. It’s a good question. So, I was a Performer. First of all, I was originally born here in South Africa, left when I was six months old and arrived in the United States on the day of the Soweto Uprising. So, my family was part of the struggle and [I] grew up with this strong identity of being South African – but lived in the United States my whole life – and I got involved in Theatre and Physical Theatre and Clowning and I was working in New York City and doing shows for mostly my friends and critics – and sometimes my friends were my critics but that’s another story.
Then what happened was I went on a trip with a girlfriend at the time to Zimbabwe and we hitchhiked down through Zimbabwe and then through South Africa. We rented a car. The rand was very weak to the dollar so we got a car for like eight dollars a day and had this great trip. We went all the way through. We visited by aunt who lived in Ulundi and then went through the Eastern Cape and down through the Garden Route and ended up here in Cape Town and it was actually in a restaurant on Long Street called The Carnivore, which doesn’t exist anymore but, at that time, it was the only place you could get a good vegetarian meal in Cape Town, The Carnivore. They had really good African butternuts and spinaches and beans and things like that and we were sitting there and we had had this amazingly difficult trip, especially because we were taking Lariam, which is an antimalarial prophylactic and it makes you a bit insane and a bit paranoid and grumpy and depressed, so I don’t recommend that. And that’s why when we send our teams out to the field we give them the good stuff … Anyways, we were looking at each other and I was like, “I can’t come back here to South Africa again as a tourist”. Just, it was a bit of a hedonistic trip and I was like, “I want really to give something back to the country I’m from” and that I, really, most of the things I’ve been able to benefit from in my life is, in part, due to the economic and political oppression of Apartheid. And so, for me, it was an opportunity. I thought, what can I do to go back to give something back to South Africa, or to help build the future?
I didn’t really have an answer at that time so then we went back to New York where we were living and a week later I met this guy named Moshe Cohen, whose Clown is called YooWho, and he was the founder of Clowns Without Borders USA. He was in town doing a workshop on Clowning and I couldn’t take it because I had work but he was, that evening, doing a little talk about Clowns Without Borders. I went to the talk and at the end of the talk I was like, “I’m going to bring Clowns Without Borders to South Africa.” For me, it was like a clicking of things together. And, because, at the time, I didn’t have other skills besides being able to organise things and being very good at coordinating stuff, and Clowning.
“it was like a clicking of things together”
And so, I thought, instead of performing for people I didn’t really know and care for in New York City, for audiences that sometimes were about the same size as the cast, I thought maybe we could use our talents to perform in South Africa. So, then I raised some money, did some fundraisers and then, six months later, we did our first tour in 2004 with two friends of mine from the United States and an Irish Clown. We went through from Johannesburg to Mpumalanga. Did some shows around Nelspruit, then down into Swaziland, and then through KwaZulu-Natal, then way down to the Eastern Cape, and the Free State, and then down to Cape Town – all in like 17 days. We did like 25 shows and it was pretty crazy. We would do a show in the morning and then get in the car, load everything up and then go. Then we’d arrive in the next place and do another show and then we’d drive, six hours sleep that night, and then do another show in the morning. Literally, our show was based around this, too. We were all musicians. We had our banjoes and musical saws and drums and things, and a tubaphone. We’d show up at the school, pile out as if we were travelling musicians. Found an audience, do the show, pack up the stuff, put it back in the car and then play with the kids for a bit and then drive on. So, that’s kind of like the beginning. So, the next time that we … so that trip was amazing but I felt really rushed and it was just like getting an idea of what was possible.
“instead of performing for people I didn’t really know and care for in New York City […] I thought maybe we could use our talents to perform in South Africa”
As soon as I got back to the United States I was like, “I want to do more of this”. And I wanted to find a way of doing it with a deeper impact. Every tour, or every show, we would always ask ourselves, “How can we make the show better? How can we provide what you would want to provide on Broadway or in the West End but for children in the middle of KwaZulu-Natal, in a very rural town up in Ixopo?”. And so, we would always rehearse and work, afterwards, after shows, or we would discuss … “That routine over here, if we just did it like this, maybe we can do that thing over here, with the horns. If the horns came in at this time …” We would just really work on the things just to make them better. And the same thing about the tours themselves. After the whole project, we were like, “What could we do to have a better, more meaningful impact on the children’s lives?” And so, the next time we went we just decided, in each place we would go, we would perform in all the schools. So, we spent three months doing shows. And then the next time I came, I did a five-month trip. And then we started doing these workshops with the kids. And like, we’d take a school and all of the classes would get some sort of Theatre, Arts-based Circus Arts kind of interaction with the Clowns, with the Artists. And then after school, we had an after-school programme for orphans and vulnerable children, this was in Ixopo in KwaZulu-Natal, and we were able to really reach a lot of children and have a little bit more meaningful impact on their lives. Throughout that, we were always still kind of questioning, “So what? What are we leaving behind? How can we improve what we’re doing? Or how can we make it more transformational?”
“How can we provide what you would want to provide on Broadway or in the West End but for children in the middle of KwaZulu-Natal, in a very rural town up in Ixopo?”
It was in 2007 when I decided that the going back and forth and raising funds from performing in schools in the United States and going back to do the shows in South Africa was just not really sustainable and also paying for these flights for all these Americans and people from Europe to come over and there were also questions about colonialism or neocolonialism. So, I got lucky and I got a job in Durban working for a Swedish circus company called Cirkus Cirkör. And they were doing this project with street children and they were bringing Circus and using Circus as a way to help street children to transition into families. They were bringing a lot of artists from Sweden to do this and they asked me to manage the project, which was kind of falling apart. And I was like, “I would do that but I only want to work with South African artists”. So, I was able to meet some amazing South African artists, including Sibongile Tsoanyane who is one of our now main core master trainers of our parenting programmes. And we did shows all over KwaZulu-Natal together and was able to then able to start Clowns Without Borders South Africa. That was 2007. That’s the short story.
MP: YOU’VE COVERED HOW YOU GOT INVOLVED WITH CLOWNS WITHOUT BORDERS AND WHY SOUTH AFRICA IS IMPORTANT TO YOU BUT IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU WANT TO SAY ABOUT WHY IT IS IMPORTANT FOR YOU TO GET INVOLVED WITH CLOWNS WITHOUT BORDERS HERE IN THIS PLACE?
JL: So, for me, it’s a way of reconnecting to being South African. I mean, I sound American. I basically dress American. I look American. I act American, people tell me. But, part of me, deeply, is still connected to being South African. So, that’s why I wanted to do Clowns Without Borders here and not some other place.
MP: COULD YOU TELL US FIVE WORDS THAT COULD DESCRIBE CLOWNS WITHOUT BORDERS?
JL: I only have four. One would be, ‘choose your own adventure.’ That’s four words. Because it really is like this organisation that we kind of have ideas of, “Oh wow let’s do this thing about storytelling” or, “Let’s do parenting programmes”, and then we’re like, “Okay”, because it’s like improvisation. In improvisation, you say, “Yes, and…” when you are doing things so it’s like, “Oh yeah, yeah, and we could do this…”, and then suddenly, boom, there’s [the] Our Story, Your Story [Project], boom, there’s Parenting for Lifelong Health, or, wow, we’re doing a tour in South Sudan and it’s like really an adventure. And also, for the kids, it’s like giving them a sense of adventure in their lives. I think that if there was a sentence, that would be it. If I had to choose separate words it would probably be like ‘play,’ ‘connection,’ ‘peace,’ ‘laughter,’ and ‘funny.’
“choose your own adventure”
MP: CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT WHAT ‘CHILDREN BEING CHILDREN AGAIN’ MEANS TO YOU?
JL: ‘Children Being Children Again’? Well, so we work in areas where, we like to say we work in places where other people aren’t working or where people are working but they could use a little bit more support – especially on maybe connecting with community or connecting with each other or boosting an intervention like washing hands or things, but places where there is less action. So, we don’t actually do very much work, for instance, in Cape Town because there’s a lot of NGOs that do amazing work in Cape Town and you won’t see us doing so much here but we’ll go to, for instance, we were just in internally displaced camps in South Sudan and all around South Sudan or we’ll do tours in the Northern Cape in places where there’s a Community Organisation but not very many Artistic Organisations. A lot of the places where we perform, kids have been affected by a lot of different levels of adversity, sometimes multiple adversities, from high rates of endemic poverty, HIV/AIDS and the impact the pandemic has had on their lives both as affected and also being orphaned by HIV/AIDS, war, disease, natural disasters like the floods and fires that we’ve recently seen.
And so, I think the way that the way that Clowns Without Borders thinks about ‘Children Being Children Again’ is that children already have, they’re like Clowns in some ways, they have already an innate sense of resiliency and for us, our job is to kind of spark that resiliency. To allow them to be children again, even though the traumas and the challenges and difficulties might have taken that opportunity away for a while, we’re there to kind of give them that space to realise their potential as children and then, through development and things they can then realise their potential as human beings in this world. And so, sometimes, we even have to work with people who are working with the children so that they can allow children to be children again because lots of time children, at least in Sub-Saharan Africa, also have to do things like taking care of other children or chores in the house or even working and so we also want to honour the importance of being able to play and to be able to explore and to choose your own adventure.
“children already have, they’re like Clowns in some ways, they have already an innate sense of resiliency and for us, our job is to kind of spark that resiliency”
MP: WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE MEMORY AS A CHILD?
JL: My favourite memory? Is this really one of the questions? Oh, man. I have a lot. I was thinking actually about memories, about things that we did over the years that were … there’s times, there was a time when we were doing workshops in a place, it’s called Amazing Grace’s Children Home, in Malelane in Mpumalanga, and we were doing these workshops with the kids, Life Dreams workshops. I told a story about a child who has a dream and she sets off to find a way, it’s like the ‘Hero’s Journey’, and then the kids have to think about what they would like to do or become in their lives and then we help them create a show where they get to write the play of how it happens and direct it for the other kids and they choose who’s going to be them and then they become, it’s a very empowering experience. One of the kids wanted to be a song and he was a child with developmental delays and all the other kids kind of laughed at him because it wasn’t like a taxi driver or a president or doctor or something. We were like, “Yes, you’re going to be a song” and we created this play with him about how he became a song and it was just really beautiful. I just like to remember, I mean I can picture his smile when he was able to follow that dream even though it wasn’t a very practical, literal kind of thing, that’s what children are like. We were like, “Sure, why not?”
There’s lots of times when we’ve done work with families and I’ve witnessed parents or grandmothers talking about their difference, the changes and the connections with their children. Like one grandmother said that when she used to come to her home all her children [would] run away because all she did was yell at them and tell them that they’re worthless or hit them if they’re bad. And then she said, in the course of the work that we were doing, now the children come running up to her and say, “When are we going to have another story?”. The best part about this was that she said, “You know, the thing that I like the most is my child will now bring me tea”. That kind of connection, the simple acts of human kindness that make a family a loving family, for me, is really important.
“That kind of connection, the simple acts of human kindness that make a family a loving family, for me, is really important”
We have another funny memory that was a memory of me and Sibongile and a Clown from the United States, Selina. When we were doing a tour in Addis Ababa, we showed up at the school. Usually, one way … just to give context … when we do a show we come in, they’ve never seen, a lot of these places have never seen us perform or seen a theatre production or anything like that. We go in and we set up the audience. So, the first thing we do is we go and talk to the principal and say, hey, “How many kids are in your school? Great, we’re going to, if we can have a couple classrooms, come out one-by-one”, and then they’ll put their chairs in a certain area and we’ll create a, we’ll have the little kids and then the older kids and we make like a little theatre with different levels based on ages of children – and the last people are always standing up on desks looking over the thing. And so, we went into the school and we were like, “So how many people do you have?”, and he’s like, “We have 500”. So, I go, oh, “Okay! We can do that. Five hundred’s easy.” So, we’re like, there’s a HUGE courtyard so we’ll take the corner of the courtyard over here and then we’ll make a semi-circle and we’ll have the kids come out. We’ve planned it and we’ve found a classroom that was empty so we even started bringing out the benches to make a first row so that the kids can’t, if you don’t do that, we had this in our first, second year doing shows – we were doing shows in Soweto and we had to cancel them because the kids got closer and closer and closer until there was no space and then the teachers came out with belts and started hitting the kids back and we were like, “You can’t do that,” so we grabbed the belts and it was just a disaster. So, we learned from, Clowns learn from failure. We learn from our mistakes and we came up with a REALLY good method. So, this is now seven years later and we’re doing this tour in 2010 in Ethiopia and so we set it up, we’re all ready and then we always go back to the van because we want to make a little parade going in and, as we were doing this, the parade with the song, it was like a hit tune from the ’80s, that was about Zola Budd and it went (sings) … and we play this, I’ve got my banjo and Sibo was on the drums and Selina was on the violin. We’re tuning up and getting ready and then we look out the van and, our people from our Partner Organisations were organising this and it’s like the seventh day of the tour so we’re like they knew what to do but we looked out and there’s like, it looks like there are more than 500 people here. And so, I was like, okay, okay. I take my nose off and I run outside, okay, find the Principal. “What’s going on?” It’s like, I can’t find the Principal anywhere but we know that there’s like people from different schools because some are wearing a blue uniform and some are wearing an orange uniform, and some are purple. It turned out there were FIVE schools from the area came – and each school brought 500 kids. Suddenly we’re having to set up, like, okay guys, get out of the car, let’s go. We have to organise the audience to make it so that it’s safe. We had kids in classrooms that looked out onto the performance area. We put some kids up on the balcony areas. It took us an hour and a half to set up the kids. One person was doing fun things in the middle just to keep their attention. Finally, to get in, I remember Selina who was our leader, said, “How do I get in?” I was like, “You just GO!” I had my banjo and I’m swinging it like this to give us the space to go through. We make our way through to the front. Now we’re doing a show in the round and it was the most amazing show. We had a chair and our instruments and a little sound thing that was worthless because there were so many people. Everything was HUGE! […] You had to share it with like everybody so it’s like this amazing show. The kids were like, when you hear 2000, more than 2000 kids yelling and screaming and laughing, it’s amazing. Afterwards, we were like, “Did that just happen?” Because it was one of those epic performance stories.
MP: YOU COULD TEACH A WHOLE LESSON, A WHOLE LECTURE ON HOW TO FACILITATE A PROJECT WITH SO MANY CHILDREN!
JL: Yeah, because safety is a big issue. We would feel terrible if we had to cancel a show or if big kids start pushing on each other and the little kids are getting crushed by the older kids. The logo used to be ‘No Child Without a Smile’ but we would be like ‘No Child Without Being Trampled by Clowns’ or something! We had to figure out a way to make it safe. Safety is the first [priority]. Even if you think about why, with clowns going into war-torn areas or places that have been hit by natural disaster – it’s first to make sure they’re safe and have food and health and that kind of stuff and then you can bring in the more psychological support stuff like clowning does.
MP: WHY CLOWNS AND WHY LAUGHTER? WHY ARE THESE GAMES INSTEAD OF, BECAUSE SOME PEOPLE MIGHT SAY, “OKAY LET’S SEND MEDICINE, LET’S HELP IN MANY OTHER MORE PRACTICAL WAYS INSTEAD OF DOING THIS PROJECT.”
JL: Well, the practical stuff is important. When it comes to life and death, that’s really important – but when that becomes stabilised the trauma or the emotional impact of adversity and difficult experiences is also important and I think the clown is, [or] can be a useful tool, a vehicle for opening the door towards resiliency and emotional well-being. It’s not a lasting thing but it’s something that can open the door so that other, more professionals can come in and do that work. For instance, my closest friend from the United States who is actually the President of Clowns Without Borders USA who, we trained together in Physical Theatre school in Northern California, and he was a part of my first tour – so he was also from the beginning. His name is Tim Cunningham and he is, he’s just finished his PhD in Public Health, he’s a nurse and he’s a clown. Two years ago, he was working in Liberia during the Ebola crisis as a nurse. Going there and working in the paediatric areas and then just this year he’s gone back to Liberia and he’s done a Clowns Without Borders tour and the same spaces, the same places that he was before and I think that kind of, so first you might need to do that other stuff, the life or death things, but then to come back and these are now children who a lot of them have lost loved ones and yet there is that way that clown also, people think that clowning is just like focusing on the joy and the fun and the play, and that’s really important, but within the clown show we can play with all the ranges of the emotions from great laughter and great sorrow.
“the clown is, [or] can be a useful tool, vehicle for opening the door towards resiliency and emotional well-being”
In some ways, the clown can be, through the red nose, may be one of the quickest paths to humanity and human connection I think through the sense of play and wonder and imagination. Also, clowning, it’s not like I come out here and I clown and you laugh. The laughter and the play happen in the relationship between. So, the laughter is somewhere here, in between the clown and the audience. It’s THAT connection. And I think that that is something that is when we really are there, and we’re really performing, when we’re really present, and giving our heart. You can wear the red nose but it’s like the red nose is here. It’s like, I think then the kids really see that and they are seen as human beings. We always try to bring children up onto the stage as stars of the shows. One of our shows we’d end up having the kid standing on our shoulders and then we’d bring them down and that would be the end – with them being the stars of the show. That’s unique, even more than just theatre or storytelling or other forms of Arts [or] Performance that are also very powerful. I think there’s something unique about that.
MP: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY ARE THE CHALLENGES YOU FACE DURING YOUR PROJECTS OR TO SET UP A PROJECT?
JL: Linda can talk about this more! Are you getting interviewed, too? No? You should be! […] Anyways, so, I think that, like, well, funding is always an issue. Getting funding for performance tours, especially outside of South Africa, […] there’s no funding for international arts performance work. It’s also sometimes difficult to explain to people what we’re about or to Partner Organisations. They’re like, “Oh, this sounds great, perform, come,” and then we have to like, “Let’s show you a couple photos or a video that kind of explains, shows you what you’re actually going to be signing up for.” So, that’s sometimes a challenge. Or going into, when I call someone up and I’m, yes, “I’m calling from Clowns Without Borders” and they’re like, “What?” And then I’m like, “Clowns, you know, like C-L-O-W-N-S”, “Like frowns?”, “No! Clowns Without Borders.” It goes on and, for a while I was like, “Dude, we need to just change the name of this organisation because it’s too hard to get people to understand” but, you know, it’s worth the effort to get that. That in itself is challenging.
Also, we’ve been improving that a lot. We’ve been getting better over the years but in South Africa there isn’t much of a tradition of Physical Theatre or Physical Comedy like there is in Europe or the United States. That’s grown and changed a lot in the last ten years but when I started it was very hard to find other artists who could do this kind of work who were South Africans so we had to train people ourselves. That’s an issue.
Once you start feeling like, when you’re clowning, and you start feeling like you’re, you start getting self conscious or you start wanting to be funny, instead of just being funny, you fail. And I’ve now taught lots of clowns, well not recently, but before I went and did my PhD, I was teaching clowning a lot here in South Africa and I was always like, “No, go back and come back onstage and just be, be funny, but don’t try to be funny”. And kinda that Zen, almost, like how do you be funny without trying to be funny?
But, when I have to perform for kids in a Clowns Without Borders tour, I don’t have a choice. I have 200 kids in front of me! I have to make them laugh because that’s what they’re here for. And so, my ego goes ‘voop’, out the door, and then suddenly I’m there and I’m playful and running into walls and running in place and going, “Blah!” and they think that’s the funniest thing and I’m like, “That was the stupidest thing in the world but let’s do it again”, “Blah!” and they’re like, “Ahhh.” It’s such a simple but it’s not what I’m doing, it’s the connection I’m giving with children and so then it became even easier for me to perform for adults again.
“it’s not what I’m doing, it’s the connection I’m giving with children”
MP: AND EVEN THEN, LIKE YOU SAID BEFORE, TO JUST BE FLEXIBLE. WITH YOUR EXPERIENCE TRAVELLING AROUND ALL OF THESE COUNTRIES AND BEING ABLE TO DO ALL KINDS OF DIFFERENT PROGRAMMES. IT’S NOT JUST THIS SPECIFIC THING THAT YOU DO. IT’S WHAT YOU SAID BEFORE, ABOUT CHOOSING YOUR ADVENTURE.
MP: BEING ABLE TO WORK LIKE THIS, YOU ARE ABLE TO GO EVERYWHERE AND WORK WITH EVERYONE. YEAH, YOU SEE 2000 CHILDREN IN ONE SCHOOL. YOU JUST GO FOR IT. IT’S AN AMAZING SKILL FOR A FACILITATOR. NO MATTER WHAT IT IS, A CLOWN OR A THEATRE.
JL: That’s interesting because, so my research, now I have a PhD from Oxford, right, so, in my research, I do a lot of cultural adaptation work. So, for instance, [as] part of Clowns Without Borders one of the things we’ve developed is a parenting programme with the Universities of Oxford and Cape Town and Bangor and the World Health Organisation and UNICEF and Clowns Without Borders. So, it’s like the last one, “….and Clowns Without Borders”. And people are like, “I understand all the connections between those other institutions but what’s Clowns Without Borders?” and it’s because I am both at Oxford and Clowns Without Borders. Clowns Without Borders brought the sense of play and connection and adaptability to creating a parenting programme that was based on, and also the cultural expertise, so it was based on what works in high-income countries and we wanted to make one here. So, we made one, well, actually, we’ve created two parenting programmes, one for young children, ages 2 to 9, and one for teens with their parents, ages 10 and 17. My work academically is to look at how you take this programme from South Africa and move it to the Philippines and to Thailand and to South Sudan and how do you keep the core and change what needs to change so it can connect to the people you’re working with or facilitating? So, I’m usually training facilitators or coaches but they’re the ones who work with the parents so it has to resonate, it has to be applicable. And the same thing for a show. If I was going to do a show in an area like that, I would have my idea, my routines, the things that I’ve created but they will be adapted or changed or tweaked so that it works for the people in the audience.
“people are like, ‘I understand all the connections between those other institutions but what’s Clowns Without Borders?'”
MP: I GUESS THIS APPLIES TO EVERY GROUP NOT ONLY IF THE DIFFERENCE IS BETWEEN NEW YORK AND ZIMBABWE. EVEN IN NEW YORK, I GUESS, IF YOU GO INTO A DIFFERENT SCHOOL, YOU HAVE TO DO SOME ADAPTATIONS IN THE PROGRAMME BECAUSE ALL AREAS ARE DIFFERENT.
JL: Yeah. We’ve done tours for deaf and hearing audiences and then the shows are all non-verbal. Those things have to be changed a bit to be able to, we add things in the shows that are, that only deaf children will understand because they understand sign language – so there’ll be things they’ll see that are for them but the whole show needs to be funny for everyone.
TEGAN ARAZNY (TA): WHILE YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT PARENTING, DO YOU WANT TO START TALKING ABOUT ALL THE OTHER DIFFERENT PROGRAMMES?
JL: Yeah, so, as I said before, with Clowns Without Borders, we are always asking, “How could we have a more lasting impact on the lives of the children that we’re really out there to transform or to help open doors for resiliency?” And, we were working in KwaZulu-Natal and the Partner Organisation Woza Moya asked us, “You’re doing great work with the kids but could you work with their parents?” And we were like, “Oh, why, what’s wrong with them?” And they said, “Well, they’re having challenges connecting to their children and a lot of them are grandmothers or grandfathers who are now taking care of their children’s children because they’ve lost them either from the political violence or from HIV/AIDS and so it’s like rekindling that connection.” And so, we’re like, “Oh, yeah, sure, ‘choose your own adventure, we can do that.” So, we then looked at/researched and found out what other people were doing and we also created a curriculum and, at that time, it was for developing relationships between parents and children or caregivers and children around HIV bereavement. So, it was recently bereaved children. It was a ten-day workshop that we created. It’s called the Injabulo Family Programme.
“how could we have a more lasting impact on the lives of the children that we’re really out there to transform or to help open doors for resiliency?”
From there we started also developing other parenting programmes and so one of the main things that Clowns Without Borders does, and the reason why we do our parenting programmes or family programmes, one of the main reasons we do that is a clown can come for a day and do a show. A facilitator can come and work with kids for a week or every week for ten days. But, if you can change the relationship between the parents and the children, that is going to last their entire life – especially when you start working with them at an early age but, even with the teens, it’s really important for risk reduction and communication between parents and children around difficult issues around sexuality, all these kinds of things that are changing for teens and so we created with those partners these two parenting programmes that I mentioned earlier.
“A facilitator can come and work with kids for a week or every week for ten days. But, if you can change the relationship between the parents and the children, that is going to last their entire life”
So, that’s a big part of the work in the office behind you is our work that we do with Parenting for Lifelong Health and that is to really help other Partner Organisations, big ones, like Catholic Relief Services or Pact Tanzania and small ones like The Seven Passes Initiative […] to be able to implement these parenting programmes that we’ve helped develop. So, we no longer deliver the programmes ourselves. We used to do them all the time and now we’re training and supporting facilitators – so that’s a big part of our project or our programmes and we’re doing that in South Africa, Lesotho, Uganda, South Sudan, the DRC, Kenya and Tanzania and also through my work at Oxford we’ve taken those programmes to the Philippines and Thailand and, soon, Montenegro and maybe other countries, we don’t know. There’s always a new, another […like] Zimbabwe soon, maybe. We’re now really helping to scale up these programmes. Some people are, sometimes even me, I’m like, “How is that Clowns Without Borders?” I have to remind myself, well, “Where in those programmes are we putting a red nose on? Are we helping develop loving relationships between parents and children? Are we trying to spark a sense of play with an idea of helping parents see the world of the child through the child’s eyes?”
So, in that sense, it is very much part and parcel of our work. So, that’s one of our programmes, a big part, but we also have a programme called Our Story, Your Story, […] It’s working at using autobiographical storytelling to connect people through generations, across cultures, across economic divides, racial divides. That’s also a very powerful project and mostly through storytellers and facilitators of storytelling.
If you ask me what I do now when I perform, I mostly tell stories and play my banjo. But it’s just the same for me, the clowning comes out through that, but the connection, the playfulness and bringing imagination out and making people see each other and to be heard and to be respected and be seen is the same for me, at least for the Our Story Your Story projects.
We also have a Clowns Without Borders toolkit, which kind of helps Partner Organisations integrate Arts-based approaches within their ongoing services that they provide and so we’ve done this in Kenya we’ve worked with economic empowerment facilitators. But they used to only tell lectures and it was very dry, so we helped redesign their curriculum so that they can be more participatory, more active and then it’s taken all the different things that we can do and bringing them into their work.
TA: SO YOU HAVE THE PARENTING PROGRAMME, ‘OUR STORY, YOUR STORY’ AND WHAT’S THE CLOWNING, DO YOU STILL TOUR YOUR SHOWS?
JL: Yeah, yeah. That’s our core. […] We do Shows. We do tours in rural or urban areas. Usually, the urban areas are more targeted at marginalised populations like maybe African migrants or nationals that are living in slums in the cities. This year we did a tour of the Northern Cape and the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and South Sudan, we’ve done work in Malawi. And those shows, we try and put together a team of three to five or six artists. And, the ones that are international, the artists volunteer their time to perform for Clowns Without Borders and then the ones within South Africa they get paid because we’re also really committed to supporting artists. It’s not very easy to be a performing artist in South Africa so we want to support them financially in their careers as well.
“It’s not very easy to be a performing artist in South Africa so we want to support them financially in their careers as well”
TA: ARE YOU THE ONLY CLOWNS WITHOUT BORDERS [CHAPTER] THAT OFFER THESE OTHER PROGRAMMES?
MP: DOES THAT MAKE CLOWNS WITHOUT BORDERS SOUTH AFRICA UNIQUE? WHAT WOULD YOU SAY THAT …?
TA: AND WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO DO THAT?
JL: Unique, we’re unique because, first of all, we’re now, besides Brazil, we’re the only country that has, in the lower-middle-income countries, that has a Clowns Without Borders chapter. We’re a very diverse group of people, unlike other Clowns Without Borders chapters that can be less diverse. But also, people in South Africa we have so many different ethnicities too so our tours are trying to celebrate that aspect of intercultural partnership. Or even the Our Story, Your Story project which is people who are white, coloured, black all working together to connect communities through storytelling. I think that’s one of the things that makes us really unique and the other is that we really think the work of Clowns Without Borders goes beyond just the shows. The shows are really important but the other work is also. The other organisations will do empowerment stuff and they’ll facilitate workshops but we have these programmes around parenting. And, your question about why, or why have we gone that way … it’s not like we sat out and we’re like, “This is where we’re going to go.” It’s more like how you create a clown show: I have this idea, okay, let’s unpack it, let’s see what happens, okay, now it’s this thing and like I never thought we would be helping take parenting programmes to scale to 40,000 people in Tanzania. Now we are because we have this expertise and that’s what we offer.
It’s challenging within the organisation to link the two parts or the three parts together. The storytellers are like, “We’re not really clowns, what does it mean to be that?” And the Parenting for Lifelong Health people are talking about psychometric measurements, pooling data and T-tests and statistical analyses and all that and the clowns are like, “Let’s make shows”. So, to bring those together we have this really wonderful Artistic Director, Jayne, who has offered workshops for clowning for our non-clowns. The workshops aren’t just on how to be a clown but also how do you bring a sense of clown to your work but also to the work that you’re doing. The work is how you come to work every day and sense of openness and a sense of playfulness, which is really important for managing stress but also where is the clown in the work that you’re doing when you’re going to these countries representing Clowns Without Borders, what does that mean?
“The workshops aren’t just on how to be a clown but also how do you bring a sense of clown to your work”
MP: HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE CLOWNS WITHOUT BORDERS SOUTH AFRICA IN 50 YEARS FROM NOW?
MP: YEAH. IS THERE A LONG-TERM DREAM THAT YOU HAVE?
JL: Yeah. In fifty years, I don’t want there to be a Clowns Without Borders South Africa. How’s that? I don’t want us to have to be here doing the work. I hope that I’m not part of Clowns Without Borders in fifty years. I mean, it would be great. I’d be 91 years old!
On the medium term, we’re really looking at creating a sound financial, sustainable basis for the organisation so that we can respond to emergency situations, so that we can continue to build our network in South Africa of artists and across cultures and nations of collaboration, so that we don’t have to worry at the beginning of the year, will we have enough money to pay staff and bills at the end of the year and how are we doing? So, for me, as the director of the organisation, a lot of my effort goes into helping to create that foundation, that security. It’s interesting because I’m at that point in my life anyway, so I’m doing that in my own life as well. I think it’s important now to make that, before when we used to do shows on a shoestring and do things that were like, “Can we get a thousand dollars? Okay, that’s good enough – we can ask people to let us stay in their houses and we’ll do it.” Now it’s more like we want to keep supporting the organisation.
“a lot of my effort goes into helping to create that foundation, that security”
And I’d love to see us going into different places and thinking of new ways of working with organisations. I’d love us to be doing more work in South Africa and places where we haven’t worked. We still could do a lot more work around the sense of marginalisation, of like LGBTIQ communities, of children who are disabled, especially deaf children, of communities where people are not South African and face a lot of xenophobia. Those areas are really hard. We’ve found it very difficult to find funding to continue. We’ve done little projects but we haven’t done something that has a good foundation. I’d love to be able to have us expand those. It would be great if we were like, “We’d like to come to your community” and they were like, “We don’t need you, we’ve got people here.” And we’d be like, “Oh, great! Good. I’ll go back to doing my other stuff.”
“It would be great if we were like, ‘We’d like to come to your community’ and they were like, ‘We don’t need you, we’ve got people here'”
MP: WHAT WAS, SO FAR, A MAGICAL MOMENT FOR YOU?
JL: We’ve kind of answered that question already. Every moment is a magical moment. It’s kind of funny in that way. I guess it’s like a life lesson. It’s about your perception or response to a situation. Instead of being reactive, responding to it with a sense of, okay, so it’s not what we thought it was going to be when we show up at a place or a town and nobody, like when we showed up in Lesotho and we were in Semonkong and we were there to do a week of shows and none of them had been organised. And so, like, okay, we’ll figure something out. We went and organised our own shows and everything kind of always fits together. One time we had sponsorship for a vehicle from an organisation and that sponsorship, we were going to go on tour and I arrived in South Africa, it was in the early days and we were going to go on tour the next Monday and I was in South Africa on Friday and I found out we no longer had that sponsorship. And something just happened on Monday suddenly we had a sponsorship from Europcar, and now they’ve been covering us for transport for the last 12 years. It felt like magic. I really feel it’s the way you approach the situation that makes magic possible in a kind of real way, not in a sleight of hand way.
“I really feel it’s the way you approach the situation that makes magic possible in a kind of real way, not in a sleight of hand way”
MP: IT’S VERY INTERESTING THAT THE MOMENTS THAT YOU PICK THAT WERE MOST IMPORTANT, THE MOST MAGICAL FOR YOU, WERE THE MOMENTS THAT SOMETHING WAS ABOUT TO GO WRONG BUT SOMEHOW IT BECAME WONDERFUL.
TA: THAT IS A CREDIT TO YOUR TEAM AND THE WAY YOU WORK – THAT YOU ARE ABLE TO, IN ADVERSITY OR IN SITUATIONS WHERE THINGS COULD GO WRONG, PULL IT TOGETHER AND WORK TOGETHER TO MAKE IT WORK.
JL: It looks like a disaster and then suddenly everything kind of comes into place but it’s completely not what you planned it to be but you find a way to make it work. Yeah, one time Sibongile and I were supposed to represent Clowns Without Borders at a conference. It was a festival, a storytelling festival in Canada and I forgot that you needed a transit visa when you flew through the United States and so Sibongile got locked up in Immigration and all her stuff was sent to another place, too, and I’d lost a clown, basically, in the United States somewhere in Chicago or Detroit and it was a disaster and we had two days and then for some reason, miraculously, she was able to convince them, they’re like, “Why are you coming into this country?” and she’s like, “I’m a clown.” “Where do you work?” “Clowns Without Borders.” They didn’t understand and she had to show them stuff and eventually, she convinced them to come through. It all worked out at the end but it’s always that you’re teetering at the brink of disaster. And I think that’s how a clown operates in performance as well. One of my inspirations of clowning was Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and the way that something is going to happen and all these things are going to go and you’re thinking, at the end of the day, the Clown’s still standing and walking off into the sunset, as Chaplin would do.
“It looks like a disaster and then suddenly everything kind of comes into place but it’s completely not what you planned it to be but you find a way to make it work”
MP: IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU WOULD LIKE TO ADD, SOMETHING WE DIDN’T ASK BUT YOU WOULD LIKE TO TALK ABOUT?
JL: Oh, yeah! I find it weird that I’m talking about this. I know I started the organisation but it’s the people in the office and all around South Africa. Sometimes I don’t even know where Sibongile is because she’s out there, sometimes in Kinshasa and sometimes in Kampala teaching people how to be great facilitators, collaborative facilitators and I really feel, I’ve just been away for five weeks because I mostly do now my work, my main job is actually a researcher at Oxford, my full-time job is that and this is another job that used to be my main job and now, because I have this wonderful group of people, I’m able to do that research thing. And I come back here, yesterday was my first day back for five weeks, and I’m just filled with so much joy at seeing how dedicated people are, working, they really give their heart to the organisation and so, the work that we’ve done and the way that we’ve grown over the last 14 years it’s like maybe I’ve been very much inspired as much by other people that I work with. It’s the collaboration. That would be my sixth word: collaboration.
“I’m just filled with so much joy at seeing how dedicated people are, working, they really give their heart to the organisation”
© Dialogue Community Performance / Clowns Without Borders South Africa