One Clown’s Calling to Public Health

September 19, 2013

I found myself lying on my back in the middle of a dirt road in rural Chiapas, Mexico one day in 2002. I was wearing a beaten up Russian rabbit fur hat, short red checkered shorts, an over-sized tuxedo jacket with tails and shoes three times my size—oh yes, and a red nose. My acrobatic and performing career to that point had found me in many strange places and countries lying on my back. This episode was a bit different and it changed my life. An inebriated audience member on horseback with machete and lasso in hand decided he didn’t like clowns. I was performing with an organization called Clowns Without Borders; our mission is to share laughter in zones of crisis anywhere in the world. We offer professional clown shows, jugging and acrobatics workshops.

Tim Cunningham, MS, DrPH 2016

Most coulrophobes I’ve met during my journey through 11 different countries approach the clowns they fear with non-violent disdain. This inebriated gentleman, however, decided to lasso me in the middle of the performance, take off on his horse, and drag me down the road. I’m forever grateful to the community who saved my life that day and prevented me from going down in history as a really bad clown joke. And I’m grateful to that vaquero for showing me the power that the performing arts can evoke in a person. Lucky for me, it’s usually a much more positive reaction.

Now, 11 years later, I serve as director of Clowns Without Borders USA. We are a part of an international federation of artists who, in 2012, facilitated nearly 40 international projects sharing laughter with 300,000 children and families in many corners of the globe. We believe in the power of play. I want to better understand how ‘play’ works in the scope of global health. And that is why I’m honored to be a new member of the DrPH cohort within the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health at Mailman.

Martissant, Haiti, 2009

After the tumble in Chiapas, I found myself performing with HIV/AIDS communities in Swaziland and South Africa, then crossing the Atlantic to work in dilapidated hospitals in Haiti (hospitals in states of ruin in 2006 well before the catastrophic earthquake). There, I developed an interest in public health. That interest was rooted in anger and frustration at the inequalities I witnessed in these countries and others. I watched children die of treatable diseases and great-great grandmothers raise newborns because of generations lost to AIDS. Despite the intense suffering, PTSD, and sadness I saw behind my red nose, I was deeply moved at the resiliency that children show when they are presented with the freedom to play.

Hospital dance party in Aux Cayes, Haiti, 2006

I received my Masters in Nursing Sciences at the University of Virginia in 2009 to try to better understand this system of health care in the USA and the world. Along the way, I facilitated Photovoice research in Limpopo South Africa as a part of my community health curriculum and a larger interdisciplinary water resources project that brought together our schools of Nursing, Medicine, Architecture and Engineering. I also had the chance to run a qualitative project in rural southwest Virginia that included interviews of uninsured coal miners and their families.  These interviews became the material of a one-person, 11-character play that I wrote and have performed multiple times.  These projects have all been quite different, but in each of these experiences I keep coming back to one finding—people like to play. People find joy in expressing themselves where there can be a sense of play or an abstract opportunity to speak one’s mind.

I see this “joy in play” every day when I work my day job at the New York-Presbyterian Cornell Emergency Department. Even in the deepest crisis, I have witnessed people’s ability to smile and laugh.

I came to Mailman to learn to measure that ability. Laughter and joy seem to work for many in many situations, but why?  How? And are there way’s to repeat it and incorporate play into public health interventions? I have no idea, but am so very excited to see what comes!