The story begins with Tortell Paltrona, a Spanish clown that you can still find kicking around the streets of Barcelona.
Before rising to legendary status in the circus world, the “clown with the red nose” was a young man named Jaume Mateu. He grew up in a time when laughter almost faded entirely.
Following on the heels of the Spanish Civil War, Francisco Franco rose to power. The dictator imposed frightful restrictions on the clowns of Catalan. Not many possessed the nerve to perform–let alone speak in their native tongue.
Paltrona was one of the few to turn his back on the overzealous regime. Donning his squeaky nose once again, the renegade performer brought his act to the dangerous streets. He deemed clowning revolutionary. Others followed in the footsteps of his defiance, and the constant underground network of entertainment and laughter afforded Paltrona the secret funding to amass his very own traveling circus.
Franco’s death in 1975 lifted many of the impositions placed on the Spanish clowns. The newfound freedom inspired Paltrona to found Circ Circ and the Circus Arts Research Centre in his hometown of Barcelona, an institution dedicated to fostering artistic community and support.
The initiative ushered in participation from some of the most widely-renowned Spanish comedians. Yet even with the company of inimitable comics like Joan Miro and Joan Brossa, Paltrona’s greatest ambitions were still to come.
Years of brazen and self-determined street performances helped prepare the clown for a professional career that spanned decades of touring and travel. It was returning home, however, that Paltrona received a life changing invitation. While visiting a school in Barcelona, one of the classes told their favorite entertainer about the pen pals they were writing in Croatia. Many of the correspondents were young refugees, scattered like a whirlwind across the Istria Peninsula in the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars.
The Croatian children pleaded in their letters. Please, the shaky handwriting read. We’re having a really tough time down here. Can you help us? We miss laughter.
The class of Catalan students looked to Paltrona, their 12-year-old eyes brimming with compassion and a fire to enact real change for their distant friends. The clown understood their collective desires. It was the same intensity he once felt burn decades ago, when he scattered laughter like medicine along the very same streets of Barcelona; vanquishing the shadows and fears of the Franco reign.
In 1993, Paltrona assembled a troupe of his most dedicated performing artists and hit the road to shower smiles on Croatia. The group couldn’t help but bring the Barcelona students in tow–who, together, raised enough money to fund the entire expedition.
They left with the best of intentions, but could hardly believe the extent of what awaited their arrival. Audiences of more than 700 children flocked to the refugee camps and delighted in the laughter of the Barcelona clowns.
Word of Paltrona’s benevolent adventure spread throughout Spain. Many of the native clowns caught wind, and before long a collective assembled. In the first year alone they organized 12 similar expeditions to the Balkans.
These grassroots journeys marked the beginning of Clowns Without Borders (CWB), an organization dedicated to offering humor as a means of psychological support to communities suffering from trauma. Nearly 20 years later, the community holds chapters in twelve countries around the world, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
BTR had the chance to speak with Molly Rose Levine, the executive director of CWB’s U.S. Chapter.
“In all of my experience and efforts dedicated to the cause of helping others, this felt like a really good intersection between humanitarian work and theatre as a tool for empowerment,” she tells BTR.
Levine started working for the organization three years ago, but her quest to understand the actualization and power of humanitarian efforts traces back to years of study. In the time before joining CWB, Levine tirelessly researched violence against marginalized peoples, police brutality, and overarching sentiments of human rights through a variety of cultural perspectives. She also worked for several human rights initiatives before discovering those centered around the art of clowning.
As it turns out, such a seemingly esoteric humanitarian effort maintains several disparate international frontiers. The Gesundheit Global Outreach for Clowns (GO!CLOWNS) organizes missions that have brought thousands of volunteers to some of the world’s most distressed regions. Doctor Patch Adams (immortalized and often remembered by Robin William’s loving portrayal) spearheaded the first mission in 1985, when he led a group of volunteer clowns to the Soviet Union. The initiative centered on bedside clowning in hospitals, but in less than a decade expanded to include orphanages, schools, psychiatric facilities, nursing homes, and prisons.
Hearts and Minds followed suite in 1997, a Scottish arts-in-health charity borrowing from Patch Adams’s benevolent outreach model. While the Clowndoctors Program facilitates happiness in a similar manner through bedside manner laughter in hospitals, the Elderflowers Program launched in 2001 takes the clowns outside of the infirmary and into the homes of patients. The Elderflowers specifically relieve those suffering from dementia; employing humor to reach the individual behind the illness, to stimulate fading personalities with creative physical and mental stimulation.
One of the original clowns on Paltrona’s first expedition to Croatia, Moshe Cohen, returned from the French-organized Clowns Sans Frontieres in 1995 to create the U.S. chapter of CWB. Levine heard about his work, and submitted her application along with dozens of other eager volunteers.
“I realized that if I wanted to work towards alleviating suffering while not becoming personally traumatized myself, I needed to find a way of doing it through a lens of joy,” she says.
To find out more about the ways in which Clowns Without Borders are helping the Syrian refugee crisis, tune in tomorrow for Part II.