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The Sheridan Sun Online

10-03-24 2:02 PM

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Send in the clowns

University offers degree in clowning

By Maggie Vourakes

The University of Haifa in Israel offers a bachelor degree program in medical clowning to students through the department of theatre.

Cathy Kincaide walks to the beat of her own harmonica as she pirouettes through hallways. With precision timing she whips out bubbles and blows clear, soapy spheres at passersby. Kincaide is a therapeutic clown at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). When she puts on her red nose, she transforms into Mary Sunshine and doesn’t break character until she takes it off. “I’ve learned to be comfortable in silence and trust myself,” Kincaide said.

Program manager Lucia Cino, left, and Mary Sunshine take a moment to laugh.

PHOTO BY MAGGIE VOURAKES

Dressed for success When we meet, Kincaide is dressed for work. She’s decked out in primary colours: red overalls and a blue shirt with yellow and white striped sleeves. Her shoulder-length brown hair sits under a floppy blue denim hat. Her tennis shoes with multi-colour laces support her feet as she walks through the eighth floor (hematology and oncology units). Mary Sunshine’s first stop on her rounds is her mailbox- a blue shoebox for kids’ letters. She quietly walks down hallways, peeking through windows before entering a room. She stops by an open door where a girl’s mother rushes out to greet her warmly, like a good friend. Her daughter is tired from her medication but for a few drowsy minutes she welcomes her clown friend in to say hello. Through clowning, Kincaide has found what many search for their whole lives: comfort in her own skin. “So much about clowning is what’s on the inside rather than what’s on the outside,” said Kincaide. “It is a character but it’s really a part of me, who I am inside. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be real.”

"You put on makeup, a costume, the nose but you’re really unveiling a mask. You have to be your most vulnerable, which is really scary at first."

The dual-major degree established in 2006 is a hybrid of medical knowledge and theatrical skills. Students are taught about nursing, developmental psychology and the history of medicine as well as improvisation, comedy acting, street theatre and juggling. The goal of the program is to “make clowning a recognized profession, in the same league as physiotherapy, speech therapy and so forth,” said Dr. Ati Citron, head of the department of theatre at the university of Haifa in a press release. The program also prepares students with the necessary courses to pursue a master’s degree at the University’s Graduate School of Creative Art Therapies. Graduates of Haifa’s program have stepped out of the hospital and lent their skill in crisis zones like Ethiopia and Haiti. After the earthquake in Haiti they rushed to help with relief efforts, comforting orphans and injured children.

Behind the red nose The therapeutic clown program at SickKids was established in 1993. The clowns work Tuesday to Thursday on floors four through eight and in many out patient clinics: MRI, IGT, Blood and Emergency. In a single year, the clowns of Sick Kids will visit 15,000 patients, but the Therapeutic Clown Program receives no funding from the hospital. It operates on money raised through fundraising and donations.

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The program has a tight budget but continues because of a love of clowining. Lucia Cino, manages the Therapeutic Clown Program, but for half a day she transforms into Nuula and tends to dialysis patients. “I have to park myself. It’s not about me. It’s about being present for the child and really serving their needs and really listening,” said Cino. The clowns at SickKids come from various backgrounds: nursing, theatre, massage therapy, journalism and performance. Kincaide graduated from Sheridan’s nursing program. Her interest in therapeutic file:///Volumes/Sun%20Online/mar_18_2010/web/profile_therapeuticclown_maggievourakes.html

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The Sheridan Sun Online

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and performance. Kincaide graduated from Sheridan’s nursing program. Her interest in therapeutic clowning was piqued after a job posting caught her attention. “I was intrigued. When I started exploring it, I found out a lot about myself. You put on makeup, a costume, the nose but you’re really unveiling a mask. You have to be your most vulnerable, which is really scary at first. When you first go in as a clown you just have to be honest.

It's not a one-clown show The workplace they enter is spontaneous, but the program prepares its clowns for the hospital environment through a three-month training program.

Mary Sunshine, is a therapeutic PHOTO BY MAGGIE VOURAKES clown at SickKids.

“We emphasize vulnerability, sensitivity, strong listening skills and connecting. A lot of theatre people have said they have to tone it down and be sensitive to the environment because this isn’t a stage,” said Cino.

It’s far from it. Walk onto a hospital floor; it’s high traffic and fast paced. It’s also dedicated to the young patients. The clowns know this. They are acutely aware of their environment. They treat their work as an ensemble performance and not a one-man show. “I have a big responsibility to the patient, to the family, the doctor, the nurses, the housekeeping staff. People are working. Yes it can get fun but you have to keep that radar out.” The clowns are for the kids. They bring comfort to them because they are a constant. They help to take away the stress of the hospital environment and let kids be kids. “It’s about presenting yourself, observing, looking at nonverbal behaviour and really navigating yourself about how to proceed,” said Kincaide. "You don’t know what to expect or what’s going to happen. It’s not planned. There are moments of connection, so deep you just can’t explain them.” Kincaide remembers one child’s last request: for Mary Sunshine to visit and rub their head. There is sadness on the job but Kincaide views her role differently. “When a baby is born it’s their first breath. When someone passes away it’s their last breath. They are both milestones. It’s a part of life and I just happen to be traveling that journey with that family. If I can provide lightness and good memories along that road then it’s all worth it.”

file:///Volumes/Sun%20Online/mar_18_2010/web/profile_therapeuticclown_maggievourakes.html

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SickKids Therapeutic Clown Program  

The gentle and warm-hearted clowns of SickKids Hospital in Toronto open up and share what it's like to work as a therapeutic clown

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