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Changing the World one laugh at a time

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Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness so that you can then go and empower others. We have a Lebanese humanitarian activist, clown and performer with us today. She’s the first female clown to receive the Premio Clown Nel Cuore Award in Italy, with qualifications in performing arts from London and social therapy from New York. She’s worked in communities all over the world. She founded an organisation called Clown Me In in Lebanon and Mexico. This is a group that uses the art of clowning to fight social injustice. She’s a really interesting young lady and was amongst the 40 cultural leaders who were invited to the World Economic Forum in 2017 to share their work. She’s a member of Clowns Without Borders, they spread joy and laughter amongst disadvantaged communities. She’s the artistic director of The International Institute for Very Very Serious Studies, a performance training programme in Beirut focusing on social street theatre and she’s worked in more than 100 communities. 

Sabine, tell me, what is wellness to you?

Sabine Choucair: Well, I think wellness to me is when we’re human beings, we’re really well supported by our family members and by ourselves. What’s mainly very important to be well in life, is to have this support system that starts with ourselves and then extends to the close family and the bigger circle and the society.

AB: That’s lovely. Sabine, one of the things that I say a lot to people is exactly what you said. You know how you talk about supporting yourself, that’s so important. So many times in trying to support everyone around us,  we forget about ourselves. So thank you for pointing that out. Explain to me, what is clowning?

SC: So the clowning we’re going to be talking about here is not the big hair and the big shoes,  it’s not the clown that we see in birthday parties. It’s mostly the clown that is this status that is really close to us, close to who we are. It’s everything that we have that we like and we dislike. It’s displayfulness. It’s this naivete,  it’s this transparency and this connection with ourselves and with the others that we are going to talk about. So it’s this state that is beyond what we see on the outside. It’s the real us connecting with a real you.

AB: I see. And how did you get into it?

SC: So I have no idea about clowning. I’ve known what everybody mostly knows. And I grew up in a war zone. So we had the civil war in Lebanon. It’s not like I grew up watching a lot of theatre or getting acquainted with different theatre forms. After studying theatre in Lebanon, I went to London to study performing arts and that is where I got introduced to the world of clowning. I was like, wow, this is such an amazing world where I discovered my clown. So I got to experience my clown or how I like to say ‘the state of clowning.’ I had this clown that was super paranoid, super army-like. And it was this moment where I realised that I was freed from all of this because I got to experience it, to experience these things to the end, to the extreme, to the point where I was like, it’s okay for people to laugh at me at these things, and it’s okay. I started laughing at these things, and I started seeing them in small details in my life. This is amazing. This is what I want to keep doing for the rest of my life, and this is what I want to share with people because it gives me freedom and another way of looking at life and  dealing with things that are much simpler and much more freeing which makes me feel good.

AB: So you’re saying that this clowning has actually given you a lot as well. It’s led you to leading a simpler, but a good life.

SC: Exactly. Then I thought, what an amazing tool. I’m so interested in working with people,  and I feel this is where I belong, on the streets. I really want to be with people all the time, and I have this amazing tool that gives me freedom and makes me a better person in life. And I want to share this with people, and I want to introduce it to everyone.

AB: So, you know you’re talking about the joy and the fun of clowning, right? But you also use that to heal people. So what I find fascinating is the way you combine your healing work with the clowning and the clown’s persona. So tell us a bit about the work you do.

SC: It is working with groups of people in the group. I’m not a therapist. It’s a non medical approach. So let’s have this on the table. The idea is to work with a group of people and to know how to listen to this group of people. And this group of people becomes the therapeutic unit. We all support each other to become better. So I mix and match clowning and social therapy when working with people. I have one thing where I work with groups of people— women, men,  teenagers, and kids, and we do social therapy groups. We use different types of art. We use clowning as a base because we need this openness and playfulness in everything: storytelling,  theatre, mask work, social work, everything in these groups. So that’s one way of my work. Another way is I have a group of clowns, clowning in and I work with Clowns Without Borders. And we as clowns, we go to communities and we spread joy and laughter, we perform in different contexts— from refugee camps to people going through different hardships, to people living in war zones. So we perform and spread joy and laughter. We also use clowning to ask for a little bit of human rights and social justice in life. So we use it in protests. We go to protests as clowns. We do street theatre performances, tackling deep political and societal issues. So it’s a bit of everything.

AB: So what you do is you tackle very, very deep issues, whether it’s political, societal, or cultural, in a fun way, and you combine your social therapy with your clowning, and you help people come to their own solutions. Is that right? 

SC: Absolutely. None of us has solutions. I always believe that it’s always good for all of us to figure out what is bothering us at this moment and to find ways to make it better or for it to stop bothering us. And it’s something that we have to come up with altogether. I have no answers for anything, and nobody has, really. It’s group work.

AB: But tell me, in the work that you’ve done, give us an example of one of the most amazing breakthroughs that you remember,  because you performed all over the world with all kinds of communities.

SC: In Lebanon, in August 2020, we had one of the biggest explosions, and three hundred thousand people lost their homes. They became displaced. There was rubble everywhere. And us clowns, we thought this was the time when we should be on the street spreading joy and laughter. And we’ve talked a lot among us, like, “Is it the right time? Is it not the right time? People are breathing.” And we were all very sad. But then a few weeks later, we put a show together, put on our costumes that are all super colourful, got our kazoos and music and accordion and hula hoops, and everything that’s very colourful and joyful, parading in a very grey, I would say, you would walk in rubles in a super grey area where people are very sad and depressed. And then you have this group of clowns coming with music and joy, offering a different provocation on the streets, and having a different experience with people. And we performed a lot in this period. And there was one performance we did in one of the affected areas, and we found out afterwards that— one little girl who was like nine or ten years old had not spoken after the explosion for a month and a half. She hadn’t said a word. She stopped speaking. And then after our performance, she went back home, and she told her dad everything about our performance. That was like, “This is it. That’s what we’re here for.” Maybe we just gave this little girl a moment where she felt free. Something magical happened, and she talked.

AB: So you gave her a little mirror into another world, and that healed something in her present world. Incredible.

SC: It’s also giving people a moment of joy and a moment of hope. Hope makes us stay alive. This is the only thing that keeps us alive with whatever we’re going through. And clowning is hope, magic, life, and it can do wonders.

AB: Wonderful. That is a wonderful story. Now, tell me, you have worked right from, like you said, from refugee camps to places of trauma, like the story you gave us, right? And you’ve been to places like the World Economic Forum, where you met world leaders and people who literally set policies for the whole world. Tell me, what do you think humanity needs to do differently? And what can each one of us do differently to make a difference from what happened to be at the World Economic Forum?

SC: When I was invited, I was like, “What am I going to go do? How am I going to talk to these people?” I really work in extreme poverty, always on the street with people. All of a sudden, I have to deal with all these top leaders in the world. Here’s a clown—a professional. I was always saying, I’m the professional clown here. They’re all clowns, we’re all clowns, and I’m a professional one. And then what I really learned from this experience was how to listen. By listening, I mean how to understand what the other person is saying, how to add to what this mother is saying, and how to come up with new realities altogether and stop the prejudice. I had prejudices, right? And when I met people there,  when I really listened, I was amazed at how much I learned and how beneficial it was. And I think we all should come to each other, listen to each other, and then see the good in each other, because there’s so much good in every one of us that we have to take hold of and do something with it. That’s what I think we should be doing.

AB: Magnificent. Now tell me if you can give us some tips and tools that we can take away,  that we can use in our daily lives to do with laughter therapy, to do with social therapy. Maybe some little exercise we can go away with.

SC: I always feel that when you’re stuck, just laugh. Laughter releases so much tension, makes us relax. You know, if you see someone who’s not smiling and you smile, then the other person will smile back. So I’ll start by laughing a little bit, and you’ll laugh a little bit more. And I’ll laugh more, and you’ll laugh even more. And I’ll do it more, and you’ll do it more. We’ll try. I mean, we can keep doing this endlessly. It doesn’t mean we have to stop. But this is like a small idea. Even if you start by faking it.

AB: And then you land up laughing. That’s lovely. And I see in London I live in Regent’s Park,  I see a group of people standing, sometimes laughing. So they obviously practise laughter therapy. And I’ve always wondered how that works.

SC: Next time you see them, just go and be like—  Hahahaha.

AB: That’s wonderful. Thank you. I mean, you’re right, you do feel a lot lighter. Every time you laugh, you do feel lighter. Tell me, Sabine, do you have any advice?

SC: We can’t solve the endless crazy things happening in the world,  but we can spend small moments of joy. So I always tell people, find your support system, find the group that makes you laugh, find what makes you joyful and do more of it. And always think about yourself, give time to yourself. And when in doubt, just laugh for sometime, play and then sleep on it. Wake up and then think about it. 

AB: Wonderful. Sabine, what is the best way to do social therapy with children?

SC: I think I would say the best way is to listen to the kids, so that they know what they really want to do. We always go to work with people, whether they’re children or adults, and we have this agenda. I mean, it’s always good to go with a plan, but it’s always good to listen and to see where they take us, what they want to do and to offer endless ideas for games and to play. And with playfulness and with how you lead the sessions of games and play, then you start listening to what the kids or whoever, want to do, and how they want to do it. And you do it.