Center hosts Israeli medical clowns on tour across campus

Center hosts Israeli medical clowns on tour across campus

Israeli medical clown David Barashi leading a Theater Department workshop

The Y&S Nazarian Center organized a wide range of events with the professional medical clowns involving the theater and anthropology departments as well as UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital.

UCLA Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, November 30, 2017 - In their two-day tour organized by the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, two professional Israeli medical clowns, and the filmmaker making a documentary about this profession in Israel, led a workshop with theater students, participated in a seminar for anthropology graduate students and faculty, and visited patients at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital.

David Barashi, a pioneer in this unique field, and his clowning colleague, Rotem Goldenberg were joined by writer, director and producer of the documentary film “I Clown You”, Sasha Kapustina.   

Clowning Around

The clowns kicked off their UCLA tour by doing what they do best at the UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital. Barashi and Goldenberg transformed into "Dush" and "Fruma" (their professional clown names) for their visit as they interacted with the young patients with a range of chronic conditions.

For many of the medical staff, the presence of medical clowns was something new. But for Kelli Carrol, the director of the Chase Child Life Program at the hospital, this wasn’t her first time seeing medical clowns’ powerful impact on patients.

"I was very familiar with medical clowning before from my time working at a hospital in Dallas, which had a strong medical clowning program," she explained. "At first I rolled my eyes when I was told about the program there, but today I think a good, well-trained medical clown can do things nobody else can."

The clowns who Carroll had previously worked with had actually trained with the organization "Dream Doctors," an Israeli organization that trains medical clowns, supports their employment in hospitals and funds scientific studies on the benefits of their work and to which both Barashi and Goldenberg belong.

However, despite Carroll's previous work with medical clowns, the visit by "Dush" and "Fruma" was still a novel experience for her.

"I had never worked with a medical clown from outside the US," she said. "I was excited to see how they differed and were similar and found that despite language and cultural differences, they were able to accomplish one of the most important things medical clowns do: give patients a sense of control of the situation, something patients usually don’t get while in a hospital."

An Anthropological Perspective

The next day, the clowns and Kapustina joined the Mind, Medicine and Culture interdisciplinary seminar hosted by the Anthropology Department. While Barashi and Goldenberg presented their clown personas, the event also took a more analytical look at medical clowning and gave the two professionals the opportunity to reflect on their work, its implications and impact.

The seminar was led by Anthropology Assistant Professor Salih Can Aciksoz, whose research focuses on medical and political anthropology, gender and disability studies, and disabled military veterans.

From right to left: David "Dush" Barashi, filmmaker Sasha Kapustina
Anthropology Department Assistant Professor Salih Can Aciksoz and Rotem "Fruma" Goldenberg

Kapustina introduced the clowns and used excerpts from her film to give the participants in the discussion group a glimpse of the clowns at work. She also shared with the faculty and students her insights into the impact she has observed of the presence of a camera on real-life situations while making documentaries and more generally on filmmaking in different cultural contexts.

After the introduction, Barashi and Goldenberg spoke with the participants and responded to questions about therapeutic relationships with medical staff members at the hospital, playing around with risk and the idea of vulnerability with patients who experience both, and their work with veterans.

The two also shared their experiences working in disaster areas outside of Israel, including Haiti and Nepal. Barashi spoke in particular about the ability of the clown to perform effectively despite cultural and language barriers by communicating through body language and costume.

"People were in the streets who had lost everything three or four days ago," Barashi recalled of his time in Haiti working in an Israel Defense Forces field hospital following the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake. "But I found out while I was there that if clowning could also work in such a crisis and in such a different environment, it could work anywhere."

The Clown as a Performer

The next day, the clowns moved away from self-reflection on their profession and its benefits and focused on clowning as performance. "Dush" and "Fruma" took over Theater Department Professor Thomas O’Connor’s Acting, Voice and Movement Workshop and their goal was to get the students moving.

The two clowns didn’t take much time putting the students to work and “breaking the academic environment.” After a brief introduction by Kapustina, Barashi began the exercises with a game of musical chairs - but with a twist. Instead of moving to different chairs in the traditional form of the game, the students carried the chairs with them.

A series of other exercises followed involving a slow motion race with partners across the studio space, a game that divided the class in half and required students on each side of the room to mimic the group on the other, and more.


But Barashi also offered advice to the future performers in the classroom. "When you’re clowning or performing, it is always about making your partner better," he told the students.

O'Connor participated in all of the workshop's activities and reveled in the chaos that the clowns are so uniquely able to bring.

"They were superb," he said. "A welcome and wonderful gust of anarchy and a reminder that order and normalcy are ok now and then, but can’t displace the glorious disorder and chaos of clowning. I began missing them the moment they left the classroom."