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Hospitals and nursing homes have shut their doors to slow the spread of the coronavirus, forcing German health care clowns to find new ways to cheer up vulnerable audiences. They say it’s vital that the show goes on.
How does a clown perform for audiences when forced to work alone from home? As social distancing measures came into place in Germany several weeks ago, the question had no clear answer. The lack of clowns left hospitalized children and elderly people in care homes, who were already cut off from loved ones because of visitation restrictions, even more alone.
"We were devastated. A bit of the clown is in you all the time," Susanna Curtis, aka Dr. Maggie McDudel, told DW. "The first few weeks, we felt part of our lives went out the window."
It didn't take long to find workarounds. Associations, such as the Dachverband Clowns in Medizin und Pflege Deutschland e.V., a national umbrella organization of health care clowns, set up livestreams on Zoom and other platforms. Red Noses Germany, which sends its performers to cheer up the ill and the elderly around Germany and the world, quickly moved to Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
Clowns have turned their living rooms into online stages. Daily performances have given kids and seniors a semblance of what they used to get in person. Curtis, a professional choreographer from Scotland who has lived in the German state of Bavaria since 1988, works for the Dachverband's Bavarian chapter. Before the pandemic struck, she was doing four clown visits in her region per week. Now she is doing about two, albeit virtually or from a safe distance.
"Of course it's not normal," Curtis said, "but at least we have a chance to do something."
The coronavirus pandemic has been a one-two punch for hospitals and care facilities. The people they care for are particularly vulnerable to both the worst aspects of the virus and the social distancing that’s been deployed to stop it. Even under normal circumstances, they can suffer from loneliness and depression, which take their toll on physical health.
Clown visits are meant to counter those effects. A performance is based on improvisation, physical interaction and the energy in a room. Clowns also often work in pairs. Those elements have been a challenge to move online.
"We have to develop different techniques to pass things from one to the other as if we were in the same room. And that is quite a funny idea," Curtis said. "But, yes, the direct contact with our patients is really missing. "
The feedback that clowns have received from facility staff and families has been largely positive, Curtis said. On some occasions, facilities have permitted them to perform in person from a terrace or garden, with the audience watching from a distance.
Helping, being helped
Florentine Schara, who goes by Perdita Poppers for Red Noses Germany, told DW that one "magical moment" was when she started singing an old German song on the grounds of a nursing home. The residents, on their balconies around her, joined in with gusto.
Despite the distance and wind making communication difficult, "I could really feel how happy they are that we are doing something for them," Schara said. "Clowning brings not only laughter, but a lot of tension relief," she added. "It feels like the whole nation, or the whole world, is tense. So I think everybody should have their own clown to be able to let go for just one little moment."
The work is also a relief for the clowns themselves who, as professional artists, have suffered from canceled gigs and lost income during the pandemic. Clown work is at least a small financial buffer, as well as a psychological one.
"The clown is naive and doesn't think: 'My parents are really old — I hope they don't get it and pass away' or 'How am I going to pay my rent next week?'" Schara said. "It's really refreshing to have this naive part of me that I can turn to."