Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime


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Clowning For Those Special Audiences


Because I perform in pantomime, kids often are quieter during my shows. One day at the Raging Waters amusement park a little girl interacted with me silently throughout the entire show. If I couldn't find something, she would always come up to point it out to me.

I didn't think anything about it until after the show when a lady said to me, "I'm Sara's aunt. Did you know she is deaf, too? I think it is wonderful what you people can do with your handicap."

I just tipped my hat in thanks without saying anything. I decided if her misconception gave her hope, I didn't want to make her feel foolish by exposing that she was wrong.

If you are a clown, you should be a caring clown and learn about that specialty. I don't mean you have to visit hospitals or nursing homes, but you should learn how to interact with people with special needs.

During my 11 years working at amusement parks, I often noticed people with special needs in my audiences. Sometimes they were there as part of an organized recreational group. Other times they were there with family or friends. They are part of the general public, and if you entertain any place that is open to the public, you will probably eventually meet them.

Even if you don't entertain in public venues, you never know whom you will meet. A father booked me for his daughter's birthday because of seeing me perform a stage show. When I arrived at the party, I discovered his daughter was blind. I broke character and talked with her before and after my show. During my show, her friends described what was happening, and she enjoyed my background music.

Later, her father explained that he know I worked in pantomime so he didn't tell me about his daughter to keep me from worrying about it. He wanted her friends to enjoy the party, so he booked me primarily for them. He also wanted to treat her as much as possible like somebody who could see so she would be able to cope in the larger world. Another time, I noticed a "Caution Deaf Child" sign as I entered the neighborhood where the party was scheduled. That made me aware there might be a deaf child attending the party, and I was quickly able to identify them.

Here's another example: I was performing in a variety show and discovered that the producer had invited a group of special needs adults and put their wheelchairs in a row in front of the theater seats. I used a member of that group as one of my volunteers to great success.

You may not plan to make hospital visits, but you should still learn the basics of doing it. Early in my career, I was doing a clown ministry show at a church. After the service, the minister told me a family in the parish had a son in the hospital. They had enjoyed my show and would really appreciate it if I went to visit him. I had never done a hospital visit as a clown but felt I couldn't disappoint them. I made the visit, and the boy seemed to enjoy my bits of business. Later I learned that he had slipped into a coma after I left and died two days later. One of his family's last memories of him alive was his laughter while I was there.

If you have never thought about caring clowning, here is some advice.

1. Read  What Clowns Need to Know About Hospitals and What Hospitals Need to Know About Clowns by Shobi Dobi and Patty Wooten.  The section on infection control is particularly important.  If you can find used copies, read these two out of print books, Caring Clowning, by Richard Snowberg, and The Joyful Journey of Hospital Clowning, edited by Anita Thies. 

2. Don't be afraid of people with special needs. They enjoy entertainment, too.

3. Remember their needs are more important than yours are. I work in pantomime, but when I meet a blind person during a walk around performance, I break character to speak to them.

4. Blind people explore their world by touch. Think about what you wear that would be interesting and appropriate for them to feel. I let blind people feel my 18-inch-long clown shoes and my tattered tramp pants. I don't wear a false nose, but if you do, that is something else you can let them touch.

5. Deaf people "hear" with their eyes. If you are doing strolling entertainment, especially close up magic, watch their eyes. If they look away to converse with each other, pause. Wait until they return their focus to you before continuing.

6. Membership in a deaf group does not necessarily mean somebody is totally deaf. If you normally use background music, go ahead and use it, because they may be able to sense it and enjoy it.

7. Puns, both visual and verbal, don't translate well into different languages. American Sign Language is a different language, so puns don't always work. For example, the signs for banana and bandanna do not look anything alike, so deaf audiences do not understand the banana-bandanna skit. A deaf person would never get the two mixed up. The signs for apple and onion are similar, so you could do a misunderstanding skit with those objects; for example, baking an onion pie or eating an onion while juggling.

8. When we travel to a foreign country, we often learn a few words of their language out of courtesy and respect. If you are going to entertain deaf audiences, learn a few words of American Sign Language. You don't have to become fluent. When I did a Christmas show at a nursing home for deaf adults, I had a friend teach me how to sign Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. That was how I ended my show. I made a mistake and had to start over, but they were delighted that I had made the attempt.

9. A wheelchair is an extension of the person using it. Don't touch a wheelchair without first receiving permission.

10. Never use a person with special needs in a put-down routine or for something like a breakaway wand. There are enough things in life they have trouble with.

11. If you use a person with special needs as a volunteer, do what you can to make it a positive experience for them, yourself, and the audience. If I sense we need to spend extra time to make it a successful interaction, I'll eliminate another routine from the show to provide that time. Sometimes we share a gentle moment that warms everyone's heart.

I do plate spinning and will often use a person with special needs as a volunteer. If they look like they can hold one finger up and support some weight with it, I like to transfer a spinning plate from my stick to their finger. If they aren't capable of doing that, I let them hold my stick with the plate still spinning on it. Sometimes I hold my hand under theirs to support the stick. Their great joy at being able to do the spinning plate, something that most people in the audience can't do, is a pleasure to see.

No matter what happens, I try to do everything I can to make them look good. I've had people so excited about being on stage that they try to take over the show, even to the extent of grabbing the microphone to start talking to the audience. I entice them into another activity, which results in a climax where I can cue the audience in applauding them, and I gently lead them off the stage before the applause dies. This saves face for both of us. Audiences really appreciate this demonstration of the heart of the clown.

12. Remember that a person with special needs is just that, a person first. Treat them with the same respect as you do any other person. Interact with them. Joke around with them. Focus on what they can do, not on what they canít.

Whether or not you make caring clowning your specialty, at some point in your life as a clown you will need the skills of a caring clown. Prepare for that by learning all you can about this special branch of clowning. Then when the opportunity arises, you will be ready to let people see the heart of your clown.

Originally published in New Calliope Sept/Oct 97

Copyright © 1997 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson. All rights reserved.

Updated March 2009


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