UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 06 Spring 17 Library
Dan  Addison

Tim Cunningham & Clowns Without Borders

Any performer will tell you that when it comes to performing, some venues are tougher than others. Everyone has his or her own horror story of a show or crowd gone wrong. Few, however, have a story to match Tim Cunningham’s.

In 2003 Cunningham, who has a rare joint appointment in the Department of Drama and the School of Nursing, accepted the invitation of a friend and mentor to perform with the organization Clowns Without Borders, which delivers much-needed doses of laughter and humanity to places around the world that need them most. This time the destination was earthquake ravaged Colima, Mexico.

Tim Cunningham performing in Turkey
(Photo: Clowns Without Borders USA)

“We did a show in the middle of a field that it took us 45 minutes to reach by canoe,” Cunningham said. “While we were performing, our legs started burning. We were scratching and itching like crazy and the kids were laughing at us because they knew one really important thing that we did not. Nobody ever went on that field because it was filled with fire ants.”

The experience gave Cunningham a great story to tell and fed what he calls an addiction to performing in non-traditional places. “There is something amazing about performing in what people would consider absurd places,” he said “and I got really interested in doing clown work in places where no one wants to be and where people might want to get out if they could. The laughter and connections that happen there are really magical, and just doesn’t happen in a theatre with comfortable seating where you pay however much for a ticket and enjoy air conditioning.”

Cunningham soon discovered he had a particular passion for performing in the most untraditional and often difficult places to be: a hospital. “I mean, if you are talking about performing in absurd places, how absurd is a hospital? How eccentric and horrific and completely unnatural is that setting?”

He spent some time with perhaps the world’s best known and most respected practitioners of this unique healing art – the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, which had been performing by children’s bedsides for decades in New York, Boston and elsewhere. The work, he says, often involves far more than gags and giggles. “A big part of what we do happens because we are given permission, and when we are given that permission, we still have to address the room, and sometimes that is as a clown and sometimes it is not. It is about the human connection, and that is what I love about it. Performing on a stage is about a human connection too, but there you are much more in control. The clown has no control and has to accept that and be vulnerable when working in a hospital setting or a war zone, essentially working to create a safe space for themselves and the people they are performing for.”

It is about the human connection, and that is what I love about it.
Tim Cunningham

Sometimes the intended audience is larger than the kids themselves. “One day we went to visit a kid we had seen before, and he was having a horrible day,” Cunningham said. “He was having extreme digestive issues and was just howling in pain. My partner and I didn’t know what to do. At one point he leaned over and suggested I play my ukulele. I played ‘Good Night Irene,’ sort of humming in a gritty, Tom Waits style. This kiddo who had not stopped crying for so long was absolutely mesmerized by the uke. He stopped crying and you could see the relief on mom and dad’s faces. They took this huge exhale and the energy in the room completely changed. The thing is, no one laughed. No one said ‘We love clowns because they make me feel good.’ They said ‘We love clowns because they give us a chance to breathe.’”

Tim Cunningham performing in the Philippines
(Photo: Clowns Without Borders USA)
They said, ‘We love clowns because they give us a chance to breathe.’
Tim Cunningham

In 2013, Cunningham saw yet another side of this effect when he was in the Philippines following a deadly super typhoon. The charge nurse at the MSF field hospital he was visiting told him there was a child who had a broken hip and had been in traction for two months. “We played and performed,” Cunningham remembered.  “The kid smiled, the family laughed, and the nurse completely lost it and left the room. When I went to check on her I asked if we had done something wrong. She said when she saw her patient smile, she realized she hadn’t given herself time to feel for months, because her mission was to treat patients and save lives, period. She was able to take a mini break and watch this child smile, and it meant to the world to her.”

Cunningham leans heavily on these most real of real life lessons he has learned to both his drama and nursing students. In the Drama department, Cunningham is currently working with master’s students, as well as looking at long terms projects that incorporate his clown work and storytelling. “It is about how we tell our own stories and how do we listen to the story of a patient or person who is sick and suffering, and how do we tell that story in an ethical, creative and beautiful way?”

Tim Cunningham in Turkey, 2015
(Photo: Clowns Without Borders USA)

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On the nursing side, Cunningham teaches global health, as well as pediatric nursing while working with an organization called the Compassionate Care Initiative that works to prepare nurses and doctors to be more resilient and mindful. “When you have a healthy caregiver,” he said, “you are going to have a healthier patient.”

Meanwhile, Cunningham will continue to expand his own “stage” by continuing to seek out places and people who need his brand of healing. He’ll pack his back of tricks and head for Sierra Leone on a Clowns Without Borders collaboration later this spring, and no doubt come back with countless more stories to tell and lessons to share.

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