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Clown Without Borders 

Why would a former S.F. stockbroker travel to war-torn countries and refugee camps just to make people laugh?

Wednesday, Dec 4 2002
The first time Moshe Cohen, the leader of the American arm of Clowns Without Borders, performed for the refugees from Guatemala's civil war in southern Chiapas, he baffled the audience. It was 1987, and the crowd of men and boys -- their faces ash-blackened from burning and cutting sugar cane all day -- sat around him on the silty earth, watching expectantly. Cohen performed a trick with a bowler hat that often elicited laughter from his European and Canadian audiences.

He looked up. Blank stares and silence.

He moved quickly into a trick involving red foam balls -- normally a crowd-pleaser. Still nothing. The weight of about 100 eyeballs began boring a hole through Cohen, a former Pacific Stock Exchange employee who'd come all the way from San Francisco to entertain them.

Thinking quickly, Cohen decided to try a bit of juggling, his forte. He laid out five large juggling balls about the size of grapefruits in a semicircle on the sand, then picked them up and tossed them confidently into the air. The yellow balls, still slippery from the loose earth, fell through his fingers.

"I couldn't get all five balls going," he says, sipping tea at Mission District cafe and laughing at the memory. "I'd try it the first time and then the second time. Then the third time. Then the clown entered me and I started making frustrated sounds. And I heard some people chuckling!

"So I got even more angry and they thought that was funny. And when I got really angry, they were laughing even harder. I was performing in front of these cabins, and I pounded my fist against the wall, and then I played like my hand hurt -- actually, it did. This was hilarious to them. It was a cultural lesson, but I broke through."

The 1987 trip was not an official "expedition" as a member of Clowns Without Borders, a group formed by Spanish clown Tortell Paltrona in 1993, but it did give Cohen a taste for what was to come once he joined up. It also gave him an affinity for bringing laughter into unexpected situations, which the 46-year-old has adopted as something of a life's philosophy.

For the past decade, Cohen has traveled all over the world as Mr. Yoowho -- his bumbling clown persona -- to bring a little levity to grim places: refugee camps, conflict zones, and impoverished communities. He has performed at Bhutanese and Tibetan refugee camps in Nepal, and has played shows in Kosovo, Croatia, and Guatemala. He visits Chiapas almost every year. Through Clowns Without Borders, Cohen has seen wretched conditions, bombed-out cities, and suffocating despair. But he's determined to ensure that he leaves "No child without a smile" -- the international organization's motto.

Cohen sees his work as a humanitarian effort, and though clowning may seem like an unlikely approach, he believes it's important to bring humor into every sphere, to give refugees "attention on a cultural level." Of course, Cohen can't make dire conditions disappear through magic tricks and juggling, but he does bring a temporary lightness to places that have been shadowed by grief and hopelessness. When he points to photographs he's taken of children after his performances -- images of genuine joy -- the value of laughter, a temporary release from day-to-day burdens, becomes apparent.

"He's taking clowning out of the circus tent and into the circus of life, where clowns and laughter are needed," attests Wavy Gravy, a longtime friend and collaborator. "My favorite definition of a clown is that a clown is a poet who is also an orangutan, and Moshe definitely fits that."

Cohen's travels have also taught him about humor and how it translates for different cultures. Invariably, he says, it's simple slapstick -- faux chase scenes or pretending to sneeze coins from his nose -- that gets the crowd every time. That, and his bald head.

"My hairline is a huge laugh," Cohen admits. "I'm not proud, but I'll take it."

Mr. Yoowho likes to wear timeless dark suits with thin lapels, his pockets crammed with red sponge balls, wind-up toy penguins, ridiculously tiny harmonicas, a pewter bell, and confetti. He pairs his outfit -- carefully selected from various San Francisco thrift stores -- with checkered socks, black shoes, and thick, Buddy Holly-style glasses. His shiny, bald pate -- a gift from the clown gods, really -- resolves into wavy wisps of reddish-brown hair that stick out from the bottom half of his head. He usually hides this most magnificent clown feature, however, under a bowler hat -- or three. Completing his timeless fashion assemblage is a beat-up brown suitcase containing colorful plastic bags, cow-patterned boxes used for juggling, five yellow balls, three toy porcupines, a plastic squeaking hammer, and a small leather purse with a crystal goblet inside.

With an audience before him, Mr. Yoowho is simple and exuberant, with a slow blink, pursed lips, and a stomach-distended slouch that makes him look childlike. There are elements of Mr. Yoowho in Moshe Cohen, of course, but when he takes off the bowler hats and the thrift-store suits, Cohen the man reemerges as a lanky, medium-sized regular guy with bright eyes, an expressive face, and a serious, thoughtful demeanor. A handful of people who've worked with him say Cohen can be a perfectionist -- one said he can be a bit controlling -- but he's most often described as kind and compassionate, with a knack for finding humor in surprising moments.

"He's a very gentle individual," says Egyoku Wendy Nakao, who runs the L.A. Zen Center where Cohen has taught workshops (entitled "Humor Your Human"). "I'm very moved by that. His humor is very funny but gentle. He is so easy to open up to. He is, in fact, helping you connect with your own humor, and that's a gift, really." She emphasizes her point by laughing uproariously for several minutes at the thought of Mr. Yoowho at a recent Zen Center event, where he'd been asked to perform during a traditionally serious Buddhist ritual.

Despite a ready wit, Cohen showed few signs of clownishness growing up. He was born in Los Angeles to a somewhat observant Jewish family, then moved when he was 9 to Europe when his father, who designed satellites, accepted a job in France. Cohen spent much of his childhood and teens all over the continent, moving with his family from France to Germany to Belgium. From this transience, Cohen developed an international worldview and an interest in politics.

"There was never-ending talk [within the family] about war and peace and corporate responsibility and hunger," says Cohen's oldest brother, Ranan, a clinical nutritionist at a holistic center in New Hampshire. "I think Moshe's political side came out partially through arguments with my folks. There's a lot of passion in my family, and they would have passionate discussions."

Humor, however, took a more understated role. "Humor was a part of the family dynamic in an odd way," Ranan says. "It was not a situation where we would sit around and tell jokes. It was more the way we would talk or move. It was not jokes, or anything overt or literal."

Cohen, who describes himself as an "academically minded" kid, didn't take his first step toward clownhood until age 20, when Ranan introduced juggling to him and his younger brother (who writes for sitcoms in Los Angeles). Once he got the knack of it, Cohen began juggling everywhere. He tossed balls around campus at UC Davis -- when he wasn't studying to earn a degree in Agricultural Economics. After college, Cohen became even more serious about juggling, and when he moved to San Francisco he joined a group of jugglers that convened every Sunday at Golden Gate Park during the '70s and early '80s.

To pay off his college loans, Cohen took a job as a "market quote terminal operator" (updating the price of stock quotes on a computer) at the Financial District's Pacific Stock Exchange in 1979. During lulls in the action, he juggled staplers, receipt booklets, and other office products. During his 10-minute breaks, co-workers could almost always find him standing on the front steps of the Stock Exchange building, keeping five balls in the air between the grand concrete columns.

In the summer of 1981, Cohen visited some friends in a French town in the Alps known, because of its small canals, as "Little Venice." When his friends learned of his juggling talent, they encouraged him to put on a demonstration right there on the street.

He stood near a canal and began juggling, tossing out witty comments as he threw balls, clubs, torches, and hats in the air. Soon he'd attracted a small crowd of people, who chuckled and guffawed throughout the show. At the end of the performance, audience members willingly put money into Cohen's hat.

Cohen couldn't believe his success.

"I was immediately attracted to performing," he says. "I was surprised by the laughter. I had no clue I was funny."

Lured by the laughter, Cohen made a sudden transformation from Stock Exchange lackey to professional clown. The switch caught some friends and family off-guard, but Cohen had become irreversibly smitten by humor's charm and power.

With the entire summer before him, Cohen decided to perform all over Europe, entrenching himself in the culture of street routines and enjoying the bohemian lifestyle. "Street performances were about independence," he says. "It was not about artistic vision then. It was just that I liked being funny, and I was good at being funny, and OK, I can earn a living at it by just getting gigs doing this."

After a season of juggling and passing the hat, Cohen returned to a job in San Francisco's Financial District at a private stockbrokerage. But the moment he paid off his school loans in 1983, he quit his corporate job to perform on the streets of Canada and Europe full time.

"One day he was a stockbroker, the next day he was a clown," says Roger Neiboer, who worked with Cohen at the Pacific Stock Exchange. "It was a drastic life decision. It was not surprising to me that he ended up doing [clowning], but it did surprise me the way he went about it."

For Cohen, clowning opened up a deep and powerful pathway to wit and delight. "Once I performed, I became interested in what was funny, because the laughter attracted me the most," he says. "I was asking myself, "What was the center of the humor?' And I'm afraid to say something that sounds pompous, but there is a certain release of the oppression of your ancestors through joy. It seems like a stretch for me to say that I have the energy of my ancestors, of the Holocaust, in me, and I'm releasing their energy through my joy. It seems like a far stretch, but I feel a large well of joy inside of me that I discovered, that I recognize through performing that I can now tap into."

Cohen traveled from town to town, seeking areas where street performers convened, playing two or three shows a night and setting out a hat for donations at the end of each gig. He made enough to survive, and even saved money for the winter, when it was too cold to work. He was also offered regular gigs at children's festivals and folk events.

Though mostly a juggler at the time, Cohen decided to follow in the footsteps of a fellow street performer and take mime and clowning classes in 1984. He soon began intensive training with Russian clown Pochinko in Montreal, and quickly realized how much more he could grow as a performer. "There was a moment in the middle of a show, and I had -- it wasn't a hallucination, but all I could feel were my hands and my mouth moving. I realized I was juggling and talking the show. I wanted to start exploring movement with my body and crafting nonverbal expressions."

As Cohen continued to study and perform, his clown persona began to emerge. Though he initially operated under the name "Moshe le Nuage" (Moshe the Cloud), he began calling himself "Mr. Yoowho" because he often beckoned passers-by by standing on his suitcase and calling, "Yoo-hoo! Yoo-hoo!"

Cohen says his first bona fide clown episode -- or "Yoowho moment" -- didn't occur until about a year after he completed the clowning classes in 1986. He landed a gig performing at a street theater festival in downtown Edmonton, in Alberta, Canada, and had successfully attracted about 300 people to an empty street to watch his show. In the middle of his performance, a truck driver climbed into his cab and started the engine.

Cohen was immediately concerned about the disruption, and panicked for the slightest millisecond. But then he decided to do as his clown instructor had told him and "play the moment." As he describes it, he ran toward the truck and pretended to confront it, his hands on his hips and an indignant look on his face. He even threw his fist up in a mock challenge to the massive truck.

"[The truck driver] wanted to drive through, but he couldn't without going through my crowd," Cohen says. "So he was revving his engine, and we had this face-off. At the time, I didn't have the guts to climb on the cab or anything, but it was still a nice face-off. It was the first time I played the moment. Pochinko would always tell us to play the opportunities as they arise, play what is there."

For nearly a decade after that, Mr. Yoowho was a staple at street theater festivals throughout Europe. Recruiters began approaching Cohen after seeing him perform, offering him hundreds of dollars to play at festivals all over the continent. He even became a member of "The Family," a loose-knit group of European street theater performers who were well-known to festival aficionados.

"He did very well in that circuit for some years," says David Lichtenstein, who also did street performances in Europe and is now a teacher in Portland. "He had an excellent reputation as a solo clown for a long time. There are people who know him all over the world."

Between festivals, Cohen took his act to offbeat places like South Africa and the Virgin Islands, and in 1994 he went to Croatia to perform with the Spanish arm of Clowns Without Borders, his first official trip with the organization.

But by the early '90s, Cohen says, the street theater festival world had begun to change, to become more focused on large shows and spectacle rather than on artistic merit. He also had some technical problems with work visas, which prompted him to return to the United States to live in 1993, though he still traveled frequently to Canada and Europe to perform.

One of Cohen's last shows for the international street theater stage was a collaborative work, in the vein of the "theater of the absurd." It wasn't as successful as past works. "It started to trail off for him," Lichtenstein says. "He came [out] with a new show and it was not well received. He was moving around, looking for other things."

Cohen went back to San Francisco in the mid-'90s and immersed himself in teaching and performing (he's currently starring in Moonwatcher: A New Tale of Chelm for Chanukah, the latest production from A Traveling Jewish Theater). He also decided to continue his Clowns Without Borders volunteer work from America and began organizing trips to Chiapas.

"I came back and realized the importance this kind of activity had," he says. "I didn't try to make it an organization in the sense that I would have an office or a staff and write grants -- none of that. We perform to raise money, and then the donations are used to send us on our expeditions [Portland's David Lichtenstein and Arcata's Rudy Galindo travel with him]. We focus on Chiapas because it's close and no one else is going there."

Not every entertainer has the performance skills required for Clowns Without Borders. "I get a lot of e-mails from clowns who want to do Clowns Without Borders, but they're birthday party clowns and I can't send them to Chiapas with that," Cohen says. "It's not the culturally correct thing to do, to have them give away a balloon that will deflate in three days and you can't replace it. So I encourage people to perform for local communities, because you don't have to go to Chiapas to find people in need."

Moshe Cohen looks like any other middle-aged man as he lugs a black case from his Potrero Hill loft and dumps it into the back of his Honda Civic. Wearing trousers and a T-shirt, black shoes, and wire-frame glasses, he falls into the drivers' seat, almost subdued.

Cohen steers the car north, toward San Rafael. Today he'll perform for elementary school kids at the Pickleweed Community Center in the Canal Zone, a low-income community comprised of African-Americans plus Latino and Southeast Asian immigrants.

Though he wasn't able to make it to Chiapas this year, he's happy to have an occasion to share his humor with needy local groups. In fact, Cohen has a history of taking clowning into places you would least expect it. He's taught street kids in South Africa how to juggle, performed in shantytowns in the Virgin Islands, regularly visited the children's ward at two San Francisco hospitals for two years, and currently teaches circus skills to low-income kids at Prescott Elementary School in West Oakland. He's even begun working with Zen Buddhists to introduce humor into their spiritual practice, and co-created the Order of DisOrder, a "non-organization" devoted to introducing "disruptive actions" into overly serious situations.

After a 45-minute drive, he arrives at the community center and is escorted to the front office that will serve as a dressing room, where he begins organizing his props. He opens his suitcase to make sure everything is intact, then tunes his ukulele, knocking a tuning fork against a desk and strumming a chord. Suddenly inspired, his fingers fly into a series of Spanish guitar chords, while he bellows, "Ay! Ay! Ay!"

Once everything's in place, the transformation from Cohen to Mr. Yoowho begins. Using a small mirror, he darkens his eyebrows with eyeliner. He removes a set of clothes from a garment bag and dons a white button-down shirt, narrow suspenders, and a brown suit with puce lining that he bought on Haight Street. He stuffs a yellow handkerchief into his inside pocket and switches to thick, black-rimmed glasses. For effect, he puffs out the tufts of hair on both sides of his head.

"Excuse me as I do my warm-up exercises," he says, launching into a series of silly, exaggerated tai-chi movements. His arms and legs extend and arch in ways too angular to be called graceful.

Cohen suddenly remembers to put a windup penguin in his breast pocket. Finally, he adds a checkered bow tie to his collar, perches three bowler hats on top of his head, slings the ukulele across his chest, picks up his battered brown suitcase and cane, and heads for the door. At the last minute, he stops and takes one last look around to make sure he has everything. OK, now Mr. Yoowho is ready.

As teachers herd dozens of kids into the classroom, Mr. Yoowho waits in a darkened hallway. The children dash for front-row seats on the floor, excited and chattering.

"Today we have a special performer, and he will do mind-boggling tricks that will make you think and make you laugh!" a teacher says.

Mr. Yoowho enters the room immediately and, loaded down with all his props, pretends to get stuck in the door. Once inside, he places the suitcase on the floor and pounds it with the cane. The children watch silently as Mr. Yoowho climbs atop the suitcase, wobbling precariously, as if he's about to fall. He reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a tiny yellow drink umbrella, opens it up, regains his balance, and smiles. The teachers laugh heartily.

He gets off the suitcase, pulls out a mini harmonica, and plays a carnival tune, his hats wiggling. The kids applaud politely.

In preparation for his more active stunts, Mr. Yoowho removes all three bowler hats and sets them aside, revealing his glaringly pale, bald head. The kids are surprised by his naked pate and burst out laughing. Mr. Yoowho pretends to be indignant. But soon, he's eliciting more laughter by playing with his tufts of hair, pretending they're wings and using them to fly away.

"You look like Albert Einstein!" one kid bellows.

Unfazed, Mr. Yoowho summons an audience member to the front to help him with the next trick. Rueben, a chubby boy wearing green pants and a dazed look, stands next to the clown. Mr. Yoowho blows on his own fist and makes a red ball appear. Then, with a quick sweep of the hand, he makes the ball disappear. The next instant, he's pulling it from Rueben's ear. The children are amazed, their eyes widening.

Soon Mr. Yoowho returns to his suitcase of wonders and starts stacking a few cow-patterned juggling boxes. As he begins to walk away with the stack, he drops one. When he picks it up, another box falls. One impatient boy calls out, "That's boring!"

Without a word, Mr. Yoowho walks casually to his satchel and removes a colorful plastic hammer. He walks swiftly toward the naysayer and bops the kid lightly on the head while emitting a loud squeaking noise. The crowd giggles.

Mr. Yoowho returns to his cow-patterned boxes and juggles them for several minutes while playing the harmonica.

"More boxes?" he says, preparing for the grand finale.

"More! More!" the kids respond.

He pulls out box after box after box from his suitcase. Lastly, he removes a crystal wineglass, which he fills with water.

After stacking the boxes in a complex, precarious-looking configuration, he struggles to place the glass on the very top. The children squeal with anticipation and excitement.

"No! Don't do it!" they cry.

He plays on this tension for a few seconds more, takes a slow sip of water, and finally succeeds in placing the goblet on top of the boxes. He then balances the whole teetering configuration on his nose for a few amazing seconds.

"Ta-da!" he cries. The boxes crash to the floor, and Mr. Yoowho catches the glass as it plummets toward the ground. Water splashes everywhere. The audience -- students and teachers -- applauds with vigor, thrilled and relieved at the same time.

The show is starting to fall apart because several parents have arrived to pick up their children. Mr. Yoowho regains command of the audience and ends the show swiftly, juggling the hats back onto his head.

"Thank you, everybody!" he says in an exaggerated French accent.

And then he pauses.

"Yoowho?" he asks, putting a cupped hand to his ear. "Yoowho!"

He takes a deep bow, and exits.

Back in the office-cum-dressing room, Cohen starts changing into civilian gear, sitting down in an office chair. He doesn't realize the chair is broken, though, and as he settles into it, he nearly falls to the ground. "The clown is following me around!" he says, looking suspiciously over his shoulder.

Mr. Yoowho didn't return to Chiapas to perform until March 1996, nearly a decade after his first appearance. By then, Cohen had become a seasoned Clowns Without Borders representative, having founded the American branch a year before.

For part of the 1996 Chiapas tour, Cohen traveled and performed with a Mexican puppet troupe, Los Saltimbanqui. Their first show took place in a town called Oventic, not far from San Cristóbal de las Casas.

The performers arrived at the town by car at dusk. At the gate, a woman took their names, and a man examined their car. Once in town, they were escorted to an auditorium, where four men wearing bandannas over their faces asked them some questions and set a time for the performance the next afternoon.

The next day, the entire community arrived for the performance, sitting on a hillside above a stage of packed dirt. The audience was unfamiliar with clowns, but Cohen says they laughed and seem to enjoy the show.

But after their grand finale, there was a strange and uncomfortable silence devoid of laughter or applause (which is not a part of the culture). After a few awkward moments, a man wearing a bandanna over his face approached the performers and asked in Spanish if the show was over. The clowns asked the man if the audience wanted more. The man, in turn, consulted the audience members, who indicated that they did by shouting, "Sí! Sí!" The clowns played a 40-minute encore, ending with a song and exiting the stage. The audience chattered gaily, but did not applaud.

After two more shows in a town called La Garrucha, Cohen left the group to perform at communities surrounding San Cristóbal. During the time he was in Chiapas, peace talks between the Mexican government and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (a rebel group comprised of indigenous populations who want land rights) were ongoing. The local human rights organization Cohen worked with suggested that he travel to San Andreas, a tiny town 45 minutes away from San Cristóbal.

Once there, Cohen was told that he would perform for 200 to 300 people, most of them men. "Usually, audiences are mostly women and children, so this was not an easy crowd," Cohen says. He decided to employ one of his more popular gags from his street performing days. "I said [in Spanish], 'OK, I'm going to make all of you disappear on the count of three.' I counted, 'One ... two ... three!' And then I took off my glasses. And no one laughs. They're just staring at me. And this tension starts to build. The audience was not looking too happy."

Cohen wracked his brain for a way to win the audience back, and spied a decrepit canvas fishing stool that he'd brought as a prop. "I thought, 'Oh, I'll sit on the stool, and it'll break, and I'll fall on my butt, and they'll laugh.' So I sat down -- but it didn't break. I had to do a few discreet bounces until it finally broke. When I fell, they laughed, and then the show was over." As he found out later, no one had understood the earlier joke because few people in the town have ever had glasses.

After that trip, Cohen began organizing yearly expeditions to Chiapas, using San Cristóbal as a launching point and inviting like-minded American clowns to accompany him. During their expeditions, they travel and perform tirelessly -- sometimes playing up to two shows in different regions in a day. On a recent trip, the American clowns performed 20 shows in 12 days for audiences that ranged from 40 to 1,500 people.

The conditions can be grueling. The troupe might pass through three or four military checkpoints on the way to each destination, where immigration officials could confiscate their travel visas on a whim (they've thus far prevented this from happening by giving vague responses and telling white lies). Sometimes the machine gun-toting military searches their trunks and suitcases -- only to find rubber chickens or juggling pins. Upon discovering the clown props, even the stern checkpoint guards can't help but laugh. The group members ride in trucks and buses on bumpy, treacherous roads, get food poisoning from bad water, and arrive in towns tense with military or paramilitary presence. And though performances are usually arranged through a local humanitarian organization, sometimes the Zapatistas greet the foreign men with suspicion.

During the group's 2001 visit to Chiapas, for example, the clowns were pulled into a small, dark hut for a meeting with the community council. They demanded to know why the Americans had come to their village. In the midst of these very serious discussions, Cohen pretended to make a cigarette disappear and then sneeze it out of his nose. The council agreed immediately that the payasos americanos were to perform.

"Chiapas, they're not in a refugee situation," Cohen says. "They are working communities, it's where people live. There's a tension around them because of the paramilitary and military presence. It's not a war zone, though there may or may not be massacres. But it's not like the war as you might imagine normally."

Places like Chiapas are the kinds of locations Tortell Paltrona had in mind when he started Clowns Without Borders in 1993. The clown from Barcelona had been invited to perform at a school in a Croatian refugee camp that year, and the trip made him realize the importance of bringing laughter to places where people live in dire conditions. He began organizing regular trips under the name Payasos Sin Fronteras (Clowns Without Borders, loosely modeled after the Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, program) and came up with the motto "No child without a smile."

In those early days, the group drove hundreds of miles from Spain to regions in the former Yugoslavia. Word spread of Paltrona's work, and he encouraged clowns from different countries to form their own organizations. Clowns Without Borders affiliates have popped up in Sweden, France, Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Some groups are less formal than others and operate on shoestring budgets, but the Spanish organization has an office with seven full-time employees, and the Sweden contingent receives government grant funding. The American clowns organize and perform at fund-raisers to raise money for their travels, and do not rely on government or foundation money at all. The U.S. group did, however, recently receive the Rex Foundation's Bill Graham Award, which comes with a cash prize that will be spent on travel expenses.

The international network of clowns has performed for Saharan refugees in Algeria, street children in Brazil and Romania, Chernobyl refugees in Cuba, and Somalian refugees in Kenya; they've visited places as far-flung as Israel, Colombia, and Kosovo. Though they enter controversial areas, the clowns do not take a political stance. "It's a humanitarian organization, not a political organization," Cohen says. "If we take sides, we can't do the work. But we inform the public and denounce human injustice."

The organization is also careful to go into areas where the bare necessities already exist. "We did a show in a gypsy camp in Kosovo, and their situation was bad," Cohen recalls. "They had tents, not much of anything else. There was one spigot for water. After our performance, a woman came to us and said, 'Why are you bringing us clowns when we don't have any food?' We try to avoid that situation; that is not our purpose."

The American contingent focuses on Chiapas, but Cohen has been aching to return to the Bhutanese camps in Nepal, which he visited in 1997. The refugees -- Bhutanese citizens who are ethnically Nepalese -- were forced out of Bhutan in the late '80s because the government feared the dilution of the country's native culture.

"The hardest thing of it is that they're in these camps; they're not suffering in that there is food and clothing and shelter, and schools for the kids," Cohen says. "But they can't go anywhere and they don't see a solution in sight. Because they are in a peaceful situation, they are invisible. But there's a monotony, a sense of hopelessness from being away from their homes, and it's unclear if they can ever go back."

The audiences for the Bhutanese camp performances were enormous. Up to 5,000 refugees crowded in for the twice-daily shows over three days. "People kept coming, and there would be other people jumping over other people to see," Cohen says. "They were squished so tight you would see this wall of people lean one way as if they were all going to topple over."

After the show, the clowns were swarmed with children, who stretched out their arms to shake hands. Sometimes seven children would grab Cohen's hand at once.

"We were all very moved by the experience," Cohen says. "It was like a rock 'n' roll show afterwards, the way they were swarming you. It was clear that there was no one else going there, that they had never had anyone do a show for them."

Among the juggling pins, the tricycle, the sponge balls, and the jars of bubble solution in Cohen's airy artist's loft are visual reminders of his worldwide travels. These unframed black-and-white photographs hang in every room of the apartment, in which he lives alone. Next to his kitchen table, for example, there's a picture of some children he met while performing at a school in Kosovo, staring seriously into the camera. A boy in the bottom corner holds a toy gun in one hand and picks his nose with the other.

Cohen has taken hundreds of photographs over the years, and he has converted a small storage space into a darkroom. Near his desk, he keeps a portfolio of some of his favorites. Looking through them, he stops at one that he refers to as "the hands," taken after a performance at the Bhutanese refugee camp. As the bus was departing, Cohen decided he wanted to get one more picture, and stuck his head out the bus window. The 300 children who had come to see him off exploded, many of them sticking their hands up to wave goodbye. In the photo, there are dozens of palms in the air, interspersed with grinning young faces.

He took most of these photos just after Clowns Without Borders shows, and they often feature kids with twinkling eyes; they're snapshots of honest, unadulterated joy. But Cohen also takes pictures that reveal the reality of life in these places, when the clowns aren't there. There's one of a Mexican boy -- probably no older than 8 -- wearing a cap, a suit, and a red foam nose, leaning wearily against a wall. Cohen caught him "in an off moment," taking a break from the juggling act he performs for drivers at red lights to earn a few pesos.

Almost painfully, Cohen recalls performing in Nepal, and having the Bhutanese refugees ask him to take a picture of a man who had had both of his arms cut off when he was tortured in Bhutan. "They said, 'Please, take a picture of this,'" Cohen says. ""People need to see this.'" The picture is not included in the portfolio.

He thumbs through a few more photos: a grinning Bhutanese girl standing behind barbed wire, wearing a dress made from donated bolts of cloth; a group of jostling kids in Chiapas; a boy riding his bike through a bombed-out 600-year-old town in Kosovo.

"Clowns Without Borders is a very rich experience," Cohen says. "It's wonderful to create laughter in any environment, especially in an environment that so clearly appreciates it, and where it is needed. It changes your perspective in general. You pay more attention to what is going on, and you're more appreciative of what you have. We are so fortunate. It's easy to get isolated in this country in your world of wonder and not know what is going on elsewhere."

He returns to the photo of the hands from the Bhutanese camps. "They see you and they scream, "Payasos!' They're so happy that you have come to perform," he says. "I had just stuck my head out the bus window because I wanted to take one more picture. And they just erupted. You sense the need, and you wish you could do more."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"