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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
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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.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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