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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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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.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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