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CCU Atheneum: Ben Sota clowns in Costa Rica as part of the Clowning and Caring in Costa Rica and LaCarpio Festival.
Ben Sota clowns in Costa Rica as part of the Clowning and Caring in Costa Rica and LaCarpio Festival.

Professor Ben Sota and student Milla Blackwater clown in Costa Rica for a cause

by Sara Sobota
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The emergence of a clown in the room or on the street, with its hallmark red nose and floppy shoes, signifies joy, imagination, surprise and humor; however, for Ben Sota, associate professor of theatre, the value of the experience can extend far beyond fleeting emotions. Sota is exploring a clown’s potential for healing and emotional connection as he travels on global excursions to spread the benefits of clowning, learning from the most iconic figure in the world.

Sota traveled with CCU sophomore physical theatre major Milla Blackwelder to San Jose, Costa Rica, in late August to attend the 10th Annual Clowning and Caring in Costa Rica and LaCarpio Festival. The touring collective, organized by Patch Adams’ Geshundheit! Institute, is a weeklong compassionate care through theater initiative focusing on how the art of theater – specifically clowning – has a positive impact on health care settings. 

Essentially, Sota and Blackwelder brought their clown act directly to people in need. The experience involved visiting one location each day – nursing home, prison, hospital, public park or poverty-stricken neighborhood – to provide direct physical and emotional care to disadvantaged individuals. In the afternoons, participants attended workshops on clown techniques, improvisation, song and poetry, with Adams leading numerous sessions.

“The sight of a clown has a way of disarming people,” said Sota. “These people are abandoned, neglected by society. They don’t have anyone to care for them, and they are living in the most deplorable conditions. They are the cohort of society that has been forgotten; they come to think nobody cares. And then the clown shows up.”

Blackwelder, who had never traveled outside the United States before, said the experience had a transformative effect on the way she understands people and needs.

“It has really shifted my perspective,” said Blackwelder. “For me, it was easy in my life to think, ‘Oh yeah, people are struggling, I know I shouldn’t complain,’ but I think it took really going and actually confronting that and helping them with love and care to make me understand in a larger way. It really informed me of how truly surface level a majority of our problems are.”

The unprecedented, offbeat nature of the entire endeavor was apparent from the first leg of the trip, when Sota and Blackwelder departed from the Myrtle Beach International Airport wearing clown noses. The Clowning and Caring policy states that clowns should travel in costume, so the pair reported to the gate clad in eye-catching funny hats and circus-appropriate apparel. The reactions from everyone – gate receptionist to TSA worker to flight attendant – were memorable and positive. 

“We went through TSA with our noses on,” said Sota. “They didn’t make us take them off. We got away with stuff. The way that we changed space was amazing.” 

That sense of amazement, in addition to the odd juxtaposition of silliness and sincerity, continued as Sota and Blackwelder arrived in Costa Rica to join a group of 35 clowns from around the world interested in spreading joy and compassion. They brought their act – juggling, twirling, stilts walking, banjo playing, joke playing – to people in serious need of a lift throughout the community of LaCarpio, an area outside San Jose. 

“I got away with taking off a policeman’s hat and putting it on my head,” said Blackwelder. 

Simultaneously, the clowns gained a searing sense of living conditions that lacked energy and hope. 

“We visited hospitals where people were waiting six, seven hours for a cancer treatment,” said Sota. “We were changing bandages and garments, helping people bathe – it involved very direct contact with people.”

The clowns all relied on learned techniques and patterns of interacting with people in their daily visits, but in many ways, their responses were spontaneous.

“I learned to look for the person who is hurting the most and go and be with them,” said Sota. “To and find a person who really is hurt. Find something meaningful, look for that spark in the person who has been forgotten.”

The School for Designing a Society (SDaS), the educational wing of Adams’ Geshundheit! Institute, developed the Clowning and Caring program in 2008 as a way to spread Adams’ vision for an alternative society where health care is free, compassionate and holistic. 

“What Patch does is kind of revolutionary in a way,” said Sota. “He’s not theoretical; he’s like, ‘Let’s help people, let’s do it, here’s how you do it. Let’s have the courage to really imagine a different system – one that takes care of each other.’ Not that what we have is horrible, but we can imagine it better, and clowning is such a great way to do it. There’s an overarching theme of empowerment to Patch’s approach, imagining a system that takes care of everyone. The person who’s having surgery is just as important as the person who is doing the surgery.”

Adams’ iconic approach to health care and humanity formed the basis for the daily visits as well as the workshops, and Adams himself was available to the clowns, taking Blackwelder aside on one bus ride and talking to her about clowning techniques and their purpose.

Both Blackwelder and Sota said the experience was transformative. 

“If a person hasn’t gotten to realize that they’re valuable, if no one has acknowledged their personhood for like months, years, decades, and then you do it, that smile and that light, it just really charges you,” said Sota. “I come back and I’m ready; I’m raring to go.” 

Sota hopes the future will bring more opportunities for CCU students, most likely physical theater majors, to participate in this program. 

“With Milla doing it, it kind of gave it some traction; now there will be some interest,” said Sota. “I’m really grateful to the Edwards College for making it possible.”

Read more about Ben Sota and Patch Adams in the Fall 2017/Winter 2018 edition of the CCU magazine.


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