Jajuan Alcorn slumped down in his bed at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, where he was undergoing kidney dialysis for the third time in a week. Jajuan, 15, of Oakland, had an unexpected visitor, who swept in carrying an umbrella decorated with a forested landscape that became the backdrop for a much-needed escapist fantasy.
Within moments, the visitor — Alina Ashbal, a puppeteer from Jerusalem, whose entourage included a television camera crew — had Jajuan’s full attention. Captivated, he smiled. She smiled. The magic began.
“I don’t use humor when I work,” Ashbal said later. “I use enchantment.”
Ashbal, 63, has worked as a performing and visual artist since 1981. In 2000, she developed a special program for one-on-one interactive performances for hospitalized children. Ashbal was in San Francisco last week, a guest of the Consulate General of Israel here and in Boston. Traveling with Ashbal was Vally Kulas, 42, who has a background in theater and medical clowning and lives in Maccabim, 20 minutes from Jerusalem.
“Vally and Alina are leaders in their field in Israel, and this is their first time here,” said Michal Shoham, executive assistant to the consul. “Israel has a lot to share with the United States in this field, as medical clowning is more advanced there.” (Two years ago, the University of Haifa began offering a degree program in medical clowning.)
While in the Bay Area and Boston, Kulas and Ashbal visited medical centers (including Stanford Hospital), schools for students with special needs and homeless shelters. They met with teachers and hospital staff. And they led workshops for therapeutic clowns. “They all are learning from each other,” Shoham said.
Twenty years ago, Kulas began working as a medical clown. For the past 10 years, she has taught the Gelology Model, a program she developed, to doctors and nurses.
“In Latin, ‘gelology’ means the science of humor,” Kulas said. “We use humor to help people deal with the unwanted reality of illness, to help them get in touch with the healthy parts and find the power to deal with sickness.”
Just before coming to the U.S., Kulas attended an international conference on medicine and medical clowning, held Oct. 23 to 26 in Jerusalem. Israel’s Dream Doctors (all medical clowns) sponsored the conference, which drew more than 250 therapeutic clowns from 22 countries. “At least 10 doctors presented research showing how important this work is,” Kulas said. She estimated that about 100 medical clowns work throughout Israel, in almost every hospital.
Therapeutic clowns are part of the treatment at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, as well. Working with a local nonprofit called ClownZero, the hospital embraces the therapeutic benefits of humor.
“We can’t prevent illness, but our 12 child-life specialists do try to prevent trauma, to soften the experience in children with illnesses,” said Michael Towne, director of Child Life Services. “Then along come the artists, the clowns and the puppeteers to help children here create positive experiences. Humor is very therapeutic — and it works on multiple levels.”
ClownZero (www.clownzero.org) operates the Healing Through Humor program at the hospital, with 10 volunteer clowns making visits twice a week. Danielle Conover (aka Nurse Bumble) and Dan Griffiths (aka Dr. Schnozensoop) founded ClownZero two years ago. Along with other therapeutic clowns from the group, Conover and Griffiths were scheduled to attend workshops conducted by Ashbal and Kulas at the Clown Conservatory, offered at Circus Center in San Francisco.
Griffiths said as people rediscover the value of art in their daily lives, the concept of using humor to heal is on the rise.
Conover, who removed her red nose for the conversation, added, “When a clown comes in the room, something is elevated. At that moment, we can imagine the world as different, let go of whatever we are holding on to.”
Kulas noted that letting go seems particularly important in Israel. “Maybe because of the wars and all the traumatized children, Israel had no other choice but to look for other therapeutic options,” she said. “We go to hospitals, but we also go to shelters and we work with soldiers. We show it’s not all about war.”
After Ashbal’s time with Jajuan, who pronounced meeting her as a “fun, cool and artistic” experience, she reflected as she packed her equipment. “I have created many performance styles, for many large audiences. At some point I wanted to use my experience, my talents and my skills to work with one child at a time.”
Ashbal paused. “This work is something deeper, something not in the language of normal and intimate communication — and it is a very precious part of my life.”