Sunday, November 13, 2011

Guest Post: Karen Gersch — Notes on Performing with Le Rire Médecin

Steffi, Karen and Philippe
[post 211]

Karen Gersch is no stranger to these pages, having favored us with her art work in three previous guest posts (
here, here, and here). This time around, Karen writes movingly about a return visit to hospital clowning while in Paris.  [Click here for a new book on the Nez Rouges.]


In 1991, Caroline Simonds founded Le Rire Médecin, an association of clowns that performs neither in circuses nor in theatres but in pediatric wards in France. Today, the association employs 85 specially trained clowns and operates in 37 pediatric wards in 14 hospitals throughout Paris, Ile-de-France, Orléans, Marseille, Nantes, Tours, and Nancy.  They are considered a world-wide model for hospiclown projects, and take part in the launching, training and development of new groups in other countries.

I have always held Le Rire's clowns in great esteem for their emotional eloquence and non-reliance on gags, jokes and props to connect with their audience. What an honor — Caroline's invite — to come clown for a day. It had been years since I'd clowned in hospitals; not since the death of my longtime New York partner, Jonah Emsig and the demise of the CCU (Clown Care Unit) program's respect for its senior artists. It was even more welcomed when I heard I'd be working with two performers I've long admired: Steffi Liesenfeld and Philippe Aymard.

Many years ago, Steffi came to NY via the then-thriving hospital clown exchange program.  Paired with two very brash CCU clowns, she showed me footage taken during work that day. Despite the boorish shackles of her partners, she remained luminously connected to them. Her humble sensitivity and serenity impressed me.  She embodied clown, they broadcast ego.

I remember Philippe's arrival in Manhattan;  he was overcome in the streets, weeping and laughing at the sight of the twin towers. The next day, my longtime friend Guto Vasconcelos (a clown with Cirque du Soleil's Dralion) called and begged me to find him a replacement partner, "someone smaller than me; a strong clown with both a humane and impish side.” (Kismet on a platter!)

That night I invited both Guto and Philippe to the opening of an art exhibit I'd curated at the Waterfront Museum. (It featured physical performers who were also visual artists — among them, Michael Moschen, Philippe Petit and Jacques Lecoq, whose drawings were sent posthumously by his wife.) My two clown invitees arrived, were introduced, and were inseparable for the night. It launched Philippe's six-year involvement with Dralion as Guto's partner. Today marked his first day back in a hospital, too.

Steffi drove us in the light snow and heavy traffic to Louis Mourier, a hospital I had last worked in with Serge and Lory at least thirteen years ago. Dressed and rouged, we admired ourselves in the narrow mirror, ruffling each other for the better view. The roles fell into place without speech; Steffi locked the changing room door as Philippe and I rudely lifted her coat tails.  She swirled and glared us into dumb submission. She's a brilliant white, Steffi.  Calmly controlling, sternly reproaching, yet capable of stumbling backwards from time to time into a clueless Auguste.      

Here, then, are several highlights of trooping as a trio through Mourier:

Steffi cannot find us. With my see-through juggling scarves veiling our heads, we pose like frozen statues – me, Philippe & the 13-year-old Arab boy who has joined our escapades, abandoning his laptop and hospital bed. Philippe has pronounced us as "Les Trois Nuages."

Steffi, in ernest pursuit, is shadowed by four other children and a mother with toddler in arms.  They approach us and Steffi laments that we have simply disappeared. She turns 360 just in front of us, exclaiming "there are only clouds here – where could they have gone?"

The Pediatric Ward. The friendly nurses are prepping us; Steffi and Philippe write studiously. Directly behind me, a baby is wailing in pure desolation. Loud painful caws that have me trembling to get up and go there alone. As soon as notes are done, Steffi and I wash our hands and head straight to her crib. She is seven weeks old; her tiny fists and face curled in rage. We stroke and sing gibberish to her softly till gradually, the howls subside. Her eyes close, she seems to be asleep.  Steffi and I smile and turn away. Almost out the door when the wails begin again, even louder. The whole routine is repeated twice more. We ask a passing nurse if the baby is really okay or needing something.

"Dat baby's fine. She just wants to be held all the time."
I sigh, thinking: seven weeks old, no mother in sight, it's not unreasonable.

After rounds throughout the floor, switching partners now and then, Steffi and I are drawn back to that howling infant. I offer my finger, which she clamps onto, while Steffi gently strokes her head. We begin to hum a wordless tune; Philippe soon sidles in and joins us, as a lullaby no composer would want to claim is created. This time we stay in place; three hands caressing and assuring, until our voices match the quietude of her breath. Her face is less red, her limbs loose in repose. As one, with our eyes whispering, we back off and tiptoe backwards out the door. At last, she remains blissfully asleep and we leave beaming.

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