Medical clowns making their mark at USC

Zachary Steel and Caitlyn Conlin stand at attention during a recent session as “medical clown practitioners” at USC Norris Cancer Hospital and Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center.

To many, the term “clowning” may not invoke more than an image of childhood birthday party entertainment. However, recent studies show that there is more to clowning than what initially meets the eye. Over the past three decades, a new form of drama therapy called Medical Clowning has risen in children’s hospitals around the globe. Programs like Doutores da Alegria in Brazil and Dream Doctors in Israel kickstarted the rapid rise of Clown Care in 1991 and 2002, respectively.

Zachary Steel, professor at the USC School of Dramatic Arts and former teacher at The Clown School in Los Angeles, witnessed the healing powers of laughter firsthand when studying medical clowning in Israel.

“There’s a depth to which a clown can be effective in a hospital setting beyond an entertainment factor,” Steel said. “It’s a form of empowerment, an avenue for a patient to escape the isolation of post-trauma.”

For the past few months, Steel has been spending weekly shifts in full gear as a “medical clown practitioner” at USC Norris Cancer Hospital and Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center, entertaining patients and providing vital support to hospital staff. He recalled an incident when he and assistant Caitlyn Conlin sang with a nine-year-old girl, distracting her while nurses treated her.

“It is a nice reminder that amidst all the horror and all the wicked problems of the world, that there is still so much love and magic,” he said.

In light of the practice’s newfound popularity, Steel and David Bridel, dean of the USC School of Dramatic Arts, set out on a quest to bring medical clowning to the USC community by co-creating an undergraduate class in the School designed to train individuals in therapeutic medical clowning, thanks to a generous seed gift from the Albert & Bessie Warner Fund.

The School of Dramatic Arts program will be segmented into three classes. The first class, “Intro to Medical Clowning,” opened to all USC undergraduates in the fall of 2016 and focuses on basic clowning techniques. “Advanced Medical Clowning” will delve into the intricacies of patient-clown interaction and after completing the two courses, successful students can intern at select hospitals during the summer. In the future, Steel hopes to expand the newly released program into an emphasis for School of Dramatic Arts undergraduates and ultimately create a progressive degree track.

A version of this article appeared in the Trojan Health Connection.