Alhamdulillah. we were featured in The STAR today.
Clowning for health
By ALLAN KOAY
If you see a man with a red nose and an infectious smile in the hospital, he is probably Iskandar Syah Ismail, a clown dedicated to cheering up sick children. Clowning is far more than just a circus act.
WITH the care of a surgeon, Iskandar Syah Ismail folds the edges of a piece of cigarette paper, then holds the folded paper between his index and middle fingers. Then he turns his body and the paper not only sticks to his middle finger but spins.
Voila! A “finger propeller.” It looks rather magical and is a lot of fun to try too, but certainly not easy to do. Yet it’s easy to see how children would respond to such fun antics, especially from a guy with a bulbous red nose and an infectious smile.
Iskandar is a clown, but not just any clown. He is, in fact, a hospital clown who is dedicated to entertaining sick children in hospitals. The finger propeller is just one of the many tricks he learned in his years of study to perfect his act. Iskandar, a senior executive with the National Cancer Council (Makna), has been into hospital clowning since 2002, and back then he was completely self-taught.
“I used to visit the children in the hospitals who were cancer patients,” says the 30-year-old. “I realised they live in an environment that is scary and boring. I tried to find ways to entertain them, and I did my own research into how to address the issue. At first I was interested in the concept of using art in health, such as murals. But I realised it's not interactive.”
As he went along, he discovered the concept of clown doctors, how the Big Apple Circus in New York has its own clown care unit with performers wearing doctor's uniforms and red noses.
“But they are not doctors,” says Iskandar. “They're just there to entertain the children. From there I began to get to know more. I knew if I wanted to do it, I would have to learn how to be a clown.”
At a hospital in Laos, where he went as a volunteer worker, he learned the valuable lesson that clowning was a universal language that broke down all barriers.
“The American doctors there told me they had these kids from the mountains,” Iskandar explains. “Since the kids didn't even speak Laotian, the doctors didn't know how to cheer them up. My first clown costume consisted of a red nose that I got from a friend in Malaysia, a skullcap with polka dots, and shoes with stickers. And that was my first time clowning. But it was fun.”
In 2003, he went to the University of Wisconsin in the US to study the concept of caring clowns. He attended the one-week clown camp, learned how to use props and mingled with those who had done hospital clowning.
It was there that he discovered his clown persona, Dr Bubbles, because he loved to play with bubbles when he was clowning. But he quickly realised that if he relied solely on props, he would very soon run out of ideas. He decided to delve even deeper into the art of clowning.
“After 2003, I went to the US again to study theatre clowning with Avner Eisenberg,” he reveals. “He's one of the master clowns and teachers of physical comedy. So I enrolled myself in his course called Eccentric Performing at the Celebration Barn theatre. I went there under the Ministry of Arts and Heritage grant and also Makna. I was there for two weeks, and that was the first time I performed in front of people.”
At the end of the course, the participants had to present their act in front of a paying audience. Dr Bubbles’ act involved trying to eat a peanut butter sandwich, which had fallen to the floor, without getting off his stool.
“Avner taught us that clowning is not about being funny,” Iskandar explains. “Instead, we have to focus on what we're doing. If we face a problem on stage, we focus on that problem. But the process of overcoming that problem is what makes the audience laugh. In fact, when the audience laugh, it is also an interruption that you have to deal with.”
In fact, he was so focused on his performance that he did not realise the audience was laughing, until people told him about it after the show. Clowning is not about making balloons, funny faces or falling down, he says. It is about interacting with the audience in an honest way. He says to get on stage, a clown has to even ask for the audience’s permission, what is known as “seeking complicity with the audience.” What he learned is theatre clowning, which does not necessarily require make-up.
“People will know you're a clown just by the way you behave and react,” he says. “For example, why do people love Mr Bean even when he doesn't wear make-up? And there are clowns who wear make-up but are not funny!”
But hospital clowning is very demanding, he says. One needs a big heart to do it because one is dealing with sick children.
“There are some very good clowns out there who lack the courage when it comes to hospital clowning,” says Iskandar. “And it is very difficult to work in a hospital because the environment is different and you're interacting with sick children. You will definitely be affected. You need a lot of courage to do it.
“One of the concepts that we learned in hospital clowning is that you have to be in the moment. You have to put your problems aside. You only return to the real world after the performance.”
Iskandar is a qualified chemical engineer but has never worked in that field. He has always been involved in volunteer work with NGOs.
Asked what it is he finds most rewarding about hospital clowning, Iskandar’s answer is obvious: “To see the children smile. You never get tired of it.”