Clowning the way to change: how one Lebanese woman is using laughter to tackle social issues

'People don’t come and get really depressed. They laugh, but then they listen to some really hard stories,' says Sabine Choucair

Sabine Choucair raises the little boy's arm in the air, sniffing theatrically at his armpit and pantomiming disgust. She turns to the man standing next to her, who passes her a large plastic flower. With a flourish, she tugs on the stem to reveal a toilet brush hidden in the base. She holds it aloft, showing it to the crowd, before diving towards the boy, pretending to use the brush to scrub under his arm. The child twists away, laughing hysterically.

It's a humid August evening and Horsh Beirut, Lebanon's largest public park, is bathed in golden light. At one side of a clearing, in front of a large bush covered with yellow blossoms, Choucair and her fellow clowns perform for a group of wide-eyed children. Over the course of an hour, they tackle subjects such as littering, recycling and personal hygiene, using mime and slapstick.

Celebrating the Rights of Children, a performance in collaboration with local NGO Mouvement Social, which works with underprivileged youth, is free and open to all. After the clown show, children spend the rest of the evening painting pictures of their dream homes, learning to hula hoop and performing a story. The sound of high-pitched laughter ripples out across the park.

Working on bringing clowning to Lebanon

Choucair has spent the past decade working to establish clowning in Lebanon, using the art form to educate, entertain and achieve social justice. Whether she's working with refugees, impoverished families, children with mental or physical disabilities or random passers-by on the streets, she says she believes laughter is the most powerful tool to bolster hope and create change.

“With clowns you always laugh, and laughter is very beneficial in terms of letting people relax and accept whatever is coming their way,” she says. “And then hope, because clowns fall, they stand up and try again, and there is always hope in whatever we do.”

Choucair fell in love with clowning when she was at university in London, studying physical theatre. When she returned to Lebanon in 2008 and began working as a clown, nobody understood what she was trying to do – people kept suggesting she perform at children's birthday parties. Instead, she travelled to Mexico where, together with a friend, she launched Clown Me In, a charity that uses clowning to promote social justice in marginalised communities. After touring Mexico, Brazil and India, Choucair returned to Lebanon to establish Clown Me In in her homeland.

She began giving clowning workshops, teaching other adults how to use humour to communicate important messages. In 2011, the group decided to take their work on to the streets for the first time, staging a spontaneous performance about littering.

"It was super fun. People laughed so much, they loved it," she recalls. "We weren't nasty, obviously, because we're gentle clowns and we do everything with laughter, but we were very straight to the point when we saw people throwing things and they took it in a very positive way. This is when I started being like, 'OK, maybe we should do more of this on the streets.'"

Using laughter to promote change

Since then, Clown Me In has become a fixture in Lebanon. Working with the original group of students, all trained by Choucair herself, she travels across the country staging performances. Choucair's approach combines storytelling and clowning with social therapy to stimulate discussion, empower communities and promote positive change.

In 2015, she spent three months in Syrian refugee settlements across Lebanon, recording the stories of refugees and of people from the Lebanese host community. Using their experiences and voices to create an audio track, she held auditions for refugees who wanted to perform, spending a further three months training her cast. The resulting performance, Caravan, toured all over Lebanon and Sweden, helping to stimulate discussion and build bridges. "People in Lebanon, when they heard the stories, somehow they also heard their own stories from the Lebanese war, so the conversations that this performance struck up were very productive and constructive," she says.

Projects with Unicef Lebanon followed, focusing on children's rights, including the right to education. Van 12, which will begin touring again next month, is based on the stories of children who've been sent out to work on the streets or in shops and factories. It is performed around a minivan, allowing the clowns to act in front of and even on top of a movable set.

Clowning also allows the performers to explore difficult subjects with humour, creating the bittersweet atmosphere that often characterises the art form. "Some of the stories are sad, but the style is always using clowning and bouffon and physical theatre, so it's fun," says Choucair. "People don't come and get really depressed. They laugh, but then they listen to some really hard stories."

She says the light-hearted performances help children who have seen the effects of war to cope with their experiences. "We have this super famous clown routine that we do, which is the dead / alive routine, where a clown dies and it's really a powerful scene where kids die of laughter," she says. "You go to conflict zones or to kids who are traumatised from war and they love the scene … it's like taking their real life and putting it in a fun way."

Passing her knowledge onto a new generation 

At Horsh Beirut, the children scream with laughter as the supposedly dead clown slaps a fellow performer on the cheek. As the performance progresses, the children are joined by nannies, parents and even grandparents, who gather round to watch. Choucair says this is typical and helps to counter the idea that clowning is for children. "We take into account that there's going to be a lot of adults," she says.

"So we make sure to have things for all ages, especially when we perform on the streets."

Shows can be held in parks, on the street or at places such as Souq Al Ahad, a popular Sunday market in Beirut that attracts a diverse crowd.

Choucair says the group always aim to reach as diverse an audience as possible. "When we do a project, we ask mosques and churches to use their microphones to reach the whole town."

<span>We</span><span> have been working on the environment and how we all have the right to live in a clean space for five years now. Nothing has changed, but … w</span><span>e're still trying.</span>

Now she says she hopes to pass on her knowledge of how to use humour to work with marginalised communities and promote social justice to a new generation of clowns. The region's first clown school, the Institute for Very Very Serious Studies, will be launched in Beirut next month. The first 12 students – who hail from Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – will study participatory art, social therapy, clowning, mask work, bouffon technique, puppetry, physical theatre and storytelling. Their work will culminate in a project working with communities in Lebanon to create performances based on people's personal stories.

Increasingly, Clown Me In's street interventions tackle serious social and political issues, such as taxes, electricity and water shortages, and environmental issues. The next step is to complement performances that encourage the public to recycle, reuse and reduce their waste with campaigns targeting policymakers, who can bring about top-down change.

Choucair says existing plans include a "trashion show", in which the clowns will collaborate with designers to create dresses and suits out of rubbish. The clowns will wear those outfits and perform in front of government buildings and the headquarters of companies with poor environmental records.

Choucair says she is optimistic that her quiet revolution will have long-term impact. "We have been working on the environment and how we all have the right to live in a clean space for five years now. Nothing has changed, but …" she says, breaking off with a peal of laughter. "We're still trying."