Some folks seem to like us
Healing heroes Prescription Joy clowns take laughter to young patients
BY KIM SINGLETARY | Contributing writer
JUL 12, 2019 - 7:15 AM
Some heroes wear capes. Others are ultra-absorbent.
Introducing New Orleans’ newest action heroes — the savvy Spray Bottle, grouchy Uncle Sponge and mighty Detergent — stars of "Clean Squad: An Antiseptic Adventure," the first original scripted work by New Orleans’ first and only healthcare clowning organization, Prescription Joy.
The story of the Clean Squad’s battle against the evil Germ is designed to delight the young patients, families and staff of Children’s Hospital and Ochsner Hospital for Children, as well as the young families of the New Orleans Women and Children’s Shelter, but there also will be two public performances: Friday, July 19, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, July 20, at 2 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal School. Both offer pay-what-you-will tickets, with proceeds benefiting Prescription Joy.
Co-founded by Becca Chapman and Alex Smith, Prescription Joy has been raising spirits since 2017. Armed with a wacky mustache, plunger and a rubber chicken, Smith (a.k.a. Joe) and Chapman (a.k.a. Goe, or “Joe with a G”) roam the hospitals as clowning janitors who leave in their wake something much more precious than clean floors.
“There is nothing better than watching a child whose life has been turned upside down giggle, laugh, let alone smile for the first time in weeks,” said Dr. Joyce Varghese, D.O., senior pediatric critical care staff at Ochsner Hospital for Children in an endorsement for Prescription Joy.
For Chapman, who teaches at Trinity Episcopal, and Smith, the technical director at Southern Rep Theatre, clowning around at hospitals is a calling that offers real medical benefits — which they say are gaining more and more attention nationwide.
“In Europe, medical clowning has been a well-respected approach to healing for many years, and in the U.S. it’s really spreading,” she said.
The North American Federation of Healthcare Clowning was formed in 2018. Among the hospitals that have bought into this therapeutic approach are Johns Hopkins Hospital, which has a Clown Care Team, and Boston Children’s Hospital, which has a Laughter League.
“We actually had the executive director of the Medical Clown Project in San Francisco come down and train us,” Chapman said.
Performances by Prescription Joy begin as soon as the duo hits the lobby, and can range from helping a young patient in physical therapy work on sitting up again by pretending with them that they’re on a roller coaster, to blowing bubbles over patients’ heads, to just sitting and chatting with them or their families about anything other than medical things.
“We come in and we’re these silly, slightly otherworldly characters that are not there to give shots or draw blood,” Smith said. “We’re there to see the healthy part of the patient, to make a human connection through laughter, to meet new friends. We change the energy of the room, and that change lasts long after we leave.”
Currently, Prescription Joy visits the hospitals twice a month, but the hope is to increase their visits by increasing donations to the nonprofit, in part by opening up their new play to the public.
“It’s a fun, silly show done in the call-and-response theater style,” Chapman said. “It’s our little way of making theater more accessible to the community.”
In doing so, the goal is also to make clowning more accessible to local hospitals.
“Laughter is a proven healer,” said Smith, who added that Prescription Joy aims to see every hospital in New Orleans have a pair of clowns that visit every week. “It will happen. We’ll get there.”
Becca Chapman shows that laughter truly is the best medicine
Updated May 16; Posted May 16
Becca Chapman and Alex Smith have partnered to create Prescription Joy, a nonprofit committed to connecting patients, families and medical personnel through their work as medical clowns.
Whether its show business or funny business, award-winning performer and St. Bernard native Becca Chapman is a true talent. Recently, Chapman won her second career Big Easy Award for her portrayal as Esme in NOLA Project's original play "Spider Queen."
But it is her work in the field of medical clowning that has been truly transformative.
Chapman, 31, recently partnered with friend and fellow clown, Alex Smith, to create Prescription Joy, a nonprofit organization committed to healing through humor. Chapman said this art form connects patients, families and medical personnel.
"It uses interactive play to help empower patients and transform the energy in the room," Chapman said.
She said people often misunderstand the artistry behind clowning.
"It is actually one of the highest and most challenging art forms," she said. "It is about truly being present with an audience and committing to your own naivety. It is being completely vulnerable."
Chapman has always been an avid performer and said she enjoys connecting with an audience, uniting them through storytelling.
"I also love rehearsing every night with giving performers and taking risks," she said. "We all have these stories and characters in us. When we challenge ourselves and play outside of what we know, we learn our true capacity and it helps us be empathetic towards others that we imagine are far different from us."
It is this passion for connection and exploration that led her to clowning. A fourth-grade teacher at Trinity Episcopal School in New Orleans, Chapman said she used several of her summer vacations to immerse herself in training.
"I trained in physical theatre for a summer at Dell'Arte International in Blue Lake, California, and I discovered my first clown at Pig Iron Theatre in Philadelphia," she said.
Last summer, she trained in theatrical clowning with Giovanni Fusetti in Boulder, Colorado -- an experience she said that changed her life.
This summer Chapman will be part of a Commedia training program in Italy under the direction of Antonio Fava, an internationally renowned teacher and performer. Chapman said she will used this experience and training to grow the reach of her nonprofit.
Becca Chapman, a St. Bernard resident, was honored as Best Actress at the Big Easy Awards.
"Eventually, we want Prescription Joy to be able to hire and manage performers that go to every hospital in the city," she said. "Medical clowning should be a part of our daily healthcare. And with a city of performers that love their community and a city that has festivals and characters like New Orleans, there is no reason why we can't do it."
Like all teachers and performers know too well, commitment isn't enough.
"We need help in funding," Chapman said. "Donations, sponsorships and grants, as well as help in spreading word."
Chapman credits Dave Dessens, one of her first directors, for her passion for performance.
"My first real professional play was 'Twelfth Night,' and I was just a little maid in the background," she recalled. "Dave made me feel so important and nurtured me while giving me extra creative freedom. I learned how a small role could be filled with silent comic timing!"
This flair for comic creativity has served Chapman well throughout her professional career. She also thanked her theater teacher at Nunez Community College, Nick Slie, for his influence.
"I learned an approach to theatre that was not in regular high school classes," she said. "Working with Nick laid the foundation for my core values as an artist. Taking his class at Nunez, as well as my experience performing in my St. Bernard community, is what made me decide to major in theatre in college."
Chapman said learning the language of the nonprofit world has been challenging, but she looks forward to building Prescription Joy.
"We want a strong foundation, so we can grow steadily and consistently since a tree without roots will fall," she said.
Future plans include visiting hospitals to interact and entertain the children who are there long term.
"We will work with them in crafting and writing their own plays over a few visits, and eventually have the work performed or showcased for hospitals' patients, for hospital fundraisers, and for other events," Chapman said. "We want to be characters that act in the hospital space, welcoming patients to an environment of support and humor when people need it most."
For information about the program or to donate, visit www.prescriptionjoy.org.