10 years of raising a smile

clowns-3From Saturday 8th – Friday 14th October we have held a series of events and activities to celebrate 10 years of our Clown Doctors Programme in North East hospitals.

Before we started the programme in 2006, there was no Clown Doctor programme in our hospitals and the phrase ‘Clown Doctors’ wasn’t even a phrase I had heard of. A year before in 2005 an associate working with Northern Arts introduced me to the concept and asked whether my organisation would be interested in taking on the creation and implementation of such a programme in the North East of England.

When we, TIN Arts, started to build the programme we knew there was one crucial thing we had to get right – we needed the right people to deliver the programme. We went on the search for experienced artists with lots of theatre experience and an ability to form a natural connection with children and young people. They needed to be able to listen, respond, engage, stimulate and most importantly play. Play is fundamental to our programme. When our Clown Doctors meet children and young people we don’t perform for them or entertain with tricks. Our Clown Doctors are there to play. Play involves imagination and entering a world of endless possibilities. The joy and excitement of not knowing what will happen next as you leap aboard an awfully big adventure! Most of us played when we were young and it is a natural thing to do at an age when you are free of the concerns and ‘rules’ that frame you as an adult.

We found the artists we knew would make the programme work. Eight of them agreed to come with us on a journey to an unknown destination. At the start there were lots of questions and puzzles to unpick. In 2006 there were other Clown Doctor programmes in England and across Europe but we were determined that whatever our programme became, it would be formed and shaped in a way that was ours and unique to us as people and our location, the North East.

Eventually we found ourselves on the wards of the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle (now known as the Great North Children’s Hospital) and we were off! We had ‘practiced’ in the comfort of a rehearsal studio. We had brain-stormed possibilities and scenarios and endless situations. But now our Clown Doctors had reached the point when it was time to lay themselves open and be there for every young person. To play with an open heart and a head full of imagination and possibilities.

Ten years later we continue to play and meet patients on paediatric wards in hospitals in the North East. We now deliver on a regular basis at the Freeman Hospital and at the Great North Children’s Hospital, both in Newcastle. Through the kind support of CHUF and The Children’s Foundation we have been able to meet approximately 31,000 children and young people and deliver over 1000 sessions.

My belief is that the secret to our longevity as a programme is that the majority of our Clown Doctors who were there at the start are still with us. We knew we needed the right people and time has proven that we found them. I am constantly in awe of our Clown Doctors and hold them in the highest esteem. Over the years I have grown to know each of them individually and consider them all very close friends and amazing colleagues.

And people continue to be important. The Play Specialists on the wards who are our biggest supporters and make us feel valued and welcome. When we arrive on ward we receive referrals from the Play Specialists. These referrals are vital to our programme as we work with patients who need our help and would benefit from meeting our Clown Doctors. We don’t entertain. We are there for a reason – to make a difference. The Play Specialists know us intricately and we rely on them to help us reach those who need us most.

Then there are the staff and trustees from The Children’s Foundation and The Children’s Heart Unit Fund who work their magic to find ways to fund the programme and make the case for us. The individuals who undertake endurance challenges and run around the world to raise funds for programmes like ours. The many ‘invisible’ advocates and supporters who constantly share our story with those who will listen helping us to maintain a high profile and find new friends.

The staff at TIN Arts, most notably Nuritza Daghlian, our programme manager, who is extremely passionate about the programme and works tirelessly to make sure it is the best it can be. Before Nuritza there was Clare Andrews who was as equally committed and the legacy of her hard work in those early years lives on through the programme.

As the celebrations and events have taken place this week it has given me time to reflect on our journey. We are still unsure of our destination but we are more sure of the vehicle in which we ride. Maybe we could call it our ‘caravan of smiles’. Maybe it’s a space rocket, constantly zooming off into space to see the stars and to discover new worlds. Whatever vehicle it is there are many people on board and more keep joining.

One key thing I have learnt is that our programme is something we do with people, not to them. Our ‘Clown Doctor family’ has grown. So many people have worked extremely hard to make the programme what it is today and we are truly grateful to each and everyone who has joined us on our journey.

So we move onwards. Looking forward to another ten years of play. A journey into unknown worlds and endless possibilities. We can be sure there will be joy, laughter,  sadness and tears. And there will be Clown Doctors.


Martin Wilson


TIN Arts