Russia, too, pulled me. Thirty years before, I studied Russian intensively at the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies in California. The language had revealed the passions, complexities, and nuances of a culture of extremes, a land of indulgence and poverty, serfs and tsars, intense music and 20 ways to say the verb “to go.” Finally, that investment would bear fruit.
For one month, my life went WOOSHH! with preparations. Eagerly, I set about resurrecting Russian words, phrases and songs buried under years of disuse. Clowns practically fell from the sky to help me learn skills I’d never imagined being part of my repertoire–making brooms stand on end, balancing a broom on my chin, and making balls and quarters vanish. I read how there are three styles of clowns: the white face, or classic “straight” type, the Auguste, the bumbler, and the character, of which Charlie Chaplin is an example.
One clown taught me how to twist balloon animals–an art I have yet to master since I can’t blow up the bloody things. He also taught me the essentials of applying grease paint and powder by making up my face in Auguste style. What an amazing transformation! I was astonished to see myself looking so … well, like a clown. Creating a clown face, I found, can be a long and painstaking process, and I, who avoid even wearing foundation, wondered if my impatience would doom my efforts.
To discover my clown character I experimented with different movements, walking gaits, and wearing various hats. When I donned a puffy cap with a wide bill, I found myself dancing and kicking up my feet as I swept the kitchen floor or chopped vegetables. I also haunted thrift shops collecting a hodgepodge of clothing. Finally, I put on my assembled treasures: the fuchsia-red wig with corkscrew curls; the black cap and T-shirt; red, baggy pants inscribed in neon yellow and chartreuse with BAM! WOW! ZAP! BOOM!, and three-tone, red white and black shoes. I was stunned. The costume had created itself. My emerging character was a kind of urchin/teenager. She didn’t reveal her name, but I was sure she would when she was ready.
The airport was crowded on Halloween, appropriately, my debut day as a clown. I’d expected discomfort, moving as a solitary clown through Portland, Oregon airport and flying on the shuttle to Seattle. Instead, I delighted in being the cause of smiles spreading across stranger’s faces. Children, flight attendants, coffee makers waved. Relieved, I gaily waved back. Joining five more clowns in Seattle made it even easier and more fun. On the plane, the crew and passengers all asked questions and were captivated by our story. And, thanks to a security lady in Portland Airport, my character now had a name: “Rosie.”
Ten hours later, in Copenhagen Airport, we tripped into the waiting area and immediately spotted the twenty members of our group who had already arrived from New York. Patch Adams, our leader, stood out. An imposing man, taller than everyone, with a long, grey pony tail, he wore bright paisley pantaloons hitched up to his thighs, revealing spindly, hairy legs rising from mismatched socks and huge clown feet.
With much hubbub, we rose, a multi-colored wave, and surged along airport corridors, pushing baggage carts, blowing kazoos, bobbing balloons, honking horns, dancing, waving, hugging children, and mimicking the gaits of other travelers hurrying beside us. Would I ever again be content to walk through an airport as an ordinary person?
On arrival in Moscow, 25 clowns from four countries spilled into Sheremyetovo Airport’s single, echoing corridor. It was difficult to see in the dim light. The ceiling was composed of hundreds of dark bronze canisters–maybe recycled missile casings? From a few canisters, beams flickered from pale bulbs. We changed money, fifty dollars US becoming a wad of 225,0000 rubles. For 4,500 rubles–one dollar–we rented rusty, dented carts and leaned or rode around on them as we waited for twin baggage carousels to spit out ten bags every 20 minutes or so.
Patch and other seasoned members of our troupe dived right into the business of clowning–pirouetting and unicycling around the dark cement hall, offering rubber chickens to giggling cleaning ladies, and dancing with dust mops. Clerks smiled shyly from behind their counters. Soldiers stood erect while smiles twitched the corners of their mouths. Some people remained steadfastly stern.
Patch’s clown character is a doddering two year old who blinks, stutters and shuffles about in crazily designed pantaloons and a multi-colored jacket. A green and yellow duck-crested felt hat ties under his chin tops off the outfit. He has a gigantic red nose, carries a rubber fish which he offers to passers-by, and around his neck dangles what must be the world’s largest pacifier.
In the arrival area, we were greeted and hugged by Russians, children and adults, who had waited all year for the return of Patch and the clowns. Some had traveled from as far as Siberia to be with the tour. Like us, they wore costumes, bravely standing out in the drably-clad crowd.
It was dark before we were finally deposited at the Ismailova Hotel on the outskirts of the city. Built in 1980 for the Olympics, it is a monstrous concrete complex with four identical towers, A, B, C and D. Within a half-hour of checking in, freshly costumed and made up, we met in Restaurant “D” for our first Whoop-Tee-Do Gala Dinner where we met Russian clowns and supporters. Warmly welcomed with food, many rounds of vodka, and mixed languages, we stepped squarely on stage and this was only the beginning.
Maria and the orphans
In Moscow an extraordinary woman and a special group of children became part of our clown troupe. Every day Maria, her husband, Ilya, and four children drove an hour from their flat to join us clowning. In the orphanages and hospitals, at the hotel dinners, on the bus, there was Maria, fully costumed in colorful jacket and baggy pants–the backside of which was expanded by twin balloons for performing–a serene smile on her pale face, surrounded by clusters of children, and holding her two-month-old baby at her breast. Nearby was Ilya who, when Maria wasn’t holding the baby, cradled her in a chest harness, gently caressing and rocking her amidst the chaos of clowns and children.
Maria runs a studio where she brings a dozen orphans, aged 10 to 13, to draw and paint. She embraces them as her own, including them in her family and taking charge of them on outings. The day we visited the orphanage, we inhaled its putrid smell, saw the bare, army-green walls, the plain rooms, the carpetless floors, and how all the children clung to us.
Each clown had his or her own way of connecting with the children. Melanie, a doctor from Maine, juggled. Laura, from a small town in Massachusetts, undulated. Rocky from Ireland, in a wild-haired wig and doctor’s white coat, walked into doors or atop chairs and tables brandishing a stethoscope. Others painted faces of patients and staff and flourished balloon animals. Gina, from San Francisco, carried a pad of paper and paints and left each child with a picture.
I made a game of practicing Russian through the persona of a rabbit puppet. The children loved correcting my Russian and giggled over my inept pronunciation. Eleven-year old Denis (pronounced Denees), with sparkling eyes and red hair, had a natural talent for teaching. He patiently pronounced, wrote down, or repeated words, guessing what I was trying to say, clapping his hands and laughing gleefully when I finally got a new phrase or understood his miming.
The following day, Denis and the eleven other orphans, dressed in home-made clown costumes and with painted faces, accompanied us on our hospital visits. In the cancer wards, we met children who were often bald, many with face masks covering their mouths. Despite their shyness, they were mightily intrigued by our colorful brigade. When it was time to leave, moist-eyed parents reached out to us, saying over and over, “Spaseeba. Spaseeba.” Thank you. Thank you.
Throughout the day, the orphans were bright-eyed and well-behaved. Sponging up affection, they clustered around each clown, beaming up as they hung around our necks, clinging and clutching our hands. Whenever Patch sat still, he wound up cradling a flock of children, quietly content to snuggle into his big lap and the circle of his wide arms.
Not one orphan seized or begged for the treasures we carried for giving away. Instead, Denis and the others eagerly offered to distribute toys to the sick children. Once a clown gave Denis three pins for himself. Beaming, he pinned one on his shirt and promptly turned to pin the other two on me. On the day we said goodbye, he presented me with a plastic sports medal–very likely one of his only treasures.
Like the other children who Maria mothers, Denis is bright and clever, capable of growing up to do almost any kind of work. But he probably won’t have the chance. Almost no funds are allotted for educating Russia’s orphans. In crowded orphanages, children are commonly classified as retarded, so the state can house them in mental institutions. By the time they leave the orphanage at 15 or 16, they’ll have received a minimal education and no training. Denis and the other children will be allotted rooms in unsavory areas amidst hostile neighbors, and expected to survive somehow. Many, in the course of their stay at the orphanage, will have been sexually abused as well as beaten, and at this point they have few options but to become prostitutes or thieves.
One evening Maria and Ilya invited the clowns to dinner. Our troupe filed up the dark cement stairs to the second-story flat. Savory smells issued from a cramped kitchen where Ilya hovered over a tiny gas stove cooking pelmeni, a kind of Russian ravioli. Four Russian women bent over a small table, grating carrots and beets and stuffing eggs. We took turns squeezing in at the table helping out, then rotated ourselves around the crowded living room on laps, cushions, couch backs and chair arms, while the spill-over chattered and leaned on the twin bunk beds in the one other room.
Here, for the first time we ate food that was spicy and savory. And we saw color. In our bussing across Moscow’s endless cement suburbs, we most noticed the monotony. Birches stood winter-bare. Concrete apartment blocks displayed no hue beyond the uniform tan or gray. Not a banner or curtain, not a window trim, plant or door knocker distinguished one building from another. Even the stop signs were gray and black, and postal signs were so nondescript as to be invisible. Only as we passed monasteries and churches or drove through the old, central district, did we catch grainy glimpses of gray-shrouded buildings hinting at the Russia of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy–structures with onion domes, vaulted roofs and gingerbread facades.
In Maria’s flat, two murals were tacked on the walls. Magical landscapes sparkled in greens and blues, fuchsias, reds and yellows. Whimsical buildings with golden spires and onion domes rose amidst fields of flowers and butterflies. Rainbows arced, rivers curled and figures danced. The murals seemed to say: See! Color blooms in the hearts of the Russian people. The orphans had painted the murals.
One clown decided to buy a mural and take it home to Portland, Maine. I bought one to bring back to Portland, Oregon. From that small start, Project for a Perfect World was born. Through showing ours and other murals and selling card reproductions the clowns are sharing the story of how one woman is nurturing the hearts and spirits of Russia’s orphans.
The old people
On the afternoon we visited the Moscow soup kitchen, we sloshed along slush-filled back streets, at last arriving at an obscure doorway in a dingy building. Filing inside, we trooped down a dark, narrow corridor and burst into a shabby room where 30 or so old people sat at dining tables.
We surged like frothy waves among the tables. Laughter and chaos erupted as we carried on with all manner of silliness, manipulating puppets, bouncing balloons and placing giant spectacles and crazy hats on grizzled heads. My stock Russian phrases–“How are you? What is your name? Very glad to meet you. I speak Russian poorly.”–were enthusiastically welcomed. Eyes sparkling, the men and women eagerly chatted with me in Russian or limited English. Hungrily, they asked if we spoke Yiddish. Regretfully, none of us did. Several people chattered to us in German, French or Rumanian. Again, we could not respond.
Most were neatly dressed, albeit in threadbare and patched coats or sweaters. Some men sported old-style suits and ties. Nearly everyone wore the traditional Russian fur hat. Many bore the reminders of war. One wizened imp lifted his trouser legs to reveal two wooden pegs. Other men’s sleeves hung empty and tucked into belts. Everyone sat tall, meeting our eyes, graciously accepting the plates of rough bread we’d been given to serve as a treat. Wrinkled faces smiled at us with gappy mouths or yellow teeth. From everyone, the response was, “Spaseeba. Spaseeba. Thank you. Thank you. We are so happy you have come.”
After the meal, everybody trekked upstairs to a room scattered with chairs. A one-armed man and I began to waltz. Noticing a piano, I called for music. Lo! Music began. A shriveled lady played the piano like an angel. My partner began to sing. Rich tenor tones welled, filling the room with the dramatic-sounding lyrics of Russian opera.
I asked the angel, “Do you know any folk songs? Do you know Katyusha?” “Da. Da.” She struck the chords, and my friend and I started harmonizing. A youthful-looking woman joined in. We three gushed the verses of “Katyusha,” hooking our arms and stamping our feet, filling each phrase with passion and drama. Then “Moscow Nights.” And “Kalinka.” We were singing our lungs out. The audience chimed in, clapping hands and tapping toes and canes.
Clowns hugged or held hands with members of the audience. My roommate danced on a table, juggling bowling pins. Balloon swans crowned grey heads. Kazoos blared. Balloon torpedoes sailed across the room. Clowns and Russians danced amidst chairs and people. A man covering the event for Russian television vigorously rolled his camera.
A tiny woman approached and loosed a lilting soprano voice. She warbled a tune, holding my hand to her heart and looking soulfully into my eyes. I hammed it up, not exactly knowing the lyrics, but gathering that if I looked love-smitten and forlorn, I was on the right track. We danced to “Khava Naghila.” They sang it loud and full, practically standing to attention.
A week later, in St. Petersburg, we visited a home for retired actors. Arriving at the dilapidated mansion, we swarmed up the stairs and down corridors decorated with the genteel but faded furnishings of long ago. Swooping into a large room of worn, polished wood, we met our audience–men and women who once had been the Vivien Leighs and Douglas Fairbankses of Russian stage and screen.
They vigorously rose to the occasion. The usual noise and chaos ensued as stiff bodies cautiously tapped out traditional dance steps. Everyone was whirling, arms on each others’ shoulders, stamping and swaying together in a circle singing the well-loved folk songs. For a second time, our antics were recorded for Russian television.
As we waited for our bus to depart, a woman who had earlier caught my eye hobbled outside. Throughout the festivities, she’d sat tapping her cane, laughing and clapping like a happy girl. Her slender body looked elegant in slim black pants, sweater, and wide belt. Red-streaked grey hair swept back from her chiseled face falling to her waist.
Leaning on her cane, she gingerly crossed the snowy driveway to the bus. Slowly, she walked along its length looking up through the windows, her keen blue eyes silently meeting ours. With her free hand, she saluted and blew kisses.
Flying away from Russia, I was exhausted. The two-week tour was a constant bombardment of the senses. Wherever we were–on buses and planes, in airports and metros, in hotels and art galleries–we were public personas. Our troupe brought lightness and laughter everywhere we went. Some clowns, especially, easily effervesced and connected with the public. They made silliness look elegant and easy. Next to them, I felt clumsy. I’d hoped to break through the shell surrounding my silliness, but had to admit that I simply don’t operate the way they do.
Yet there had been a moment of recognition. It happened the day we visited the burn ward.
“This may be a difficult experience for some of you,” Patch said before we trooped off the bus. “You’ll see things that you may find horrifying. Remember that these kids are just like us. They are just wearing a different kind of mask.”
When we entered the ward, I did see horrible sights. The child with almost no face, just reddened eyes peering out of a mottled bag of pink skin. The little girl whose arm stuck straight out from her shoulder, held aloft by a PVC pipe welded to a cast at her waist.
During our visit, I came upon a room where shrieks shattered the air. Inside, Patch and another clown bent over the bed of a child who’d just had the bandages changed. They were singing “Hush Little Baby Don’t Say a Word.” I stood beside them, joining in. Then I saw another bed. On it lay a second child. The body was skeletal, wrapped like a mummy in greasy gauze. The head was shaven and the ears were caked with cinder-like blood. The eyes ranged all over the room, terrified, big and startled, like a doomed animal. The body vibrated with terrible trembling.
I stood by the bed and continued singing. Slowly, I stroked my hands in the air just above the body, pulling the energy down from the head to the feet. And I kept singing. Even after Patch and the other clown left, I sang whatever lullabies, spirituals or gentle Russian songs came into my head. Always stroking and singing.
Gradually, the trembling lessened and stopped. The eyes settled. At last I could bend over the child’s head and our eyes met. In that moment, I felt complete, satisfied. “This is so natural, so easy,” I thought. Did the child notice that the face bending over it was white with a red nose? Did the child care that the clown was unskilled at silliness? My entree into the burn ward was my clown costume. My gift to the child had been myself. I remembered what every clown I’d met–in Portland and on the tour–had said: “The best way to be a clown is to be yourself.” Even though I had no routine, I was a successful clown.
As “Nasal Diplomats,” our troupe interacted with all manner of Russians. Our silliness broke barriers, bringing smiles and laughter to burdened people and into sad and difficult situations. We met Russians, adults and children, whose dignity and generosity touched us. We were inspired by people who, like Maria and Ilya, strive to bring individuality and brightness into daily life in a land where lack and indistinction are the norm. The clowns flew away from Russia resolved to support our Russian friends from afar, as we might someone in a prison or cancer ward, to send letters, cards, tapes and trinkets, anything to let them know that they are not forgotten.
And I? I flew from Russia unaware that the clown was about to become part of my personal package. To my surprise, the next time I visited someone in a hospital, I found it impossible not to go as a clown. Almost of her own accord, “Rosie,” who evolved into “Lady Fruitloop,” incorporated herself into my presentations to schoolchildren, wellness groups, and workshops. Clowning in Russia revealed that magic happens when I risk offering myself in a colorful and light-hearted way. As one woman in a cancer group pointed out, “When you show up dressed like this, you give me permission to be lighter.” I’m hooked on spreading laughter–the best medicine.
Published in Living Now Magazine, 1998.