Thousands of St. Louisans have enjoyed Circus Flora’s world-class productions annually for over 30 years. However, the end of the circus season does not mean the clowning around is over.
Offering healing through humor since 2012, Clowns on Call is Circus Flora’s program that ensures young patients at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital receive a healthy dosage of laughter as often as possible.
Yet with the onset of the pandemic, physicians of fun Dr. Pepper, Dr. Too-Me, and Dr. Celia have had to adapt to the cyber realm to maintain a connection with and provide a distraction for hospitalized children of all ages when they need it most.
Without her red nose, Dr. Pepper is Audrey Crabtree, professional performer and coordinator of the program. “This is all new territory,” she said referring to their digital approach.
Before the pandemic, the Clown Doctors visited a few times per week. But since their virtual return in September 2020, they have to make the most out of a one-time weekly check-up via Zoom video calls.
“It’s a little bit of a learning curve but they’re ecstatic to be back,” Circus Flora’s Managing Director Karen Shoulders said.
Dr. Pepper and her comedic accomplices meet their patients on an iPad that on-site child life specialists carry from room to room — after sanitation, of course. Whether they are miming fetch with a ball that is imaginarily thrown through the video or juggling props between one Zoom window to another, Crabtree said, “We’re having fun finding creativity within the confinement of the screen.”
Regardless of the way they connect, Crabtree emphasized that the Clown Doctors are best friends with the children during their time together.
“In the moments we see them, we are always on their team; we always follow their lead,” Crabtree said. “If they’re in a sad mood and want to stay there, we’ll go there too … We just try to engage with them wherever they are and just make a real connection as much as we can. We all need that.”
The fun and games prove to be beneficial for not only the patients, but also the hospital workers, family members, and the Clown Doctors themselves.
“I do different kinds of theatre work and performance, but this hospital clowning is the very best thing I’ve ever done. Big audiences and huge crowds do not compare to this one-on-one engagement,” Crabtree reflected.
Unlike any program in the bi-state region, Clowns on Call features experienced and professional performing artists skilled in a wide variety of genres including clowning, music, juggling, magic, improvisation, puppeteering, dance, and slapstick. “It’s not just a volunteer putting on a nose,” Shoulders said.
Crabtree elaborated by adding, “We have ongoing training and rehearsals, and we’re a part of a national organization that has standards. It’s serious work to make it possible to play in a healing way.”
While the Clown Doctors have found a way to continue making their rounds through Cardinal Glennon, they hope to spread contagious laughter to more patients across the region. “There are other institutions that we could be working with, but we just don’t have the funding,” Crabtree said.
Visit circusflora.org/beyond-the-big-top/clowns-on-call to learn more about how you can support or partner with Clowns on Call.