Clown therapy in Florence

Soccorso Clown: a chat with Michael Christensen

Linda Falcone
September 6, 2007

Clowns. Magic tricks. Music. The laughter of small children. Balloons and chocolate transfusions? If it weren't for this last option, no one would have guessed that we were entering a children's hospital ward at Florence's Meyer Pediatric Hospital rather than a circus tent.


American entertainer Michael Christensen, also known as Dr. Stubbs, started the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit (CCU) in New York in 1986. Since then, he has received numerous international awards for his outstanding social contributions. In 2000, he was declared a Living Landmark by the New York Landmark Conservancy for his work with CCU.


The first initiative to train clown doctors in Italy started at Meyer in 1999. With nearly eight years under its belt, it was finally time for Florentine-adopted clownterapia to have a visit from its originator. When Christiansen visited Meyer recently, The Florentine had the chance to ask him a few questions about what makes his brand of clown therapy so successful. Right alongside the children, we got to take a peek at the instruments inside his doctor's bag: rubber chickens, bubbles, a red rubber nose, along with professional training, sensitivity and dedication.





The Florentine: What is special about the program that you founded?

Michael Christensen: First off, I think it's important to clarify that Clown Care works with professional artists, not volunteers. All the clowns must audition in order to work for the program. They must have excellent, proven skills as entertainers. They go through months of training in hospital protocol and are paired with other clowns during the first six months of clowning. Clown care has also set up regular program reviews to ensure the quality of the program.



TF: Do the clowns work in specifc hospital wards?

MC: We work in many different wards, with all kinds of children who are dealing with anything from physical therapy and treatment to bone marrow transplants or severe burns. We also work with more specialized units, like intensive care. But no matter where we go, the clowns always wait for the children to invite them into their rooms. This may seem like a minor point, but it's very important. Whether or not to accept our company is one of the few real choices a child may get to make during his or her hospitalization.


TF: In your work with children here in Florence and around the world, have you noticed cultural differences in what makes a child laugh?

MC: Certainly, there are always going to be some cultural differences where humor is concerned. Clowns always strive to be in tune with the needs of children from different cultures. On the other hand, a child's smile is universal. The kids that we work with in all our centers are dealing with difficult or threatening situations on a daily basis. By parodying the whole excruciating process, we try to bring a lightness to it. And no matter where you are in the world, when you get that laugh, and a child suddenly giggles, you know that you're in the right place!





The clowns at Meyer Hospital belong to the organization Soccorso Clown, which is the first European project designed to train professional hospital clowns. It has been financed by the European Social Fund and supported by the Region of Tuscany, the Italian State Theatrical Organization (ETI), the Ministry of Labor, and the Meyer Pediatric Hospital in Florence. Soccorso Clown provides services for children in many Italian cities, including Florence, Prato, Siena, Modena, Cremona, and Rome.


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