Delivering laughter where it’s needed most

On September 8, 2017, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By William C. Shelton

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries and letters to the Editor of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)

Last week, news outlets treated us to a long montage of bleakly hopeless flood victims. We might imagine that comedy is the last thing people who have lost everything need. But we would be wrong.

That’s what I’m learning from Alex the Jester. Alex Feldman is a long-time Ball Square resident who the Boston Globe says “can make the stiffest of stiffs laugh.”

He and other physical comedians will be performing at an October 8 show in Davis Square’s Rockwell theater. It’s a benefit for an organization that delivers laughter around the world to people displaced from their homes by war, famine and natural disaster.

Alex the Jester in Haiti.

Laughter strengthens resilience

Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly and respond effectively to adversity, stress, trauma, and tragedy. An expanding body of scientific literature finds that laughter enables people who live through such episodes to become more resilient.

Laughter relaxes muscles and reduces stress hormones while increasing endorphins and healthy neurotransmitters. It strengthens the immune system by boosting infection-fighting antibodies and immune cells. It protects the heart by improving blood vessel function and flow.

Mentally, laughter stops distressing emotions. It supports a less threatening and more realistic perspective. It enables us to stay focused and energetic so that we can act more effectively.

Sharing laughter with others can be particularly beneficial to trauma survivors. Embedded in every lingering trauma is an element of Isolation.

While the trauma may happen in the presence of others, the sense of abject powerlessness from being in a situation that you can’t live in, you can’t get out of, and goes on and on is felt individually. Other trauma residues include shame and hypervigilance, which reinforce isolation, even (or especially) if you share a refugee camp with thousands.

But laughing with others promotes engagement with them. It can contradict perceptions of isolation, and the hopelessness and helplessness that comes with it. It can ease and diffuse conflict.

It can also promote play, which is essential to children’s development. In play, kids imagine and master reality, preparing them for adulthood. But traumatized children may be unable to play because lived reality has become too unmanageable. Drawing kids into play and laughter can change this trajectory.

Alex the Jester

Alex Feldman got an inkling of laughter’s potential when he was a student at Reed College, where he had injured his heel. He found that pedaling was much less painful then walking, and unicycles were much more maneuverable than bicycles. So he rode one wherever he needed to go.

When he rode into a Portland mall, he evoked an over-the-top response from its security staff. Their Keystone-Cops antics produced laughter and unexpected delight from shoppers, which Alex found he could amplify through his own responses.

Knowing that he had found his calling, he dropped out of college. He went to work “slammin’ salmon” in Alaska and saving up money to pay tuition at California’s Dell’arte International School of Physical Theater.

When he concluded his studies there in the late 1980s, he returned home and became a street performer in Harvard Square and Faneuil Hall. Acquiring an agent and winning a slot in a Montreal international showcase led to bookings across the country and around the world, and to a livelihood.

He loves performing in other cultures. Transcending the language and cultural barriers requires constant attention to, and interaction with, his audience. And it enables him to fine tune his use of gesture, tone, timing and physical proximity to inspire trust, participation, and hilarity.

His international performances had been limited to cultures where people could pay. So when he had an opportunity to perform for displaced people in Haiti, he seized it.

Clowns Without Borders

That opportunity came from Clowns Without Borders (CWB), a nonprofit whose mission may be summed up in three words:  Resilience through laughter.

The clowns in question are not those who wear frizzy wigs, whiteface, and floppy shoes. They are performers who work in the genre of physical comedy, which can bypass the brain and communicate directly with the heart.

Examples of stars who performed physical comedy at some point in their careers include Charlie ChaplinBuster Keaton, Lucille Ball, Jerry Lewis, “Cosmo Kramer,” Jim Carrey, Tony in Men Behaving Badly, and Rowan Atkinson‘s “Mr. Bean.”

Clowns Without Borders (CWB) began in 1993 when some children in Barcelona were corresponding with kids in a Croatian refugee camp during the Yugoslav Wars. The Catalanians persuaded a local clown to take a troupe to Croatia. Inspired, Moshe Cohen, who had performed in the troupe, came home to the U.S. and started CWB here in 1995.

CWB works with a network of worldwide partners who invite the organization to work in communities in crisis. Site selection depends on an assessment of greatest need and on safety for the clowns. The performers volunteer, and CWB pays their expenses.

Their work can have a subtle but powerful effect beyond those already described. Refugee-camp life forces passivity and dependence on people who have already been traumatized. Their inability to do anything to change their circumstances can enforce a taken-for-granted sense of powerlessness.

When CWB performers cajole them into laughingly participating in the escapades, their perspective subtly shifts. They are now sharing in the creation and improvement of their social environment, not just enduring it. And this incremental increase in agency can be extrapolated to other incremental improvements in their perceptions of themselves, their neighbors, and what is possible.

October 8 benefit

To support this work, Alex will perform in the Second Annual Clowns Without Borders Benefit vaudeville show, Sunday October 8 at 7:30 p.m. He will be joined by Kenny Raskin, lead clown in Cirque du Soleil’s “Everyman,” street dancer Mac Joseph, host and veteran CWB Clown Leah Abel, and others.

Since advance tickets are $17 (versus $20 at the door), and since last year’s show sold out, you might want to order in advance at

It’s a cause worth supporting. As Linn Holm, a Stockholm-based CWB performer expressed it, “Food and shelter will keep you alive, but it will not give you the power to fight for life.”


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