Not everyone working at Sick Kids is a doctor or a nurse.
Teegan Mannion has been clowning around at Sick Kids Hospital for the past six years. As Rose the clown, she works with patients—and also parents, siblings, and staff—as one of two therapeutic clowns in the hospital’s Expressive Therapies program.
The Stouffville native attended the Theatre and Performance program at Humber College, took a year of physical-theatre training at the Tooba Physical Theatre Centre in Vancouver, and did a short stint at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in California. Her red-nosed mentors included John Turner of Mump and Smoot, and she also received months of in-house training at Sick Kids, which has had clowns on staff since 1993. There, she learned the ins and outs of hospital-specific considerations like infection control. Now she wanders the halls with her ukulele and pet bucket (yes, seriously), greeting delighted children and parents alike.
We spoke with Mannion about the job’s joys, and its emotional toll. Our interview is below.
Torontoist: How did you decide to become a therapeutic clown? Was it a calling, or something you heard about and said to yourself, “I could do that?”
Teegan Mannion: I have always had a real love for theatre, since I was a young child. I used to do community theatre and acting classes as a kid, and that was the first real place where I felt like I had found my groove, my niche, my family away from home. I decided after high school to go into theatre. I did some school, like at Humber, but I was missing something. When I got to Tooba and started doing physical theatre, one of the program courses was clowning.
Now, I did not have a nice history with clowns: I didn’t like clowns as a kid, and I had no positive, memorable experiences of clowns. So when I heard we had to take a clowning course, I was like, “Oh my god, you’re kidding me!” And to my delight and surprise, I completely fell in love with it. Clowning at Tooba with David MacMurray-Smith and then on Manitoulin Island with John Turner were the most exhilarating things I had ever done. It encapsulated everything I had ever loved about doing theatre. It was all the magical pieces I had been looking for: emotional honesty, connection with the audience, being spontaneous and flexible and in the moment, and being part of a powerful shared energetic experience that leaves both myself and the audience changed.
So, I knew I wanted to clown, but I had no idea what the next step was. The very day I decided I was leaving [the Dell’Arte program], I got an email from my clown teacher letting people know about the position of therapeutic clown practitioner at Sick Kids. I had never heard of it before, but as soon as I read about it, I was like, “Oh my god, that’s it!” So I auditioned and got it. I had no idea what it was, but I just had this feeling it was going to be something.
How have you adapted your clowning to a hospital setting?
I really didn’t have too much experience doing performance clowning except in school and workshops, so the majority of my applied clowning journey has taken place here in the hospital. It’s been a really interesting learning experience, and continues to be. Both on stage and in the therapeutic context, you have to be flexible and sensitive to your partners or the audience. I’d say this applies even more in the the therapeutic relationship. You have to be willing to serve the moment and the needs of the patient, which sometimes means putting “art” to the side, and simply being present, being quiet, and waiting for the appropriate time to engage. I think the biggest difference for me between clowning on stage and clowning in the hospital is that I’ve discovered a wider spectrum of what it means to be a clown. We’re on the units, face-to-face with patients, for 5 and a half hours each day. This is very different than a performance of a few minutes, or an hour and a half on stage, and so we have to adjust our way of being. I am always “in character,” but sometimes I am more “on” and energized, and other times I am smaller—more “human.”
You mentioned you had a fear of clowns as a kid. Does that come up with any of your patients, or their parents?
Or staff members? [Laughs] Oh yeah, we definitely come across it. I’m happy to say that probably 99.9 per cent of the time it ends well and we have a lovely interaction and some comedy comes out of it, or it’s the beginning of a great relationship if they’re going to be here long-term. The way we were trained to deal with that is to make yourself physically small. A person, especially a large, bright person, can be daunting, so I kneel or crouch down and keep a safe distance back. Also, rather than connecting directly with somebody who’s a bit timid, if I’m engaging somebody else or doing something else—blowing some bubbles, playing with a toy, that kind of thing—they can observe and join in if they feel like it. Most of the time, they get drawn right in.
What’s your emotional landscape like when you find out a child isn’t going to be going home, or when a child passes away? How does that affect you as someone who’s expected to provide comedy or levity?
It’s a very interesting experience. I find this job is the most wonderful, delightful thing I’ve ever done, and also the hardest, partially because of that. It’s definitely not a neutral experience. I’m really lucky that I have a great clown partner. It’s great for support and we bounce things off each other all the time and process things in that way.
This is really great work for the self. It’s like being in a pressure cooker: all these life lessons one might encounter throughout the regular course of life are being pressurized here, and I’m learning how to be present with myself and witness what I’m experiencing, process that, and let it go, and keep healthy boundaries while working in those kinds of draining or stressful environments. It’s a constant job to keep myself strong mentally, emotionally, and energetically. It can definitely be a roller coaster. You have to be vigilant.
What’s the best part of your job?
There are so many. Being a clown and being a parent are the two most fulfilling and challenging things I’ve ever done, and there are many similarities between the two roles. As a therapeutic clown, the satisfaction is in the heart-to heart-connection, that intimacy, and in witnessing and being part of the alchemy. I get to watch people move out of dark emotional places into much lighter spaces, both over the course of an interaction that lasts only a few minutes, and also in relationships that last years. Being part of this transformation is incredibly gratifying.
For example, I have a patient I’ve become quite close with, and she was really struggling with part of her treatment. When I came in to see her one day, she was crying in bed, and there was a moment of, “Oh, should I just leave and come back later?” And when I moved through that, I knew she wanted me to stay. So I just knelt down by her bed and started playing my ukulele, just to add some lightness in the air and shake things up a bit. She kept crying for a while, and then there was a turning point when she looked up and made eye contact and stopped crying. And I just go with the energy of what happens, so I just started singing whatever came into my mind: silly stuff she and I had done together, or things that I knew she liked, and it got sillier and bigger. She started singing along and laughing, and then she was up in the bed dancing, and then she’s back to regular self. It’s really satisfying to watch that arc of transformation.
This interview has been edited and condensed.