Dustin Allen (centre) will be visiting refugee camps with Clowns Without Borders over the next three weeks. This photo is from a show called "In The Trenches," which he toured with his band a few years ago. // Courtesy of Dustin Allen
The saying goes that ‘laughter is the best medicine’ and there is likely some truth to that, perhaps more so for those whose lives have been disrupted by violence—and the organization Clowns Without Borders USA’s mission is to deliver that medicine to people, especially children, who are living in crisis. Yesterday, Edmonton performer Dustin Allen hit the road on his first mission with the group. He will be traveling to refugee camps in Bosnia, Serbia, and Romania to lighten some spirits and offer some laughs.
It’s the fulfillment of a six-year-long ambition for Allen, who was inspired in part by the organization to get into clowning in the first place. He started out by attending Dell’Arte International in rural California for a year, where he learned the fine art of clowning and physical theatre. When he graduated five years ago, he sent Clowns Without Borders a letter asking to participate in a mission.
“And they didn’t get back to me—and then like a month ago, they got back to me,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t think they remember my letter, but they’re based in Portland, where a bunch of my old classmates live, and I guess I was on a short-list of clowns who know how to play music or something.”
Allen is a singer and guitarist for the folk band That Dog Was a Band Now—a group he started with some of his classmates from Dell’Arte. But for the Clowns Without Borders tour, he will be playing a different instrument—the mandolin.
The other two clowns on the tour with Allen are more experienced when it comes to the type of tour they’re embarking on. Sabine Choucair is the founder of the Lebanon theatre company Clown Me In, which “uses clowning to spread laughter and provide relief to disadvantaged communities while exploring human vulnerabilities and helping individuals to accept them.” She does tricks with hula hoops and bubbles. David Lichtenstein is a member of the board of directors for Clowns Without Borders USA, and performs as Leapin’ Louie, doing tricks with lassos and jungling.
“So a lot of what I’m going to be doing is I’m going to have my mandolin, and I’m just going to be playing like background music for them, but I’m trying to design an act as well,” Allen says. “I have no skills other than music—like I can’t juggle. I’m not one of those clowns at all. I’m good at falling; I can fall without hurting myself too bad and usually people laugh.”
More daunting is not knowing what to expect from the audience.
“It’s kind of hard when you’ve never been in refugee camps performing for children, knowing what would work,” he says. “I don’t exactly have an act in my back pocket for a non-English audience living in horrible conditions.”
Allen, who also performs with Edmonton sketch comedy group Don’t Not Talk to Strangers, hopes to make a meaningful contribution with his art while on tour.
“You get to a certain point of being like a clown and musician where you’re like ‘Well, who am I doing this for?’ These are moments of serious existential doubt, like it’s not my natural condition usually. I’m pretty affirmed in what I’m doing, but sometimes it’s like I’ll do a comedy tour every month or go on a tour every year, and it’s a great, but there’s so much evil shit in the world, and what does my sad love song or my little comedy sketch about this or that effectively do to make things better?” he says. “And sometimes you can come up with some metaphysical answer and sometimes it’s like ‘nothing.’ And then [you get] an opportunity like this.”
Allen flew to Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to begin the three-week tour. Clowns Without Borders is paying for all his travel expenses, but Allen is hoping to give back to the organization, and started a crowdfunding campaign to cover his costs and raise some additional funds. He’ll also be taking over the Clowns Without Borders USA Instagram, so you can follow his adventure.
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