Clowning around is serious business for Arcadia native Hayley Shapiro. In fact, it’s her life’s calling.
Often wearing a bright red nose, protruding fake teeth and oversized glasses, the 23-year-old isn’t just clowning around for fun – she’s doing it to change the world.
“The clown is very much an education in learning how to connect with people, even without speaking the same language,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro, who refers to the act of dressing like a clown as “clowning,” said she started when she was 16 years old during a life-changing humanitarian trip to South America. Today, she is an active humanitarian clown, along with her grandfather, Dr. Carl Hammerschlag, and his friend Dr. Hunter Doherty “Patch” Adams – the doctor made famous by the Robin Williams movie Patch Adams.
On February 27, the group will bring its clowning to Phoenix for the inaugural Clown Town Healing Fest at the Arizona Center in downtown Phoenix. The free community event will promote preventative health care through workshops, guest lectures, clown parades, live music, educational booths and much more.
“We want people to walk away from the Clown Town Healing Fest knowing they can do something to keep themselves healthier,” Dr. Hammerschlag said. “You don’t have to wait until you get sick.”
Hammerschlag, a psychiatrist and humanitarian clown, said people “heal better in community” and that there are things people can do, with the help of others, to move beyond their suffering.
Dr. Patch Adams said he joined the Clown Town Healing Fest Advisory Board at the request of his friend Dr. Hammerschlag. His work both on behalf of the event and around the world is focused on creating a better world for all living things.
“My desire is for a nonviolent, loving world,” Dr. Adams said. “This loving world starts by loving each other and living in a loving community.”
Shapiro graduated in 2014 from the University of Oregon, where she majored in international studies with a focus on cross-cultural communication. She currently lives in the Peruvian port city of Iquitos on assignment for Dr. Patch Adams’ nonprofit health care organization known as The Gesundheit Institute.
Today, she identifies as an artist, clown, organizer, activist and producer.
While many people think of the traditional circus clown when they picture a clown, Shapiro said her interpretation of a clown is different.
“The type of clowning we do is kind of like your superhero self, so it’s really an investigation or discovery into how you want to project yourself…intensifying the best characteristics of who you are,” Shapiro said.
While acting as a clown, Shapiro said she uses improvisation. The clown persona allows her to make unique connections with others.
She said that whether those connections last a second, a day, or years, “it’s a very intense process of learning to connect with people.”
While Clown Town Healing Fest will focus on health care, Shapiro said her clown work aims to help people in all kinds of circumstances. She has visited orphanages, prisons and even worked in pop up street clinics, which offer people the chance to sit down and talk with medical experts and interact with humanitarian clowns.
“At Clown Town Healing Fest, we are just hoping to start a conversation,” Shapiro said. “The way that a lot of Americans look at things is with one uni-focused lens and they have a hard time reaching outside of their bubble and getting uncomfortable.”
Shapiro said that interacting with others as a clown is a good way to push people outside of their comfort zones and encourage personal growth.
For Dr. Hammerschlag, Clown Town Healing Fest is also about encouraging change in the health care system, which he said needs an overhaul in Arizona due to an increasing socioeconomic divide.
“We don’t have adequate safety nets for the poor and disenfranchised in this state and it’s going to bankrupt us,” he said. “We have a system in which no one comes in until they’re bleeding, either emotionally or physically.
Clown Town Healing Fest aims to promote the message to “get well before you get sick,” while at the same time opening up the community’s hearts and minds with the help of clowns.
“We believe anyone and everyone is a clown. All it takes is a willingness and an open heart and you are ready to go,” Shapiro said. “A little more love in the world can’t really hurt anybody.”
For more information visit clowntownhealingfest.com.