Whether at the circus or a child’s birthday party, a clown’s act usually includes making balloon animals, pretending to hurt themselves or playing pranks on the audience to win laughs, but one VCU student sees clowning as more than being a human bag of tricks.
After starting a troupe known as the Richmond Fools, Colin McLaughlin and his fellow clowns aim to spread more than just smiles. As a freshman theatre major last year, McLaughlin said he was unhappy with his new Richmond home. After the spring semester passed, McLaughlin took a break from the city and traveled to Peru. During his trip, McLaughlin found a passion for the unusual occupation known as “humanitarian clowning.” Freshly inspired, McLaughlin returned to VCU and set off to spread love and happiness.
Before McLaughlin started clowning, he gained experience by taking acting classes and performing at children’s birthday parties. While walking home from a party still in costume, McLaughlin said he realized clowning freed him from social constraints.
“It just gave you this odd credibility, you could kind of be who you wanted to be,” McLaughlin said. “Instead of ‘This guy’s a weirdo,’ it was ‘He’s a clown, that’s just what he’s doing.’”
McLaughlin said he enjoyed the feeling of clowning without pay. On a whim, he decided to contact the famous Hunter Doherty, a physician, clown and subject of the 1998 film “Patch Adams,” starring Robin Williams.
After a phone call to Doherty’s secretary, McLaughlin found himself with Doherty and 100 other clowns from around the world, on a plane headed to Peru. During his time spent in Peru, McLaughlin said he clowned for people at prisons, hospitals and orphanages.
“(Humanitarian clowning) is like going to go and laugh with people and love with people,” McLaughlin said. “It seems like a shining good deed, but really I get so much out of it.”
After returning to Richmond, McLaughlin said he wanted to keep the spirit of humanitarian clowning alive. He began by recruiting members and calling local hospitals and nursing homes. McLaughlin said finding places to perform was not an easy task because most did not return his phone calls.
“Usually about one in five places actually call back,” he said. “I’ve been calling the Children’s Hospital for months … and they haven’t really contacted me.”
McLaughlin also struggled to persuade people to clown with him.
“If I ran into a stranger, (and they asked) ‘What are you doing?’ I’d explain it to them. Then I’d say ‘You should come with’ … and they didn’t really go for it,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin found support with fellow theatre majors. After a few weeks, the regular group of performers grew from two to seven clowns, and they decided to refer to themselves as the Richmond Fools. Junior theatre major Jessie Skiles said she was excited to try clowning after listening to McLaughlin describe his experience in Peru.
“Colin was talking about humanitarian clowning, which is very much just going and being yourself,” Skiles said. “It’s more of an excuse to share love.”
Skiles’ first experience clowning with McLaughlin was at a local nursing home. Before they left, Skiles brought McLaughlin the wildest clothing and toys she could find to earn his approval. When she arrived at McLaughlin’s home, Skiles said he was already wearing his red nose and brimming with excitement.
“He kind of pops around the corner … and he’s like ‘Hey, are you ready? Let’s talk, yay!’” Skiles said. After deciding on an outfit, Skiles grabbed a hula hoop, McLaughlin picked up a record player and they began their journey. For Skiles, the walk to the nursing home was half of the fun.
“Every car we passed, Colin would make faces at and start talking to (the drivers),” she said.
After arriving at the nursing home, Skiles said she suddenly felt shy, but McLaughlin helped her overcome her nerves by encouraging her to have conversations with the residents. At one point, Skiles was invited to paint the face of one of the older residents.
“He loved it,” Skiles said.
Performing at a nursing home was such a memorable experience, Skiles said, that she now performs with McLaughlin every other week. As a group, the Richmond Fools have made appearances in nursing homes, preschools and a surprise visit to the James Cabell Library.
“I can now say that I’ve hula-hooped in every floor of the library,” Skiles said.
According to McLaughlin, clowning can be a release for anyone.
“It’s not just pestering people and goofing around,” McLaughlin said. “It’s love, and the more you give away, the more you end up having.”
Even though the group is mostly comprised of VCU students, McLaughlin wants the Fools to attract local residents to feel more like a part of the community.
“(Clowning) is literally my favorite thing to do and the favorite thing that’s ever happened to me,” McLaughlin said. “I want other people to feel like that because it’s like the best version of yourself.”
Skiles said the Fools’ ultimate goal is to grow as a group and spread smiles throughout Richmond.
“This may sound corny,” Skiles said. “But I want us to have as many people as we can, making as many people as happy as they can be.”