A globetrotting squad of clowns visits Dubai to deliver a dose of the best medicine. "Just when you think you've got everything sorted out, you haven't." The man who said this didn't give his name - he just blurted it out and kept moving. It was a few minutes before the UAE debut of a regional theatre troupe called Creative Caravan, and things were mildly chaotic: one of its principal performers - a young, shaven-headed man named Marc Zenkner - was standing backstage in his boxer shorts waiting for his costume to arrive. "My mother-in-law's bringing it," Zenkner explained, his cake of whiteface making him appear more nervous than he probably was.
The venue was an auditorium at the Al Noor Training Center for Children with Special Needs, and the kids were already trickling in. The room was festooned with colourful banners and roll-out posters bearing the logos of the show's corporate sponsors. Eventually, above the hum of the gathering audience, you could just make out the slap of preposterously large shoes and the honk of hand-held horns. Zenkner's costume had arrived, and the clowns were ready.
For 10 years, Creative Caravan has performed big-top slapstick comedy in orphanages, cancer wards and refugee camps across the Middle East. The troupe recently arrived in Dubai for two appearances - Al Noor was followed a couple of days later by a series of bedside visits at Al Wasl Hospital - which organisers hope to parlay into regular shows across the UAE, sponsorships permitting. "Dubai has businessmen from all these different countries," said Cherryn Kelly, Creative Caravan's project director. "We just need to connect with them."
Kelly is the mother of Sean Kelly, one of the troupe's performers, whose onstage persona is a red-mopped magician named Pepe. Marc Zenkner (he of the missing costume) plays Safoora, a chubby, vaguely Arabic-looking clown. Marc's sister, Lisa Zenkner, is the pink-braided dolly-girl Suzette, who is good at twirling ribbons. Joe Nicholson, who plays Mr Toodles, a stick-thin juggler, isn't related to anybody. This makes him something of a rarity. From its administrators to its performers, Creative Caravan is a web of husbands, wives, brothers, mothers, sisters and sons.
No matter who you ask or how many times you ask them, it's difficult to get a sense of the organisation's origins or structure. Their parent charity is the UAE-based Action Care, which has only been in operation for a year or so. Its troupes go by different names in each country. Its volunteers come and go, hopping from one country to the next, putting on baggy pantaloons one day and designing brochures the next. The line-up that appeared in Dubai features Americans who have spent the bulk of their time in Jordan, Germans who have worked primarily in Palestine, Malaysians who have focused mainly on Lebanon.
"I was recruited by my brother," said Lisa (aka Suzette), when asked how she got started. "We're German originally but we lived in Palestine. My parents were involved in this kind of work for many years in India. I grew up in India." Sean, or Pepe, lived for a while in the US, but also spent time in Gaza. "We did a lot of stuff related to trauma, but in a fun way," he said. "It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, sick or well, a smile can always be with you."
This theme formed the central plot of the Al Noor show. The storyline, such as it was, concerned a clown who travelled the world in search of his lost smile, only to discover that he had it all the time. The clown's quest, naturally, was punctuated with pratfalls, tweaked noses, juggled pins and things pulled mysteriously out of hats. It was daft, crude and occasionally clumsy, and the kids loved it. At one point, the performers asked for 10 volunteers to come up onto the stage for some ribbon twirling and ended up with 30, resulting in a prolonged riot of flailing coloured strips. In the front row a tiny boy, strapped into his wheelchair, was helpless with laughter.
After the show, as the kids clamoured to get their faces painted and their pictures taken with the clowns, Cherryn Kelly stood quietly to one side. "This work can be difficult," she said. "It can be sad, it can be hard, but you find a way to keep going." As she spoke, a boy, maybe 13 years old, was busily making bubbles, big ones, waving his arm repeatedly in an arc above his head, watching and smiling as his classmates popped them.
* Chris Wright