The children clapped with glee as the clowns performed their stream of comical antics, transforming the common room in Dubai’s Al Noor Training Centre for Special Needs into a haven of joy and laughter, its walls positively filled with the sounds of innocent joy.
As she moved around the room, every ridiculous movement purposeful, Mina Liccione peered out from her oversized glasses and cascading wig to take in the room. Through the use of nothing but raw talent and a little donated time, she had transformed an ordinary moment in the lives of the often-isolated into a joyous one. It was moments like this that confirmed she had taken the right path in life; the one that allowed her to use her abundant talent to put a smile on the most desolate of faces. For, from the start, she’s always believed that “laughter is the best medicine”.
Italian-American Mina, whose favourite act is one she calls the ‘Audrey Hepburn move’ – is the co-founder of Dubomedy, an umbrella group of Dubai-based performance artists. Her partner, both professionally and by marriage, is Emirati Ali Al Sayed and together they formed the comedy collective in 2008. Since then they have successfully launched, among other things, the Comedy and Urban Arts School in the Middle East; the Dubai International Comedy Carnival; Funny Girls; and the much-loved Clowns Who Care project (CWC).
The CWC voluntary scheme, a niche charitable entertainment venture that brings laughter, smiles and comedy to those who most need it, was born from Mina’s past work across hospitals, homes for the elderly and paediatric wards of New York.
Although having performed since the tender age of three, Mina’s calling to use art for good happened in 2001 when she was spotted in the musical Stomp in San Francisco. As the lead comedic role she was approached after the performance by one of her idols, the legendary Cirque de Soleil clown and actor, Jeff Raz. The man noted for advancing the renaissance of American circus suggested that Mina study at the Clown Conservatory, a leading circus school in the US. Offered a scholarship, Mina jumped at the chance and soon found herself attending circus and clown school by day while performing by night.
Part of the programme involved clowning in hospitals, special needs schools and in community centres – Mina’s first exposure to using comedic talent to help those in pain. “All my life until that point I had done comedy because I loved it and loved hearing people laugh,” she says. “But suddenly I realised as an artist you have a much more important responsibility, especially if you’re a comedian. At the end of the day it’s not about making money, or your ego, it’s the exact opposite, it’s about making somebody in pain smile. That’s why I’m a comedian.”
After finishing the course at the Clown Conservatory Mina, who also holds a BFA in Dance from Marymount Manhattan College, an MFA in Experimental Performance Studies and Composition from the New College of California, worked as its dance teacher and choreographer. She also continued to hone her talent at helping people smile through challenging circumstances.
The 30-something-year-old, who this year was named first runner-up in Philly Arabia’s Most Inspiring Woman in the GCC award, was then offered a chance to move to Dubai early in 2008. She says that before leaving, she spent some time in New York City with her family including her great aunt, who was in a nursing home. “Visiting her was one of my saddest moments. Many patients at the nursing home were lonely and I knew I had to do something to change that.”
So during Christmas 2007, a time when Mina felt patients would be at their loneliest, she decided to create a show, not only for her great aunt’s residential home but for 20 other senior citizen centres in the city.
The voluntary tour aimed to give the old and often-alone residents a moment to forget their circumstances and to laugh.
“I started writing jokes and tap dance routines,” she remembers. “The older generations really appreciate dance. I modelled it after a talk show, with Audrey Heartburn as the host. I included an exercise segment so it wasn’t just entertainment. They loved it and after the show we would always stay and have one-on-one time with them, visit their rooms – just make sure they were heard.”
A meeting of minds in Dubai
When Mina arrived in Dubai early in 2008 much of her time was spent overcoming the daily hurdles of attempting to set up the country’s first local comedy community. “It was challenging,” she says, “because comedy is known to be vulgar, dirty and male orientated. It took time for people to understand that I wanted to do [clean] comedy and that it could be funny without being vulgar.”
Her struggle was eased to some extent just four months after arriving in the country. A chance encounter with a man who shared the same vision for a comedy community within the emirates meant the two could join forces to edge the country into position as a frontrunner in regional comedy. “The two of us together was such a great balance,” she says of herself, the expat woman, and her future husband Ali Al Sayed, the Emirati man. “It was exactly what we were trying to achieve, our goal together was to bridge the gap and use comedy to bring people of different religions and financial means together.”
With resounding success the couple have been tantamount in the comedy boom that has taken place in the UAE over the past few years and that achievement enabled them to turn their attention to art for a cause. Drawing on her previous experience in clowning in the community in the US, the pair decided to form the CWC. Initially they concentrated on sectors of the community they felt had the most need and were accessible.
Mina says, “It was very evident that there were many centres for children with special needs, and support groups, so we reached out to them.” Over the past five years CWC has visited, performed and led workshops at a host of centres for children and young adults, especially those with special needs.
Their primary focus to begin with was Dubai’s Al Noor Centre; Senses Residential and Day Care for Special Needs; and the Dubai Autism Centre where, with a group of volunteers, they began visits putting on comedic performances, actively engaging the children and spending one-on-one time with each individual.
“We build a relationship with them and we see progress,” Mina explains. “We use a three-step process. The first step involves us performing for them so they can laugh at us and feel comfortable. The second step is a workshop, where we teach things like comedy or circus skills. Often they don’t think they will be able to manage the task, but they do, and that gives them enormous confidence. The third step is individual interaction; I learnt from the beginning that this third part is a stage that really works.”
This last step involves developing social skills and the children are asked to tell a story or a joke or demonstrate a skill they have without fear of judgement or criticism. The technique boosts confidence as when children are the ones doing the teaching they realise they also have the power to offer something to others.
With the tag line “Art for a cause, not applause. Using laughter as a tool to heal,” the CWC has successfully branched out from centre visits to providing professional entertainment, technical and marketing support for fundraisers while also holding special events in support of humanitarian projects. “We don’t touch money,” Mina explains, “but we use our talent at fundraisers. We donate our time, our services, entertainment… and we help to market charitable events.”
This summer they took the CWC project even further, with their inaugural Clowns Who Care Arts Camp. In July, over a week, a group of volunteers visited the Live It Up! home for rescued children in Uganda, an orphanage that was set up by the Dubai branch of the US-based charity Live It Up Foundation. The 26 children in the home had been found living in one tiny room with a 72-year-old woman they affectionately called Jaja (grandmother) who had taken them in off the streets despite having no money to look after herself.
The foundation placed all the children into temporary accommodation while raising enough money via a series of small events and fundraisers to move them into a new purpose-built orphanage. When CWC asked what they could do to help, the orphanage said they could provide some entertainment over the summer when the children were prone to becoming a little bored.
CWC designed a project that involved seven core artistic elements – dance, drama, circus skills, visual arts, comedy, rhythm and voice. “It was so appreciated and so rewarding,” Mina says. “Some of the kids at the beginning of the week wouldn’t participate or speak at all, but by the end they were fully involved in a performance. We were so proud of them.”
Branching out to other countries in order to help those in need is something that the CWC envisages doing more of. A return trip to Uganda is planned for next year, but as well as visiting Live it Up!, the intention is to include other communities that are in dire need of assistance. “We want to reach out to kids who haven’t been rescued,” Mina says. “We will always go and visit the Live It Up! kids, but we also want to visit small orphanages surviving with no support and relief centres where people in the slums go to get food.”
The comedy crusaders also plan to take their medicinal laughter to some of the most miserable places on earth. Their next trip will see them team up with charity Breathing Numbers to visit the desolate Zaatari refugee camp on the Jordanian border with Syria. There they hope to perform, engage and entertain the vast number of children who have lost their childhood, their hope and their families to a war they don’t understand.
“We can’t move a mountain,” Mina says, “but we can do a little bit. We’ve seen what we did in Africa, just putting on a show lets them forget, lets them be kids. We get feedback from the special needs centres here that after we leave the kids laugh for a whole day, so if that’s the response and we can make children smile, then let’s do it.”