BEIRUT: When Clown Me In co-founder Sabine Choucair was asked if she’d read Stephen King’s novel “IT” or seen the latest movie adaption, she laughed. “I refuse to see it,” she told The Daily Star.
“I’m not interested in horror and this idea of ‘clownophobia,’ it’s a very [Western] thing. I’ve never had a child here be scared of us. We don’t wear scary makeup or big shoes. We’re not this type of clowns.”
“Van 12,” the latest touring theatrical initiative of Clown Me In, is not about terrifying toddlers.
Rather it hopes to raise awareness on children’s rights in Lebanon’s underprivileged regions.
Working with UNICEF and Australian Aid, the troupe aims to use street clowning performances to highlight the 12 main protection rights set in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Choucair co-founded CMI with Mexican clown Gabriela Munoz in 2009. Since then their tight-knit group has staged interactive workshops and performances in marginal areas across the country and abroad.
“We want to create awareness so both adults and children know the laws,” Choucair said. “They both need to know their rights because abuse isn’t only coming from the parents anymore. It could be [among] children themselves or from schools and teachers.”
UNICEF community development specialist Sonia Ilias says there are about 600,000 children facing abuse, neglect or violence in Lebanon on a daily basis, especially refugees and children from impoverished families.
Starting Oct. 5, the group will be traveling across the country, staging a total of 22 performances with recorded audio stories in 22 locations, starting in the southern border village of Shabaa.
“There will be our four actors in a van and we’ll play the stories for the people and add miming and physical theater,” Choucair explained. “Though it’s a serious topic, it will be presented in a funny and easily digestible way. Art is an easy way to get a message across and make sure that the people absorb it,” she added. “These stories could be about any child we know.”
The six short plays all stem from lived experiences the group obtained through numerous workshops held with over 100 children. Their recorded voices provide the performers’ voice-over narration.
Some of the stories recount the lives of flower sellers and the dangers they face on the streets, while others touch on family dynamics and abuse at home.
“We spent 40 days traveling and working with NGOs and just talking to children in the street in Hamra or Furn al-Shubbak, collecting stories,” Choucair recalled. “We also went to schools and places where children worked to talk to them about abuse and violence. They’re real stories.”
Only one of the stories is fictional, written during a workshop by a group of 25 children over five days. “Though it’s fiction,” Choucair noted, “there is so much truth and reality in the things they included.”
The children invented the tale as they went, telling the story of a princess whose parents abused her and was so sad she turned into a tree and destroyed their house. After her parents’ apologies, they build a dream home together.
“We also talked to parents about the laws, especially the women,” Choucair said. “We talked about many of the misconceptions they have, for example about vaccines not being good for their children. This is important.”
This is the third time CMI has partnered with UNICEF. In 2016 their project “The Caravan” focused on the stories of Syrian refugees and their relationships with Lebanese people. Earlier this summer, their performance series “Back to School” aimed at encouraging parents to enroll their children in education, with 40 performances in 20 locations.
Choucair hopes their clowning can make a difference, drawing attention to important topics through seemingly spontaneous interventions and eye-catching antics. “This year’s work is the most important we’ve done,” she said. “It’s not just about being heard but about being listened to all around Lebanon and giving validity and an outlet to unheard voices.
“We want to create a discussion about these topics, especially in areas where these things are not being discussed and areas where children are facing the most abuse.”
“Van 12” will be touring Lebanon between Oct 5-17. For more information, visit www.thecaravanlb.wordpress.com.