Selena McMahan is a clown with a serious mission. While she might act goofy and a touch dizzy on stage, her organizational and diplomatic skills have brought her to the head of an international organization that brings laughter to children living in areas of crisis.
For the past two years, McMahan has led the International Federation of Clowns Without Borders. As president, she’s overseen increasing collaboration among the federation’s 11 country chapters, which raise money and sort out logistics to send clowns to regions in crisis.
“We want to organize projects in areas we haven’t gone to yet,” McMahan said in a recent telephone interview from her home in Paris. “But we also want to keep going back to places, because recurring projects and capacity building are important, too.” Lately McMahan has been coordinating projects in response to the Syrian civil war. “We’ve got chapters working in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt, so that we don’t all go to the same place at the same time.”
By “we,” McMahan is referring to other professional artists like herself who volunteer to perform shows in places where lighthearted fun is in short supply. Clowns Without Borders was founded in the early 1990s, when a group of young students in Barcelona asked Catalan clown Tortell Poltrona to perform for refugee children affected by the Balkan ethnic conflicts. Since then, the nonprofit has expanded around the world. Last year, about 380 volunteer performers participated in 80 projects — from Colombia and Myanmar to the Philippines and Haiti — “sharing joy, laughter and dreams with approximately 320,000 children and adults,” according to McMahan.
McMahan tries to travel on at least one Clowns Without Borders trip a year, and has performed in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, southern Africa and Ethiopia. Since the massive 2010 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince and surroundings, her annual expeditions have been to Haiti. In November, she’ll return to Haiti to perform with French, American and Haitian artists.
Clowns Without Borders always partners with a local NGO to organize shows and workshops for children in refugee camps, orphanages or schools. The clowns combine their musical and theatrical talents to put on a “physical, crazy spectacular event,” McMahan said. The children immediately connect with the clowns, according to McMahan. “Sometimes they get super excited and hyper. Sometimes they sit there full of wonder,” she said. “A lot of times we perform for audiences that don’t get to see a lot of performances, so it’s a very big, exciting event.”
After the show, children at times rush at the clowns to get a closer look or to show off their own unique abilities. “Social connections, inclusion, shared laughter, and the capacity to dream can contribute to a child’s resilience,” McMahan said. “CWB artists get a sense of this, seeing children light up as they watch the shows. This is why we do the work.”
Being president of an international humanitarian organization is not McMahan’s day job. To earn her keep, she works as a professional clown in Paris, France, where she’s lived for the past seven years. McMahan is multilingual (she speaks English, French, Spanish and Portuguese), and grew up both in France and New York City. After graduating from Bowdoin, she received a Watson fellowship to travel the world for a year visiting humanitarian clown and social circus groups. Following this, she trained at an international theater school, Jacques Lecoq, in Paris. These days she works as an actor-clown for Le Rire Médecin, performing custom-tailored improvised scenes for children in hospitals, as well as for their families and hospital staff.
McMahan has also started her own small Parisian theater company. Its most recent project is called “Inclownito,” with six clownish characters trying to integrate life in the Paris suburb of Champigny.
As an undergraduate at Bowdoin, McMahan was involved in visual arts, dance and theater, with an emphasis on activist art. She says that clowning satisfies her need to make art that instantly affects people and builds a dynamic connection between performer and audience. “It is an immediate art form. You’re really in the present,” she said. “If your audience responds in a certain way, you have to react to it. You’re really connected and directly in contact.”