Jay Stewart & Big Apple Clown Care Unit/Boston
BOSTON – Wearing a big red nose and black clodhopper shoes, Jay Stewart of Harwich bungles his way — on purpose — into rooms at Children’s Hospital Boston.
He and fellow Big Apple Circus clown Brian Dwyer are there to entertain young patients recuperating from surgeries and medical treatments. And while these youngsters might be considered a captive audience, they can be a tough crowd.
But it’s OK to make him giggle gently and smile, so Stewart and Dwyer deliver a performance that’s big on magic tricks — a ripped-up paper napkin knits itself back together — and short on slapstick.
In a ninth-floor room, intense physical comedy seems to be the order of the day. Stewart has to bang into a door — hard — several times to bring the faintest glimmer of a smile to the face of a bed-bound girl. She may not have much control over what medical procedures are being done to her, but, by gum, she can make the clown dance.
In the meantime, her relatives are unleashing peals of laughter that sound suspiciously like relief.
“Every door you knock on is a completely different opportunity,” says Stewart, who started doing clown work twice a week at Children’s Hospital for the Big Apple’s hospital outreach program two years ago. “You don’t even know if they’re going to let you in. I’m going to be Mr. Flexible.”
Stewart, who has worked for Ringling Bros. and a circus in Japan, says this is the first clown gig where he feels he is actively helping someone.
“It’s nice to lighten the mood, even for a little while,” he says. As part of the team of clowns that works Children’s, his goal is to change the energy in a child’s room, for the better.
“Every kid there just wants to be a kid,” Stewart says. “They love it when we come in and start doing things you’re not supposed to do.”
The first thing the clowns do is poke fun at hospital authority figures, starting with the doctors.
The name tag on Stewart’s white lab coat announces that he is Doctor Mhrahfhauer. Try pronouncing that. Dwyer’s name is easier: “Dr. Gon Golphin.”
These “doctors” wear face paint, sing and juggle.
They bark and do breed-specific imitations for Elaina Savino, 14, of Malden, whose stuffed-animal-strewn room indicates she’s a dog enthusiast.
“Well, Elaina, I’m sure it’s been a real big pleasure for you to meet us,” Stewart deadpans.
They do a rapid-fire hat-switching routine for a wide-eyed toddler and obey Garrett Poirier’s commands to keep the hilarity to a minimum.
The trick with paper-ripping magic is to “rip up, not down,” Stewart tells the 7-year-old from Wrentham. Garrett giggles when the paper magically becomes one whole piece again after his father gives the magic word, “sarsaparilla.”
Stewart also plays a loving, if gigantic, nurse and is not above having fun at the expense of the child-life specialists who advise him on which children to visit.
Child-life specialist Lakeisha Ruley says she’s had to deny ownership of a gigantic pair of clown underwear.
While the clowns deliver a child-safe brand of humor, sometimes they are really there to relieve the anxiety of adult caretakers, Ruley says. “If I know the parents are having a difficult time, mom and dad might benefit.”
Children’s Hospital also brings in magicians and musicians to entertain the children and their families and lighten the mood.
“It’s not a total shock when we come walking onto the floor,” Stewart says.
Working in a hospital setting two days a week wasn’t on his radar when Stewart studied theater in graduate school at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
After being cast as the fool in plays and told by a director that he did physical comedy well, Stewart went to Ringling Bros. Clown College, for which he eventually toured and taught. He met his wife and fellow clown, Kristen (Stearns) Stewart, while working in Las Vegas, and after traveling with the circus the two eventually settled with their two children in Kristen’s hometown of Harwich.
The Stewarts and their two children – Karen, 10, and Nick, 8 – have their own clown entertainment act and also perform with Harwich Junior Theatre, where Karen is development director and Jay currently has a one-man show called “Elvis … The King and Me.”
Jay Stewart got his job as part of an eight-member clown troupe at Children’s Hospital after trying out for the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Program.
The Big Apple has outreach programs in 18 hospitals across the U.S., and working for them takes a little bit more than clown training, Stewart says. He and his fellow clowns are trained in proper hygiene — possibly no performers have cleaner hands — and were coached on being sensitive to children’s psychological states.
One child might benefit from a gentle song, Stewart says, while another young patient will get a kick out of having the whole room covered in toilet paper.
“I’m very proud to be part of the team and doing that kind of work,” Stewart says. “Whoever is in that building could probably use a laugh.”
To learn more about Clown Care