Be Playful

4 Lessons in the Power of Playfulness from ‘Don’t Shoot the Clowns’

Posted on: 29 January 2008

dont-shoot-the-clownsIn March 2003 trainee lawyer Jo Wilding visited Iraq as an independent observer to the Anglo-American invasion. She found many shattered lives; people’s homes and businesses were frequently destroyed by stray bombs. Others were shot or imprisoned and tortured arbitrarily if there was even a remote suspicion that they were part of the insurgency against the invading forces. Experiencing firsthand the everyday brutality of war led Jo to question the way the world is. She started wondering why we allow anyone to produce weapons, let alone use them:

‘Why is it considered a legitimate way to live, for a person to get up in the morning, kiss his or her kids goodbye, and go and spend the working day experimenting and discussing and planning and building novel and ever-more efficient ways of severing soft, beautiful, living human bodies?’

She also asked people in Iraq about their experiences under the rule of previous dictator Saddam Hussein, and was told many stories of oppression and torture. Yet the US – and Britain – supported Saddam’s regime whilst it suited them. This led Jo to ask:

‘How many people tonight will be tortured in the darkness in countries which our governments still support, fund, arm, supply with torture instruments? And what will it take for us to stand up and stop them?’

Whilst in Iraq observing Jo met a 4 year old child called Mohammed. His house – a farmhouse in the countryside, many miles from any US or British targets – had just been bombed from the air. His sister was dead, his newlywed aunt missing, his home destroyed. Yet in the hospital, Jo’s friend Shane started blowing bubbles – allowing Mohammed to forget the devastation for a moment and break out into a smile.

‘Of course his trauma would take more than a bubble to heal, but the memory stayed with me. A friend set up a website called Circus2Iraq. I sent out an open email inviting circus performers to come to Iraq, warning that it was a dangerous place and travel insurance wouldn’t cover it. Despite poor pay and conditions, I got a bunch of clowns.’

In January 2004, Jo started a tour of Iraq with the circus. Parents and teachers saw children who had not smiled since the invasion break out in laughter. Children who had been obsessed with the war, drawing only pictures of planes, guns and soldiers, began to draw clowns – to see the possibility of a world outside of war and violence.

Reading ‘Don’t Shoot the Clowns’ I saw the power of play at work in a country completely marred by horrific violence. I began to realise just how powerful playfulness can be. Four things stood out most for me:

1. Playfulness heals

Seeing a circus was not going to cover over the wounds and bring instant healing for the children of Iraq. But it did give them an opportunity to laugh, and to begin to be children again.

Play is healing both for those who engage in it, and for those who witness it.

2. Playfulness engenders trust

Jo’s visit to Iraq was primarily as an independent observer, documenting atrocities under Saddam, and those committed by the occupying forces. Many people were afraid to tell their stories for fear of reprisals – thinking that Jo may be on the side of the British and American soldiers.

Seeing Jo as a clown, however, bringing delight to the eyes of children and adults alike, allowed people to trust her.

Another occurrence of trust through play happened when the circus visited a town in Kurdistan. They were asked for $60 each to stay – money they did not have. However, after giving a circus performance for the soldiers on duty, they were let off paying the fees. Play is an act of mutual giving – and can get you a free ride.

3. Play crosses cultural boundaries

In spite of language difficulties, and being in an increasingly conservative Muslim country, the circus was well received everywhere they went.

The children watching clowns from other countries – from countries that were invading their country – could see beyond the ‘adult’ boundaries of difference and exclusion. Play and fear cannot live together.

4. Play allows for the imagination of new possibilities. It instills hope.

For the children whose lives it touched, the circus was a moment of sparkling colour in a gray, dark and fading world. Children who had lost all hope would often tell the clowns the dreams that they had for their life.

Playfulness disturbs the status quo and provokes a response. Just as the response to violence is often further violence – the response to playfulness is often a life transformed by hope.

Have you ever met a playful person who made your day brighter, or gave your life a new perspective?

Don’t Shoot the Clowns: Taking a Circus to the Children of Iraq is available from and

You can read Jo’s blog, Circus2Iraq, here.


1 Response to "4 Lessons in the Power of Playfulness from ‘Don’t Shoot the Clowns’"

[…] It is also dangerous because these activists tend to be serious because they believe they have the final answer that everyone should agree with. If anyone disagrees with them, then many would see it as acceptable to use violence. A classic and tragic example is ‘communist’ Russia; another equally tragic example is ‘democratic’ Iraq. Is it really possible to bring about a better world using violence and bloodshed? […]

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