Dr. Wellington Nogueira: Flipping Life Inside Out to Align With Personal Values

The human race has only one really effective weapon, and that's laughter. The moment it arises, all our hardness yields, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.” - Mark Twain

Brave leaders are sometimes found in unconventional environments- like a clowning school. With the power of humor, Wellington Nogueira has used clowning as a transformational tool for child care in hospitals throughout Brazil. Born and raised in São Paulo, Nogueira worked as an ESL teacher in the late 70s, and moved to New York in 1983 to pursue a career as a Broadway actor. By 1986, he was a member of the notable Actors´ Equity Association and The Screen Actors´Guild. It wasn’t until he was asked to work as a clown for The Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit that he discovered the health benefits of clowning. In 1991, he moved back to São Paulo and founded the nonprofit  “Doutores da Alegria”, Doctors of Joy, a sister-program of the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, with a cast of forty-five trained professional clowns who perform at 15 main hospitals in São Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Recife. Doctors of Joy not only seeks to alleviate children’s suffering but also to bring a humanizing element into hospital care by working inclusively with the children’s parents, the doctors, the nurses, and the hospital administration.

About 15% to 18% of children in the United States live with a chronic health condition that leads to frequent hospitalization.  Nogueira and Doctors of Joy make living in hospitals for children more personal and bearable, while spearheading an innovative spirit in the intersection of artistic creation and preventative care.

Margareta Barchan: You have lived your life focusing on human needs. Is that an example of sustainability?

Wellington Nogueira: Living sustainably starts first with working on yourself. That is what I have learnt in my profession as a clown in hospitals. You have to deal with crises all the time and situations that make you reevaluate your life.

One patient in a hospital once told me: “If I leave this life and could start again, I would live completely different to how I live now.” I thought to myself:  “Oh my God, that is what we do. We bring ourselves to a collapse. We are so blind and don’t pay attention to our needs. We are at this place now because we have stopped looking inwards. Instead we are looking for validation. We have given the power to someone else to decide what that means.” For example, we often give the power to the doctor on how to cure us instead of finding a way together to treat the disease. We could be living a different way if we looked at our lives from a deeper sense of self-awareness.

Barchan: Do you think this self-awareness requires courage and braveness?

Nogueira: Yes it does. It requires a lot of courage. When you experience that connection to yourself and your work, it is so powerful. Social entrepreneurs are very courageous people and can behave like stubborn kids. It is as if they are playing a game they want to win badly. They have flipped their lives inside out to be more aligned with their values.

Barchan: You have also changed your career to align with these values, is that correct?

Nogueira: I started out as a doctor and my family invested quite a lot of time and money in my medical education. But I realized I wanted to become an actor instead. To not upset my family too much, I started to teach at the same time. And I discovered that I really liked teaching.

I had never thought of being a clown. During the years I had my best professional development as an actor in NYC, I realized I had no fun. I was not happy. Then the telephone rang and a lady asked me “I need clowns who speak Spanish. Don’t be too narrow-minded, come and see what it is all about.” I was so impressed by the clowns. The turning point for me was how they talked to a sick little girl and won her confidence. The impact you can have as a clown on one person is different than the impact you can have in front of a big audience on Broadway. In a big show, it can be a disaster but as a clown with only one person in front of you, it is 100% rewarding.  

Nogueira with another clown colleague and children from one of their serviced hospitals.  Photo credit:    Doctors of Joy   .

Nogueira with another clown colleague and children from one of their serviced hospitals. Photo credit: Doctors of Joy.

I saw the impact it had on myself and had to share it with more people. So I started the Doctors of Joy clowning school so I could combine my liking for teaching and clowning. We used to say that what we do in this two-year program is to unlearn given patterns and to listen to your own inner voice.

Barchan: Can you give an example of a situation of what you are doing as a clown?

Nogueira: Once I walked into an elevator in the hospital dressed up as a clown. In there were four men and I joked and talked to them. They were all smiling. Later the same day, I went into the elevator again now without my clown dress and found the same four people. So I said, “Here we are again, I am the clown you met earlier today” and they all looked at me and walked out of the elevator without saying anything. That was when I realized the power of that mask to help people get rid of their shield.

Many small episodes like these made me fully understand what it means to be a clown. To help people see, even when they are scared, how to make the decision to live their lives in a different way. My theory is that mirroring situations and criticizing these situations in a costume of a clown, is needed in a hospital. We see more and more clowns in different places and institutions.

In a hospital, people live between life and death all the time. And the learning from that experience is to me that clowning and hospitals are totally connected in that you have to be absolutely present.

Barchan: How did your parents react when you gave up becoming a doctor to become a clown in hospitals?

Nogueira: They hated it at first. But when they saw the work, they changed their minds completely.  I believe that when there is a way for two people to interact in a respectful way then we’ve achieved a more harmonious and positive way of living. I also think as humans, the greatest thing we can do is to make the impossible things possible.

In one hospital I worked in, there was a kid who had been hospitalized for 13 years. He was very sad as he had a wish that could never be fulfilled. The dream was to see the moon. The clowns mobilized everyone in the hospital, doctors, nurses, machines, the families etc. to create an imagined world in the hospital. He saw the moon, stars, aircrafts and for the first time he heard his father playing a tambourine. It took perseverance and effort for the clowns to create a magical world for the boy. He was really happy with the outcome!

I saw then a new dimension of clowning that I think is very beautiful. The courage of the fool who speaks the truth even if it means risking his or her life. 

Barchan: What impact will clowning in hospitals have in the future?

Nogueira: I hope it opens up opportunities to give more room for art in recovery spaces. Clowning has a very important role that is not always recognized. But more important is to help with innovating in the restructuring of hospitals. Help is not only to treat diseases; it is also your ability to look a disease right in the eyes, accept it and continue living. This again echoes the importance of self-awareness.

Barchan: How will the next generation play a role?

Nogueira: I see the kids working in partnerships, networks with each other, not for money, but because they want to change the world.

Barchan: What can we do to help this generation?

Nogueira: You have to provide the space for this self-discovery of inner joy as early as possible and encourage it in schools. Help them become who they are meant to be.

Mr. Nogueira was recognized as a Social Entrepreneur and given a fellowship from Ashoka – Innovation for Social Change and received recognition from AVINA as a Social Leader; he is also President of the Advisory Board of Ashoka Brazil. In the past eight years, he has been a guest speaker at conferences, at events and in corporations, speaking on subjects such as “Joy in Adversity as Taught by Children and Clowns”, “The Hospital Through the Eyes of the Clown” and “Innovative Initiatives in the Non-Profit Area”, among others.