Close Menu

Alex Smith '09

Theatre alumnus brings joy, connection to hospitals

Alex Smith's attire isn't that of your typical healthcare worker. Smith makes visits to New Orleans' children's hospitals wearing a blue jumpsuit and a bright orange mustache, often armed with a plunger, bubbles or a rubber chicken.

Smith, a 2009 Whitworth theatre grad, is the co-founder of Prescription Joy, a healthcare clowning organization that promotes "healing through human connection, whimsy, education, and play in hospitals and beyond."

Smith formed the organization with his best friend Becca Chapman, and together they make up the healthcare clown duo Joe and Goe. Smith, Chapman and Prescription Joy's several other clowns regularly visit two children's hospitals, a women and children's shelter, and an assisted living facility in New Orleans.

"One of my favorite things about the work is that healthcare clowns are for everyone," Smith says. "In a hospital setting, for example, the clowns are there to interact with the patients, but also their families and the staff. If you cross the threshold of a healing facility, the clowns are there for you, too! Even if only for a momentary 'hi' or silly interaction."

Smith's work isn't just about fun and games. He hopes that each visit empowers patients and brings them back to a sense of self through play.

"Contrary to the ideas spread in popular culture, healthcare clowning isn't relegated to telling jokes, making balloon animals and juggling," Smith says. "Healthcare clowning is, at its base, human interaction and connection to help release tension in environments of stress or uncertainty. While humor is important, the key is being there not for a 'sick kid' but to make a new friend. Clowns see beyond any of the ailments that might currently be affecting the patient. It might be a silly game, it might indeed be a joke or two, but it is truly about discovering the child's interests and their sense of play."

From street clowns to hospital clowns

Smith and Chapman first began thinking about healthcare clowning when they were performing theatrical clown shows on the streets of New Orleans outside theatre festivals. The pair traveled to San Francisco to train with Jeff Raz, a former Cirque du Soleil clown, and learned about his healthcare clowning organization, the Medical Clown Project. "We were so excited to learn that the inkling of an idea we'd been toying with was actually a thing, and has been utilized for decades both nationally and internationally," Smith says.

Right around this time, Smith and Chapman both experienced health setbacks that ended up providing important perspective. Smith broke his foot ("a harrowing, ridiculous tale"), and Chapman suffered a concussion from falling in a trapeze act. "Her really long and challenging recovery, along with mine, taught us how to surrender to the healing process," Smith says, "and gave us just a small impression of what those in the hospitals experience in their own healing journeys."

They started going to hospitals in 2017 and officially founded and registered Prescription Joy as a nonprofit the following year.

Pandemic creativity

The year 2020 brought some big changes for Smith and Prescription Joy. Smith, who had been actively performing, designing and directing every day since soon after his Whitworth graduation, was furloughed from his job as a theatre technical director because of the pandemic. He decided to use the opportunity to focus full time on growing Prescription Joy.

With in-person clowning now off the table, Prescription Joy got creative. "We immediately pivoted to virtual visits, with not much more than a laptop and a green screen," Smith says. "The change was a challenge, but it has opened up a whole realm of creativity! Our team has created disappearing acts using the green screen, has had children magically change our backgrounds by touching the camera lens on the iPad, and used Zoom filters in fun and surprising ways that add a whole new element of magic to our interactions. We even have kiddos shake the iPad and have it careen the clowns across the screen."

Alex Smith smiles with a child in a hospital ward.Regardless of whether the visits are in person or virtual, Smith finds meaning in the connections he makes. "Being 100 percent there for and focused on the people we see is so freeing and fulfilling," he says. "I know that after every visit, I feel better, and hopefully that feeling is mirrored in the patients, staff and families I get to interact with."

As for the future of Prescription Joy, Smith has big dreams. "Our goal is to have healthcare clowns in every healing facility in Louisiana," he says. "We believe that healthcare clowning should be an integral part of healing. Other parts of the world already have it. So why not us?"

 

Three things to know about Alex Smith

  1. He is trained in stage combat and is one of the primary stage combat choreographers in New Orleans: "It is so much fun to keep your combat partner safe while trying to 'beat' their character to a 'pulp' (or worse!). The work is actually incredibly empathetic, and combatants find themselves taking incredible care of each other while telling a harrowing story of simulated violence."
  2. His clown character Joe is an extension of himself: "Joe wears a bright orange mustache and matching eyebrows and soul patch. He is an amalgamation of myself, and my grandfather's sense of humor and characteristics. The thing about a clown is that they aren't necessarily completely different characters, like one would portray in a play, musical, TV show or movie. Instead, the clowns are an extension of your own characteristics, and you can imagine them being on a kind of dimmer switch. In any given moment, a clown can smoothly transition to being so silly that they need instruction on how to tie their shoelaces to simply sitting and having an intelligent conversation on the best Star Wars characters in the original trilogy."
  3. His time as technical director of Whitworth's Stage II set him up to be a resourceful theatre technician: "I was always the dude who could kludge something together. I was the guy to call when all they had was round pegs and square holes to fill (the secret is to shave the pegs down a bit, or if you don't have the right tools, hammer them in really hard). I attribute a lot of this ingenuity and scrappiness to how we were taught to make art at Whitworth. We weren't a huge, multimillion-dollar department, but we made art that I always felt looked and sounded like it could have come from one."

 

Naphtali Fields

Theatre professor invites students to collaborate, explore

Courtney Alfrey '11

Theatre alum makes good on Broadway

Sather Gowdy '11

Alum finds healing through acts of kindness