Dr David Wheeler interview: The GP clown

South-east London GP Dr David Wheeler is a teacher and clown improvisation facilitator

How did you first become involved in clowning?

I started clowning in 1993, during a sabbatical from my practice. I went to a weekend introductory course in clown improvisation, led by Vivian Gladwell of Nose to Nose.

'Discover your inner clown', the advertisement said. So I have, and over the years and many more clown courses, this has had a profound impact on me and my work as a GP educator.

What is clown improvisation?

This is a form of improvisational theatre, which has its origins in the court jester or king's fool, as well as the Commedia dell'Arte of 17th century Italy and its modern counterpart, the French theatre clown, promoted by Jacques Lecoq and companies such as Bataclown.

This type of clown is one who is emotionally authentic, vulnerable and transparent, a creative but naive storyteller. These clowns know what is real and what is fantasy. They also challenge the norm and love getting into difficulties and playing with them.

I had no previous theatre experience, so was quite scared at the thought of taking part in my first workshop.

We started with some warm-up exercises that led to initial solo improvisations and then two or three clowns doing improvisation together.

With plenty of encouragement from Vivian and support from fellow participants, my initial fear became a thrill of achievement, accompanied by lots of laughter.

Any memorable moments?

Among the many Nose to Nose courses I have attended, one that was especially memorable was a one-week International Clown in Italy - it was great fun clowning with people across language barriers.

The Italian participants did the funniest impro deconstruction of a game of cricket.

I have also done social clowning courses, where we go out into the local community and do improvisations based on what we observe and what people tell us about their work.

On the last course, we visited a farm, a secondary school, a craft shop and a funeral parlour. The funeral director greatly enjoyed our performance.

How has clowning affected your work and your life?

In the early days, I could see clear links between my experience of clown improvisation and the skills needed to put aside my learnt medical scripts and explore, more empathetically, patients' stories in my everyday consultations.

I wrote an article about this for GP in 2001, 'Clowning skills can help GPs'. In 2008, I wrote a similar article for the BMJ Careers section ('More than Clowning Around'), noting a parallel between the vulnerability a clown exhibits and my vulnerability as a GP dealing with uncertainty.

I found, too, that clowning helped me to be less stressed and more playful in my own life, especially with my children. Now that they are grown, I have introduced them to this work and they enjoy it, too.

I have introduced clowning to my GP trainer colleagues and GP trainees in Greenwich, and the feedback has been very positive.

Participants turn up to a clown workshop feeling low in energy and preoccupied with the woes of everyday work and life, but at the end of a day of laughter and fun, although physically tired, they are alert and energised and ready to carry on.

No two workshops are the same. I am always surprised by the breadth and depth of clown improvisation and the discoveries I make in the process of improvised play. For me, it has become a form of personal development; a way to enhance communication skills and develop self-compassion and resilience, thereby preventing burnout.

Do your patients know about your clowning?

I don't think my patients know I do clowning, as I don't identify myself as a clown in a professional sense. Unlike Patch Adams or the 'klinik clowns' in Germany and elsewhere, I don't visit hospitals to entertain seriously ill children.

In the past two years, I have trained as a facilitator in clown improvisation and I am keen to engage more of my colleagues, trainees and medical students in this work. I ran a taster workshop at the RCGP conference this year in Liverpool, which was well received.

Other organisations - the Student Health Association and the Doctors' Support Network - have taken an interest in clown improvisation. My next one-day introductory workshop is on 24 January 2015 in Greenwich. Come along and discover your inner clown.

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