‘Art for a cause, not applause’: Mina Liccione’s powerful comedy

The founder of Clowns Who Care, an initiative that uses laughter to help and heal the disadvantaged, shares her extraordinary journey with Vision

The birth of Dubai’s homegrown comedy scene can be traced back to the day Mina Liccione arrived in the city. Fresh off the plane from New York, the Italian-American Broadway regular came, in the summer of 2007, to perform in a comedy arts festival. Her ten-day visit turned into a month, as more gigs came her way. By the time she finally headed home, the seed had been sown. “Everyone I met kept telling me there wasn’t a local comedy community and encouraged me to come back and start one,” says Liccione. By February 2008 she was back in Dubai, and by April of that year had founded Dubomedy, the first comedy school in the region, with the Emirati comedian (and now her husband) Ali Al Sayed.  

Fast forward nine years and Dubomedy is now the pre-eminent comedy and urban arts school in the MENA region, as well as an award-winning producer of events including the Dubai Comedy Festival, which has welcomed global names Dave Chapelle and Trevor Noah to the city.

Its success in creating a cross-cultural platform for emerging local talent is impressive. Almost as impressive, that is, as the organisation’s volunteer mission, Clowns Who Care; an initiative that has been bringing joy and laughter to thousands in need since its inception in 2009 with its “art for a cause, not applause.”

Clowns Who Care focus on helping the young and the disadvantaged
Clowns Who Care focus on helping the young and the disadvantaged

It was a spark that was lit several years before when Liccione was living in the US. “I was used to performing to thousands of people a night while on tour,” says the former STOMP and Cirque du Soleil cast member, who studied clown therapy and medical clowning while at the Clown Conservatory in San Francisco. “But it wasn’t until I performed for one young girl with cancer and her very worried mom that I truly understood the power artists have. To be able to use my art to help others laugh and heal was life-changing.” Work in special needs centres followed, as well as touring shows at senior citizen facilities.

Once in Dubai, Liccione knew that their work here had to involve helping others. “We [Liccione and her husband Al Sayed] knew we had to launch Clowns Who Care in the UAE and continue the work I had started, but evolve it into something meaningful that would fit the UAE and create more Arabic, Hindi and Urdu content to connect with the many diverse communities here,” she says. “Some of the students at the special needs centres only speak Arabic and others are really in love with Bollywood and Hindi music.”

In particular, Clowns Who Care has been closely involved with the UAE’s autism community and, through their frequent visits, has forged strong relationships with Dubai Autism Center and the Al Noor Centre, as well as hospitals in Abu Dhabi. For those with special needs the benefits of their workshops are incalculable, says Liccione. “Their confidence and social skills are boosted, the dancing and physical activities help relax their muscles and improve circulation. The laughter increase endorphins and the friendships built…well, those are priceless.”

In the wider community, their ‘Catch a Smile’ initiative encourages people in Dubai to engage in small acts of kindness. This Ramadan, they are encouraging people to thank the staff who work in mall restrooms with a care pack.

Further afield, the organisation’s work has involved putting together summer arts camps at a children’s home in Uganda. 

However, their focus has shifted since the Syrian refugee crisis took hold. “For the last four years, we have been travelling to Jordan to perform and lead creative workshops and activities for refugee children both inside and outside of the camps.” They now hope to extend their work into a year-round programme to help refugees build a future by offering skills, training and support.

“It’s become a huge part of who I am, not just as an artist, but as a human being,” says the woman who, as a young girl, was sent to dance classes to overcome her shyness. “I try to do good in all that I do.” 

To find out more about Clowns Who Care’s ‘Catch A Smile – Ramadan Acts of Kindness (June 15 – 18)’ initiative go to their Facebook page