Bernice Blakeman has an alter ego — Repete the Clown.
The East Kildonan resident has been painting her face and putting on a colourful costume for over 20 years, taking her therapeutic clown act to Winnipeg hospitals and seniors care homes to cheer and comfort residents.
The regal-looking senior, who also sings in two Winnipeg choirs, told an audience of about 40 attending a Headingley Seniors’ Services lunch and learn session on Feb. 4 that she first got the desire to become a clown in 1989. At that time, her father was in a care home and
Blakeman saw how he and other residents responded positively to a visiting clown’s antics.
She enrolled in an intensive two-month clown course offered in Medicine Hat, Alta. through the University of Wisconsin, and learned about the history and art of clowning.
"Clowning is an art form that’s centuries old," she said.
She said the three main types of clowns are whiteface or mime, auguste and character clowns.
"I started as a whiteface," she said. "But I realized that I had to talk."
Blakeman and a partner developed two auguste clown characters, called Pete and Repete.
While her partner isn’t performing anymore, Blakeman still appears as Repete.
"The clown character gives you immense power," she said. "Old and young can be frightened of a clown."
Because she realizes that her appearance in Repete’s makeup and costume might scare her audience, Blakeman said she enters a room cautiously, and tries to ask permission first through a wave or nod.
Her appearance is meant to provide a humourous way to relieve stress, but there’s much more to her act.
"Therapeutic or caring clowns have to learn to listen, comfort and console."
She recounted a story of how one elderly care home resident started talking to her without hesitation. She later found out from the home’s staff that they hadn’t heard the woman speak at all in the two years she’d lived there.
She likened the job of a therapeutic clown to that of a minister or priest, but without the religious aspects, as her main goal is to help people, not just get a laugh.
"They usually don’t feel like there’s a person behind the makeup so they tell you their troubles," she said.
She plans to keep on dressing up as Repete and offering people the chance to laugh and possibly share their problems.