I discovered Helen Donnelly through her Clown persona Foo. Deb and I went to see a Clown show called Morro and Jasp Get Baked. Foo was a guest performer for the show.
Foo took my breath away. Literally. I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t breathe.
Foo was an androgynous, white-faced clown who spoke in gibberish. With sprinklings of English words here and there. “Sir!” was one of Foo’s trademark utterances.
After that show, I kept my eyes out for other Foo performances. And I read up on this Helen Donnelly person.
One time, I was at the Festival of Clowns — a Fringe Festival for Clown shows — and I was at the merchandise table. I saw some Foo merch and looked a fridge magnet. I looked up and Helen Donnelly was looking at me. How different she was from her Foo persona!
We smiled at each other. She didn’t know me, but she knew I was buying some of her merchandise. Part of me wanted to talk to her but I was shy. I thought it would be awkward. I bought my magnet and left.
A few months later, I saw an ad for a Clown workshop that Helen would be teaching in Hamilton. Say no more! I signed up immediately.
As a student of hers, I got to see another side of Helen. Not only did she make people laugh, but she was so generous with her laughter. And she was nurturing of her Clown students.
Helen helped me explore and develop my Clown persona: Zingo. Without Helen, there would be no Zingo. And I wouldn’t have met a bucket list goal of putting on a Clown show (The Zingo Factor).
When I think of Helen, I think of her deep, belly laugh that filled the room. Her laugh involved her full body.
She used to say that she was a one-trick pony. That she was only good at Clown. She was a great Clown.
She was also a great teacher. A great advocate. A great partner to her soulmate, Neil. A great friend. A great healer.
She realized one of her big dreams. By creating a certification program for training Therapeutic Clowns. Shortly after her inaugural class graduated that she was diagnosed with cancer.
And so began her forced march that she and Neil took together. They shared their ups and downs with their legions of friends on Facebook. The highs and the lows.
Helen was a pragmatist. A realist. A staunch atheist. So it was important to savour the time she had.
Helen’s march lasted two and a half years. She always knew where it was going to end. It was a terminal diagnosis.
But it was still surprising to hear the news yesterday, that she died.
Even while sick, Helen was trying to raise funds for her Therapeutic Clowns. When she was well enough she did painting commissions. To raise funds for rednoseremedy.ca. I’m grateful to have one of her paintings hanging in my home.
It’s been more than four years since I’ve seen a Foo performance live, but we still utter “Sir!” around the house every now and then. In Foo’s deep and authoritarian voice.
My daughter texted me the following message today, which sums up how I feel:
“She was just the best. Her legacy will live on in the Gruner house. SIR!”
Good night, my Clown Mama. Good night, Foo. Good night, Dr. Flap. Thank you for all the foolish antics that you shared with the world.
You will be missed, SIR!