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Karen Hoyer is a professional mime artist who has made a career out of making people smile. She uses her gift of performance to spread joy to young and old. Though she has worked for big names in entertainment like the Big Apple Circus and Ringling Brothers, Karen finds her volunteering in hospitals and nursing homes the most fulfilling. Her life’s work is a testament to how humor is universal and how a performance can make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. We asked Karen to share her thoughts on giving back.

“Miming is a great vehicle to give back because it goes beyond language barriers”-Karen Hoyer, philanthropist + clown

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Q: What does philanthropy mean to you?

A: Philanthropy is a way to take your most fulfilling passion and share it. So many performers want to see their names in bright lights, but I believe in using your talents for the greater good because philanthropy should purely be about giving. The miraculous thing about sharing is that most of the times you give, one way or another, you get something more rewarding back.

Q: What inspired you to use miming as a tool to give back?

A: I received my college degree in theatre, and my experience with it inspired me to use miming as a creative outlet. Most people don’t know that there is a difference between acting and miming. Actors interpret, whereas miming gives you the agency to be the creator of the performance. Miming is therefore a great vehicle to give back because it goes beyond language barriers. It allows you to have a direct connection with anyone, regardless of the mode or language it is communicated in.

Q: What is your earliest memory of philanthropy?

A: To be honest, I started clowning at about the age of 5. Once a clown is born, you’re one for the rest of your life. We’re the special angels that brighten everyone’s day.

I took this talent public in my early twenties when I started performing in small schools through an outreach performance program provided by the Illinois Arts Council. One time, the principal from one of the schools told the students that a standing ovation was the best way to congratulate a theatrical performer. By the end of my performance, all of the children stood up and gave me a standing ovation. It is this kind of genuine recognition that is more important to me than having my name in shining lights. That was a very fulfilling moment for me.

Eight clowns pose and smile together in Millennium Park

Q: How does your art make an impact on others?

A: The versatility of miming has allowed me to take my talent into multiple locations and venues within the Chicago community. One of my businesses, Partners in Mime, evolved in a way that has given us the opportunity to perform in the realm of academia. In the educational environment, clowning and miming can be used as a teaching tool because it allows your audience to see a story without words. It’s truly a great art form to give back and connect.

Beyond the setting of a school, my volunteer work with the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Program has granted me the chance to take my clowning talent into hospitals and nursing homes. As a “clown doctor,” I have performed at the University of Chicago Comer’s Children Hospital, Lurie’s Children’s Hospital and currently La Rabida Hospital. At La Rabida Hospital, we generally try to help kids have a livelier life.

Apart from children, I also entertain older people as well. In my Vaudeville Caravan program, we visit Chicago’s nursing homes to entertain the elderly. The Chicago Senior Clown Troupe—a group of senior citizens working to perfect their clown skills—use their talents to go out and perform for nursing homes and senior centers.

I’ve found that the older demographic and the younger ones are generally the age groups that need to be distracted and taken away from distress or taxing situations. My colleagues and I engage with children to help them make most out of their situations, and this way, they can evolve into stronger and more positive individuals. Clowning helps them find the positive aspects of hard situations. Out of all my experiences, working with children truly feeds my soul and fuels my passion for the line of work I’m in.

Q: What advice do you have for others who want to do good?

A: Given how busy life can get with family or work obligations, it may seem like you don’t have enough time to give back. But in reality, if you give time to those who need it, the reward is much better than the precious time you volunteered.