Belfast Circus: Defying Death for 30 Years

More than just the Greatest Show on Earth, the community performance mainstay is giving back with a whole weekend of spectacular free events to mark the milestone

With trapeze artists, escapology acts, jugglers, custard pie fights and oh so much more, Belfast Community Circus School (BCCS) is pulling out all the stops for the Summer Solstice weekend. More than 40 circus events are planned for June 20 and 21, as the circus school celebrates 30 years with its free Big Birthday Bash – and everyone’s invited along.

Taking place across the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast, the Big Birthday Bash will also feature a special record-breaking attempt on the Saturday evening – so, custard pies at the ready…

'The Big Birthday Bash will be the biggest celebration of our birthday year,' says BCCS Director Will Chamberlain. 'On the evening of June 20, we have the Big Fun Flan Fling – our attempt to break the Guinness World Record for a custard pie fight, and we need 1,000 people in Custom House Square.

'Since 2011, custard pies haven’t been allowed though, over concerns of wasting food, so we’ll actually be using shaving foam pies. It’s a throwback to the great days of silent comedy. As an ex-clown myself, I’ve always harboured a desire to recreate that famous Laurel and Hardy scene. It will be a lot of fun. Then there’s a Circus Party at the Oh Yeah Centre and the Carnival Parade.' 

On the Sunday, the public can also enjoy the ever popular MisGuided Tour, led by John Lee, who attended the very first BCCS summer camp back in 1987. Jitterbug Jackson, another former BCCS recruit, will also be flying in from Cambodia, while Martin Bigpig (aka Martin Mor, comedian and circus performer) is also on the list of acts.

Martin BigPig

'Martin’s a Coleraine man who trained with the circus school in the Eighties and now travels the world doing stand-up and children’s shows,' says Will. 'We also have Belfast-based Tumble Circus and Stripey Socks Productions doing a variety of acrobatics and aerial stunts.

'All of this is free. This is a celebration - it’s a thanks to people for helping us survive so long and we want to have the focus on the fun.'

With a whole host of other free events taking place over the circus school’s 30th birthday year, there’s certainly much to be enjoyed. Indeed, the Belfast Community Circus School is a trailblazer in the work that it does, and is used as a blueprint for many other organisations UK-wide.

Over the course of any normal year, the circus school runs around 2,000 workshops, with a Youth Circus boasting 300 children a week as regular members and a waiting list of 1,200. Meanwhile, 60 adults regularly attend circus workshops and the school also runs outreach programmes, along with the annual Festival of Fools and Premiere Circus - a professional agency for performers.

They further support professional development for artists on full-time training courses.

With arts cuts ongoing, the BCCS has felt the pinch like many organisations, but is determined, says Will, to soldier on regardless.

'Every year is a struggle, but our philosophy is that we just give as much as we can,' he says. 'We’re unique in the wonderful balance we have between community arts and professional arts. There’s a lot of community support and we have artists who are also teachers.

'The main thing for us this year is to really try and generate creative content and support artists delivering new work.' 

It’s this commitment to supporting artists and nurturing creative talent that has kept the circus school going for three decades. Founded by Mike Moloney and Donal McKendry in 1985, the BCCS has a strong work ethos and extremely high standards in its delivery of services.

'I came to circus at the age of 21 and I absolutely loved it - it became an obsession for me,' says Will. 'It helped me connect with my lost performer and I can see from a personal perspective how valuable and important it is. I believe the circus can deliver more things than it can’t deliver, in terms of physical and mental health and wellbeing, and in educational terms.

'We start at the age of two, developing children’s physical, literacy and social skills and helping them bond with their parents. They learn to understand and listen and for some, there’s a hunger to keep advancing.' 

With so much work going on in the background, the Belfast Community Circus School is perhaps a resource taken for granted in Northern Ireland. Indeed, many won’t know the extent of the school’s work, some of which was featured in a four-part documentary on RTE back in 2013.

'Circus does suffer from the clichés,' says Will. 'It’s difficult for us to let people know the depth of the work we engage in. There’s an intent in what we do. We try and animate spaces like Custom House Square, and show people that connection with their cities can be more than just shopping. Streets can be places you can colonise and occupy and enjoy. We connect people with architecture in an intentional way.

'People also assume that because there’s a circus school in Belfast, there’s one everywhere in the UK. They don’t realise that what’s here is very special. There isn’t a community circus in London, Liverpool, Birmingham or Bristol. We’re unique in that respect.

'Our ethos has always been about opportunity and equality. We’ve used circus as a cross-community tool because it has an appeal to people from all backgrounds. Circus is ultimately about cooperation and connection and mutual responsibility. You can’t achieve circus without those qualities. Because it’s physically so inter-dependant you can’t do it without understanding that people are connected.

'Our founder, Mike, would have said everybody has the potential to achieve something amazing. Our job is to support people to deliver that potential and stick with them while they discover how to.'

The Big Fun Flan Fling takes place at 6pm on June 20. Register to take part here.