2012 Festival of Fools - From Nudity to Nerdity

Director Will Chamberlain has taken Belfast street theatre from the gutter to the globe

Sitting at his crow’s nest of an office at the Belfast Circus School, festival director Will Chamberlain charts the progress of Festival of Fools over the past eight years.

'We’ve gone from nudity to nerdity,' he laughs. 'It is a fact that over the years we’ve had more men in g-strings than the average – there have been quite a lot of male torsos on display!'

Inspired in part by the anarchic Festival of Fools in Amsterdam during the late 1970s and 80s, the Belfast incarnation set out to push the boundaries from the word go. Something that is often a tricky proposition in Northern Ireland!

Chamberlain expected some complaints during the first festival about acts such as Skate Naked (acrobats in thongs with a good line in double entendres) but has been pleasantly surprised by the response of audiences here. 

'You do realise how much more broad-minded people are than other people would have you believe,' he says. '99% of the time they do get the joke.'

However, while Chamberlain expects Mooky Cornish (above) to charm Belfast, there are some topics that he thinks that even the most liberal street theatre audience here isn’t quite ready for. Not yet, anyhow.

'I’ve seen a marvellous show that takes on the whole issue of the taboo of death in a very funny and extreme way. Essentially it’s a family funeral procession. They manhandle this coffin from the top end of the village where I saw it in Italy down into the main square. The audience absolutely loved it.'

The idea of shared experience and shared space, connecting people with spaces in different ways is at the heart of the festival’s ethos.

'At the time of the first festival we had the normalisation process. The shops were all open and the barriers weren’t there. But it’s a city centre – it shouldn’t just be about what you cross to get from one shop to other,' Chamberlain explains. 'The public space is actually about having a different experience, connecting you not just with each other but with the buildings around you.'

It’s a long way from Chamberlain's roots as part of a hippy circus troupe. He once drove around the south coast of England in an old ambulance and performed on the streets as a fire breather, aspiring juggler and member of a human pyramid.

Chamberlain says he first truly fell in love with street theatre following his first solo show. It was performed out of necessity, as the ambulance had broken down and he needed money to get it fixed.  

'That started a journey, which I think circus continues,' he says. 'It’s about connecting with people without any snobbery, ceremony or facade. For me, street theatre is a really, truly democratic art form. People only stop if they are enticed to stop by what’s going on. They only stay if it’s any good. Compare that to theatre, which has so many conventions and restrictions on people’s mentality.

'I can’t think of anything that breaks down barriers better than laughing together,' he continues.  'It’s a cliché because it’s true – laughter is an international language. We definitely see that in the diversity of audiences at the festival.'

A truly democratic art form which brings people from all over the world together to broaden their perceptions and make them laugh. These are all good things, but does Chamberlain think street theatre is taken seriously as an art form?

'Not in some quarters,' he says, wearily. 'The media don’t take it seriously at all. They just treat it as a nice photocall or as an excuse to trot out a cliché. Elsewhere in the world, particularly in Europe, a clown is a prestige profession. It's a much more understood and appreciated beast.'

According to Chamberlain, the outsider status of circus and street theatre is reflected in the attitude of the statutory bodies here. 'While we now have specific art form policies from the Arts Council, there’s still no box on their form that says "circus". We’re still ticking the box marked ‘other’. That’s also the title of my autobiography!' 

Chamberlain aims to address some remaining preconceptions about circus and street theatre by collaborating with Belfast Carnival and Young at Art on the forthcoming Land of Giants event in June, part of the Cultural Olympiad.

The giants theme is also reflected in the opening show of this year’s festival, Journey to the Land of Giants. Chamberlain is pretty excited about the production, which will feature a cast of 70 local performers.

'It’s a bit of a sign of maturity that we’re opening the festival with a show which was created here. It’s the first time we’ve done that and I wouldn’t do that if I wasn’t sure it was going to be a spectacle.'

The 9th Festival of Fools runs from May 3-7. For further information, visit the Festival of Fools website