Clowning Around with Paul Currie

The inaugural Belly Laughs Comedy Festival in Belfast welcomes Northern Ireland's most adaptable performer

Newtownabbey-born comic Paul Currie is not only one of Northern Ireland’s most engaging entertainers, he is also one of its most prolific, with the Jim Henson Company-trained puppeteer also categorised as an artist, street performer and clown.

The Jack of all trades is set to appear at the first Belly Laughs Comedy Festival in Belfast, which runs in various venues from September 30 to October 7. And with a stint at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival, and this month's Culture Night Belfast already under his belt, Currie is raring to go.

In a rare period of down time between rehearsals for his forthcoming gig at the Black Box on Wednesday, October 3, Currie explains where it all began for this most adaptable of performers – that's right, the Northern Regional College, obviously.

'I started out studying performing arts at tech when I left school,' Currie recalls. 'I stuck that out for three years, then I went to art college, figuring I wanted to do fine art. After graduating in 1998 I worked in advertising as an art director in Glasgow for a year. When I was there I went to the Edinburgh Festival and realised it was a lot more fun...

'So I backtracked a little, got into performing more, came back to Belfast and joined the circus. I joined the juggling club at Queen’s University, then went to the Belfast Community Circus, who I’ve been working with now for ten years. That’s pretty much my bread and butter as well as walkabout street performing. From there I got into stand-up – I wanted to take clowning and put it on a stand-up stage.'

Currie was, in many ways, responsible for kick-starting the Northern Irish grassroots comedy scene, which has flourished in recent years. Noticing a lack of comedy clubs in Belfast, save for the Empire Music Hall’s The Empire Laughs Back, Currie organised a series of alternative events featuring performers from across Ireland.

Thrilled to see Northern Ireland now developing into a hotbed for aspiring performing talent, Currie acknowledges that finding one's feet on stage is not always be a smooth ride.

'As with anything, there are going to be hurdles and bumps along the way. There are a lot of egos in the comedy scene as well. This could come from it mostly being men, but then there are a lot of women coming out of the woodwork too, which is really good to see.

'On the whole I think it’s just really good to see anything happening here, as before it was just dead – about six years ago you had the Empire and that was it. Now you’ve got all these clubs popping up everywhere and it’s brilliant.'

After a year’s hiatus from stand-up to concentrate on other projects, Currie is back on the scene. Recent gigs include a run of successful shows in Edinburgh, as well as an appearance at the Pigeon & Plum’s cabaret in Belfast for Culture Night, which included some of Currie's hand-made puppets (previously featured in BBC Northern Ireland productions including Teethgrinder).

If that all seems eclectic enough, perhaps Currie’s most surprising performance of late was a street show as part of the city’s Orangefest celebrations. Performing as his character Dansko Gida, Currie's Orangfest gig bravely featured an on-stage ‘bum-off’. His 12th of July audience thankfully saw the funny side.

While the clown in him may be back with a bang, in his time away from the stand-up scene Currie did not rest on his laurels. As well as taking part in community work with Crescent Arts Centre, Currie has also had the chance to work with the company that has influenced him since childhood.

'After the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, I started working for the Jim Henson Company,' he says, modestly, 'which left little time to do anything else in terms of stand-up. It’s been fantastic though.'

With his vast knowledge of puppetry, Currie was a shoe-in to play lead Muppet Potto once shooting began on the BBC's Sesame Tree, the Northern Irish version of Sesame Street. Having been obsessed with Henson productions as a 'nipper' – he was often asked to perform the voices of Muppets such as Fozzy and Gonzo whilst at school – Currie admits that the gig was 'a dream come true'.

Eager to find out the secret behind Currie’s on-stage success, I ask him what he thinks the Golden Rule of Good Comedy is. Staying away from the old cliché of timing, Currie is adamant that the key to comedy success is managing to appear relaxed on stage.

'I was down at a Dublin comedy club recently. One of the comics was an actress and was introduced as such. She’d been in theatre for a long time, but when she got on stage she wasn’t great. There was no connection with the audience at all. She had material, but she said it as if she was standing on her own in a room with no audience there.

'She just wasn’t relaxed, stood in one spot and rhymed off monologues. I like being in the audience as much as I like being on the stage, so I know what it’s like – you want to see the person on stage relaxed and comfortable. If they’re uncomfortable you’re going to be uncomfortable and vice versa.'

And what can his audience at the Belly Laughs Comedy Festival expect? Currie’s answer is refreshingly simple. 'Nonsense and silliness,' he laughs. 'Clowning, basically.'