Festival of Fools 2013

Director Will Chamberlain celebrates ten years of street theatre, silliness and abseiling in central Belfast

Nine years ago, Will Chamberlain walked out of CastleCourt Shopping Centre, Belfast on a Thursday evening, mounted a small bench, and anxiously informed an assembly of spectators that the Italian clown scheduled to ‘artistically abseil’ down the building would be delayed due to technical issues.

What happened next surprised Chamberlain. ‘There was a massive cheer,’ he remembers. ‘People were cheering the fact that the show was going to be late. It was quite extraordinary, the buzz that was there. From that moment on, we knew we had a hit on our hands.’

Having a one-year hit was one thing. Turning that into the annual street theatre extravaganza that has become the Festival of Fools was quite another. The festival celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, but Chamberlain, its director, insists that such longevity was never remotely envisaged by the event’s initiators.

‘To be perfectly honest, it was quite miraculous that we reached a second birthday,’ he comments. Special European and local money had enabled the first festival to happen on a one-off basis, but no permanent sources of funding were in place for the event to continue.

Chamberlain, however, was convinced that it simply had to. ‘It was an idea we’d had for a while,’ he reflects. ‘We really thought that Belfast was in need of street theatre, to help the post-ceasefire process of normalisation.

‘Because of the Troubles, there hadn’t really been street theatre in Belfast for 30-plus years. The city centre still didn’t have the vibrancy, diversity and energy that is so important for a modern city.’

Audience reaction to the inaugural festival in 2004 was, says Chamberlain, crucial in persuading the organisers that the dose should be repeated on an annual basis. ‘Initially we didn’t know whether anyone would be interested in it, or know what we were talking about,’ he recalls.

‘But it was very evident that there was a demand and a desire for a street festival. Belfast genuinely, and instantly, felt like a European city. People emailed in to say it transformed their experience of Belfast city centre. It was so uplifting. The people’s response gave us the desire to continue it.’

Festival of Fools is now a major fixture on the international street theatre circuit, with coachloads of tourists bussing in to Belfast from European locations, and a cosmopolitan roster of performers putting on the entertainment.

Among them are many Northern Irish practitioners, and Chamberlain (himself an Englishman) extols the level of the talent being nurtured at the Belfast Community Circus School, where he is also director, and in the broader Northern Irish context.

‘I’m not just saying this, but I sincerely believe that per head of population our local talent in street theatre is the strongest in Europe, perhaps the world. I love the sense of humour that comes out in our shows. I think that what defines Belfast in so many ways is a certain way of looking at life that allows the laughter to come through. The technique that people have in terms of the circus is again outstanding.’

Chamberlain also has firm views on what it is that makes street theatre different from going to see a play in a conventional indoor setting. ‘With street theatre, it’s live and dangerous,’ he comments, quickly adding that he doesn’t mean in a physically threatening fashion.

‘It’s a very democratic form of artistic expression. The street is putting the performance where the people are, rather than bringing the people to the performance. There’s a massive psychological difference.

‘And there aren’t the conventions or inhibitions that you get when you go into a venue and sit and watch something, you don’t have to dress in a certain way. With street theatre, you can stop, you can look, you can walk away if you don’t like it.

‘That means that it has to be engaging, because if it’s not engaging, your audience disappears. They haven’t paid up front to see something, so they don’t necessarily give you the half-hour or three-quarters of an hour start before the interval, before they make their mind up.’

The Belfast audiences who continue to support Festival of Fools in large numbers have evidently long since made their minds up that the entertainment is of a consistently elevated quality. Chamberlain has no doubt that this year’s standard will be as high as ever, not least because a spot of crowd-sourcing has been utilised in compiling the 2013 programme.

‘This year we put a list onto the website, and said it’s the tenth anniversary, so vote for your top ten of all of the hundreds of performances of artists that we’ve had over the years. So we’ve been able to bring some of them back as a result of the desire of the audiences. And it was a local company which topped that poll.’

Among the many events happening at this year’s festival, Chamberlain singles out the opening evening as worthy of special mention. ‘We’ve got the Bash Street Theatre,’ he enthuses. ‘We’ve had them before, they’re an amazing company.

‘They effectively reproduce their own versions of classic black and white silent movies, featuring all of the physicality and slapstick that you’d associate with the Buster Keatons, the Charlie Chaplins. And then the sets, and the intricacy they put into those sets, it’s just beautiful.’

Bash Street Theatre’s The Strongman!, a show based on Chaplin’s film The Circus, is being staged on Thursday 3 and Friday 4 May at St Anne’s Square in the Cathedral Quarter, and is an obvious highlight of this year’s festival.

With so much success already behind it, and a solid brand identity firmly established, prospects are presumably looking bright for the future of the Festival of Fools in Belfast. 'Not necessarily,' observes Chamberlain cautiously.

‘In this current climate funding is very tough,’ he sighs. ‘We’ve just had a reduction in funding from the city council, which is very disappointing and shocking. But hopefully we’ll find a way to get that back next year.

‘The thing that drives me on, and it may sound very pathetic, but my kids are now 15 and 13, they were six and four when the first festival was on. They spent the whole weekend on the streets helping out, and carrying things around.

‘Now they perform as part of the youth circus. They would find it very hard to forgive me if I didn’t put on another festival. I’m hopeful that we will run it again next year.’

Festival of Fools 2013 runs from May 2 – 6 in various locations in and around Belfast city centre. Visit the festival website for more information.