Belfast’s Festival of Fools: No laughing matter at the ‘Dome of Delight’?

Earlier this year, organisers at Belfast’s award winning Festival of Fools received news from Belfast City Council’s Tourism, Culture and Arts Unit that they were to be excluded from multi-annual funding. In addition, their annual allocation was reduced from £11,000 (2012) to £6000 (2013). The Festival’s funding from the City Council’s Community Festivals Fund remains unchanged.

There’s a memorable scene in one of my favourite films, Anthony Manghella’s Truly Madly Deeply (1990). One of the main characters, Nina, is being drawn into a heated argument in a restaurant when up pops a customer at another table, Mark. Just as the exchange descends into fisticuffs,  the protagonists are suddenly distracted and turn their gaze to Mark, who has stood up and launched into a magician’s patter:

Mark: ‘There is nothing up my left sleeve. Nothing up my right sleeve. There is nothing on my plate except gravy (yum)

‘I take a novel. It’s Russian. It must always be a Russian novel. And I throw it in the air.’ [At which point the novel is transformed into a pigeon in full flight across the restaurant space].

The brief mise en scène is used by Manghella to suggest the power of spontaneity, magic and comedic theatre to interrupt the logic and energy of a conflict, resulting in catharsis and de-escalation. From a scene of confrontation, the restaurant is transformed into a space of theatre, improvisation, humour and puzzlement. Protagonists are stopped in their tracks, onlookers share a laugh, and the pop-up magician resumes his seat and requests another cup of coffee please.

Belfast’s Festival of Fools  has been generating pop-up moments of humour, absurdity, audience participation and circus acts across the city since 2004. During the annual Festival and as part of their summertime series of Sunday Treats the Cathedral Quarter and other public spaces are occupied by a host of international and local street performers. Tens of thousands of local people and visiting tourists have responded to the invitation to ‘take back ownership of the city centre’ by turning up to view, cajole, heckle and occasionally take part alongside Ernest the Magnifico, Cirque de Sally, Fatt Matt, Haggis and Charlie, and others. The history and civic re-animation of landmark venues such as St. Anne’s Square, Cornmarket, Cotton Court, and Rosemary Street are- in many ways – inseparable from the work of the Festival’s organisers at the Belfast Community Circus.

The contribution of the Festival and Sunday performances to the economy, tourism and the commercial life of Belfast is well recognised through the active support of local hostelries – who provide meals to visiting performers – and the input of multiple funding bodies led by the Arts Council, the NITB, the DSD, Peace 3, with contributions from Belfast City Council’s Community festivals fund and the Council itself. With an annual budget in excess of £100,000, the Festival has also been sponsored by corporate bodies such as Translink.

“It’s good to be using the city for pleasure…..” (Belfast citizen)

Given the recent history of contestation over Belfast’s public spaces – and the centrality of contested space & symbolism to the debate about uniting communities – it is, perhaps, the contribution of the Festival of Fools to the transformation of public space that is most remarkable. The Festival organisers and performers might be described as Belfast’s ‘tricksters’ as understood in the Native American tradition. They provide a deeply therapeutic and shared experience that injects moments of anarchic disruption and questioning in the midst of a city where spaces are ritually inscribed by the anxiety-laden logic of ritualised commemoration ‘lest we forget’. The unpredictable figure of the trickster provokes an  openness to life’s multiplicity and paradoxes, and a playful or questioning orientation to identity. Many who have attended Festival events have commented on this aspect of the performances, after experiencing the ‘momentary sociality among strangers’ that is a characteristic of street acts:

“It makes us look out…not in.”

“There is a sense of shared interaction and occasion.”

“The Festival is very different from earlier images of Belfast.”

“Many of the spaces may not be recognised as venues for cultural arts activity but the Festival brings these spaces to life and makes the public look at them through new eyes.”

As the Festival organisers’ Evaluation of the Festival of Fools 2012 (2013) concludes: “By bringing people together in these central , accessible and (predominantly)neutral spaces, the Festival is contributing to key themes of community cohesion, celebrating and positively utilising shared spaces and shared cultural experience. Spaces that may typically sit empty over bank holiday weekends are buzzing and bustling during the Festival of Fools.” (2013, p.29)

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“I think it is a lot harder to hate somebody when you have had a laugh with them” (Will Chamberlain, Festival of Fools)

Will Chamberlain is the Artistic Director of the Festival of Fools and Director of the Belfast Community Circus School. With thirty years of experience in street theatre and clowning, Chamberlain embodies the insight and professionalism that has brought the Belfast Festival to international attention, resulting in a number of awards. For Chamberlain, from the outset, the point of the Festival has been to change people’s relationship to the city. The Festival has been created around the specifics of Belfast and has changed with the dynamic of the city. “It is not a commodity, it is a passion.”

He believes that the Festival has been largely successful in its ambition to bring about a transformation in how local people regard public space as fewer people merely view Belfast in an exclusively functional way, where you go shopping and ‘drag the kids around’. The Festival and associated activities have invited the local population to look again, an invitation to occupy public spaces in a positive and active way. Reflecting on his own clowning experience, he notes that: ‘When you get two strangers laughing side-by-side at the folly of somebody else, just sharing that moment, they may turn to each other…there is a mutual acknowledgement in a shared smile or just fleeting eye contact as the pair acknowledge “that idiot over there”.’

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The comedy of the Festival draws from a universal language. It is very physical and not verbal, and comes without political overtones of any shade. ‘We are happy to be the fools….it is a noble tradition. Yes, there’s an agenda but it is much more about pure anarchy rather than an alignment to one side or the other. ‘ Performers in this tradition, however, often play with the theme of identity in the course of their work. A recent example was the Japanese act, Gamarjobat, in which a pair of comedic performers disrupt cultural stereotypes.  In the first year, Chamberlain received an email from an employee at a local bank who happened to stumble on the performances. She said: ‘I was in town on Saturday….For the first time ever I felt as if I was coming into a modern European city.’

Chamberlain and his colleagues have not only led the occupation of Belfast’s new and renewed public spaces but have worked closely with local developers to define some of those spaces, notably in the Cathedral Quarter. The collaboration has self-consciously pursued the creation of continental piazza-style spaces in the face of cynicism in some quarters. They provided the opening performances at Custom House Square and St Anne’s Square. At ‘the big finish’ performances that conclude the Festival each year between eight and nine hundred people now gather to enjoy the closing performances.

The organisers have worked hard to counter deeply engrained perceptions of street performers as ‘interlopers’ or ‘outsiders’. Detailed and colourful evaluations of the Festivals are published and circulated to sponsors, demonstrating the economic impact and significant return on funding investment. This has been reciprocated by many of the city’s leading hostelries who have provided food and drink to the visiting performers.

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Marching to a different rhythm on ‘The Twelfth’

There is, perhaps, no greater testimony to the impact of the Festival’s contribution than the collaboration that has been established with the organisers of Orangefest.  Chamberlain describes his colleagues’ contribution to Orangefest on the Twelfth  as a ‘fascinating venture into the creation of shared space in these most contested of days’. For the past four years the street performers have been working with the Orange Order to help transform Orangefest into a more family-friendly and inclusive celebration. Between 12 Midday and 16.00, after the main parade has left the city centre, the streets are given over to a different set of  rhythms and to a series of street performances at locations such as the City Hall and Corn Market. One mother commented last year: ‘I have never been town on this day in 40 years. This year I brought my kids down and its fantastic.’

The Order have embraced the contribution of street theatre because ‘we are living in changing times and we want to create a climate in Belfast city centre on the afternoon of the 12th where everybody can come along and enjoy an inclusive celebration supported by the Orange Orders.’ While prioritising their commemorative activity, the Orange welcome the humour that the international performers also bring to the streets for the occasion. The collaboration can produce unlikely appearances in the streets of Belfast on the 12th! One year a star attraction on the afternoon of Orangefest was none other than Mario Queen of the Circus, a camp leather-clad Puerto Rican Freddie Mercury tribute juggler. This character stretched the imagination and self-image of the Orangefest organizers, never mind the audience.

Epilogue: A psychological blow

Across the city at the end of the Festival of Fools street performances this year, news of funding cuts was announced in a dozen foreign accents by the respective artists. Appeals to the audience were issued for donations to help ensure the continuity of the Festival. Behind the announcements was a decision by Belfast City Council’s Tourism, Culture and Arts Unit to reject an application from the Festival organisers for inclusion in new arrangements for multi-year funding. In a double-blow, one that Chamberlain describes as a deep “psychological blow” to his colleagues, the Council also reduced an annual allocation from £11,000 to £6000 in project funding. This will have the effect of undermining the sustainability of funding for the Festival, and completely removing funding for the Sunday Treats and work such as that carried out with Orangefest.  Another strand of City Council funding, from the Community Festivals Fund, has not been cut.

It is an extraordinary decision by some of the fund holders at Belfast City Council at a time when politicians – from the OFMdFM down – are crying out for a re-imagination of the way in which we occupy and negotiate our public spaces, symbols and identity. It has been well established that street performers do something to the everyday life of the city. They affect how spaces and people feel, how spaces are used, what relations occur, and inject what some call a liminality or healthy strangeness into our everyday routines. We give a licence to street performers to open up public spaces, symbols and identities for a second look, for imaginative change. Difference can be negotiated through humour and, in the process, become less contentious and bring strangers together if only for a momentary regard.

Perhaps it is time for the fund holders at the Dome of Delight to take a second look.

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  • cynic2

    I have to say that I am sick of this whinging for money.

    You arts people are simply not creative enough when it comes to fund raising. Forget about these formal funding competitions where there are rules and regulations and civil servants get involved in keeping records and reading business plans. You need to be more strategic in your approach.

    Its a bit blatant but a good start is to make the right contributions to the right political parties. In some cases (provided you are not one of themuns) and that will almost guarantee you funding by opening the right doors at Stormont or whatever town hall you want into.

    If you cant stretch to that or are ethically challenged (or are one of themuns) there are other routes.

    Run a free fundraising gig or even just provide a free stand up (no political jokes please – we have elected enough of those already) at someones daughters 18th Birthday Party.

    Then there’s the hospitality route. In some cases even a few tickets for the Empire could go a long way to help you achieve your goals.For the more avaricious (or Christian) politicians you might have to go a bit more up market. But fear not! We are not talking the expense of Caribbean Cruises here – an Easyjet Flight to Benidorm to examine local sewerage facilities or investigate peacemaking and reconciliation post the Spanish Civil War may do. Or even free tickets and a B&B at a Religious Revival in Ayr can be more the level here.Just make sure you pick the right religion to help revive!!

    Some of this may even attract tax relief as charitable contributions

  • cynic2

    I forgot to mention….if all that fails get a couple of acts who perform in Ulster Scots, Irish and some obscure Norwegian dialect that died out in the 1880s. Sure fire winner and no-one will know if they make it all up (except the Irish ones but you can just treat them as drunken hecklers and they will be so frothing at the mouth that the audience will go with it)