Catriona Doherty talks to three local performers whose day jobs are anything but ordinary
For so many generations, circus was always used as entertainment, my goal is to approach it like fine art or dance, almost like a language to communicate to an audience,” says contemporary circus artist Christopher McAuley (28).
“My job is made up of so many parts,” the Circusful, Belfast, performer says.
“I work mainly as a trapeze artist, but also as a flyer in partner acrobatics — so if you think about cheerleading, I’m the small person at the top that gets thrown around. Either way I spend most of my time in the air, being caught or balanced by others, or just by myself.
“Alongside performing, I also coach. I coach amateurs to professionals — the joy and also sometimes the pain — of trapeze. I adore my job. I spend most of my days just dangling in the air feeling like Peter Pan.”
Christopher says he loves challenging himself to aim higher and thrives on the feeling of accomplishment he gets when he reaches his goals. He pushes himself to re-evaluate his goals, set new targets, and relishes the “massive adrenaline buzz” of performing.
The artist’s Circusful bio states his ‘contemporary work touches upon human emotion, vulnerability and identity, aiming to use his platform to bring awareness to the queer community’.
Commenting on this, Christopher says: “Growing up in north Belfast as a queer person wasn’t really the easiest time.
“I’ve experienced a lot, and it was tough when it came to the understanding of my own identity, especially during a time when it wasn’t really that easy.
“I always think, as a queer youth, I can only imagine how great it would be to have that representation on stage to really feel validated in who you are, so I hope to be this validation.
“With my work, I want to continue to push the acceptance of who we are, highlight issues in society regarding the queer community, but then also celebrate the joy of being queer, the joy of understanding and being confident in myself.
“When I approach my work, I always strive for authenticity, I really want the audience to feel me, and not a character so much, more they get to see who Christopher McAuley is on stage. I want them to relate to me, and almost taste my experiences.
“With my recent solo piece, I speak about my experience of accepting my natural femininity; sadly, something as a gay man, I’ve had a lot of issues with. But circus has been such a great way for me to speak about my own experience, but also relate it to society, that actually I’m not the only one.
“For such a long time, for so many generations, circus was always used as entertainment, my goal is to approach it like fine art or dance, almost like a language to communicate to an audience, for sure it will be entertaining but that’s really not my focus. I want to use my skills in the air, on the floor, to connect with people, to kind of give a greater meaning to the art form itself.”
Christopher discovered the joy of performing as a child and began attending Circusful — formerly the Belfast Circus Community School — at the age of 12.
“I joined Circusful through a social circus project called Circus of the North and it was aimed at uniting a small group of teenagers from all over Belfast, using circus as a way for social development, bridging the Catholic/Protestant community divide, and I just fell in love with it super quickly,” Christopher says.
“It was so rewarding, and the sense of wonder with each new skill; we did juggling, plate spinning and hats, and each skill had its own world of knowledge. It was so much fun, I spent my youth trying everything, and that was it, that was how I got hooked.
“From this project, The Circus of the North, I was lucky to get a space in the main youth circus programme. I went there around the age of 14, where I really worked on my skills in the air, on trapeze and other things in the air. At 16 I was peer educating and assisting coaches, at 18 I was working as a coach.
“At 23 I auditioned for a four-year degree in circus arts over with Codarts University of the Arts in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. I moved there in 2016 and I graduated in 2020. I was the first person from Northern Ireland to graduate from that university.
“It was incredible; four years of real intense skill development.
“It was very fine art based so we looked at concept development, how to make conceptual work and not just entertainment. Now that I’m graduated I kind of float between Northern Ireland and the Netherlands depending on each project.”
Christopher is currently in the Netherlands performing in a four-person acrobatic troop that will tour Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain from June.
You can see Christopher perform locally at the Festival of Fools in the FoF After Hours on May 1, which is a triple bill of three shows using trapeze, acrobatics, juggling and clowning to explore gender, punk, feminism and clownarchism. For tickets see, www.citizenticket.co.uk/events/festival-of-fools/fof-after-hours-18/
“My job is about bringing together great people to produce amazing and memorable fire shows,” says founder of FirePoise, Clare Hawkins (44).
“I grew up during the Troubles, and my mum always said to get out of Northern Ireland and go travelling — so I did. She travelled to Australia on the £10 boat ticket in her early twenties, and she pushed my brother and I to adventure too.
“I got a degree in journalism in 2000, then travelled through Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia for two and a half years on my own.
“While away, I saw fire performance for the first time and started practicing myself. It was a great way to meet lovely people.
“When I came home in 2004, there wasn’t really anyone doing fire performance here, so I started teaching through the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast, set up FirePoise, started doing gigs, and it all grew from there.”
The Bangor woman founded FirePoise in September 2004 and has spent the past 18 years learning about all the various aspects of running this unique business — from admin, marketing and finance, to choreography, risk assessments and performance. She says: “A lot goes on behind the scenes.
“FirePoise has always been a collective of great fire artists. I’ve brought together some amazing people over the years and created some beautiful shows. Those folk come and go depending on their own journeys. I lost several great performers during the pandemic to an office job. It’s understandable. Performance isn’t always the most reliable, and it’s easier to rely on that monthly wage.
“Artists go above and beyond every day, and are rarely paid properly for all the time and energy that goes into their art. There’s a lot of goodwill given in the creation of any art. The industry was absolutely decimated during the pandemic and while it’s starting to recover now, I think that goodwill will take longer to return.
“My job is about bringing together great people to produce amazing and memorable fire shows, and I’ll keep working to do that.”
Despite the difficulties, Clare is passionate about her career choice; the opportunities it presents and variety it offers.
“I enjoy meeting great people from all walks of life, visiting new places and finding myself in unusual situations.
“But I also enjoy the challenge. No two events are the same, no two clients are the same — and it’s all about smoothing out those bumps in the road.
“Every event is different — from council events like the Monster Mash at Halloween, to private parties, weddings, corporate gala events and ‘warm welcomes’ for conferences. I also offer poise workshops for schools and community groups.
“We use a variety of fire and pyrotechnic props and also cutting-edge LED technology which allows me to programme messages, logos and intricate patterns into the light trails. Magic!”
Clare is undeterred by the risk aspect of performing with burning flames.
“It’s all about practice; any fire performer masters their prop without fire before introducing that extra element,” she explains.
“We take as many safety precautions as possible, with suitable clothing, maintained props and appropriate fuel — but it’s still real fire — and that is an excellent teacher.”
Does fire performing require a high level of fitness?
“I wish I was a lot fitter than I am now… but, life! I’m 44, with two children, polycystic ovary syndrome and a very real love of soda bread — but I’m trying hard to channel the confidence of my inner 20-something and embrace this new body that age has given me.”
You can catch FirePoise performing live at the The Festival of Fire and Light, Banbridge, tonight (April 23) from 9pm. For more information see, www.facebook.com/FirePoise
“As human beings, we want to play and be silly… we sometimes just need a wee nudge to do so,” says Rachel Melaugh (32), Creative Director of In Your Space Circus in Londonderry, street theatre performer and Land Synchronised Swim team member.
“The Land Syncro Swim Team are a trio of extremely toned and physically excellent sporting legends… or so they think,” Rachel explains. “The trio — who represent dip-your-toe-slovia — were rejected from their Olympic bid due to their sport Land Synchronised Swimming being deemed ‘not real’ and ‘utterly ridiculous’. But you can’t hold these women down; if the Olympics won’t have them, they will host their own no-lympics in a town or city near you.
“The Land Syncro Swimmers are a comedy dance and acrobatic trio, and we absolutely adore performing this act. This is one of our most outrageous and comedic acts, with the ridiculousness being taken very seriously by the performers. There is a freedom and an empowerment in going out onto the street, as a female artist in a swimsuit and being able to feel strong and confident and funny and to have audiences feeling like they can interact with you in a way that is always surprising to us and them. We bring them into our world and this allows a certain freedom.”
The no-swim team perform at events across Northern Ireland, mainly during the summer months when the weather is better.
“Where there is concrete, these ladies will appear,” Rachel says. “Maritime events and sporting events would be their usual haunt.
“The audience reaction is always that of joy, silliness and freedom — an audience feels invited to really let themselves go. The message of these ladies is to: ‘Follow your dreams. If we can win gold, so can you.’
“It is pure positivity and happiness, and this radiates around our audiences. Typically, when we arrive you will catch audiences of all ages joining us for Macarena or Rock The Boat. As human beings, we want to play and be silly and let our inner child out, we sometimes just need a wee nudge to do so.”
Rachel’s role as Creative Director at In Your Space Circus (IYSC) enables her to create and produce street theatre shows and large-scale outdoor productions, all with circus at their core. She is passionate about accessible art and love creating new worlds on the street for audiences to step into and engage with. She is also a freelance actor and talented street theatre performer.
“Whilst my role as Creative Director is very time-consuming, I am very passionate about performing, so I make sure my inner clown is always nurtured too,” Rachel says.
“I really enjoy the surprise element of street theatre, as well as the accessibility of it. An audience member may just happen upon the show and might not be someone who would go to a theatre or might not even speak the same language, but the highly visual nature of circus and street theatre means everyone can enjoy it.
“In my performance work, I love clowning and working in street theatre allows me to play with audiences who might not ordinarily engage with the arts. This also means, as a performer, you must be fully immersed in your character and constantly thinking on your feet, as you’ll get a different response from each individual every time. Street theatre allows us to bring a bit of joy to someone who might not expect it but may need it most.”
Rachel first started performing as a child, participating in local theatre shows and school events. She went on to a BA Hons in Acting in England before returning home to Derry and working with several companies across Northern Ireland.
“I always knew performing was for me — and I think I’ve always had a wee bit of madness in me too,” she says. “When I was working in traditional theatre, I knew there was something missing, and once I started working with IYSC it all fell into place — I could create bizarre worlds and scenarios and there was a freedom to play and be totally bonkers. At IYSC we work with Derry Halloween festival and each year we are given the freedom to create a completely new world for audiences to enter into. Using the surprise of circus and fire to bring the streets to life, gives me so much joy.”
The Land Synchronised Swimmers will be out and about performing across Northern Ireland during the summer months, see @inyourspacecircus on Facebook or Instagram for details of upcoming performances.