Belfast Festival of Fools: It's jest not easy clowning around
Our man struggles with juggling ... but (almost) masters art of stilt walking
I'VE been called a clown many times but last week I got my first chance to don a bowler hat, grab some juggling balls and test my slapstick skills.
The Belfast Community Circus School, who are heavily involved with this weekend's Festival of Fools, put me through my paces in stilt walking, juggling, diabolo and hat tricks.
The Festival of Fools has been dazzling Belfast with a host of circus performers from Northern Ireland and across the globe, with the jestering jamboree due to come to an end tomorrow.
BCCS have trained hundreds of young people who will be performing across the festival and circus director, Paul Quate, tried to teach this old dog some new tricks.
First up was the ancient art of juggling, in which Paul did his best to teach me the art of the three-ball cascade. Alas, the limit of my ability stopped steadfastly at two balls, the manipulation of any more at one time completely overloaded by hand-eye coordination.
Reeling from the failure of my juggling-skills, it was on to performing hat tricks. These included flipping, rolling and manipulating the hats around the body to wow the audience.
This proved a little easier for me than the juggling, and I was able to jauntily move the hat on and off my head, as well as flipping it onto my head from my foot.
Next up was stilt walking and I was hoping my feet would save me again from another juggling-type fiasco.
It was a nervy sensation as I hefted my frame onto the wooden stilts, which were propped up against a wall. I carefully shimmied them closer to the wall in order to move myself into an almost upright position.
Then came the slightly scary part - leaning forward and beginning to walk on the stilts.
Transferring all of my weight onto tiny wooden steps was unnerving, but to my own amazement, I found myself able to walk an admirable number of steps before my balance got the better of me and I wobbled and came off, just about avoiding an embarrassing face-first splat.
Pleased at my steady circus improvements, it was on to the final discipline - diabolo. The juggling trick, which involves spinning a bobbin with two cups attached on a piece of string, looked devilishly difficult, but I was on a roll.
Moments after being shown the basics, I was spinning the diabolo with aplomb and after five minutes of practice, I was even able to throw and catch the spinning device with surprising ease.
Perhaps feeling more deserving of previously being labelled a clown, I had a chat with Paul about the BCCS and its involvement in Festival of Fools.
He told me: "I've been assisting with the acts for this year, casting my circus eye over them and helping them with that and making sure our 10 youth circus groups are ready to perform.
"We have in-house groups and outreach groups from Lisburn, Suffolk and all over taking part.
"Our youth circus group here in Belfast have the opportunity to perform as they have done every year of the festival so far. The number of groups taking part each year has been growing year on year and it's a real opportunity for the young people in the circus community here in Northern Ireland to get involved with performing alongside international artists.
"It's a great experience for me before the shows. The nerves, the excitement, frustration at maybe not thinking they're ready for it, but they get on stage and absolutely smash it every single time. Not everything goes according to plan, some people will drop or mess up a trick, but that's part of the ethos of circus, failure is just part of what we do and it's how we deal with that failure.
"We can drop, we can make mistakes, but we don't worry about it, we just pick up and get on and have another go and the audience appreciate that, getting the opportunity to try again.
"The young people improve every year when they take part in the festival, it's about giving them as many opportunities to perform as possible and make sure they hone their skills. They're always practising and always rehearsing to make sure they're ready for that stage."
The tasks I took on may seem simple, but I was a little nervous nonetheless, having never tried any of them before and performing in front of other people and cameras.
Paul said his message to other curious, but nervous, circus observers was: "Have a go, just have a go! That's all we encourage young people and adults to do when they come through the doors.
"I hope that we create an environment where people can have a go, not get it right, fail and have another go without feeling they never want to try it again.
"We always make sure we're never giving up.
"My message would be just get off the sofa and go and try it, come and have a go," Paul added.
The Festival of Fools, which opened on Friday, sees more than a hundred young people from NI take part in shows watched by thousands.
Festival producer, Georgia Simpson, said: "We hope people have been enjoying the festival so far, we have a range of fantastic artists from all over the world taking part, including some really great work from the island of Ireland.
"Hopefully people have seen something they haven't seen before and go away inspired. It's a really lovely communal experience, where people come together, see something a bit bonkers and have a laugh.
"I think we make a really big contribution to the arts scene here in a number of ways, firstly international street circus and theatre of a really high standard for residents and visitors here.
"The photography and footage produced during the festival goes out across the world and I think it's showing people beyond the city that Belfast really has something to offer in terms of vibrancy and something cultural to engage with, we're an Instagrammer's dream!
"The festival is free to attend, but expensive to put on and I'd like to say we're hugely greatful to the Arts Council, Belfast City Council, Tourism NI and the department for communities as well as everyone else who provides us with financial support."
Ms Simpson also said she was "really looking forward" to checking out The Red Trouser Show and anarchic jester Ugo Sanchez Jr, both on today, as well as tightrope walker Angelique Ross, who is performing in Writer's Square tomorrow.
For information about what's on at the Festival of Fools today and tomorrow visit www.foolsfestival.com