5th May 2019 in Arts
We are right in the middle of the 2019 Festival of Fools and the Cathedral Quarter is absolutely buzzing!
You may have seen the performances, you may even have met a fabulous volunteer or two, but have you ever thought about the team who work hard behind the scenes to bring world-class circus, comedy and street theatre to Belfast every year?
Well, wonder about them no more, because we would like to introduce you to Administrator Ellie Chamberlain, Chief Executive Jenna Hall and Festival Producer Georgia Simpson.
Ellie Chamberlain is Administrative Officer at Belfast Circus School, and is heavily involved in making the Festival come together, from a logistical point of view. From populating the central itinerary which tells everyone which artist is arriving, when and where; Ellie is involved in booking taxis and managing flights and hotels for visiting performers, as well as what she describes as the “little bits and pieces” such as popping to the shop for any essentials.
It turns out she is being somewhat modest, as Georgia and Jenna point out that some of those ‘little bits and pieces’ include managing the orders for the Festival’s branded merchandise, such as tote bags, plus wristbands and those all-important t-shirts for volunteers. “Ellie is an utter demon at keeping on top of those orders!” says Jenna, “Getting them scheduled in, knowing if someone changes their flight time that we then need to change the taxi time, and just seeing that operational piece of work through.”
As well as being super organised, Ellie forms a key part of the welcoming committee to greet performers arriving here from all around the world. “This year there are quite a few people arriving during the festival,” says Ellie, so at this stage she will be out and about assisting with venue management.
“Kirsty in the Circus School office will make sure they are greeted and welcomed, and then they can get changed and leave their things here. Then some of them like to rehearse in the space, and we also have our own little lunch room this year in the Oh Yeah and also round in the Cathedral. So the performers can go there for their lunch or come here during Festival.”
While Kirsty helps to meet and greet performers, Ellie will be out and about at the performance sites; assisting and filling in for the Venue Manager at each location, making sure everything is running smoothly, helping to guide and manage volunteers, and anything else required on site.
You may recognise Ellie’s surname, and that’s because Will Chamberlain, Director of the Circus School and Festival of Fools was her Dad. Will sadly passed away in October 2017 and is deeply missed by the Circus and wider arts community as a whole in Belfast, as well as, of course, his family.
It’s no surprise to hear that Ellie and her sister basically grew up in the Circus family, attending youth circus until the age of 18 and even performing, volunteering and venue managing the Festival of Fools – so she has a unique perspective on the event, and this is perhaps why she is such a natural at keeping things running smoothly.
She has worked in the admin role here officially for the past year and a half and says “There is nowhere else I would rather be. This is where I see myself working for the foreseeable. I’m very happy here.” The Circus School is such a key part of the Cathedral Quarter; it’s essentially where much of its current arts and culture scene emerged from, and Ellie feels as connected to the area as to the Circus family.
“You can see over the past few years how much it is has changed; it has always been about culture but it’s not always been as out there as it is now, it’s easier to see it – especially things like Culture Night where everything is out there to see now. It’s lovely to work here and I don’t think I’d want to work in another part of town.”
Jenna Hall is Chief Executive both of the Belfast Community Circus School and of the Festival of Fools. Although they are two distinct organisations, and therefore technically two distinct roles, Jenna says the two roles naturally blend together and inform each other. “I see it as one ambition across both organisations,” she explains, “I report in to a board made up of trustees who support both charities to act independently, but who also get the benefit of working together. Certainly, the festival wouldn’t be what it is without the circus, but also circus really benefits from the growth of Festival of Fools as an independent charity. Having a joint Chief Executive across both allows us to maximise those opportunities.
Jenna has been in her role since November, and said the Festival takes up a “good portion of my focus” from around December time onwards. Usually, the Chief Executive would be involved in the funding applications that allow the Festival to happen, however, these applications are usually made around July or August time, so she is already gearing up to get that all-important support in place for 2020.
Other responsibilities Jenna has is overseeing that things like traders’ permits are applied for in good time, and that regulations are adhered to. She has also overseen a few upgrades to the festival this year, such as improved sound and changes to the performance locations.
“Like Ellie, I find myself doing a bit of everything – from reporting to the Board that the Festival is brilliant… to buying buns in Tesco at 8am for the programme launch!”
Jenna’s career has always involved supporting children and communities through a charity or partnership approach. Her most recent job saw her running a partnership between Diabetes UK, The British Heart Foundation and Tesco, encouraging families to reduce their risk of Type 2 Diabetes through play and healthy food choices. She has worked extensively in the arts, but had worked in health up until she took a much-needed month off last year to explore her love of circus as an “adult hobbyist”, travelling around Canada and the US while “flying trapeze, hanging off bars and doing handstands!”
The creative hiatus was the prompt Jenna needed to bring her career back to the arts; so when her current role came up she said it ticked all the boxes, taking her out of England (where she lived and worked previously) and allowed her to be “creative, working alongside a fantastic group of creatives and artists”.
Jenna says she has always enjoyed The Cathedral Quarter and visited often in her previous role.”As a team we’d always compete to see who would come to Belfast and to Derry! We would always stay in the Premier Inn and we were regular visitors to Made In Belfast and The Duke of York. I was on the Circus’ doorstep and didn’t know!”
“Belfast has always had that appeal,” says Jenna, “and as much as I travelled extensively throughout South American countries and thought that’s where I would end up, when the opportunity came up to work in Circus, in a part of Belfast I already knew I loved, it just seemed like a really good fit. I like the cultural feel of the Cathedral Quarter and it reminds me a lot of when I used to live and work in the Cultural Quarter in Leicester. It has come on so much in the past ten years, and I am particularly excited by the work being done by Belfast City Council to bring the Cultural Strategy to life and it’s something I’m looking forward to being involved with.”
She can’t go into detail at this stage, but watch this space for exciting plans and developments for Festival of Fools…
Festival Producer Georgia is a freelancer who works with the festival 6 months a year; the rest of the year you’ll find her working on the fantastic Belfast International Arts Festival.
Her key responsibilities include helping with the fundraising applications, programming the festival and overseeing the logistics of making it happen. She says: “Some of that is the not particularly exciting side of things like contracting and checking performers have insurance. The more exciting part of it is programming acts that go together to make a really interesting ‘jigsaw puzzle; so that might be what their influences are from where they come from in the world, that might be the skills that they are demonstrating.
“For example, this year we have a double act that are a trick cycle double act so they do acrobatics on a bike, but we also have solo performers that would be more from a – not necessarily a traditional clowning background – but what you would think of more immediately as this is a clown style act.”
Georgia describes the key challenge as creating “a balanced interesting programme; that offers something to not only visitors to Belfast, but also people who might have been to lots of Festival of Fools before.” Bringing them something different as well as creating opportunities for locally-based artists leads to what Georgia describes as the “really lovely melting pot” for performers and for spectators to enjoy.
Georgia continues: “An interesting element of the programme that I’m not sure everyone is aware of, is that we have Community Corner that happens in Writer’s Square on Saturday and Sunday, where we have 100 community participants, who are able to perform in the same space and be inspired by these amazing professional artists. They can be a mixture of youngsters who have come up through Belfast community circus school, we have a group of young adults who are on a programme at Belfast Met who have learning disabilities, and an adult circus performance for the first time this year, from the adults who come here to learn circus.”
Ellie agrees this was always a core part of the Festival for Will. “That was very much Dad’s thing, the community aspect. You really feel it when you get back from it as well. A lot of them attend classes here, but many come from elsewhere and it’s exciting, because they get to be in a festival and perform alongside other professional artists.”
In an acknowledgement of what Ellie describes as Will’s “legacy”, the school hosted an event earlier this year with professional performers on the bill who had begun their circus journey in the Youth Circus. “In fact,” says Georgia, “Paul Quate, who is our Youth Circus Director, started as a kid going to circus class here!”
It’s clear that anyone who gets involved with Belfast Community Circus School or Festival of Fools soon becomes woven into the fabric of the place. Why not check out a show, particularly on the Community Stage in Writers Square, and see if it inspires you?
Festival of Fools continues throughout Sunday 5th May and Bank Holiday Monday 6th May.