Obituary: Will Chamberlain (1963-2017)
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland has learned with great sadness that Will Chamberlain, Director of the Belfast Community Circus School, died yesterday evening, aged 54. He had been suffering with cancer.
Will Chamberlain was born in London. He co-founded Manchester Community Circus and Norwich Circus Centre and practiced as a freelance clown, juggler and comedian, performing at festivals and theatres as well as teaching circus skills to young people in England and Switzerland. He moved to Belfast in 1996, taking up the position of Development Officer for the Belfast Community Circus School, which had been founded by Mike Moloney and Donal McKendry in 1985 with funding from the Arts Council. He became Director of the Circus School in 2000.
Will played a key role in managing the relocation of the school in 1999 from a cramped space at the Crescent Arts Centre in south Belfast, where it had been for the previous decade, to purpose-built premises in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, establishing what was, at the time, Ireland’s only dedicated circus training and performance venue. The move allowed the Circus School to take a significant step forward as an organization and to set up the world’s first full-time teacher training programme for community circus teachers.
Belfast Community Circus had become, as it remains, the leading dedicated circus school on the island of Ireland, placing Belfast in a position to attract circus students and performers from across Europe and further afield.
In 2004 the Circus School set up Premiere Circus, a commercial agency to promote employment opportunities for professional circus performers. In the same year, Will directed the first Festival of Fools in Belfast, a five-day national street theatre festival, with 100 international performers playing to 30,000 people. Under his continuing directorship the festival has gone on to become a popular fixture of the Belfast arts calendar. The Belfast Community Circus School and the Festival of Fools, alongside the annual Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival and the Out to Lunch Festival, on both of which management committees he also served, played pivotal roles in transforming the Cathedral Quarter into the vibrant arts hub of the city.
Will Chamberlain’s main passion was for circus and community arts; however, he also had a broader interest in the development of the arts and brought his considerable expertise to the Arts Council, serving as a Board Member from 2003 to 2005.
Roisin McDonough, Chief Executive of the Arts Council, paid tribute, saying:
“Will was an influential figure in the Belfast arts scene. Thanks to his determined championing of circus and street theatre, these art forms are practically unrecognizable from what they were when he first arrived here some twenty years ago. Thousands of people, young and old, have had the opportunity to participate in circus though the circus school, local performers are now able to develop professional careers, and many thousands more have had the chance to experience the world’s best circus and street theatre through the annual festival. Will leaves behind an important legacy, of having influenced the shape and raised the profile and recognition of circus arts across the island of Ireland, the UK and Europe.”
Will Chamberlain is survived by his daughters Ellie and Bethany.
Belfast Community Circus School will be celebrating Will's life on Tuesday 24 October 2017. There will be a service at Roselawn at 1pm and then a celebration at Belfast Circus afterwards. They are welcoming donations to Belfast Circus and Myeloma UK in lieu of flowers. Please make cheques payable to McClure's Charity Account.