Dublin Circus Festival 2016 Postmortem

July 13, 2018


During 2015 I joined the Dublin Institute of Technology to start my Computer Science degree. Given my existing involvement with the local community, I decided to join the DIT Circus Society, which has a long history in the college as well as the broader Dublin scene.

The responsibilities of a circus society are the same as any other, with some extras. You set-up a stand during societies/freshers week and refreshers week, you organise events, and also help to promote the college during open days or other public events.

Where circus societies differ is that besides organising "regular" events (Such as collaborations with other societies to raise money/awareness for varying causes), they also organise trips to the annual circus conventions around the country and run a weekly meet-up which includes a brief workshop.

Although most larger societies do have trips during the year, circus societies tend to have three or four.

To summarise, a circus society does all of the following:

  • Recruits people into the society
  • Performs at college events
  • Books a weekly space for people to train in
  • Hires a teacher to run a workshop during the practice session
  • Organises multiple trips for the society
  • Manages an inventory of equipment

DIT uniquely also held the responsibility of...

  • Organising and running the Dublin Circus Festival

At the time the only other circus society with this responsibility was the Galway Circus Society, and although not strictly part of any constitution, each circus society is also the first point of entry for most people to the circus community as a whole, which I feel is a responsibility nobody gives much serious thought to.

The primary strength and weakness of all college societies is turnover rate, which was a very important part of my planning strategy during my involvement with the circus festival and the circus society.

The Plan

Although I had not been previously involved with running the festival, I liked the idea that it was ran collaboratively between the circus societies of Dublin. Besides the societies, there is also the Dublin Circus Project who'd helped run it in previous years. Each "organisation" held different strengths and resources to bring to the festival.

The biggest concerns were:

  • The training space
  • The fire show
  • The gala show
  • The renegade show
  • The intersoc games

DIT was inherently responsible for the training space, as it had been Larkin Hall for years, which held a relationship with DIT for use not only by the circus society, but also the dance society and the various sports clubs. The fire show was facilitated by Trinity College, who held fire shows most frequently and were the point of contact for the performance space (Trinity Parliament Square).

The gala show venue was The Lir Academy, ran by members of the Dublin Circus Project (Who also participated in the fire show), and finally, the renegade show was held in the basement of Doyle's pub. The games took place in the hall, which was the farthest venue from all the others, but where people spent most of their time during the event.

Besides the venues and their respective events, other aspects we had to worry about included:

  • Advertising
  • Performers
  • Payment system (And pricing)
  • Wristbands
  • Game prizes

As the representative from the DIT Circus Society, I budgeted for the event (Necessary to get funding from the societies office), acted as the end of the line for venue contact to facilitate payments and organised the monthly meetings for the festival.

Although I stuck to the idea of running the festival as a collaborative effort, I unintentionally became the coordinator while trying to keep all of the individual components moving and communicating as smoothly as possible.

Had I realised this earlier, or started with this role in mind, I think I could've done a better job.

What went right

One of the most important things to me was that the hall remain open as long as possible, which is part of why the Galway Juggling Convention is my favourite - running hours from roughly 9AM till 11PM. Although the Gala Show on Saturday meant that the roughly 6PM hall close felt natural, we managed to keep the hall open until 9PM on Friday, meaning that people who were not attending the fire show could continue training.

The fire show itself had an unprecedented turnout, gathering a crowd of roughly two thousand people. While the intervarsity games are not seriously competitive, we budgeted for high quality equipment as prizes, making participation significantly more appealing.

Each of the performers was paid for their involvement with the gala show, which I felt was important. There's a sense of collaboration and contribution in the community; typically performers will do acts as part of conventions for free as a way of giving back (Besides teaching) as many people get their start through the support network offered by the community and college societies.

Although this was perceived as a fair arrangement by performers, the expectations of someone doing prop-based performance versus aerial performance meant that the financial investment in working on skills could be vastly different, so ensuring everyone was paid equally felt more favourable over preferential treatment.

What went wrong

The biggest issue to arise during the festival was how pre-bookings were managed for Gala Show attendance. The National Circus Festival in Tralee has an afternoon and evening show, ensuring that festival attendees as well as the general public have an opportunity to see the gala show.

The venue used for the Dublin Circus Festival had a seating capacity of around 150 people, while the festival attendees numbered just over 210. As the festival was already using online registration to reduce the liability of handling a large amount of cash, it made sense to also use it to prioritise seating since pre-registration gives organisers a better projection of attendance numbers.

However, miscommunication occured between committee members, leading many to believe that pre-registration didn't matter while others did, which was subsequently disseminated incorrectly to the public in the lead up to the event. This caused lots of confusion and frustration at check-in.

This later lead a committee member to use the registration book to talk to registrants based on their sign-in order to try figure out if they wanted to attend the gala show, triaging the mistake by prioritising those who pre-registered, then those in order of appearance in the book.

The other largest concern was the fire show, as we were unable to lock down availability as it was dependent on when Trinity Ball would take place, which would make the entire campus unavailable.

There was miscommunication about who was supposed to book the space, meaning that the bureacracy involved required didn't start until far later, which could have have affected the amount of fire stewards available for what became an unprecedented amount of people attending the show.

What I learned

I had two major realisations following the event about what my responsibilities should've been as the coordinator.

Firstly, that I needed to communicate better with everyone working on the event. Although each major group involved had a representative or two at each meeting, their respective groups occasionally had no clue what was discussed, so I could've distributed the minutes better.

Everyone took on any kind of responsibilty they felt they could to distribute the work load, but that didn't necessarily mean it was a task that they were good at.

This is something to keep in mind for any efforts involving volunteers - although people are willing to help, they may not have a good idea of what they would be passionate about doing nor find easy to do, and it is your responsibility as the coordinator to figure that out.

Secondly, that you need to primarily focus on the responsibility of coordinating as a coordinator. Since I was the representative for DIT I spent a lot of time on the desk so I could handle the money, but I didn't check in with the crew at different venues to see if they needed anything.

This is something I could've delegated to another DIT committee member, as had I instead focused on following up with commitee members before and during the event, I could've headed off problems before they occured, such as the pre-registration issue for gala show seating.

What I left behind

Throughout the planning process for the festival, as well as my involvement with the DIT Circus Society, I dedicated a significant amount of time documenting the processes and factors required to run the event. I felt it was important to be transparent since the festival was a collaborative event, but I also did so with the intention of making it easier for someone else to take over in the future.

The ephemereal nature of college societies means that although many people stick to one or two societies while working on their degree, upon completion many may not return nor can be involved with running them. This means that societies have a slow but devastating turnover rate every four years, greatly impacting how a society will be run.

By leaving as much documentation as possible, it better prepares the next iteration of a commitee to take over the responsibilities, be they for a festival or for organising regular trips. Spreading this information throughout the community also ensured that someone outside of the society could take it over.

Funding from individual colleges allows for many events to be organised that might not be otherwise, but also limits the amount of growth potential based on the constantly adjusting budgets of each society and the larger fund allocated for events by colleges. "Profit" from events cannot be reinvested, and is instead used to absorb the loss of other unrelated events and societies.

By leaving behind as large and comprehensive an amount of documentation as I could, it ensured that the festival could continue to run into the future, and could aid in organising other events, reducing the bus factor when overreliance of individuals happens in various projects.