‘We want people to laugh, gasp and hope’: Ireland hosts climate science circus

Circus Science by the Sea takes place this weekend in Westport and Achill island, coastal areas facing climate challenges
2022-11-18 11:45

Cop27 may have been dismissed as a circus in some quarters, but a group of scientists and performers is staging a real circus in Ireland to inspire people to help tackle the climate crisis.

The eclectic mix of engineers, conservation experts, clowns, jugglers and acrobats will perform this weekend in what is billed as Europe’s first circus science and environment festival.

Circus Science by the Sea aims to harness entertainment and storytelling for climate awareness and action – and possibly to sprinkle some joy amid gloom over Cop27, the UN conference in Egypt.

The festival will take place on Saturday and Sunday in the town of Westport and Achill island in County Mayo, scenic parts of Ireland’s Atlantic coast that face environmental challenges.

“We don’t want people to feel powerless and miserable and that’s it all too late,” said Dea Birkett, the festival’s director and a founder of Circus250, an Achill-based community interest company. “We want people to laugh, to gasp and be full of hope. We want the joy of circus to be an engine for change.”

The inaugural festival is part of Science Week, an annual event funded by the state agency Science Foundation Ireland. The shows, discussions and workshops are free, as are the puns. “Ireland’s most elevated scientists – science on stilts – taking interactive science to new heights,” says a Mayo county council publicity blurb.

The festival would reflect the surrounding landscape, said Birkett. “In Achill we’re on the edge of the world. The world’s plastic ends up on our beaches. Climate change affects rural communities like ours. We notice the seasons, agriculture, the water level.”

The festival has gathered shows that routinely tour Ireland and the UK. One features Angelica Santander as a clown named Juanita who appears buried under plastic that she accumulated through everyday use over the past year. Santander mimics swimming and dancing through it before inviting the audience to help repurpose and reimagine the plastic.

A fruit-juggling and plate-spinning show weaves in information about an orange’s airmiles. In a show called “nature’s secret circus” an environmental scientist and circus tutors teach children acrobat shapes and movements that reflect the landscape.

Another act, StrongWomen Science, features Maria Corcoran, an environmental scientist, and Aoife Raleigh, an engineer. They promote scientific inquiry while juggling liquid, eating fire, balancing chairs on chins and performing acrobatics with hula hoops.

Circus tricks and problem-solving logic engage a similar part of the brain, said Raleigh, who learned circus skills while working as an engineer in Belfast. “Experimentation, creativity and embracing failure are the key ideas in both. Even though the result is very different, the methods to get there are often the same.”

To learn a new trick one must think analytically, said Raleigh. “I try the movement and, if it doesn’t work, I have to figure out what the problem might be, make adjustments and try it again. This process continues tens or even thousands of times until you perfect the technique.”

Circus can visually represent scientific principles, said Corcoran, who joined a juggling society while studying environmental science at university. “Circus is about pushing the boundaries of what is possible with the body and objects. Science is about pushing the boundaries of our knowledge and understanding of how the world works.”

In addition to climate awareness, both performers hope to inspire girls to study science, technology, engineering and maths. “We need to inform young girls about the uncredited achievements of female scientists in the past and ensure that women never get left behind again,” said Corcoran.

A seal rescue charity and coastal conservation group will launch a recruitment drive during the festival.

Instead of feeling guilty or helpless about using plastic or driving cars, people who attend the festival should come away enthused and inspired, said Birkett. “Everybody gets circus. It portrays difficult and challenging issues in the most accessible way. Climate change, plastic pollution, the state of the ocean – they won’t go away, and neither will circus.”