All the Balls in the Air

Feature in Issue 14-2 | Summer 2002

Tina Carter found that organising the British Juggling Convention 2002 was a feat that required great dexterity.

Thursday 28 March 2002 was a nervous day as the wheels of the BJC started moving under their own steam, after almost two years of planning. Our gallant volunteers steered into action. Hazel womanning the box office, ready for the big rush (we hoped!); Nikki ensuring the site was in order and the sacred turf of the playing fields was not damaged by untoward vehicular movement. Kate, Jade and Andy erected their sea-life creations in the chill-out tent whilst Steve set up the haven that was Event Control: setting the power switch to go, issuing radios and yellow jackets to the deserving and the desperate. Barry single-handedly lit the site with his magic touch and Stumpy, well, he fell to the onerous task of printing, laminating, cutting, printing, laminating, cutting… Yup all those octopus passes were done by his fair hand…

But then it was all Stumpy’s fault!

In 2000 he tentatively asked if I would lend a hand in bringing this wild and crazy 15 year-old event – the British Juggling Convention – to Whitstable. As it had been on the cards many years previously when my partner and I ran the Kent Circus School, I couldn’t really refuse. So we spent that year contacting the council, finding a suitable venue and pulverising friends and family into pledging their support. As well as wandering aimlessly around the town wondering if 800 jugglers would fit and if the town would be supportive.

22 April 2001… The phone rang. ‘Tina, are you still up for running the event?’ Says Stumpy. ‘I’m going to the meeting now – do I stand up and say YES?’ I panicked – but agreed. Little did I know that that would mark the start of a very long journey to 28 March the next year…

As the BJC wheels continued to turn in Whitstable, I was away from site, on a linked project managing the warm-up acts to Her Majesty the Queen’s auspicious visit to Canterbury. How often do you get the opportunity to have jugglers and royalty on the same page of the local paper? International cast members of our public show, A Night of Surprises, entertained the crowds lining the medieval streets awaiting the Maundy visit.

It was a great excuse to show off the skills of local boy Sheriff Bob and his inflatable horse, a favourite with the ladies; and a treat to welcome back Devilstick Peat, known for many years as the resident busking-jester outside the library. To view Palle, the human balloon, brought tears to the eyes of many as he stripped semi-naked, clambered inside a giant balloon and performed ludicrous acrobatics in as surreal a manner as I have ever seen; but we cannot end this paragraph without mentioning the tremendous Olga and Vova. Eleven and thirteen years old respectively, they stunned the crowds with their juggling prowess and gave just a hint of the spectacle they would provide in the Marlowe Theatre. That performance would bring the show to an end with a climactic standing ovation. Juggling that professionals would die for, piano finesse a virtuoso would be proud of, combined they were simply fantastic!

Back in Whitstable… and a juggling convention that incorporated all the trademarks of the previous 14 years of BJCs. One school site provided halls for twenty-four hour juggling and unicycling, a UV dance and juggling arena, bands and DJs and a big top for renegade cabarets, as well as a bar, catering and camping. There were workshops aplenty, from juggling for beginners to site-swap patterns, capoeira, trapeze, break-dancing and massage. Tweedy and Alexis entertained the younger audience with their slapstick clown show whilst Circomedia and the Circus Space showed off their latest talent in the eagerly anticipated showcase.

The parade brought hundreds of colourful jugglers, clowns, unicyclists and exhibitionists into the streets of Whitstable, where hundreds more locals came out to join in the fun. One little girl dressed in a fairy outfit certainly won the hearts of all the stewards as she entered into the spirit of the games facing big, burly juggling men as they battled it out for the ferocious gladiators’ prize. Suffice to say – she won several of the games!

There were problems along the way and not all that was planned came to fruition. Toilets packed up and food was scarce at times, the odd band decided not to play, and a few booked acts were not quite to the taste of the general juggling population. The flying trapeze that I so longed for proved too complicated to implement and though we attempted to break the Tequila Slamming Mexican Wave world record – we were a good hundred people short!

Planned community workshops (funded through the Awards for All lottery scheme) had to take place after rather than before the event: a youth circus day for underprivileged children in our area and circus skills workshops for adults with learning disabilities touring to six districts in East Kent.

My greatest disappointment was the rejection of our RALP bid to create a new site-specific show performed on the harbour, the mainstay of Whitstable’s existence throughout history. This collaboration with Strange Cargo celebratory arts company was planned to bring the convention to a climactic end after the parade and games on Easter Sunday.

Not to be downhearted, we decided to create a launch event instead. Modifying the traditional fire show we commissioned SWPF pyrotechnic company, whose spectacularly choreographed display really gave the convention the green light.

The internet proved to be an indispensable resource in the researching, organising and marketing of the event. Orin, from the Tunbridge Wells Juggling Club, set up the website and continually kept it updated, ensuring that jugglers from across the globe knew what was happening, where and how to reach us. The juggling fraternity is enormous and the support network across cyberspace was a fundamental element in the event’s success.

But there were undoubtedly moments of great stress and there did come a time when the strain became too much and hysteria was merely masked by a sullen and haggard visage. I realised that I had actually begun to detest juggling and anything to do with it when I received an e-mail from a woman telling me how she was going to boycott the event – why? Because it was too expensive and too far away in wet and windy Whitstable! Huge doubts about the viability and sense of the whole event loomed – but fortunately panic quickly abated and Whitstable shone like it never rained in Kent. It was probably the hottest weekend that year, with blazing sunshine all round.

Figures are now showing that we had nearly 650 paying customers through the doors, with a high proportion of local visitors. We also had nearly 150 volunteers and staff working on the site, so the school was a hubbub of activity from morning to night.

Our stronghold of volunteers (including my dad!) was undefeatable. For many it was an agonising few days that seemed much more like a month. But the faces were generally smiling and certainly the post-convention party was a scream! The event has brought many of us close together – and some a lot closer still! We are even starting to look back on it with fond memories. Since Easter I have had a number of calls from towns close to Whitstable, asking if we would like to host the event in their town next year… anyone for Herne Bay or Sheppey? You would certainly be welcome, but I think I will take a rain check for now.

Someone said the event was like a mini-Glastonbury. The photos show that a festival took place in Whitstable. Behind your yellow jacket with the ear tuned to the radio you see problems, mistakes, potential disasters; your face holds a constant frown and the smile seems to be distant for long periods of time. Then someone will come up to you, say a kind word, tell you how far they have travelled (South Africa, Australia, America, as well as Europe), bring you a cup of tea or even massage your hunching shoulders and suddenly you see happy, partying people again!

My beloved Steve summed it all up at the organisers’ renegade show that took place when all the punters had gone home. ‘In future let’s not organise an event over the Easter weekend, in a Cathedral city, the day the Queen comes to town, there’s a full moon, the Queen Mother dies and when the whole thing ends on April Fool’s Day!’

The 16th British Juggling Convention takes place on 10-13 April 2003; contact details www.bjc2003.co.uk Check out this year’s site on www.bjc2002.co.uk See also www.exfeat.com

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