Belfast Circus Scene So Good Performer Hillas Made City His Home
The self-proclaimed Jack of all trades, Hillas Smith aka Mr H, is a popular circus and street performer for Circusful, formerly known as Belfast Community Circus School. As well as performing, Hillas plays an active role in leading outreach programmes that engage young people across the country.
Joining the Circus wasn’t the obvious career path for Hillas. As a young boy he engaged in traditional sports like rugby until he had a chance encounter with someone at university who sparked his interest in all things circus and performing.
“At university, I met someone who taught me to juggle and then taught me to stilt walk. It all snowballed from there.”
From here Hillas started performing in acrobatic shows which he took to ‘like a fish to water’.
Following a brief stint in Europe, where Hillas joined forces with two Erasmus students from Germany, he returned to Ireland where he regularly juggled on street corners in Galway.
Dubliner Hillas, 49, believes there is a ‘special kind of character’ that likes to perform in the street.
“I love the random nature of it. It can be something as small as what somebody says in reaction to what you’ve done, which just fires your imagination and takes you to a new place.” he said.
As the arts and culture scene took off in Belfast in the early 2000’s, Hillas decided to leave his much-loved home in Copenhagen to ‘catch the wave’ of the upcoming Northern Irish scene.
“I came to Belfast to visit a friend in 2001 and fell into work very quickly after having a dry patch in Copenhagen.”
“I was very tied into the air of positivity in Belfast. There was a real feeling of change, like something had shifted from the late 90s as the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival had begun and Festival of the Fools was taking shape.
“I actually deferred my return to Copenhagen a couple of times and then decided to relocate to Belfast, which took everyone in Copenhagen by surprise as they knew I had started to feel at home there.” he explained.
Hillas combines his various juggling disciplines with acrobatic skills, as well as dramatic fire performances under his clown character ‘Mr H’.
“The clown character was something that developed slowly as I got to know my own abilities, and I was heavily influenced by silent movie stars like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy.
“There’s a kind of timelessness to it.” he said.
Watching the audience’s faces light up inspires Hilas to keep performing centre stage.
“By doing the physical comedy you give the audience permission to laugh at another human being’s carelessness, stupidity, clumsiness, mishaps.
“It’s a really joyous thing to get a group of people to laugh together. There’s a gorgeous sense of community.”
When he’s not being laughed at, Hillas teaches circus skills to adults and families as well as children and young people, a role which he finds immensely rewarding.
“The ethos in the circus world is meeting people where they are, whatever age. My job as a trainer is to see what type of skill that person will enjoy, how they learn, and how I can help them to get the most out of what they’re doing.
“Our teaching method is very much an open conversation and we don’t have a fixed endpoint as we believe the process of learning is far more important,” he explained.
Alongside this, he is an integral part of the Circusful’s outreach programmes in communities all over Northern Ireland.
These projects include the Prison Arts Foundation where Hillas worked with inmates of Hydebank Young Offenders’ Centre.
“We brought a group of untrusting, suspicious young men on a journey of self-exploration and self-expression where they learned to trust us, the circus tutors, as well as each other, and to gain in confidence sufficiently to get up in front of their peers and perform slapstick and comedy in an environment where being laughed at is a big cultural taboo.”
Hillas believes the social circus mission is the most important element of Circusful’s work within the community,
“We provide an environment where children and young people are free to be themselves, without judgement, and can learn through the process of ‘try, fail and grow’ in a supportive atmosphere where everyone's successes are celebrated.”
To find out how you can get involved with Circusful, go to circusful.org