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Thursday 14 December 2017

Recession-proof fun that's streets ahead of the rest


OVER two weekends this month, the AIB Street Performance World Championship has been inciting roars and causing sore sides for the fifth year in a row -- and it's needed more than ever.

If there existed an honorary doctorate in making cities giggle, Mark 'Duck' Duckenfield and Conor McCarthy would be in the running. Turning their backs on careers in IT, the two young Leinster men have transformed a simple idea into the biggest entertainment event on the Dublin calendar.

This year, a quarter of a million people are expected to attend.

McCarthy is the logistics and production mind of the pair. Duckenfield handles relationships with sponsors.

The idea was simple. "Everyone has seen street performers," Duckenfield explains. "We knew if we got the best street performers in the world, and brought them back, people would come."

The pair had "no money, no experience, no sponsors, no clue". But that didn't stop their ambitions. This year, for example, they want to break the world record for the most amount of people on Space Hoppers, previously set by 1,257 people in Mexico.

"We've ordered 1,500," McCarthy tells me matter-of-factly. "We need 1,500 people to do it and they keep their spacehoppers at the end. Definitely something you won't do on an average weekend anywhere in the world."

Last year, the festival cartwheeled into Cork, and next year two more cities are set to become hosts . "We want other cities and towns to take this on," McCarthy enthuses. "We're looking to expand."

The SPWC is a brilliantly adaptable product. As a free event, high attendance figures are somewhat guaranteed. If you enjoy the show, you put some money in the hat at the end. If you don't, you don't.

Universal appeal is fundamental to the festival's success. "If you like laughing," says Duckenfield on the event's target demographic, "that's it. "

AIB became the primary sponsor of the event in 2007. "It's a great relationship from our point of view," McCarthy nods. "They're always there for us, but they don't bug us, which means that they have trust in us."

Two other groups have also been vital to the event. When the Dublin City Council Events Unit was approached in 2005, it became the first body to come on board. "They supported us from day one, and it's impossible without them," McCarthy says. Duckenfield adds: "We gave up our jobs and spent the first five months in my kitchen writing an 85-page business plan, so when we talked to the sponsors and councils we had all the answers."

Coming in all shapes, sizes and ages, the 90-strong gang of volunteers take time out from other commitments to work for free year after year.

The workload is gargantuan. Duckenfield talks about sleepless nights the week leading up to the festival and the 11 months of planning it takes each year. "Really, there are three full-time people on this all year, and for an event of this size that's very, very small," he frowns.

Over the years, McCarthy and Duckenfield have scoured the globe for the weird, wonderful and talented of society. McCarthy says: "We go along and see the show and, generally, if we crease ourselves laughing, they're in."

He recalled with wonderment a comment slip that read: "That was the best day of my whole life. Oscar. Aged three-and-a-half." Duckenfield declared what did it for him straight out: "We effectively make a quarter of a million people really happy for a weekend and that's cool."

The AIB Street Performance World Championship, which took place in Fitzgerald Park, Cork, last weekend is on today in Merrion Square, Dublin. Admission is free

Sunday Independent

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