“Going to a theatre performance, going to an exhibition, taking part in a workshop, sends people on a journey that shows them that the world can be other than as it is.”
Festival director Ali FitzGibbon explained to me that Central Station was an appropriate venue for the launch since it’s the hosting the interactive I Think I Can (via Australia’s Terrapin Puppet Company and the Ulster Model Railway Club), inviting audiences to inhabit a miniature town and become active members of its tiny community. Watch out for the diminutive antics being reported in an online newspaper during the festival. I Think I Can is free and runs for the duration of the festival (8 years +).
Bambi 4-5 March/8 years + and two clown shows from Norwegian Katja Lindeburg on 8 and 9 March) as well as performances from local companies like Replay Theatre’s fantastically named Snoozle & the Lullabugs (4-6 March for under 5s with profound and multiple learning difficulties or severe learning difficulties) and Maiden Voyage Dance’s Pause & Effect (5-8 March/4-8 years).
Marie Louise Fitzpatrick (5 March/4-7 years) and Sheena Wilkinson (6 March/11 years+), Doodle Live in the Strand (5 March/7-10 years) and check out the portable Library of Stories (5-6 March) written by children and young people.
The Office of Important Art has relocated upstairs to the first floor of Castlecourt this year (opposite Costa coffee shop) and will host local artist David Turner’s autobiographical Ordinary Extraordinary images.
And don’t miss the Baby Rave (6 March/0-4 years) or the live bands at Pre-Teenage Kicks (6 March/8-teens).
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Interviewed about the development of the Belfast Children’s Festival over past years, Ali FitzGibbon acknowledged that “there have always been artists who make good work for children in Northern Ireland”.
“There have always been really passionate and really dedicated people who create projects that work with children. What the Festival does is puts [this] into a very large international scale. It’s certainly put Northern Ireland on the map over the last 18 years.”
“There are many people who have been working with children in Northern Ireland for many, many years who have received opportunities to travel and to have their work internationally recognised as a result of being in the Festival.
“I think people can trip off the tongue that ‘this is an international festival’ very easily. Children learn diversity. Children learn difference. They don’t start thinking ‘that person is different from me’. We’re very interested in what happens when you introduce children to the idea that other people see the world differently because they’re in – or from – an other part of the world.”
This year sees artists from Switzerland, Norway and Australia coming to the Festival.
“Children don’t have a lot of the inhibitions that adults have. They are very open to quite abstract and complex concepts of narratives and stories and themes of human emotion. They’re instinctive audience members and instinctive artists and participants. As we grow up we tend to start to code everything and say ‘that goes in that pigeonhole’ and we come up with responses.”
While adult-orientated festivals may find it difficult to build audiences for contemporary dance, this genre sells out at the Children’s Festival.
“Families and schools now understand that dance is a really interesting way to communicate with children. Dance is an amazingly powerful art form and children respond to it and talk about it. They see signals in the performance that they can take back into their home and back into their classrooms and discuss with their parents and their teachers afterwards.”
Baby Rave is a festival stalwart, a fun-filled disco for babies and parents with non-stop music, colourful visuals, soft materials and sensory toys. Ali explained:
“Baby Rave is my baby.
“In my second festival in 2005 we could see that we have people coming to us with four and five year olds and we couldn’t find anything we could use to bring in that younger age group. I had a very young child at the time and was trying to see what as a parent would I want? I wanted something very free style, very sensory … The Baby Rave comes from that.
“What we didn’t realise when I first brought a team together to make it was that nobody had done a baby rave. Subsequently we got to travel round the world doing Baby Rave.
“We were the fastest selling act in the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2007. We sold out in thirty seconds. The youngest we’ve ever had was 5 days old … You get young couples, lots of first time parents coming along and they really engage with its dancing, its visuals, its design and its really well selected music. It’s really informal and people can come in and out in the course of an hour … That gets people with us who haven’t come across us before and they stay with us on a journey.
“The festival goes up notionally to fourteen years old. So we now have the first baby ravers beginning to get too old for the festival. My big challenge is who’s responsibility is that to take over and what provision is there for 14+ because there’s a finite limit to what one small charitable organisation can do. And what I do know as a parent … is that fourteen year olds don’t want to hang out with four year olds unless they’re getting paid!”
(Outside of the festival, Young at Art work with young people all the way up to the age of 18.)
The public subsidy of arts organisations and events is sometimes criticised whenever there is fight back against cuts to cultural funding.
“The most expensive we have in the festival this year is something like £13. There are a huge number of free events. We have Big Festival Days Out – a new programme we’re running – which is about trying to get people to see some of the great venues we have: The MAC, the Lyric, the Strand and the Duncairn Arts Centre. Most of what’s going to happen in those spaces is going to be free of charge. For the whole of the week of the festival we have exhibitions on, [for instance] David Turner’s amazing toy exhibition in Castlecourt.
“If we introduce charges every single person who took part in something for the Festival would have to pay about £30. We know that people are struggling and a lot of families are under pressure.
“We also know that there isn’t a habit of going to arts events with your children [other than panto] … These experiences are the stuff of lifetime memories. I still have ten and eleven year olds come up to me at the Festival and they talk to me about things they saw when they were three years old …”
Ali will shortly step down from Young at Art after twelve years. Her most memorable highlights included Land of Giants, a collaborative community project in the Waterworks Park (that may have dyed the duckpond in the process!), as well as the ongoing Fighting Words project.
She perceives “a tendency [in the public sector] towards short term pressures versus long term investment” adding that “nobody in the arts sector is looking for handouts … but what Young at Art is looking for is some realistic investment” that values and delivers cultural experiences.
“In Northern Ireland we are way behind where cultural provision could and should be for children. If anything there’s a spreading-the-butter-very-thin approach which says that every child will have some element of experience and there’s not enough time being spent looking at the quality and duration of the experience, what kind of support they get within the school system and the youth sector.
“As an organisation we’ve had two or three of the most challenging years we’ve had in eighteen years. And it’s a sad thing when you look at an 18 year old organisation that has been on an upward trend, that has been growing and growing [but] last year because of the in year cuts we saw our numbers roll back a bit for the first time, largely because the free events had to be cut or bringing an international show costs a certain amount of money and if we don’t have that money in the kitty and can’t offset it with ticket sales then it doesn’t come.”
As an organisation, Young at Art don’t just look for public sector funding. Ali explained that “all the education programmes are financed through private trusts and donations”. Corporate sponsors are involved too, including Translink Castlecourt, Belfast Harbour and Easons.
Ten years ago, Young at Art’s board of directors came to the decision that “survival was not good enough”.
“Keeping in business is not worthy of merit. Keeping the doors open when so many people are on the brink of closing their doors is not good enough. You have to be good. You have to be good for your audiences. You have to know what’s coming up on the horizon. You have to see how your audiences are evolving. You have to see who’s not coming and try to find ways of making sure that they come. You have to be able to articulate purpose. And if you don’t do that, then you shouldn’t be doing it.”