It’s a Sunday morning in Belfast. The sun is shining, people are sitting out in St Anne’s Square, drinking coffee, reading the papers, studying their theatre programmes. The atmosphere is cheery and friendly, crackling with anticipation and excitement. No, really, it is a Sunday morning in Belfast.
The cause of all this bonhomie is the Pick ’n’ Mix Festival, with its reputation as the most action-packed theatrical showcase on Belfast's annual calendar.
This two-day celebration of new Northern Irish theatre has finally moved from its former home and birthplace in the now closed Old Museum Arts Centre into the shiny new pleasure dome that is the MAC, via a year out at the Brian Friel Theatre at Queen's University.
'We were curious to see if the building would swallow up the festival,' says the MAC’s director of programmes, Gillian Mitchell. 'But the artists have really responded to the different spaces like the Landing, the Upper Gallery and the Lab dance studio to stage a whole raft of new work. That’s what the MAC and Pick ’n’ Mix are for.'
One of the many pleasures of Pick ’n’ Mix is the fact that no two people will come away with the same experience. With so much on offer – 23 companies and individuals presenting work throughout the two and a half-day event – everybody’s schedule will be different.
Winding back over the weekend, there are so many outstanding memories. Big Telly Theatre Company kicked off proceedings with We Are All Riders and the Sea is Our Shared Resource, a wry, fiendishly clever presentation illustrating the way in which the financial survival of most companies revolves around box-ticking and form-filling rather than on creating work.
Up and coming companies Chatterbox and Accidental sold out their lively performances of ambitious short plays, The Man Who and Intervention respectively, which they had taken through the development process.
On Saturday, composer Conor Mitchell assembled eight singers and actors to provide a first glimpse on home territory of his music-theatre adaptation of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, first performed at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 2008.
And the highly respected Claire Lamont unveiled A Little Play About Loneliness, her affecting portrait of mid-life solitude in the midst of friendships and family life, a work-in-progress that begs to be brought to full production.
Likewise Prime Cut’s Groundwater and Pilgrim, two interlocking plays by Declan Feenan, whose dark storylines unwind in the same house, generations apart. Directed by one of Belfast's most celebrated playwrights, Owen McCafferty, a fine cast of six actors injected real poetry and poignancy into the reading of a piece that must surely be premiered in the not too distant future.
This writer’s Sunday morning contains a mix of rare and starkly contrasting treats, beginning with a wallow in fluffy duvets and pillows in the company of ten children. The event is the sneak preview of Babble, Replay Theatre Company's bewitching audio/visual performance for babies.
The gorgeous close harmonies of four female singers soon have children, parents, grandparents and curious passers-by lulled into a state of soporific chill-out. And then it is on from there to lie on another bed, this time in the clinical surroundings of a hospital ward to share in the terrifying near-death experience of writer and artist, Shannon Yee, in 2008.
Recovery is a 12-minute sound installation that recounts Yee's struggle with a subdural empyema, a rare brain infection. It is a deeply affecting recreation of the process whereby Yee's brain was disassembled then put back together, ‘slightly askew’.
A wrap-around soundscape, combined with drama, music and vivid word pictures, marks the first phase of an internal nightmare. We learn that such brain infections affect far more people than may be imagined.
Then two more installations. First up is Mary-Frances Doherty’s Performance Installation, an open invitation into her little tea house, where heady scents mix with folksy life experiences as visitors write down their own tea time stories on pieces of paper and hang them up for all to share.
That is quickly followed by Prime Cut Productions' dramatic As If For the First Time, which opens a window into the horrors of life in Robert Street, the long demolished thoroughfare at the heart of Belfast’s red light district, which ran right through the site of the MAC.
And on and on goes, this dizzying showcase of Northern Ireland’s rich creative talent. Pick ’n’ Mix is programmed by Hanna Slattne, dramaturg with Tinderbox Theatre Company and a guiding force behind much of the new writing that has emerged in Northern Ireland over the past few years.
'Pick ’n’ Mix is always a blend of great surprises, newcomers, tremendous potential and clever ideas,' she says. 'There is a lot of new work being made, but the real test is when you put it in front of an audience. For me, it is particularly satisfying to see how development money and effort can be used to go one step further along the road.'
Gillian Mitchell agrees, while sounding a note of caution. 'While in its early days Pick ’n’ Mix might have been viewed as an industry event, I'm seeing a lot of unfamiliar faces this year, which is good for the artists. There’s no point in only showing your work to your peers. I only hope that in this current funding climate, the means can be found for emerging and established companies to bring the work to full production.'