The Mother of All Children's Festivals

Young at Art's Ali Fitzgibbon on bringing her baby full circle and the 'short-sighted' cuts that lead to little ones losing out

This year's Belfast Children's Festival was launched at the city's Central Station with, of course, a toy train circuit. Aside from showing off one of the programme's featured events, it also stood to represent a wider theme. For outgoing director Ali Fitzgibbon the 2016 outing is about journeys, and is bringing her back to the first festival she developed 12 years ago.

'The whole idea is about adventure and journey,' she says, 'with a literature programme bigger than ever this year. It's about suggesting to children that the arts is a journey into a world that they don't necessarily inhabit. With this I have gone full circle back to the first festival I did, which was about journeys too.'

It has been quite a ride and one of the achievements of Fitzgibbon, now embarking on a PhD at Queen's University in Cultural Policy and Arts Management, is the famous Baby Rave. Introduced here in Northern Ireland, the concept has since evolved and is now familiar in many locations overseas.

'I invented it and it's been to New York, Australia, all over Ireland and it was an opportunity to generate revenue. We set up our own agency, but money wasn't what it was about. My daughter Jess was two at the time and I was inspired partly by having a young child, and partly as a statement about the festival. The sessions were limited in 2005 but much more is available for babies now.'

According to Fitzgibbon, most of the events on offer via the festival were targeting the over-fours and she felt there was a missed opportunity. 'There was a creative gap and the early learning movement which had started across Europe meant we were looking at things new parents could do and attend with their children. Baby Rave was about something parents could enjoy too.'

So this year's festival will include the DJ event for parents and very young children who will be moving to the beat. Using a nice phrase, Ali adds: 'The heartbeat of all artistic endeavour is that you don't get until you're doing it. Jess loved it at two and a half and by the next time we put on Baby Rave, I had another baby, Miranda, four months.

'The youngest participant ever was a five day old baby who took part in Adelaide.'

But naturally, there is much more of offer. Around 11 events in fact. There is drama in Re:Play Theatre Company's Snoozle and the Lullabugs, for children with disabilities. There is the interactive train-related event. There is music, free workshops and visual art including David Turner's Ordinary Extraordinary at CastleCourt.

David Turner Ordinary Extraordinary

'There's quite a bit about his childhood, growing up in the Sandy Row area during the conflict and how he arrived at art,' says Fitzgibbon of the exhibition. 'There's an interactive element and children react to what they see. He's feeding his own experience to the children and asking them to respond.'

Returning to the theme of journeys, the busy director explains that the whole idea this year is about the creative adventure you undertake at these events. There will be a lot of excitement at the news that the programme contains the original version of Bambi. Not Mr Disney's, you understand, but something more testing and a bit more European fable by the sound of it.

'The production of Bambi isn't the Disney version but a coming-of-age story, about learning and developing independence. I saw it in Stuttgart in German two years ago and found it hysterically funny, even though I don't speak German. It was laugh out loud, but naturally you feel things too and this is the first time it has been performed in the UK.'

As in the movie version, Bambi loses his mother and lives with the deer family in the forest. The relationship with his father is central and he also has to cope with the fact his friend is taken away. It may be pitched towards eight and nine year olds, but the play has a broader appeal. In fact, Fitzgibbon suspects even her fourteen-year old would enjoy it.

Bambi

'The style is 1920s radio station, witty and clever,' she says, and the fairly grown-up message is that the world isn't always as we see it. The Children's Festival never talks down to its audiences.

'Children can see the big concepts, beauty and so on. People tend to think they have to simplify for this audience but in my experience, children can absorb abstract ideas and don't have rules about liking or not liking dance, for example. Of course, they may not be as polite as adults if they don't like something!'

As she points out, the work simply has to be good and Young at Art. The parent organisation has a good track record of bringing the best to the Children's Festival.

As well as fun and oomphiness, the children attending events will get an added bonus. 'All the evidence shows that kids taking part in the arts develop lateral thinking and imaginative capacity. If they don't have this experience, they may become too literal and not so good at problem solving in their lives.'

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In the past year or two, like many other arts organisations, Young at Art has suffered stringent cutbacks, and Fitzgibbon has views about what she considers the short-sighted nature of this approach.

'It's short term fixes for the Assembly. Young at Art has experienced the most challenging budgets and it's the children, the beneficiaries of our work, who are losing out. The government isn't investing and the question is whether enough money is going into the system. Our capacity to think big has been affected.'

She points to a project involving work with 18 Northern Irish schools in North and West Belfast as an example of the sort of projects that have been under threat. Yet in spite of the frustration, there is a wonderful festival programme on offer and the work goes on. We discuss the ways in which creativity helps children get in touch with empathy, vital in a changing society.

'Important work has been done on the effects of the arts, including creative and imaginative play, on infant mental health. There is something inside children that learns difference and how to think in a societal way.'

Research says the telling of stories encourages this ability, the opposite of sectarianism and racism. If you head to Terrapin's show I Think I Can, where you are assigned a character based on one of the little figures on the model railway, made by a local railway enthusiasts' club, you'll be able to tell your own story about that character.

It's filmed, shown on screen that day and even published in a specially produced newspaper, The Belfast Bugle. This show has been to the Netherlands, to South Korea and to Australia, and the bugling sound of creativity is also going to transform a bit of Northern Ireland.

The Belfast Children's Festival runs from March 4 - 9, and is featured as part of #CreativityMonth 2016 - a celebration of creativity and the creative industries in Northern Ireland. View the full programme of events at www.creativityni.org/events. Find out more about the Belfast Children's Festival and book tickets at www.youngatart.co.uk/festival.