Still Out to Lunch

After a year fraught with cuts, the enduring festival is back to help Belfast ring in 2016 with another hearty helping of performing arts

The brochure for the eleventh Out to Lunch festival might as well have Mark Twain's most famous (mis)quotation written on the front. For happily, reports of its death or at least vulnerability to the fierce winds of economic downturn have proved to be exaggerated.

When director Sean Kelly (48) spoke to Culture NI a year ago, he was genuinely concerned about its survival. Not any longer, although Mr Kelly says he remains pretty anxious about the arts sector in Northern Ireland with four more years of austerity cuts arriving from Westminster.

'We are still here but last year was a horrific year in terms of arts funding,' he says. 'There was a huge question mark over everything with the tourist office events funding withdrawn and the Arts Council for Northern Ireland facing 11% cuts.'

Although the Out to Lunch festival and its older sibling, the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, were put together under duress during 2015, they're still offering audiences an exciting, subversive mix of music, theatre and comedy.

Throughout January Out to Lunch is presenting a magnificent line-up of performances, including singer Hazel O'Connor, performance poet Attila the Stockbroker, a musical version of Kafka's Metamorphosis, and comic yet silent stand-up The Boy with Tape on His Face.

The key to cultural success, according to Sean Kelly, is independence of thought. This goes back to the early days of the festival when he found his vocation after working at the Verbal Arts Centre in Derry~Londonderry.

'I originally taught English literature at the Christian Brothers' School in West Belfast but didn't particularly enjoy it and found a job promoting the spoken and written word at the Verbal Arts Centre. From there, I organized literary events and started poetry slams which were popular.'

He adds that he enjoyed every aspect of putting on events, from choosing the artists to marketing and, something Out to Lunch does particularly well, creating a welcoming ambience. So when Kelly returned to Belfast in early 1999, he was ready for a new challenge. His mentor was playwright and manager Martin Lynch. 'I'm quite friendly with Martin and he's been a great mentor to me,' he says.

Kelly discovered that the Laganside Corporation, now defunct, had been asked to regenerate the city centre, including the Cathedral Quarter. The rest was synchronicity. 'I sent a proposal to Laganside. It was a different era with money available and I got my budget for the first festival. It was £20,000. . .

'That was for the first Cathedral Quarter festival in May 2000. I had six months and it was pre-email, so you wrote letters to people. In that first year, we had Germaine Greer, Bernard MacLaverty and Ronan Bennett.'

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He adds that the number of significant names attracted to perform at the festival may have had something to do with the city itself. 'There was a great curiosity about the city after the Good Friday Agreement. Belfast was kind of sexy, and still is to a degree.'

The focus, as with Out to Lunch, was on comedy and music, and with what Kelly calls the 'arrogance of youth', he got the show on the road. 'There was the West Belfast festival and the Queen's arts festival but we felt it was middle aged, middle class and very south Belfast orientated.'

It was important to be fringe-y and to open up Belfast city centre after dark, which had been closing down at 5pm for decades during the Troubles. Prices were unexpectedly affordable at £4 to £5, and the venues weren't what people were used to.

As Kelly recalls, 'I wanted to be creative with space, to take plays out of the theatre, poetry readings out of libraries and visual art out of galleries.' It was informal, as back in the day, you could smoke and drink while enjoying some newly written drama.

Black Box, home of Out to Lunch, fitted Kelly's philosophy perfectly. He and a friend were scouting for something to replace the 40-seater converted bus that was the festival's first venue.

'It was an old whisky bonded warehouse in Hill Street, a great location. We got the money, set up the Black Box and on April 28 2006, first used it.' With good sightlines and no pillars, this quirky arts centre caught everyone's imagination. 'It has a stage and a bar and it works.'

Out to Lunch Feature

As a boy sitting in his father's rural pub near Aldergrove, Sean Kelly got his first taste of the arts. 'On a Saturday night, we all worked – and I was one of seven – in the pub. We heard the old singer-songwriters doing classics by Johnny Cash and Kris Kristoffersen. Locals did their favourite turns and somebody might recite a bit of poetry. I was fascinated by the way they'd engage the audience.'

That same piece of magic involving performer, venue, and audience will occur this month at the Black Box. The intimacy of the place, and the food factor (delicious chowders, stews and curries supplied by Hadskis), create something bohemian and stimulating.

Past highlights have to include David Soul delivering Pablo Neruda's complex poetry with un-Hutch understanding and light musical accompaniment. Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell dominated the space a couple of years back and when his projector gave up, continued to dissect the British political classes with indecent glee. Chris Mullins, bouncy bluegrass, the late Simon Hoggart, full-bodied opera from rising stars at NI Opera, the list of cultural memories goes on.

Naturally, performers engage with the atmosphere. Belfast musician Wilson Magwere, whose seven-piece band return on January 15, with their repertoire of Zimbabwean rebel music and new material, says he likes playing here. 'I remember playing the festival a couple of years ago and the place was packed. It was a very good experience. I feel our music works well here as it's an incredible venue.'

Irish folk star Ciaran Lavery, big in Japan and over here, has this to say. 'I'm genuinely humbled to again be a part of a festival that offers something for everyone whilst keeping the level of quality high year after year.'

Kelly says he is particularly looking forward to a number of events, including Roisin Ingle's reading from her autobiography and singer Patty Griffin's show, but it isn't all about him. 'No, it's not about my personal taste but about introducing them to work they wouldn't otherwise experience.' And you get a decent plate of food.

Out to Lunch runs from January 8 - 31 at the Black Box, Belfast. For the full timetable of events and ticket booking visit www.cqaf.com/outtolunch/2016. Photos by Argyll Images.