Belfast Children's Festival 2015

Opera for kids, shows translated to English for the first time and free song downloads for parents – festival director Ali Fitzgibbon on giving audiences something new from March 6 – 13

Young At Art, the children's charity that programmes and runs the Belfast Children's Festival, hope this year to 'light up the city with a colourful array of art and performance to inspire joy, creativity and curiosity'. It is fitting, then, that the festival is a highlight of Creativity Month, a nationwide celebration of creativity and the creative industries running throughout March 2015.

Creativity and collaboration are at the heart of what Young At Art do. Taking place in venues across the city – including The MAC, Lyric Theatre, Waterfront Hall, Castlecourt, Black Box and Grand Opera House – the 2015 Belfast Children's Festival features some intriguing collaborative partnerships aimed at children and adults alike.

The programme is varied, a testiment to festival director Ali Fitzgibbon's two decade's worth of artistic involvement with programming professional theatre for young audiences, drama and education programmes, visual arts projects, youth theatre and theatre for adults. Events with titles like Flying Cow, The Gift, Meat Clunk, Citizens Of The World and Baby Rave will enthuse audiences ranging from nine weeks to 90-years of age.

The core of the programme for 2015 has, in fact, been in place for sometime, and already work for next year is well advanced. 'To have the kind of international work that we are programming you do need a two-, three-year window of invitations, trying to juggle itineraries, touring, availability, costs and all that sort of stuff,' explains Fitzgibbon. 'We’ve already been talking to companies from Ireland, Switzerland and Australia about 2016.'

While there are a number of established and emerging Northern Irish artists taking part, the promotional video trailer – released online during the official festival launch – features only the international dimension of the festival, and for good reason – Fitzgibbon’s meticulous planning required the trailer to be made several months ago. 'A large amount of the local work is new, up-to-date work being presented for the first time.'

If the trailer is anything to go by, audiences are in for some special treats between March 6 and 13. Fitzgibbon flicks through a programme to pick out some highlights. As taglines go, 'Machines have feelings too!' is fairly unmissable.

'Frágil is an awarding-winning piece by Onirica Mecanica from Spain,' Fitzgibbon explains, 'which has been translated into English to come to Belfast. It’s for slightly older kids, nine-years-old. Technically it’s a puppet show, a really sophisticated lecture-style show using bionic robotic puppets, a discussion about how humans relate to technology. They kind of anthropomorphise these machines to show human emotions. For me it was like nothing else I’d ever seen.'

The festival also has something to offer new parents: Lullaby, by the London-based Polka Theatre, is an opera aimed at newborn babies.

The age range for this piece, in which a contemporary composition is considered from the point of view of a baby, is for children between the age of nine weeks and nine months. Parents who attend this show will subsequently be sent links to download music from the production to enjoy at a later date. This is interactive children's theatre with a digital edge – creativity in action.

French company Flip, meanwhile, bring Happy Glimmer to the festival, a 25-minute installation being shown in Northern Ireland for the first time. According to Fitzgibbon, this show has a unique take on how humans relate to technology.

'It’s a theatre performance for an audience of only 20 people that has no actors in it. You walk into darkness in the Baby Grand, a series of little kinetic sculptures light and start moving and you watch them for a while and then another light comes up somewhere else and you find yourself walking towards that. It’s wonderful.'

When programming the 2015 festival, Fitzgibbon was keen to experiment with productions and exhibitions to see how family audiences connect with visual arts in traditional gallery spaces. Collaborations have since been established with the Golden Thread Gallery, a contemporary art gallery located in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, and the University of Ulster.

'While the Flop show is on we are going to have a companion exhibition with local artists responding to the same topic in the Golden Thread,' Fitzgibbon adds. 'We are pairing with the University of Ulster’s Ulster Festival of Art and Design and will be creating a four to five-hour itinerary. People interested in art and technology will be able to visit different events and installations looking at technology and machinery where most of the work has been presented for children.'

One of the biggest challenges that Fitzgibbon faces in putting together a one-week-long festival packed with joy, creativity and curiosity is the nightmare that is scheduling. With so many artists, companies and venues involved, the process of scheduling an arts festival on this scale is not, perhaps, as black and white as one might expect.

Accessibility too is a primary concern – Fitzgibbon is very much of the mind that the arts must be made available to everyone, no matter their background, age or taste. Being a parent of two young children, along with her novelist husband, Glenn Patterson, plays a significant part in Fitzgibbon's quest to make the Belfast Children's Festival as accessible as possible.   

'I think that being a parent makes me much more sensitive as a programmer. There is a whole lot of logistical stuff that kicks in, particularly for families that have more than one child. I consider things like ticket collection, parking, the time of day that performances will be on and what information to give people on the website. Just because something is a children’s show, it doesn’t mean that work made by an artist for an eight-year-old is suitable for a four-year-old.'

The festival is also programmed with parents in mind. 'One of the biggest concerns we get from parents is that they are frustrated that there aren’t things on that they can take all of their children to at the same time,' says Fitzgibbon. 'To me, it’s not that much dissimilar to shoe sizes or classes in school. You wouldn’t put them into the same class together. You wouldn’t give them the same pair of shoes to wear. There are reasons why children learn things at different stages.'

Though it is impossible to please everyone all of the time, Fitzgibbon and her colleagues at Young At Art do a very good job of pleasing lots of people lots of the time, not least the many hundreds of children who attend festival events year after year, like the enduringly popular Baby Rave, also a feature of the 2015 programme.

No matter their age, Fitzgibbon sees children as the perfect audiences members, always open to new experiences and free from negative preconceptions. Their reactions to the work on show is one of the most pleasing, rewarding aspects of any Belfast Children's Festival. 'Children have no barriers to belief or understanding,' Fitzgibbon asserts. 'They don't have any set rules or ask, “Is this art?”'