Eastside Arts Festival 2017

Festival director Rachel Kennedy on the purpose and importance of the festival. From comedy bus tours, to circuses and performances, there is something to suit everyone

In just five years the Eastside Arts Festival has established itself as one of Belfast’s most important multi-arts celebrations, putting east Belfast firmly on the cultural map in the process.

This year’s edition, which runs from 3 – 13 August serves up a veritable smorgasbord of music, magic, theatre, street art, exhibitions, art installations, tours, workshops and classes, cinema, cabaret, comedy and circus.

Heading the bill is the Big Top Weekend (12 - 13 August) where a circus Big Top in C.S. Lewis Square provides the spectacular venue for a number of wildly diverse acts.

A mouth-watering triple bill on Friday evening brings together comedian/ magician George Firehouse, the unclassifiable harpist/ singer and comedian Ursula Burns, and soul-funk outfit Manukahunney Blue, in what promises to be a terrific night’s entertainment under the Big Top canvas.

On Saturday and Sunday, east Belfast’s international, award-winning circus Tumble Circus will provide thrills and laughter for all the family.

Two of Belfast’s most acclaimed singer-songwriters will also take to the Big Top stage over the weekend: Gareth Dunlop on Saturday evening, and Ciaran Lavery on Sunday.

With ticket demand likely to be high for The Big Top Weekend, early booking is recommended.  

Eastside arts festival

The Eastside Arts Festival runs from 3-13 August

There is, however, so much more going on in a wonderfully eclectic range of venues, from a bank vault and buses to swimming pool and coffee shops, from churches and libraries to art-deco cinema and a rooftop terrace.

All the events are rooted in, and a celebration of, the rich heritage of the arts in east Belfast, as festival Director Rachel Kennedy explains.

‘Eastside Arts is all about shining a light on the brilliant and really diverse creative talent within east Belfast and encouraging people to come and explore that and maybe take a look at a part of the city they may not necessarily have visited before.’

Eastside Arts delivers an outstanding arts program throughout the year, with The Woodstock Rhythm & Blues Festival and the C.S. Lewis Festival among the more prominent events. Its programing, of which the Eastside Arts Festival is arguably the jewel in the crown, is as much about regeneration as it is about inspiration.

‘Regeneration is at the heart of what we do at Eastside Arts,’ affirms Kennedy. ‘Eastside Arts began as a project within Eastside Partnership, which has been working in East Belfast as one of four or five regeneration organisations across the city. It’s been going for twenty years and it is instrumental in redeveloping east Belfast.’

One of the cornerstones of regeneration is the arts.

‘I think the arts are vital,’ Kennedy agrees. ‘By animating spaces that have fallen into disrepair, or that may not have been on the radar, and using them for events, you entertain, engage and inspire people.’

A good example is the Templemore Baths. The Bath House at the back of the building has been taken over by a small group of artists who use the space to house exhibitions and residencies. For the Eastside Arts Festival, (3-6 August) Belfast-based artist Colm Clarke’s installation Diving Station in the empty Templemore pool will capture the sounds of the people and urban environment of Templemore.

An equally innovative use of space that breathes new life, and no little imagination, into a formerly highly functional place, is the former Ulster Bank at Holywood Arches. This privately owned building is now home to a collective of twenty three artists – The Belfast Bankers.

‘They have entirely transformed the space and it is absolutely inspiring to go and see what they have created.’ Enthuses Kennedy.

On Saturday, 12 August the bank’s vault will stage a sonic arts performance by Constance Keane entitled I Am Sitting in a Vault, which explores the influence of positive feedback in our lives.

The bank is also hosting a series of workshops on creating street art, film-making via the internet, darkroom techniques and screen printing.

One of numerous highlights on Festival Fun Day (Saturday 5 August) is Seedhead Arts’ Street Art Jam, also in the vicinity of the bank.

‘Seedhead Arts run an annual street art festival called Hit the North but this year it’s coming to east Belfast, so it’s Hit the East,’ Kennedy explains.

‘A number of international artists will be joined by some of our local, Northern Irish street artists and they will transform the streets and alleyways around the area of the Holywood Road.’

It’s another inspirational example of artist-led regeneration. ‘It will have a lasting visual impact and create a bit of a legacy for the work of artists within east Belfast,’ says Kennedy, ‘which is exciting.’

The Eastside Arts Festival overlaps with Féile an Phobail, west Belfast’s long-running community arts festival. The timing, it turns out, is no accident.

‘We’ve done that on purpose’, says Kennedy, ‘so we can encourage people who want to take part in arts activities, tourists too, to explore as much of Belfast as possible. There’s a fantastic selection of creative things to do across the city during those eleven days.’

The Eastside Arts Festival’s East West Bus Trip is linking these two parts of the city in a fun and innovative way – in essence a comedy by east Belfast writer Steven Beggs and west Belfast comedian and performer Paddy McDonnell.  

‘Steven and Paddy will take passengers from the City Centre on a tour of both East and West Belfast. Each will give their cultural and artistic highlights of their part of the city. It will be fun to see what they come up with script-wise.'

The project is possible thanks to Translink, one of Eastside Arts Festival’s partners.

‘Translink is planning on launching an east-west bus route in 2018, so this project ties in with their plans to encourage people to explore the city by using public transport,’ Kennedy expands.

‘It will also be a demonstration of the fact that the east and the west are so closely linked and easily accessible.’

Then there is the People’s Pharmacy in JACK coffee shop, a delightful project run in conjunction with the community groups that Eastside Arts engages with throughout the year. Kennedy explains:

‘Anybody that calls into JACK coffee shop and sees the little post box, can donate their ‘prescription’ -  it could be a poem, a piece of crochet, a drawing, an object, a photograph, a recipe, anything creative really, and we will give them out as prescriptions on Saturday 5th August. It’s a lovely project because people are contributing little pieces of artwork that mean something to them, that they think will cheer up somebody else’s day.’

An idea too, could also brighten someone’s day. ‘A prescription could just as easily be a map to go for a walk, a direction to one of the events in the festival or a suggestion to get involved with a local community activity. We hope to encourage well-being and health through arts and community activities.’

There’s plenty more of note going on during Eastside Arts Festival, including Sam McCready’s performance of Robert Harbinson’s entertaining play No Surrender (3-4 August) in Strand Arts Centre, and Songs of the Shipyard (6 August), a celebration of Belfast’s ‘Shipyard Poet’, Thomas Carnduff, with a musical score by Peacock Angell.

‘The Eastside Arts Festival is certainly about celebrating the well-known creative talent that has come out of the east but it’s particularly about celebrating the artists that are living and creating work within east Belfast,’ says Kennedy. ‘Pretty much all of the events, and there are around a hundred, have their roots in east Belfast, and a resonance and relevance to local audiences.’

Clearly, Eastside Arts’ driving ambition is to be relevant in the local community and to support and develop the artistic activities, the organisations and artists within east Belfast.

‘We want to make sure that the east is part of the wider conversation about artistic-led regeneration and of the importance, value and benefits of the arts’, says Kennedy.

‘We want to feed into the whole Belfast story to attract visitors to Northern Ireland and to ensure that for our visitors, and for our residents, Belfast is a great place. I think that’s something all of us working in the arts want – to reflect and tell stories and encourage participation, enjoyment and inclusion.’

The Eastside Arts Festival runs from 3-13 August. For tickets and general information visit www.eastsidearts.net.