Belfast Children's Festival Returns

For director Ali Fitzgibbon the important thing is to take kids seriously and always steer clear of panto

Who/what/where/when/why is the Belfast Children's Festival?

The festival runs every year, lasts about eight days and takes place in around 14 different locations. This year the festival runs from March 9-16. We have live theatre and dance performances, exhibitions, workshops, readings and more. Behind the scenes is Young at Art, the not-for-profit company set up to run the festival.

We’ve been working on this year’s programme since 2010, sorting out events, choosing artists, building relationships with venues, schools and youth organisations. Over 200 professional artists are involved from Northern Ireland and elsewhere, and around 12,000 children and adults are expected to come along to something (or a lots of things).

How long have you worked as director of the festival?

I took over in late 2003 when the company was going through some big changes. My first festival was in 2004 and we’ve grown ever since. Eight festivals in, I feel like I’m only getting started. For Young at Art, putting the festival on each year is about drawing together quality events to give a spark of creativity in children’s lives.

Too often, children can be the afterthought when seasons of events are put together, or people think the standards don’t need to be so high. In my view, they need to be even higher as children lack any of the politeness of adults if they’re not engaged by a show or a workshop. I think children can have very sophisticated ways of looking at things but sometimes they lack the vocabulary to express their opinion.

We guess you get to travel around other festivals to watch acts and find inspiration for the BCF programme? Which international festivals would you recommend?

It isn't always necessary to travel far to get great work to present at the festival, because we balance our international programme with working with some of our great indigenous artists, companies like Replay Theatre Company and Cahoots NI.

I'm just back from the biennial festival in Nuremberg, Germany called Panoptikum. It lasts around five days and is a huge focus both for the city of Nuremberg and the professional theatre industry across Germany and Europe. We'll be delighted to have the company that run it, Theater Mummpitz, in Belfast this year with their adaptation of Joan of Arc, The Terrific Adventures of Brave Johanna Woodsword.

I’m also a regular visitor to the Baboró Festival in Galway (October) and the Imaginate Festival in Edinburgh (May), both of which offer amazing programmes. Often when I travel, there is a kind of horse trading involved where I deliver a talk or act as a judge. In April 2011, I travelled to Spain’s largest puppet festival, Fira Titelles de Lleida, as an international judge.

Is the BCF a festival for children only, or is there something for the child in all of us?

I think some of what we present is more exciting and contemporary than anything else you’ll see this year. Adults can attend any of the performances and are welcomed (they may have to sit behind children but being taller is a fact of growing up).

As I see it, we start our lives with unlimited ambition and creativity and growing up can be a process of losing those assets, if we let it. Coming to one of our events is a great way to reanimate that latent imagination and recapture a sense of possibility with the world.

As a child, what piece of art – a book, film, piece of music, painting – did you love the most?

As a kid, I was an incurable romantic and grew up in a very creative household. I was into ballet in a big way right into my teens and dreamed about being at Sadler's Wells. I loved books. Ursula le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea was a personal favourite. I was also taken to the theatre a lot.

I think my favourite thing changed on a daily basis, but I have a very clear memory of being taken to the Crawford Gallery in Cork where I grew up and seeing Harry Clarke’s stained glass and wanting to look at it for hours. It’s something I keep going back to.

What did you dislike the most?

I hated panto. I still do.

If you could invite three fictional characters to enjoy a pre-festival luncheon, who would they be and why?

I’m about to put on a festival for 12,000 people. What’s luncheon?

Will television have a detrimental effect on the artists of tomorrow?

I don’t think television is bad, but I think bad television is damaging. The collective experience of watching television together has changed. We used to watch the big Christmas film, now we constantly tweet through Masterchef. But children, whether they become artists or not, need good television. Like anything that is well produced, it can be stimulating and provocative.

What may be interesting is whether future generations become so inured to television that they gravitate back to the live experience, physically being present for something, making something, experiencing entertainment with other people. I think there is probably some evidence that this may happen.

If you could set the curriculum for a year, what would you teach in English literature, art and drama?

I wouldn’t be interested in making a few tweaks to those subjects. I would restructure school life so that it was compulsory for all schools to provide quality tuition in art, music and drama for all children, from nursery through to A-level as free, state-provided activity.

I would borrow from the education systems in France, Denmark and Norway, where there are state-funded schemes that provide arts coordinators for schools who then work together with programming budgets and trained teams of facilitators. 

Obviously this is all down to funding. My magic wand would be able to it all, but I genuinely think that we need wholesale change in society here where creativity and the embracing of imaginative intelligence is considered as important as knowledge acquisition. Einstein said, 'Imagination is more important than knowledge'.

What are your personal highlights from this year's festival?

The hot ticket is Big Ears, a special two-day residency in the Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast’s best-kept secret. Kids taking part will work with emerging composers from all over the UK using some of the world’s most sophisticated digital equipment to create their own sonic masterpiece. The price includes tickets for parents to go to a special performance at the end of the weekend.

The dance and percussion piece Traverse by the Arcosm Company from France is a must see – it’s like STOMP with real style. It’ll be the UK premiere and I suspect this show will be travelling round the world within the year. If you’re a dance fan, you should go. If you’re not, you should go. If your child likes bashing kitchen cupboards – you have got to be there!

And the premiere I can’t wait to see is Marianne Dreams by Moira Buffini, which will open at the Lyric Theatre on March 13. Produced by Replay Theatre Company, it’s a dream/nightmare story using animation and live performance. 

How can people get involved?

Put the dates in your diary to pop down to our free events and drop-in events. If you fancy getting even more involved, book into one of our talks programmes or apply to be a volunteer (we’re still accepting applications, but only just).

If you are moved by our enthusiasm and commitment, have access to funds (yours or someone else’s), donate something or sponsor us to keep the work going. We charge just 10% of the full cost of our work in ticket sales, so every penny helps.

Belfast Children's Festival