Outburst Queer Arts Festival

Director Ruth McCarthy on tackling issues and welcoming artists to Belfast from November 15-23

The annual Outburst Queer Arts Festival is about to explode on to the Belfast festival scene for the seventh year running. Billed as a 'celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) creativity for everyone', the festival runs from November 15 – 23.

Recently nominated in the Culture and Arts category at the annual Aisling Awards – they find out if they were successful at a glitzy awards ceremony in Belfast's Europa Hotel on November 21 – this year Outburst is as eclectic and inventive as ever.

Highlights include the world premiere of TheatreofplucK's The Trouble With Harry, based on the true story of Eugenia Falleni, who passed as a man in early 20th century Australia; the Cannes Palme D’Or 2013 winner Blue is the Warmest Colour; New York art house singer-songwriters Baby Dee and Little Annie; and the closing night extravaganza featuring Amy Lame and Scottee alongside local artists and performers.

'Our attitude from the very beginning has been that the LGBT community deserves the best,' says festival director Ruth McCarthy. 'So no matter what level of experience someone’s at – whether it’s community arts or at professional level – we have been trying to facilitate excellence in that area.'

As well as becoming masters of programming, the good folks at Outburst have also cracked the difficult art of self-promotion with some eye-catching and unique branding in recent years. For anyone strolling around the centre of Belfast these past few weeks it's been impossible to miss the quirky-kitsch billboards and flyers in bus shelters and on walls featuring images of two cute kittens in pink balaclavas.

Arts funding is essential in this regard, according to McCarthy – not only in financing the programme, but in helping to raise awareness of the festival across the city and further afield. Arts Council of Northern Ireland funding in particular has afforded the festival 'vital credibility' when it comes to attracting international acts to Belfast, as well as enabling homegrown artists to become a part of the programme.

'It’s that thing of when you go to somewhere like London or New York and see a performance of something and think, "We never get this kind stuff at home",' adds McCarthy. 'If people can see work in Northern Ireland that they wouldn’t normally see, they can become inspired.

'It’s about inspiring people to talk about work or to create work. But we’ve also already got amazing talent in Northern Ireland, and it needs to be nurtured. We have got amazing performers. We’ve also got something that’s very unique here that other LGBT festivals don’t have, and that’s the reason to do what we do.'

McCarthy is, of course, referring to the continuing bigotry and inequality faced by the LGBT community in Northern Ireland compared to other parts of the world – indeed, other parts of the UK – such as the ongoing struggles regarding gay adoption and gay men donating blood.

Central to the Outburst ethos, however, is a determination not to get bogged down in headlines and topical horror stories. And while McCarthy acknowledges there are 'important equality issues' to address, she also believes that it's vital that Outburst facilitates and encourages the exploration of other topics, ideas and conversations that are just as relevant and timely for those in the LGBT community in Belfast and across Northern Ireland.

She picks GAY : DAD as one example of this trend. A new production from Dublin’s LGBT Community Theatre Company, it's a play that examines relationships between gay men and their fathers. Based on candid interviews with men across Ireland, it is presented by a cast of 14 and intercut with extracts from the anti-gay book Preventing Homosexuality: A Parent’s Guide.

'You think of gay issues in Northern Ireland and you think of the blood ban and Edwin Poots and equal marriage,' McCarthy suggests. 'They are all really important equality issues, obviously. But rather than just looking outwardly at stuff like that, it’s also important to ask what’s really going on with us? What are the issues that we want to explore?'

To this end, the Outburst team have initiated a community outreach strand this year for the first time, previously bringing a project known as Queer Moments to Fermanagh, Newry and Derry~Londonderry. It was a successful venture, and has inspired McCarthy and co to consider similar projects in the future.

'It is all about exploring those moments where you realise you’re different,' says McCarthy. 'We did workshops and then we did a performance in each area. We want to do a lot more of that. There is still an attitude around the arts that it’s exclusive, it’s for middle class people, and we are very much trying to break that down.'

Outburst Queers Arts Festival runs in venues across Belfast from November 15 – 23. Visit the festival website for full events listings.