Outburst Queer Arts Festival 2011

Director Ruth McCarthy on a new sense of optimism and a programme to remember

'Queer is a word that’s a little cheeky, it definitely has an eyebrow raised,' laughs Ruth McCarthy, director of Outburst Queer Arts Festival. The distinction between the word 'queer' and 'gay' is an important one for McCarthy and she emphasises that this 'gay' arts festival has more to offer than the clichéd glitter and sparkle of the camp revue.

'Queer really covers such a huge gamut, rather than limiting descriptions so popularly attributed to words like “gay”,' she argues. 'It brings back that sense of otherness, that isn’t necessarily about sexuality, but is essential to shout about in a wider society and culture that’s so desperate to homogenise.'

Indeed, now in its fifth year and with a line-up that boasts an impressive and vibrant array of queer and queer-influenced theatre, film, music and comedy, Outburst has remained defiantly and gloriously 'other', attracting audiences both gay, straight and inbetween with a sometimes challenging, always enervating programme.

Back in 2007 it was girded by 'sheer good will and support', and possibly sticky-backed plastic. There was also a drive to be 'political with a small p', to raise a defiantly and celebratory queer head above the social parapet and face the wider arts firmament full-on.

'This is spurred by generating and sustaining confidence within community, whilst recognising that gay culture is just not all about Kylie and Lady GaGa,' McCarthy comments. 'I love camp and it has its place, which is totally celebrated at Outburst. But I’m a woman who prefers the Smiths to Lady GaGa and likes sitting in to listen to Leonard Cohen!

'Growing up and feeling different in all sorts of ways really informs your view on the world and how you express yourself culturally. Often it’s that outsider perspective in whatever form that can critically cast an eye on society. And we always try and capture that essence in the programme.'

This year’s programme is stuffed with such interesting and juxtaposed events that run the gamut of queer arts, playfully poking at the tenuous notion of homogenous ‘community’ along the way.

There’s Neil Watkin’s hilarious and moving one man show Year of Magical Wanking, for instance, alongside story-telling by the uber-cool ever-so-slightly butch Canadian lesbian, Ivan Coyote and the film Weekend, described by the New York Times as 'a bracing, present-tense exploration of sex, intimacy and love' (watch the trailer below).

A specially commissioned new work from Northern Irish playwright Brenda Murphy and a run for acclaimed Australian Lachlan Pilpott’s new play The Trouble With Harry sits alongside the London Gay Men’s Chorus belting out Little Shop of Homos and Joe Mercer’s dance–theatre piece Cruising, Shopping, F*cking.

Singer extraordinaire and Belfast’s only male lesbian bear chanteuse, Ross Anderson opens proceedings with Qabarett, a powerful musical exploration of gender stereotypes, whilst in search of the true ‘gay male lesbian bear voice’.

'We have lots of really interesting issues being raised by our events,' McCarthy adds. 'Ross Anderson is a phenomenal singer and is looking at ideas of misogyny in the gay scene with regards to singing and the voice. We have a number of trans-gender events also, which I think is hugely important. There’s a heck of a lot of trans-phobia within the LGBT community.

'We’re giving a space for those challenging voices that I don’t think would otherwise get heard,' McCarthy adds. 'Divided, Radical and Gorgeous, for another example, is a stunning one-man show by Gordon Crawford. He’s a wonderful drag artist from east Belfast, being directed by a west Belfast gay man, Niall Rea.

'I know other festivals do programme gay events, which is great, but it’s always a kind of genre to itself, like they're putting the word "gay" in front of whatever the event or act happens to be. Outburst looks at many, many different facets and exponents of queer arts and culture – and it recognises that there are so many different voices, shaped by different backgrounds.'

If Pride is about an outward, flamboyant ego-driven gesture to the world, McCarthy passionately believes that Outburst is the reflective, contemplative and ever circulating heart of the LGBT discourse.

'I know Pride has its critics these days, and people say it’s too depoliticised, but it does serve a very valid function of expression,' she argues. 'I think though that Outburst is more about us looking at ourselves, taking stock and seeing where we’re at, and where we go as queer artists and even a community.'

Outburst 2011 is also the first to draw down public funding, courtesy of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. As McCarthy says, 'It’s enabled us to do stuff we couldn't before, like pay people!' Significantly, public funding has also enabled McCarthy and the Outburst team to further consolidate its potent political (with a small p again) significance in a Northern Ireland cultural calendar awash with festivals.

'This year, our plan has come to fruition. Our 5 year plan!' she jokes. 'It was purely unintentional, but Arts Council funding gives us a platform to expand what we do. The trick, of course, is to not compromise your core ideals as a result, but that shouldn’t be a problem.

'It might sound silly maybe, but this year I started off thinking about things like billboards and how great it would be to have that. There’s a glee – such a gay word! – in now seeing those about town. To have Outburst and queer arts writ large across the city centre is something truly significant I think.'

Leaps and bounds in gay rights may have been made in Northern Ireland of late, with civil partnerships and the now traditional Pride march now only raising the odd convulsion of public bigotry, but issues still stubbornly remain. In a region that, as the joke goes, is 15 years behind fashion in London, so too are many ingrained cultural and social mores.

'Friends in England talk to me about the "post-gay" thing there,' explains McCarthy. 'Look, here we have self-esteem issues, mental health, poverty all going on, not because people are gay but because people are affected by prevailing attitudes towards sexuality.

'I’m an educated, comfortable woman with a good support network and people like me will hopefully come to Outburst and enjoy some great music, comedy, theatre and cinema. But I’m not a lonely, 17 year old boy from north Belfast. I think the visibility and projected confidence of Outburst is so, so important on that level also.

'This is about nothing if it doesn’t attempt to have an impact on the social environment. The other day I saw five old ladies looking up at the Outburst billboard on Botanic Avenue and laughing – now god knows what they were laughing about, but to have that in the city – well, that’s the spirit of Outburst right there.'

Outburst Queer Arts Festival runs in various venues in Belfast from November 11 – 20.