Why The Arts Matter: Gathering 2010

'Theatre for young people and children can challenge, encourage, uplift and even inspire them to wonderful heights'

That the phrase 'opera versus operations' was coined by a recent arts and culture minister of our own gives you some indication of the odds stacked against a sector that, at its best, brings meaningful if not essential benefits to people of all ages. The logic would suggest that, if said arts is fallaciously cast as a wasteful fat cat in the predictable faux-Darwinian hierarchy of things, it’s the youth, children and community theatre groups that will surely be set upon as the softest targets.

But the threat of fiscal evisceration be confounded: the annual gathering of Theatre for Young Audiences NI (TYA NI), Gathering 2010 is a stridently celebratory and triumphant showcase of some of the finest theatre for young people currently being produced across this island. 

It's a three-day event of performances, seminars and discussions, featuring eight of the brightest and best youth and children’s companies from across Ireland. Young at Art, Cahoots NI, Tinderbox and Replay make strong local representation, and are joined by top exponents from across the border. At the heart of Gathering 2010 lies a real determination from all concerned to forge a cohesive agenda for children’s theatre in Ireland.

Gathering 2010 is held in the Old Museum. Formally the Old Museum Arts Centre, it’s now home to long-standing tenants and Gathering 2010 hosts, Replay. Having worked here as a press officer, I like what they’ve done with the place. Comfy sofas, sandwiches and new upholstery in the theatre space makes for a perfect 'one-stop-shop' for all your conference and arts seminar needs. The place is buzzing with grown-ups and kids waiting to be seated for the next showcase performance by young company Sticky Fingers.

I arrive at the start of day two of the Gathering. Replay’s executive director Eimear Henry informs me that I’ve just missed a heated debate about the involvement of children in children’s theatre. Something of a no-brainer, but, it turns out, a hot potato nonetheless.

Any talk of the coming arts funding cuts, I enquire? No, Henry says - they’re focussing on the positive. With so many companies in the north bringing accessible performance that is entertaining, educational and genuinely transformative to children of all ages, social backgrounds and beliefs, even the most (he)artless cynic would be hard pushed to call such theatre a 'luxury'.

There is Cahoots, for example, who year after year can lay claim to more than one interpretation of the word ‘magical’ in what they do. Their Mini-Fest at this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s has been one of the most talked about highlights across the entire programme.

Then there’s Replay themselves, who for Gathering 2010 stage a revived version of the verbatim play Bulletproof, which, using the testimonies of real teenagers boldly confronts the reality of suicide and its aftermath amongst working class kids in Belfast. These are but two of the companies showcasing, celebrating and marking another year of triumph with an un-jaded eye on the future.

Ali Fitzgibbon, director of Young at Art and the Belfast Children’s Festival, explains a little of the positive purpose behind Gathering 2010 and TYA NI. 'Above all we want to share work and ideas. We will discuss how best to pool our resources so as to increase accessibility, promote excellence and encourage new and emerging artists in the field.'

It is in this spirit of communal exchange that Gathering 2010 finds itself, in a small but important way, confounding the oncoming uncertainty or even pessimism that is starting to openly pervade through isolated, small and precariously-placed organisations.

It is the little, meaningful announcements, such as Cahoots NI commissioning a new work from Gathering 2010 guest speaker and heralded children’s playwright Charles Way, or that Young at Art are about to launch their own Young at Art Tours (which will bring professional arts events to children throughout the year) that you feel the accumulative reassuring effect of good news might actually hold.

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland (supporters of Gathering 2010) encouragingly recognise the import of accessible performance to children in their formative years. As Gavin O’Connor, the Council’s Youth Arts Officer puts it: 'Youth theatre provides a basis for learning, promoting creativity and helping young people acquire the valuable life skills required for a successful future. Gathering 2010 is showcasing some of the very best in contemporary youth theatre, helping to position Northern Ireland as an international leader in theatre for young audiences.'

And it’s after watching Sticky Fingers take us Down in the Garden for some afternoon shape-shifting, surreal eco-musical fun - or more importantly, watching children in the audience respond and interact with the spectacle that they’re witnessing - that you really, tangibly appreciate that original and stimulating theatre is a right, not a gift for our children.

Before I go, I put Henry on the spot and ask why she believes the arts, and specifically theatre, matters for young people. 'It allows young people to enter into dialogue and be creatively expressive,' she offers. 'It has to relate to their world, but it can invoke both magic and reality, because that is what children’s lives are.

'Live performance and theatre for young people and children can challenge, encourage, uplift and even inspire them to wonderful heights. It’s a unique and powerful way of communicating a message and sparking the imagination.'

On my way out of the Old Museum building, with another day of talking and performance at Gathering 2010 still to go, I notice the sound of warm effusive adult chatter and kids laughing temporarily drowns out the noise of that bleating scapegoat. Perhaps celebration is the most effective form of protest after all…