This month, Young at Art is celebrating its 20th birthday, along with its flagship event, the annual Belfast Children’s Festival. The whole thing started out in life when its first director, university lecturer Anna Cutler, moved from London to Belfast and was shocked at the lack of provision for children and families offered by the 1997 Belfast Festival at Queen’s (now the Belfast International Arts Festival).
Taking matters into her own hands she set up an office in a corner of her living room and began writing what would turn out to be a successful Arts Council lottery application containing a proposed programme for a dedicated festival. The following year, the fledgling event took its first tentative steps into the public arena.
From those humble beginnings it has developed into one of the biggest children’s arts festivals in the UK, with a burgeoning worldwide reputation and a close association with ASSITEJ, the international association of theatre for young audiences. In turn, Young at Art, the parent company, has established itself as a flourishing social enterprise agency, delivering a year-round engagement and outreach programme of creative writing sessions, visual arts and educational workshops, creative showcases, professional training and large-scale public spectaculars, which this year comes in the form of the Big Botanic Birthday Bash in Botanic Gardens and the Ulster Museum over the weekend of March 10 and 11. See the full schedule of predominately free events here.
As its longest serving director Ali Fitzgibbon (who served from 2003 to 2016) puts it, '… the organisation has never been 'just’ a festival. From its earliest days, it has been involved in building knowledge and capacity and confidence in order to realise the ambition of creating really original, inspiring events and programmes that children, their schools and their families want to be part of. It has had to be part of the civic, political and educational debates in the city about urban planning and regeneration, children’s rights, tourism, arts provision, audience development, inclusion, education and youth policy.'
In 2016, former programming officer Eibhlin De Barra took over as director and is already demonstrating a combination of ambition, vision, risk-taking and enterprise in her planning. In the past couple of months, she has been travelling across the world, from Germany and Galway to South Korea, seeking out work for the 2020 festival.
This year, the packed programme encompasses theatre, visual art, music, dance, literature, workshops and talks, with artists converging on Belfast from Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Spain, along with the presence of a rich seam of home-grown talent. This winning combination of high quality local work with international performance has been a hallmark of the festival from its earliest days. There is also a diverse programme of events aimed at adults, arts professionals and new, emerging voices, who have the chance to try out ideas in the already sold-out Scratchworks showcase.
The theme for this birthday year is 'Family', with a number of events shining intriguing light onto the many and varied versions of what constitutes a modern day family. Cahoots NI is one of Northern Ireland’s international success stories, exporting its beautifully crafted work for children to venues across the world. Its delightful little show Penguins opened last month at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and is now heading home for a victory lap. It tells the story of Roy and Silo, two male penguins, who long for a child. They decide to hatch a rock in place of an egg and in the process embark on an unexpected journey into friendship and family life. Cahoots specialises in magic, illusion and non-verbal theatre, communicating powerfully with its young audiences. Penguins is suitable for very young theatregoers as well as for those who speak English as an additional language.
Book tickets for Penguins at the MAC on Saturday March 10 (2pm and 4pm), Sunday March 11 (2pm - relaxed performance and 4pm) and Wednesday March 14 (7pm) – click here.
The company's second offering for the festival is the mysterious tale of The Assistant’s Revenge, created collectively by artistic director Paul Bosco McEneaney, distinguished playwright Charles Way and singer/musician Ursula Burns. It is aimed at an audience of 7+ years.
Book tickets for The Assistant's Revenge at the MAC on Friday March 9 (6.30pm), Saturday March 10 (2.30pm, 4.30pm and 6.30pm) and Sunday March 11 (2.30pm, 4.30pm and 6.30pm) – click here.
Ever since she spotted the Belgian dance company kabinet k’s Horses, De Barra was determined to bring it to the festival. It gathers together five adult dancers with five children and, as the dramatic publicity photographs suggest, it explores a tangled web of human experience. It is set in that vulnerable territory between longing to be a grown-up while clinging to the security of childhood and examines how we trust, who we trust and the ways in which we count on one another.
Book tickets for Horses at the Lyric Theatre on Friday March 9 (7pm), Saturday March 10 (2.30pm) and Sunday March 11 (2.30pm) – click here.
Beware when stepping off a bus at the Europa Bus Centre on Saturday or passing through the Ulster Museum on Sunday. You could well find yourself caught up the whirlwind of action that the acclaimed Scottish choreographer Jack Webb has injected into Maiden Voyage’s new Each for Other, a fast-moving piece which is designed for public spaces and brings passers-by into really close proximity with the performers.
Each for Other will be performed at 11.45am and 1.30pm on Saturday March 10 and at 2pm and 3.30pm on Sunday March 11 – these performances are free.
Pink and Blue is a clown show, which gently considers one of the pressing issues of our time in examining the differences and similarities between boys and girls. Through all the silliness and fun, the performers pose the question as to why a young person should not be who he or she wants to be and encourages them to accept differences in others. It is presented by Belfast’s Amadan company, whose co-founder Jude Quinn trained in clowning and physical theatre at the world famous Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris.
Book tickets for Pink and Blue at the MAC on Saturday March 10 (3.30pm and 5.30pm) and Sunday March 11 (3.30pm and 5.30pm) – click here.
Getting Dressed is a madcap performance by the inventive Second Hand Dance company. It approaches similarly delicate ground, plunging young audiences into a mad world of colour and chaos and asking questions about what clothes say about a person. Trousers are put on upside down, coats are worn back to front, some days there is a temptation to wear no clothes at all. Based on the rites of passage theme of a child dressing himself or herself, this performance offers fun and games and food for thought from beginning to end.
Book tickets for Getting Dressed at the MAC on Saturday March 10 (2.30pm and 5pm) and Sunday March 11 (2.30pm) – click here.
Less energetic and immeasurably soothing is a wander through the world of wonder created by Architects of Air’s Miracoco Luminarium, which will be hovering in the Botanic Gardens over the weekend of March 9 to 11. Since it was created in 1992, over three million visitors in over 40 countries across five continents have been welcomed into this immersion of radiant colour produced by the daylight shining through the Luminarium’s fabric.
The Miracoco Luminarium is open from 12-6pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, March 9-11. Admission is £3 or you can book a limited number of slots online in advance – click here.
Sadly, there are disappointments too, with the box office reporting that all tickets have sold out for gems like Branar Téatar do Pháistí’s production of Belfast artist/writer Oliver Jeffers’s much loved book How To Catch a Star and the Dutch company Maas Theater en Dans’s zany EGG-tion Hero, a seriously nutty, site-specific theatre performance (in the Ulster Museum) for toddlers and their parents.
But in a programme crammed full of birthday goodies, there’s plenty more to choose from. Put together the festival’s main programme with its schools, industry and delegate programmes and you’ll come up with an astonishing 170 events in 18 venues all over the city. Last year, De Barra reckons she walked a distance of 27.8km between spaces and performances. This year, she’s likely to be taking a much longer walk.
For full programme details and bookings go to www.youngatart.co.uk/festival.
Belfast Children's Festival is featured as one of the key events during Creativity Month, a celebration of creativity and the Creative Industries in Northern Ireland throughout March. Click here to browse the full programme.