Roll up, roll up for the Belfast Children’s Arts Festival

Nine-day festival to feature dance, comedy, theatre and music for ages 0-100

Young performers on stage launch Belfast Children's Festival
Eibhin De Barra, Director ofYoung At Art, joins Gilly Campbell, Arts Council for Northern Ireland, artists Kate Dunne and Emmen Donnelly, Tabula Rasa and children from Gaolacoil na bhFal and Nettlefield Nursery Belfast at the launch of Belfast Children's Festival

What does a toddler and the average world leader have in common?

This is just one of the questions posed at Belfast Children’s Festival 2024, as it brings nine days of fun filled and thought provoking dance, theatre and music to the city this March.

BullyBully is a madcap musical about two neighbouring rulers who provoke one another into conflict with serious consequences for each other’s territory. It features national anthems, quarrels, flags, bickering and eventually a happy ending.

“When I first saw it, I just thought this is Northern Ireland politics on stage, especially when they have a competition to see who has the biggest flag,” laughs Young at Art Director Eibhlin de Barra.

“It’s slapstick and madcap and will really get people laughing. You even get to take away your own moustache at the end so you could practice to be your own dictator. I’m hoping it will make some of our own politicians maybe raise their eyebrows a bit about their own opinions.”

BullyBully is one of two performances that form part of the festival’s Dutch Focus, supported by Performing Arts NL and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The country is leading the way in producing theatre which spark young imaginations and Eibhlin is proud to bring them to local audiences, describing them as “the finest work for young audiences that is available in the world today”.

“I think it’s really important to bring international work to Belfast because otherwise we risk cultural isolation, particularly in the wake of Brexit.”

“What the Dutch do incredibly well is that they don’t shy away from really challenging subjects, almost taboo subjects but they do it with such invention.”

The other Dutch work, I…um I explores themes of loneliness, isolation and depression.

The show is set within a rotating box, similar to a giant washing machine, where the main character performs his daily routine, moving effortlessly between rooms in his home. Trap doors open, hidden objects are revealed, all timed precisely and seemingly defying gravity – all whilst playing percussion instruments.

A scene from the children's theatre piece I .. Um I with a man washing his face and a giant goldfish in his bathtub
I ... Um I is a powerful performance exploring what it's like to lose your grip on reality. (Moon Saris/foto: Moon Saris)

Slowly though, this carefully planned routine starts to unravel, as we witness the character’s battle with losing grip on time and reality.

“In Northern Ireland we have a mental health crisis on our hands, particularly with children and young people who are 25% more likely to experience anxiety and depression than any other children in the UK.

“So it’s really important that we’re addressing these things and choosing work that helps parents and carers and teachers open up that conversation on mental health and wellbeing,” says Eibhlin.

it’s really important to bring international work to Belfast because otherwise we risk cultural isolation, particularly in the wake of Brexit

—  Eibhlin de Barra

I…um I audiences will get a chance to look behind the scenes at the end of the performance to get a sense of the set’s ingenuity.

“It’s phenomenal to see the backstage workings. There are something like nine people on stage, but you only have one performer. There’s so much going on and so many moving parts.  I don’t think people would have seen anything like it here at the shore,” she enthuses.

Launch of Belfast Children's Festival with acrobat
Roll Up Roll Up. Eibhin De Barra, Director, Young At Art and Paloma Grandjean, St Michael's Primary School and Young At Art Collective member with artist Kate Dunne, Tabula Rasa at the launch of Belfast Children's Festival, 8 - 16 March 2024. Visiit www.youngatart.co.uk

Over 100 events and performances will take place during the festival at venues including The Lyric, The MAC, Belfast Cathedral, Culturlann MacAdam Ó Fiaich and Crescent Arts Centre from March 8-16.

Festival favourite Paul Currie returns with his latest family comedy show Dada Dojo, there is the ever-popular Baby Rave, Kiddy Céilí and Festival Family Day Out, as well as plenty of opportunities for young people to perform.

“Children are really embedded in this program, platforms like Open Mic and Volume Control at the Oh Yeah Music Centre, give young comics, bands and promoters a safe and welcoming performance environment,” adds Eibhlin.

Fighting Words NI’s latest Young Playwrights project, Megaphone, is a collection of solo performances written and performed by those aged 14-18 years.

A Children’s Guide to Anarchy, a collaboration between school children, composer Brian Irvine and director John McAlduff showcases a series of musical animated video posters that explore “anarchical” thinking such as autonomy, kindness and human connectivity from a child’s perspective.

Acrobats perform for babies and their parents
Babies and adults are transported into a playful topsy turby world where people can fly in Little Top

A circus theme runs throughout the 2024 festival, with the youngest audiences being given the chance to experience spectacular balances, astonishing tumbles and inventive juggling in a specially designed set that miniaturises the magic of the Big Top.

From the tent to the sea, Making Waves is a magical sea voyage where the audience and performers set sail in search of hidden treasure.

This immersive multi-sensory dance theatre invites audience members to sit in pods representing boats on the stage and includes specially designed boats, suitable for wheelchair users too.

Hollow, is a non-verbal inclusive theatre adventure inspired by the mysteries and sensations of subterranean exploration.  Created by Replay Theatre Company, this show provides a special individual experience to neurodivergent young people and their families.

“Hollow is for a child for whom our relaxed performances aren’t suitable. It is performed just for them, because we want to make sure that everyone has a chance to engage with the festival, no matter what their needs are.”

Other highlights include Club Origami, which combines dance, fashion and live music, and Grand Soft Day, a new show celebrating our weather.

A scene from Grand Soft Day - three people dressed for the rain in the woods
Grand Soft Day is a playful show about always being prepared even though you do not know what the day will bring. (Anita Murphy)

The festival also includes an Irish Language programme featuring Babaithe Cultúir and a fun interactive session with Fearghas Mac Lochlainn and Paddy Donnelly, author and illustrator of An Slípear Gloine.

For full programme and booking visit  www.youngatart.co.uk.

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