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A whole new perspective on Belfast Children's Festival

Belfast Children's Festival will have you seeing things differently, its new director, Eibhlin de Barra, tells Gail Bell

This meta-perceptual helmet is a highlight of this year's Belfast Children's Festival
Gail Bell

YOU may think you're seeing things – as a hammerhead shark, giraffe or Cheshire cat – but at this year's visionary Belfast Children's Festival you really can view the world through the eyes of an animal.

All you have to do, says new festival director, Eibhlin de Barra, is slip a Meta-Perceptual helmet over your head to gain a whole new perspective on life.

She has tested it out herself and confirms it is indeed an "amazing" experience – and definitely one of the highlights in the packed 2017 six-day programme of the 19th children's festival which kicks off on March 10.

The wacky-looking futuristic headgear has been developed by Paris-based artists Cleary Connolly and it took several years to perfect the complex optics, with a focus on something "part human, part artwork, part machine."

It is de Barra's first stint as director of the Young at Art annual showcase, after succeeding Ali Fitzgibbon who left the post the pursue a Phd, and it is obvious she is having the time of her life.

Luckily, her belief in our inner child means the select entertainment choices hit all the right buttons irrespective of age, a bit like in the way a good children's book will work on a hidden level for enthusiastic adult readers.

"I always believe that it doesn't matter if a show is aimed at a younger audience; a good show is a good show and if it's good, it will appeal to adults as well," affirms the mother-of-two (now grown-up) twin boys.

"I had already a great base to work with, so compiling this year's programme was just a matter of consolidating and adding to what was already there, such as the hugely popular Baby Rave which is now running over two days.

"It's undoubtedly intense and time-consuming, but pulling together such a diverse range of events covering groundbreaking theatre, dance, comedy, music, visual arts and literature, has been a lot of fun.

"I think it's also important to push the boundaries a little and make some of the experiences more cutting edge, especially for older teenagers, who don't always want the 'safe' option."

With this in mind she has programmed 'Work in Progress', a contemporary dance event entitled 'Hard to be Soft' from celebrated Northern Ireland choreographer Oona Doherty in collaboration with Belfast-based Ajendance dance company.

Aimed at those aged 15 and over, it is intriguingly billed as a "Belfast prayer in four parts"; a "20-minute sugar hit"; a "distillation of girl energy".

Also perched on the radical edge of the schedule is another dance event, 'Flights (Veulos), from Spanish dance theatre company Aracaladanza, described as a "magical performance of otherworldly characters" who pay homage to Renaissance artist, Leonard da Vinci.

"It is a truly spectacular show and is cutting edge work," de Barra, who aims to get round each show personally during the festival, enthuses.

"It's good to see the reaction of people in the audience, to see if something has worked as well as expected, and also just to chat to people."

Although new to the directorship role, she first started working with Young at Art five years ago and has a background in event management, helping deliver the massive Land of Giants event at Titanic Slipways as part of the London 2012 Festival.

Born in Holywood, Co Down, de Barra studied drama and stage management in London before heading to Dublin to work with the Abbey Theatre and later with the Lyric in Belfast in stage management.

Both experiences, she says, required good organisational skills – as well as a sense of humour.

"I came across it all – having to cancel shows when cast members fell ill at the last minute and even evacuating the venue due to a bomb alert," she recalls.

"Once, I accidentally locked the cast on stage after I was told to rush for my last train home. I had forgotten the carpenter had added a bolt to a rattling stage set door which had been snibbed to stop the noise.

"I rushed back to find the cast climbing out of a tiny window on the set and the audience roaring with laughter, thinking it was all part of the show."

But in the early days of her career, like many conflicted working parents, she found that juggling family life with young twin boys could not be easily scripted to a theatre time-table.

"I'm married to Simon Bird, technical manager at The MAC – we met while studying at RADA in London together – and we found it wasn't a great idea for two parents to be working in the industry at the same time," she says.

"The boys are now 18, so it's different, but I know it can be difficult for young families to find time together and that is why the children's festival is so important.

"It attracted 32,000 people last year, many from overseas, and with 60 per cent of the events free of charge, we're hoping that even more will come out this year and enjoy the most amazing family days out."

:: Belfast Children's Festival runs from March 10 to 15 at venues across Belfast. For event listings visit Youngatart.co.uk

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