Belfast Children's Festival celebrates its 25th year
As the Belfast Children's Festival celebrates its 25th anniversary, Jenny Lee chats to some of those involved and previews what's on offer at next month's event
MENTAL health, gender, disability, homelessness, teen love and childhood creativity are all tackled in a wide-ranging programme of dance, drama, music, performance and interactive events in the Belfast Children’s Festival 2023.
Celebrating 25 years of bringing local and international arts for children and young people to Belfast audiences, Young at Art Director, Eibhlín de Barra describes this year’s programme as their “brightest” and “boldest” to date.
From floating mugs in The Invisible Man, from the Netherlands company Theater Artemis, and acrobatic painting in Plock! to Mirrorball, a new musical based on the real-life experiences of Matt Cavan and his drag persona Cherrie Ontop, there is something for all ages.
We Touch! We Play! We Dance! is a mesmerising, engaging and celebratory dance show for babies and young children, whilst Nobody, Somebody from Northern Ireland Opera and performed with the Ulster Youth Orchestra focuses on the pertinent and pressing issues of housing stress and homelessness some young people are facing.
Eibhlín, who has been at the helm of the festival for the past seven years, is proud of what the festival has achieved during the past 25 years.
“Not only is it our silver anniversary, it's also the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. To think about how we as a nation and a people have come is tremendous. Belfast is now a creative, cultural destination where people want to live, work, play and visit and we are proud to be the region’s only dedicated children's festival.”
She believes the festival and their organisation continues to play a crucial role in reflecting the needs of young people in an ever-changing society.
“The arts help create that conversation where young people can express what they feel and actually have a creative outlet for that.
“We have never shied away from difficult subjects and it's important that young people see themselves represented on stage and get a sense of difference and that it is celebrated.”
One such example of this is Little Murmur, a true story of a young person who one day realises they have been misspelling their own name.
“It's based on his experience of living with dyslexia and it's beautifully portrayed. It's got groundbreaking projection, and a wonderful soundscape, portraying not just the tribulations they have overcome, but celebrating that there is a way through,” adds EibhIín.
PRISM is a story of Inter-dimensional travellers Dawn and Dusk, who have been stuck in an empty void dimension for far too long. When Dusk devises a radical solution to their problem, they are hurled into our dimension and need the audience's help.
This new production, from Replay Theatre Company, is designed with accessibility at its core.
Rather than create a bespoke piece of theatre for children with disabilities or sensory needs, it has created a piece of theatre for “everyone”, complete with loud music, LED lighting effects and fog, but with the needs of those with physical disabilities fully catered for.
“Content-wise, it would be a very similar experience as you'd expect from a typical piece of theatre for neurotypical audiences, but it’s accessible in a way we haven’t seen here before in Northern Ireland,” says Andrew Stanford, PRISM director and Replay’s inclusion lead artist.
Whilst British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation is also available at some shows, all performances are captioned and audio described.
“We have incorporated key visual descriptions into the sound design of the show, so every audience member will hear the description, told in a narrator style voice over by an action. The intention is that it normalises accessibility and adds to the whole experience for all,” explains Andrew, who responded to feedback from young people involved with the Mae Murray Foundation in developing PRISM.
“They just want to be given equal experiences, without being removed from the social experiences. One teenager told us they were denied access to the standing area of a concert with their friends because they were a wheelchair user.
“Offering captioning as part of every performance doesn't just benefit disabled people – it also makes work more accessible to people who have English as a second language,” he adds.
The Belfast Children’s Festival will host over 100 events across 10 days in the city, from March 3-12.
Recognising the cost of living crisis financial pressure on families, the festival have held ticket prices at the same rate as 2017, with over half of events free to attend including the free Big Birthday Bash at Belfast City Hall and Cathedral Quarter on March 11 featuring magic, music, circus performers, storytelling and a Kiddy Céilí.
The 2023 festival will also showcase thought-provoking new works by local company Maiden Voyage Dance, see the return of the popular Baby Rave and a full Irish Language offering including Máire Zepf and festival favourite, Babaithe Cultúir (Culture Babies).
For tickets and full programme visit Youngatart.co.uk