“All children’s lives are enriched by the arts. It’s probable that our festival gives children in Northern Ireland their first experience of live performance. We take very seriously our role in championing the rights of young people to have access to the arts and, in the process, making the world a bigger and more wondrous place for them.”
That’s the view of Eibhlín de Barra, who has been director of Belfast’s Children’s Festival since 2016 and remains as passionate and committed to its crucial role in the cultural lives of children as she was on her first day in post.
After a Covid-imposed absence of two years, the festival returns with a hybrid programme of live performance and digital events.
“This year’s festival will have significant online content but that’s no bad thing in terms of inclusivity and access,” says de Barra. “One thing that became clear during last year’s online festival was that we were engaging with people who hadn’t engaged with us previously, due to rural isolation or disability. It’s vital that we produce a festival that is accessible to everyone in Northern Ireland.
In previous years, de Barra has travelled the world on her annual programming recce. This year, she says, things have been very different:
“I’ve seen lots of stuff on video but it’s not ideal. I went to Sweden, to the Netherlands, twice, and to Belgium, but that was it. The first live performance I saw after lockdown last year was the Swedish show Do As I Say (which tackles the issue of bullying). It literally blew me away. I saw it outside in a public park at 9.00 in the morning and for it to have that impact in broad daylight at that time of day was something special. I felt this has to come to Belfast.
“Like me, lots of programmers had work which had been put on ice, so we were returning to some of those elements the following year. I’d hoped to have A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (Dan Colley’s adaptation of Gabriel García Márquez’s darkly comic tale) in 2021. It’s here now in 2022. I have a show from the Dutch company Theater Artemis, which was meant to be here in 2021. It’s not coming until next year.
“One of the reasons I was keen to travel as much and as soon as possible was that we’d been through 18 months when we hadn’t seen a single thing. The big question for us as programmers was would there be anything out there for us to produce. What are people making? How are they making it? You have to get out there and see what’s happening”.
The 2022 programme is placing significant emphasis on young people’s mental health and wellbeing, issues which have assumed greater urgency and relevance in the wake of two periods of lockdown and ongoing regulations around social distancing, at school, at home and at play.
“I never set out to choose a theme”, says de Barra. “But you do get a sense of the zeitgeist from the work that’s out there, with common themes materialising. When I was looking at what I might select for this year, so much of it was dealing with children’s mental health, with the impact of coming through the last couple of years, the effects on children and young people who have been denied access to education, who have experienced digital poverty, social isolation, lack of physical contact with friends and families. Some kids have spent a third of their lives in that situation, so the effects are bound to be profound.
“To me, Emma Martin’s Birdboy is like a cross-section of a neurodiverse brain; it’s about the fears and fantasies and worries of a young individual who is struggling to fit into the world around him. There are lots of young people who will be feeling the same way and to have that reflected in performance is going to be really powerful”.
Composer Neil Martin and writer Fionnuala Kennedy are in the early development stages of Nobody, Somebody for Northern Ireland Opera, an opera for young people about rising levels of homelessness and the knock-on effects on mental health. It will have its first sharing on 5 March.
“The opera is inspired by PPR’s Build Homes Now campaign, led by young people who are lobbying for changes to the housing system,” explains Kennedy.
“Many of them have experienced life in temporary housing and/or housing stress. My wish is that the work will reflect how we underestimate young people, but also that others will be inspired by the importance of claiming your voice and ensuring you are heard. Its focus is on young people coming together to use their voices and bring about change”.
A new short film entitled Do You Care?, produced by DU Dance (NI), gives voice and emotional expression to a group of young carers. It is the sixth in a series of films emanating from a project highlighting the challenges faced by over 8,000 children in Northern Ireland, who are shouldering the responsibilities of caring for a close family member.
“It’s our challenge to make sure we are programming stuff across the age groups, including work that is engaging and relevant to older children and teens”, says de Barra. “They’re hard to please. They’re too cool for school yet they’re full of questions and insecurities, especially now, in the context of social media and the pandemic. It’s important that we don’t shy away from work that addresses larger, difficult subjects.
“We’re keen to provide parents, carers and teachers with opportunities to open those conversations and, if they need support or information, we can offer aftercare by signposting them towards groups that can help.
“There’s this idea out there that art has to entertain, but no, it needs to challenge, to provoke a response, to allow young people to reflect on the world around them. My job is to search out and present work that does just that”.
Runs 4 to 13 March.
This article was first published in The Irish Times on 24 February 2022