This is a snapshot of some of my favourite projects before my academic life – by no means comprehensive but some of the ones that make me particularly proud
I had the great fortune to be invited back to curate the annual performing arts conference by TheatreNI and Theatre Forum in 2017. Themed this time around the idea of what changes and what stays the same, the conference was titled #Twistorstick. A range of provocations and interactions from different speakers were presented in the Everyman Palace Theatre over 2 days in June 2017. Contributors ranged from Australian engaged practice facilitator Tania Canas; artist Richard DeDomenici; film producer Andrew Eaton. You can see the conference programme here.
From February to June 2016, I was guest curator of APAC16, the fifth All-Island Performing Arts Conference on 15 & 16 June 2016 in the Town Hall Theatre, Galway. It’s a fabulous annual gathering run by Theatre Forum and TheatreNI mixing theatre, dance and opera practitioners from very different practices with producers and venues.
The diverse mix also creates challenges to balance a programme of relevance to everyone and tapping current trends and concerns. It’s also a cross-border conference, drawing delegates from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
I developed the programme around a theme of You Me Them Us to explore some of the distinctions and divisions we make in theatre – between roles, practices, between performer and audience. I also played around with the makeup of panels to reflect how the theatre sector on the island is made up. It isn’t all urban, it isn’t all working in venues. It isn’t all directed at adults or always using professional performers.
Many panels and speakers were selected to throw up ideas or provoke conversation. Inviting Kully Thiarai to discuss NTW’s Big Democracy Project and the relationship between subsidy and artistic autonomy resonated in a country bound up in state-funded commemorative cultural programmes on the one hand and an overt political bias around cultural policy on the other. Discussing the purpose of arts buildings became a broader discussion when Marie O’Byrne from the Hawkswell, Sligo talked about managing a venue in a ‘less central’ location and Stella Duffy from Fun Palaces questioned the barriers they put up as well as break down.
Individual artists such as Mark Storor, Lian Bell, Dylan Quinn, Liv O’Donoghue , Dan Thompson, Rita Duffy and others were able to draw on their experiences about activism, working independently and also collaboratively. The conference also boasted its first concept album talks programme that gave a twist to an open platform event and by turns, inspired, provoked and entertained.
Conferences like these need to consolidate, challenge and inspire. If not they are just days away from something else, be it a desk or studio. I loved working on this. To hear and read some of the contributions, click here for the full programme and audio casts of the speakers.
Young at Art
From 2003 until 2016, I was Director of Young at Art, an arts organisation set up to run an international festival for children and young people. Started in 1998, I joined in 2003 as the only permanent staff member. When I left in March 2016 (after my 12th festival of its 18 total), it had 7 permanent staff and 5 project staff and was running a fabulous annual multi-artform festival programme for 0 – 14 year olds attracting 15,000 – 30,000 each year, a regional showcase of theatre for young audiences, a touring agency, artists development programmes and some really insightful and unique engagement projects in drama, visual arts and creative writing. You can see more about Young at Art by clicking here but some of the my most special projects are below as well as some of my other work.
Belfast Children’s Festival
The anchor of Young at Art’s work is an international multi-artform festival which I programmed each year. Events could be large-scale civic park events – the Architects of Air taking over a city square or a micro-event like BabyChill in the Ulster Museum. They also blended the quirky and esoteric like the Viennese Vegetable Orchestra‘s first UK appearance, with socially relevant work such as A Mano/By Hand, a sweet but hard-hitting small-scale piece about family during recession by Galician company El Patio . A particular feature of the festival grew to be its cross-artform mixes and building takeovers such as Festival in A Day which occupied the Belfast Waterfront and attracted over 3,000 people every year. I also loved blending international acts such as Carte Blanche, Terrapin Theatre, Arcaladanza, De Stilte or Het Filial with showcasing events that encouraged international opportunities for Irish and Northern Irish companies Cahoots NI, Replay Theatre Company, Maiden Voyage Dance, and Branar, among others.
From my first festival in 2004 to the last in 2016, the festival developed and grew from an average of 8,000 – 10,000 to over 25,000 on average each year, between 20-30% coming from some of the communities of highest deprivation in Northern Ireland. At the same time, the international profile of the festival and its artists grew with programmers from up to 15 countries visiting annually.
One of the most exciting new movements in creative writing for children and young people, 826 Valencia was set up by Dave Eggers in San Francisco in 2002. Inspired by this, writer Roddy Doyle developed a new centre, Fighting Words, in Dublin in 2009. A number of partners in Belfast, including patron Glenn Patterson tried to get a Belfast centre off the ground. In 2014, I involved Young at Art and the new project, Fighting Words Belfast was launched in March 2015 with a creative centre in Skainos in east Belfast and partnerships with 174 Trust in North Belfast and the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University Belfast.
The model is volunteer-led creative writing workshops that inspire children and young people aged 7 to 18 years old to tell and imagine stories. Not a literacy project, or a grammar test, but pure freedom to create a story of their own. Initially done through fiction-writing, plans are afoot to branch out into drama, poetry, animation and film. In February 2016, Fighting Words Belfast (now Fighting Words Northern Ireland) as a charity under the umbrella of Young at Art, becoming independent just a few short years later. The project has gone on to train hundreds of volunteers thousands of children have benefited.
Land of Giants
One of four community celebrations to happen outside London as part of the Cultural Olympiad, I was a co-producer in a consortium to stage the largest outdoor arts event ever seen in Northern Ireland. Land of Giants took some two years to develop and was staged on 30 June 2012 on the newly opened Titanic slipways site. Directed by Mark Murphy with text by Sinead Morrissey, and produced by Walk the Plank with the consortium – Belfast Community Circus School, BEAT Carnival, Belfast City Council and Young at Art, it had a cast and crew of over 500 and was seen by 18,000 people.
A phone call asking for help in early summer 2012 led to supporting this incredible popup artwork in its only appearance in Northern Ireland. Jeremy Deller‘s Sacrilege was commissioned by Glasgow International Art Festival & the Cultural Olympiad, and supported by the Office of the Lord Mayor of London to tour the UK (the only thing I will ever thank Boris Johnson for!). Described as the ‘bouncy Stonehenge’, it was a unique public art project. It was staged in Grove Playing Fields, a public park and former running track just below the Cavehill. I also brought it together with Jim Ricks‘ Poulnabrone Dolmen, the only time these two objects came together on one site.
This was a collaboration between Young at Art, PLACE NI, QUB School of Architecture and artists Sinead Breathnach-Cashell and Caragh O’Donnell. Over a period of weeks, artists and 4th year architecture students explored construction and structures as well as the requirements of a city with children from two schools – Blythefield Primary School and St Mary’s Primary School, both in communities undergoing significant rebuilding. The resulting interactive installation was a cardboard city which visitors built and rebuilt daily, including bulldozing the constructions of the day before, adding extensions, etc. The installation has since been repeated in a number of sites – vacant shops and disused banks.
Food for Thought
Responding to the growth of child poverty (and food poverty) in Northern Ireland, I commissioned artist Liz Cullinane to develop a series of community dinners in June-July 2014 in a pop-up site- the Office of Important Art – created by Young at Art in a vacant unit in a shopping centre. These dinners were designed to bring people and families together from different backgrounds to explore what concepts like home, family, hunger and love meant to them. They were incredible sharing experiences with all manner and mixture of people sitting together sharing food. Images on the walls and prompt cards and quizzes on the table encouraged discussion. The event was repeated in March 2015 with a series of special dinners to talk about sustainable food cities and children’s rights.
Festival Goes to the Waterworks
The Waterworks Park is a unique public park in North Belfast. The old city reservoir, it boasts not only a man-mad lake, duck pond and waterfall but also an interface running through it (a separation between nationalist and unionist communities). Over extended conversations started in 2006, I worked with Young at Art and New Lodge Arts to develop a unique celebration of the park. Extensive work with residents, local youth clubs, schools, park rangers, fishermen and a whole range of community partners brought about the first free civic event to straddle the whole park. Staged during 2 days of the 2008 Belfast Children’s Festival it drew a total of 18,000 to installations, workshops, storytelling, performances, an outdoor cinema, a market, live entertainment, and a viking longship. I repeated the event over one day in 2010 (again with Young at Art and New Lodge Arts), this time with an outdoor music stage. Over 10,000 came through the gates in 6 hours. Both events had a lasting impact on the community and their relationship to other arts activities.
In 2004, I was trying to see how to engage with families, seeing cultural experiences as something they would do together rather than ‘suffer through’ for their children’s enjoyment. I wanted to connect with parents who weren’t engaging in the arts. I was also interested in the growing international body of early years work and how to reflect that. I paired up with Jennifer Jordan, a baby dance facilitator, and DJ Lyndon Stephens and we experimented in the concert hall of the Belfast Waterfront with our first Baby Rave in May 2005. It worked and we created an interactive, hourlong, multi-sensory experience for parents to dance with their babies (0-4 years). After its first outing we engaged designer Liz Cullinane to design a more effective touring edition and since then it’s travelled all over Northern Ireland, Edinburgh, Dublin, Galway, Leicester, Norwich, Adelaide (Australia) and New York.
Over the years in Young at Art, it became apparent that without support or pump-priming new work, the community of those making risk-taking exciting work particularly for young audiences would not grow. In my early stages it involved showcasing Kernal Trapps Puppets or helping to co-produce and tour shows like Chilly in the Dark Times with Monkeyshine Theatre and The Little Mermaid (a play in a pool) with Big Telly Theatre Company. Later, supporting individual artists both formally and informally became more important, to evolve their own work, showcase it, develop professionally by seeing work or work with me on new ideas , artists such as Stephen Beggs, Mary-Frances Doherty, Sheelagh Colclough, Sally Young, Liz Cullinane with Eleesha Drennan, Mary Jordan, Emma Berkery, Dylan Quinn, Maiden Voyage Dance, Patrick Sanders, David Turner, Paula O’Reilly, Katie Richardson, Anna Newell.
Replay Theatre Company
Called Replay Productions when I worked with them as General Manager and producer for over 6 years (1997 – 2004), the company was the only touring company for young audiences in Northern Ireland for many years. The bulk of its work took place in schools, but it also travelled to venues across Northern Ireland and Ireland. The company had pioneered work with, and for, children with special and multiple needs, and part of my role involved securing funding for it and contributing to its review and development. Commissioning new writing formed a big part of Replay’s artistic policy, and I worked on new commissions with playwrights such as Gary Mitchell, Damian Gorman, and Nicola McCartney during around 15 productions and tours with the company, reaching around 14,000 children and adults each year. In my last years, I worked with Artistic Director Richard Croxford to develop Theatre in a Rucksack, a small-scale touring initiative doing early years work; and Script Lab, a development programme for new playwrights. During my time the organisation was nominated and received multiple awards – Irish Times Special Judges award nomination (1999); 3 Belfast City Arts Award nominations (1998-2000); a Diversity Award (2000).