Borderless art: Belfast festival’s Richard Wakely prefers frictionless collaborations

If Brexit deadline holds, Belfast International Arts Festival will begin in the EU and end beyond it

Richard Wakely does not express frustration often.

If anything, the artistic director and chief executive of the Belfast International Arts Festival is an infectiously positive figure, exuding careful attention to detail, articulate passion and seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm. Tall and lean, at the age of 60, he is required to fold his long limbs carefully into an armchair, which, coupled with his rapid-fire conversation and natural conviviality, creates the impression of an energy that is not easily contained.

Still, you don’t have to look far to recognise that Wakely is making a festival in circumstances that may become more radically restrictive than his armchair. Look at the programme description for one event, in the festival’s Talks and Ideas strand, where former BBC news broadcaster Gavin Esler delivers a guide to Britain’s departure from the EU, entitled Brexit Without the Bullsh*t.

Scheduled for October 30th, Wakely mischievously describes the event as his “Halloween horror evening”, but the blurb sounds more exasperated: “On the eve of the most recent deadline approved by the EU (at the time of going to press)”, it ventures, as though it held little hope for a conclusion to the chaos.


If that deadline holds, though, deal or no deal, this year’s festival will begin squarely within the EU and end some distance outside it, as though a border had fallen across the event like a sudden frost.

As with every level of politics and industry, Brexit has made it difficult for the UK’s festival organisers to plan with certainty. This summer, Fergus Linehan, the director of the Edinburgh International Festival, admitted that vagaries in the value of sterling made it hard to guarantee artists’ fees, and “the scale of ambition . . . is obviously dented at a certain point”.

There are definite political spaces that we like to occupy. But we also like to think we have a very good time doing it

For Wakely, a more immediate crisis is mobility. Representing Northern Irish, Irish and international work, the Belfast festival takes place in a city of 300,000 people, and is primed to attract visitors from the North, the Republic and overseas. His programme this year inevitably addresses “the perception and realities of borders on our lives”, which is hardly an esoteric subject for a festival director born in England, to an Irish father and an English mother, raised in Belfast, and with a career that has criss-crossed borders in every direction.

Among his previous jobs, as managing director for the Abbey Theatre and producer of London's Hampstead Theatre, he learned how easily productions could be derailed by small delays arising from customs or visas issues. With Brexit looming, and its stubbornly persistent bullsh*t, Wakely isn't taking any chances this year.

“I deliberately programmed so we had no overseas artists [scheduled for] after the 31st,” he admits. “Just to make sure we weren’t giving ourselves any hostages to fortune.”


Instead, his programme is front-loaded with visitors, including Irish theatre productions, French dance performances and Japanese choreographic and sound art. The path of international touring never did run smooth he remembers. “Just add the layer of madness that is Brexit over that,” he says. “How do you run an international festival with those risks? How do you mitigate all of that?”

This is likely to become the critical question for his 2020 programme, because the events Wakely has curated for 2019 are an almost defiant example of integration in both form and content. “The question of borders has been a long preoccupation of artists anyway, going way back. But it’s quite intense in this period.”

Last year, when the festival's artist-in-residence, the US social-practice artist Suzanne Lacy, created Across and In Between, a film made in collaboration with various communities on either side of Northern Ireland's 499km Border, it became "a de facto Brexit project" as various attitudes sharpened to address the same looming concern.

This year, the idea of borders and their crossings is addressed less overtly. Wakely mentions Forced Entertainment's new work Real Magic, which was performed recently at the Dublin Theatre Festival, which he considers a playfully Beckettian piece about paralysis. "They repeat the same scene again and again, and tweak it, and they can't break the loop. That's the situation we're in. Look at Westminster. What happens when you got stuck in a rut? How do you break out of the system? So the work I'm doing is still quite political in that respect."

Similarly, Wakely is championing interdisciplinary work, where collaborations across boundaries serve as a counterweight to more isolating times for international politics.

“Part of the festival is definitely designed around these notions of hybridisation, fusion, and the merging of art forms,” he says.

The work that opens the festival, for instance, is Median and Accumulated Layout, a double bill from the Japanese choreographer and avant-garde figure, Hiroaki Umeda. When Wakely first encountered Umeda, a few years ago at the University of Tokyo, he was huddled next to the dean of creative arts, a professor of engineering and the dean of robotics. "And that's what Hiroaki is all about," enthuses Wakely. "He is about the interface of all these different things."

His show requires the use of projectors that are unavailable on this island, “because it’s based on planetarium technology”, Wakely says. “So we had to import them.” You can understand his concerns about Border customs.

In comparison, the festival’s other invitations may seem more modest but no less significant. “It’s about doubling down on our cultural relations across the island,” Wakely says. “So there is a lot of work that illustrates that, coming from the Republic. That’s very important for me, for the artistic fraternity in the North, and for our audiences. So part of my response [to the challenges of Brexit] is not to do less, but to do more.”

Leading that charge is the Lyric Theatre's co-production of Playboy of the Western World with the Dublin Theatre Festival, and Pat Kinevane's solo show for Fishamble, Before, an award-winning production that is part drama, part dance, and all musical; or, as Wakely says "an astonishing piece of hybridisation". Set on the abrupt closing day of Clery's department store, putting Before on the main stage of The Mac in Belfast makes a statement. So does the invitation to Timmy Creed's Spliced, for Chalk It Down Productions, to appear at Cultúrlann, in which an examination of masculinity and mental health within the GAA is hoped to appeal to audiences from all sporting disciplines, including football leagues and Ulster rugby. "Because mental health doesn't discriminate," says Wakely.

The festival closes with the hotly anticipated local display from Oona Doherty and Belfast's Prime Cut Productions, staging the choreographer's new group work Lady Magma: The Birth of a Cult.

Wakely has an arch way of pushing buttons as well. Depending on how you count it, this programme marks the 57th edition of what began as the Belfast Festival at Queens, and which, five years ago, detached from the university to become an independent entity.

Public outcry

Before Wakely's time a production such as the National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch, in 2010, could reliably draw public outcry for its hearty swearing. But Wakely has initiated much more subversive pieces without falling prey to conservative values, whether that meant a grippingly alternative Enemy of the People from Berlin's celebrated Schaubuhne or an interactive musical cabaret from US drag performance artist, Taylor Mac.

The latter, Wakely recalls, “really stirred it. We didn’t realise how much it would stir it at the time, we just thought it was going to be really great fun. But it was quite a sensational set of performances, and it had a rather lasting impact.”

The Schaubuhne production, which involved a public discussion on politics from its stage, found it both energising to engage with the electrified positions of a Belfast audience, while also finding it hard to rein them in. Against the long-stalled Stormont Assembly, such audiences might find it easier to be represented by artists than by their elected officials.

“The arts can perhaps ask questions, reveal something, hidden truths, or insights, that sometimes couldn’t be asked or addressed in another context,” Wakely allows. He points to a huge uptake for discussions on gender politics or environmental issues that have been sidelined by the focus on the Border or “green v orange issues” for so long. “So there are definite political spaces that we like to occupy. But we also like to think we have a very good time doing it.”

To preserve an international outlook, at a time of isolationism across the globe, may be becoming more of a challenge but Wakely isn’t concerned about the curiosity of the art itself. “I actually don’t think it will prevent in any way ideas flowing across borders. I don’t think creativity will be dented. But there will be practical, pragmatic obstacles. That’s the difficulty.”

With an emphasis on multiculturalism in a city where only 2 per cent of the population belongs to an ethnic minority, Wakely takes a particular pride in the successes of previous visitors such as musician Josette Bushell-Mingo and her tribute to Nina Simone, or journalist Gary Younge who in 2013 analysed Martin Luther King's rhetoric.

“It makes people think about who we are,” Wakely reasons, “how we live with each other. Multiculturalism is absolutely part of that. I am personally very committed to that. Because I do see part of the solution to how we live better together on this island, is to see through the global lens, and our relationships with other communities and other cultures around the world.”

Even something as free-spirited as (La)Horde's To Da Bone speaks to that, a spectacular performance featuring the dance innovation jumpstyle which was born in the suburbs of Belgium and spread like wildfire to French banlieues through the exchanges and embellishments of social media.

Although Wakely is, in practice, a proud Luddite, preferring a notepad to an iPad, his outlook for the festival is something similar: “Events like these always should be works in progress” he tells me, a snapshot of the art of the time curated to meet the interests of a broad, curious and expanding constituency. Whatever happens after Halloween, to regress is not an option. The Belfast Festival have has negotiated borders before. Why stop here?