Over the years, as an arts producer and festival curator, Richard Wakely has frequently encouraged performers, artists and organisations to hit the refresh button. As artistic director and chief executive of the Belfast International Arts Festival, he is continuing to do just that.
The 56th edition is quite a different creature from its original incarnation as the Belfast Festival at Queen’s. While continuing the tradition of presenting international work of artistic excellence, it now connects more directly with the local community, redefining itself as “a genuinely civic event”.
“Back in 2015 when we left the university and became independent, I didn’t see it as leaving under a cloud but as a huge opportunity,” says Wakely. “The festival is now more flexible, more fleet of foot; it has become very focused. Through its programming, it has started to ask big questions about the issues that matter to people: refugees, gender equality, human rights, multiculturalism and – the big thing this year – Brexit.
“It is very much for the people of Belfast, irrespective of tradition, background, social class or income. The work will go over people’s heads if it doesn’t connect with their inner lives, their inner being. It remains an international festival of contemporary art and ideas but with access very much at its heart. It has changed direction to reflect the interests of the people that it serves.”
The 2018 festival reaches communities that have previously remained untouched, and Wakely has trodden a delicate path in bringing together his non-negotiable concentration on exclusivity and quality with his pledge to connect with a variety of constituencies.
A flick through the programme reveals 125 events at 28 venues and includes a one-off appearance by the actress Isabella Rossellini. A fully paid-up member of Hollywood and European film royalty, she is less known as a committed environmental and animal rights activist. Wakely waited four years to secure the UK and Irish premiere of her one-woman (and dog) show Link Link, where she pushes her surreal sense of humour to the limits in conveying important messages.
This year's artist-in-residence is the distinguished American visual artist Suzanne Lacy, who has been based in the Fermanagh, Donegal, Leitrim and Monaghan borderlands since Easter. Her world premiere presentation, entitled The Yellow Line, takes the form of a triple-screen projection across the façade of the Ulster Museum and reflects the complex concept of "border" as it impacts on the lives of local people.
Indigenous theatre is well represented. In its 50th anniversary year, the Lyric Theatre premieres Dear Arabella, a new play by Marie Jones, directed by Lindsay Posner. It also contributes a new production of Thomas Kilroy's play Double Cross, directed by Jimmy Fay. Portstewart's Big Telly unveils Freak Show by Zoë Seaton and Nicky Harley; Brass Neck revives Hugh Stoddart's Gibraltar Strait, a verbatim account from eyewitness testimonies of the shooting of three IRA members in 1988, written during the following year.
The open spaces of CS Lewis Square in east Belfast and Falls Park on the west side of the city are the venues for Handle With Care, a free event for families by Barcelona artist Diana Gadish and her company. Its theme is the importance of people taking care of each other.
Josette Bushell-Mingo, who played Rafiki in the inaugural production of The Lion King, introduces Ireland to Nina, her musical homage to the extraordinary life of the singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone. And Writers of Belfast is the title of an exhibition of large-scale canvases by painter Neil Shawcross, which pays emotional tribute to the outstanding writers, playwrights and musicians produced by his native city.
Full programme and bookings on belfastinternationalartsfestival.com