Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

How Richard went from box office to centre stage at Belfast Festival

One-time volunteer Richard Wakely returns to where it all began – only this time he's in charge. Ivan Little reports

Top team: Richard Wakely (right) with Cuban-American artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada
Top team: Richard Wakely (right) with Cuban-American artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada

The new man running the show at the "new" Belfast Festival at Queen's is an old boy of the "old" one. And Richard Wakely can't help but smile as he reminisces about how he was a festival volunteer in the Seventies when the city's biggest arts bash was still trying to keep going against the backdrop of the city's biggest bombs.

Perched in the new festival office in the very heart of Queen's Lanyon Building, Richard recalls how watching the Royal Shakespeare Company and Van Morrison in the Whitla Hall helped signpost his future on a path which would take him to key roles in theatres in England and Dublin and in developing contemporary dance in New York, Edinburgh and London before returning home after 30 years in exile.

"Yes it all started here" said Richard. "I was a geography student and I did the box office and front of house at the old festival. It had a profound effect on me because I soon realised my place was in the drama theatre rather than the lecture theatre.

"So I went to England to do postgraduate studies in arts and administration and I was lucky to get a job very quickly."

That was with Theatre Centre, who worked with young people in and out of schools presenting challenging socially-conscious productions from new writers exploring issues such as apartheid.

Richard then became a producer for Afro-Caribbean theatre company Temba before moving to Hampstead Theatre where he stayed for nine years, co-producing 18 transfers to the West End and one to Broadway.

He'd applied for the job there after seeing a production of Frank McGuinness's classic play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme.

He recalled: "I got the last seat at the last performance of Michael Attenborough's production and it knocked me for six. I knew that I wanted to work there.

"I had the great privilege in Hampstead of involvement with some amazing people like John Malkovich and Zoe Wanamaker. The theatre also championed Irish writers like Brian Friel."

But 15 years ago, the lure of Ireland itself and not just its plays enticed Richard back to become the managing director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

He said: "I was charged with taking Ireland's national theatre back to the international table so I was concentrating on the European repertoire and tours into the Middle East and America."

Soon his horizons were broadened even further after the Irish government approached him to curate a cultural exchange programme between the Republic and China. He explained: "I had a big budget and 500 artists going back and forward. That signalled a big change of direction for me because it allowed me to develop my passion for other art forms, especially the visual arts and music."

Richard comes from a musical family. One of his brothers Robert runs a classical musical school in Australia where another sibling Stuart is a rock 'n' roll guitarist.

Richard was born 54 years ago in Nottingham to a father from Dublin and a mother from London but he grew up in Belfast and speaks like a man who has never been away.

The opportunity to take over as director of the city's festival was irresistible. He recalled: "I had done some consultancy work with the new Lyric Theatre which re-introduced me to the city and I'd thought it was maybe a good time to come home."

But he only started putting the festival programme together in April and with so little time available, he called in favours and called up his favourite artists.

"The advantage of having worked freelance in the arts for so many years recently is that I do have an address book and I found a lot of goodwill towards the festival from right around the world," he said.

"In the years ahead I want the festival to be more international, more connecting globally with more collaborations so we can present work which has only rarely been seen here." Belfast is of course no longer a one-horse arts town with a raft of new venues which Richard wants to complement.

He added: "We need to offer something different. And I want to take the festival to the whole of the city, to new places like Belmont Park in east Belfast and to Falls Park in the west where we have events this year."

He is also determined to keep prices down: "Obviously these are difficult economic times and from our own point of view, if it wasn't for the Ulster Bank and our other sponsors including the Arts Council, the Tourist Board and the City Council, there simply wouldn't be a festival."

His personal highlights are the plans for an ambitious community artwork in the Titanic Quarter spearheaded by the festival's first artist in residence, Jorge Rodriguez Gerada, a concert by one of the world's greatest tenors, Jose Carreras (left), and the visit by the Sol Pico dance company from Catalonia.

But he's also excited by tie-ups with the east and west Belfast festivals along with the UK City of Culture in Derry/Londonderry.

"I don't think people are festivaled out," he added. "I think audiences are hungry for new experiences and new ideas."

Richard believes Belfast should be proud of the festival which never missed a beat during the Troubles.

He said: "It was a candle in very dark days which those of us who were interested in making a connection with the outside world crowded around."

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