Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Oh baby, what a festival

This time every year Graeme Farrow, director of the Belfast Festival at Queen's, gives his full and undivided attention to the city's big annual entertainment programme. His arts director wife, Gillian Mitchell, shares his passion. But, this time around, one private little production on the family agenda will upstage all the rest, as Jane Bell discovers.

Arts couple Graeme Farrow, director of the Belfast Festival at Queen's, and his wife Gillian Mitchell, newly-appointed director of Belfast's Old Museum Arts Centre, have a special little production of their owned planned for this week.

While the festival is waiting in the wings to ignite Belfast's entertainment scene, one star in the making - as yet a complete unknown - is about to make his, or her, debut.

The couple's second child is due to be born by planned Caesarian section on October 10. Right slap bang in the middle of festival fever.

As Graeme is fond of saying, "every Belfast Festival at Queen's should contain a series of heart-stopping moments". But perhaps this welcome everyday miracle wasn't quite what he had in mind.

Still, there won't be a dry eye in the house when the baby arrives, a playmate and sparring partner for two-year-old firstborn Charlie.

Although neither job is neatly nine-to-five, both parents say they are lucky to work for 'family friendly' organisations. Graeme gets three weeks paternity leave and is able to work flexibly and Gillian is now on maternity leave until late spring and has been able to grow her career alongside an expanding family.

Graeme himself was born in Sunderland - not exactly luvvie-land, as he points out. He was a university student before he saw his first real theatre and, Gillian adds, the annual Christmas panto was about the extent of her childhood experience of the performance arts.

He remembers seeing his first contemporary dance and mimes as something flying straight over his head. But personal tastes develop and change and modern dance is one of the many art forms he has come to appreciate.

Both graduates in French - Graeme from Leeds University and his Ulster-born wife from Queen's - they met in Lille on a student exchange year, aged 20, and have been together ever since.

On graduating, Graeme followed Gillian back to Northern Ireland and has lived and worked here since 1994.

Now in their mid-30s, they are each at the hub of driving forces of art in Belfast.

Graeme started with festival as a volunteer and from 1999 has held a variety posts from programme and PR manager to acting artistic director.

Likewise, Gillian started her career with OMAC some eight years ago and she has worked her way up through the organisation.

OMAC opened in 1989 in College Square North, in what was then a rather shabby, run-down part of Belfast in the grip of the Troubles, and quickly became a space where local talent could experiment and grow. But times - and Belfast itself - have changed. Now, the goal of creating a £14 million home for OMAC in the city's Cathedral Quarter, scheduled to open in 2010, is in sight.

The team will be moving from rundown premises and a shoestring budget to a multi-million pound 5,000sq metre venue: almost a football pitch full of art.

In swanky new premises, is there a danger OMAC may lose some of its individuality and charm? Gillian thinks not.

It was always understood that the venue's unique character would be preserved, she says, and that it would continue to deliver art that stimulates and provokes as well as entertains.

Despite a huge cash injection from key investors - government departments DCAL and DSD, the Arts Council, Belfast City Council and Laganside Corporation - there's a remaining fundraising target of £1 million to make all the figures stack up.

Meanwhile, it's business as usual - with hopes to build on OMAC's impressive 26% increase in audiences across all arts forms in the past two years.

While their live events audiences tend to be younger, there's a significant 55-plus attendance, which they want to build on. "Everyone talks about attracting audiences of all ages but we

really mean that," says Gillian. "Some people don't know enough about what we do."

Like Graeme, Gillian's first connection with the arts world was as a volunteer worker - and she did a bit of 'am dram' both at school and university.

"At that time the artistic sector wasn't as big as it is now," she says. "When I graduated I knew I didn't want to go into the corporate environment."

The irony is that her job now is "just like running any business - just not one that you own."

Do their friends outside the arts sphere ever accuse them of not operating in the real world, given that big cushion of public funding?

"People in our circle know it's challenging, particularly in the areas of finance and fundraising," says Gillian.

"It's always a struggle and there's a lot of pressure with that. We both believe the arts should attract public subsidy."

This line of questioning gets mild-mannered Graeme's hackles up. "I object to that sort of comment," he retorts, his gentle Geordie accent taking on a determined edge. "Both of our jobs are just like running any business. We both have transferable skills, both have post-graduate qualifications in business administration and have backgrounds in marketing. There's strategic planning and fundraising, having to get your product mix right and knowing your audience. The skills are exactly the same.

"The arts has become far more professional in the last five to 10 years. We have very few safety nets any more. Most of what we do is judged by pounds, shillings and pence and a socio-economic criteria. The 'art for art's sake' era has long gone. Every bit of work we do is scrutinised for value. We've got to be jacks-of-all-trades - very multi-skilled. It's not enough to be passionate about art."

Gillian interjects: "A passion for the arts is what keeps you going. But I would echo what Graeme has said. In addition, we are both responsible for public funding and have to make sure it is spent in the best possible way."

Furthermore, Graeme insists, a vibrant arts environment is a positive boost to the local economy. He firmly believes that each year the Belfast Festival at Queen's should "inch the city forward by a tiny amount".

Turnover for BFQ is around £1.3 million this year. "That translates into £7m for the economy - every pound invested in the festival is repaid over and over in bars, restaurants, hotels and publicity for the city," says Graeme. "For instance, we were listed as one of the top 50 things you must do this autumn in The Observer recently."

In addition to funding from the Arts Council, Belfast City Council and QUB, commercial sponsorship is up 60% this year on 2005, at around £100,000 in cash and about the same again in kind.

And, far from working in isolation with other arty types, the festival team works alongside a wide range of individuals and organisations to make it all happen, from funding bodies to firemen, gallery owners to graphic designers and charities to community groups.

Criticism of the festival comes from both ends of the telescope, he says. "Some people say that Festival is too elitist. An equal number of people complain that it has been dumbed down. Because it is such a broad church, there will always be such criticism."

Taking calculated risks will always be important. "I wish I were able to take more risks," admits Graeme. "The risky stuff is what costs the money and we have to balance it out." Taking chances anticipates trends and allows audiences' tastes to develop, he believes.

Television favourites Little Britain drew huge mainstream theatre crowds in Belfast recently - some 15 years after Matt Lucas and David Walliams were part of a small-venue festival act, Graeme points out: "There were about 20 people there to see them that night."

And when a risk goes badly wrong? "There will always be one or two turkeys in a year," he says. "The challenge is to minimise that. I don't think there are any real turkeys in this year's programme. Some shows underperform, others will exceed expectations. It's a tightrope walk. The role of Festival Director is primarily a balancing act."

Innovations on ticketing are always being looked at. This year a £5 community ticket scheme has been introduced on a range of events, with a cap limit per show. For 2007 organisers are considering bringing in a 'Chinese style menu of options' for individuals to plan their festival purchases to a budget.

Is he jealous of the might and glitter of the Edinburgh Festival? "The Edinburgh Festival gets a budget of over 10 times what we have," he says. "Four million people visit Edinburgh during August - there's that critical mass of people. That hasn't been replicated in New York, Paris or Sydney, Vienna or Berlin or anywhere else. Edinburgh has more venues per square mile than any other city in the world. Just mention Edinburgh and you think 'festival' . What other city can say that? Having said that, it's a very mixed bag in Edinburgh. I spent five days there seeing about 20 shows, about five of which I'm talking to about bringing them over in 2007."

But is he jealous? "Yeah!"

As for Belfast 2006, with 98 events at 37 venues throughout the city, the festival, running from October 19 to November 4, offers plenty to set pulses racing, says Graeme.

"This year's event includes arguably the world's finest singer in Jose Cura; the world's most decorated theatre show, The History Boys; the Northern Ireland premiere of one of the most beautiful pieces of music composed in recent times, Gorécki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and no fewer than two of the greatest choreographers the world has to offer, Stephen Petronio and Russell Maliphant," he declares proudly.

"Plus, there's perhaps the best collection of poets ever to take to the stage in one night in Belfast during our Gala Poetry Evening; a Shakespeare production from the RSC's mammoth Complete Works Cycle; two of the biggest names in World Music, The Gipsy Kings and Buena Vista Social Club, several jazz giants and much more beginning in explosive fashion with the human sparklers of Crackers? in Botanic Playing Fields - all topped off with the icing on the cake, the first appearance of a Spiegeltent in Northern Ireland at Custom House Square."

As for the best in homegrown talent, look forward to new plays from both Marie Jones and Martin Lynch, Belfast's first theatre performance in a swimming pool from Big Telly and exciting new offerings from Ransom and Prime Cut.

A rich and varied visual arts programme, an eclectic music agenda and a diverse collection of comedy talent are also on the bill.

If that's not enough to whet your appetite and mine, he despairs of us. Graeme maintains: "If your heart doesn't stop at least once during these 18 days, then you need to check your pulse to see whether you have one in the first place."

For festival enquiries and booking information go to www.belfastfestival.com or tel: 028 9097 1335

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