Your Festival

Your Festival Memories

My first experience of festival was in 1965 when I was doing my A-Levels at St Dominic's. I went to see the National Theatre production with Laurence Olivier…it was the equivalent of Brad Pitt or George Clooney being in town, we couldn't believe he was in Belfast, and Albert Finney too! I went to see it 5 times with my friend Anne McCartney and we stood at the stage door to get the actors autographs at least 2 of those times.

Anna Carragher, former staff member at Belfast Festival at Queen's

When the Buena Vista Social Club played people just went crazy, they had the whole of waterfront audience in palm of their hands. The festival was somewhere you could meet other people no matter what background they were from. You knew there would be like minded souls there.

Brian Carson, former staff member at Belfast Festival at Queen's

There were many memorable fringe events such as the time two teams of mountaineers climbed up Royal Avenue horizontally.  They pitched a tent at Robinson and Cleaver,  crawled along the footpath with all their climbing gear and made Belfast smile... on another occasion  half a dozen fishermen in weatherproof coats, hats, wellies and fishing rods set up positions around drains in Belfast.  They put their fishing lines down the gutters and sat there for hours fishing. A cyclist who rode by was so taken aback by the fisherman's activity that he ended up crashing into the back of a bus... one year there was a clown outside the City Hall driving a circus car with one square wheel going around and around in circles. The massive crowd which gathered found it hilarious.

Charlie Warmington, former staff member at Belfast Festival at Queen's

Belfast was a pretty difficult environment in which to work in during the 70s, some performers preferred not to travel to Belfast however the  performers who did come were always shown much warmth, they loved the Belfast audiences and left with a very positive experience and many returned on several occasions. It was a very special event in a number of people's lives.

David Cutts, former staff member at Belfast Festival at Queen's

I have so many memories, I could write book!!! But where would one begin? Working with Clement Freud to create the Cook-Ins which were such a huge success? Bringing Anthony Burgess to lecture and reading The Clockwork Orange in manuscript? Giving Jimi Hendrix his 21st Birthday Cake? Having a not-well-known pianist drop out and being able to substitute him with the great Sviatoslav Richter? Having two sold out Whitla Halls for a jazz package headed by Stan Getz and "losing" him? (Stan disappeared from his hotel and, unbeknownst to us took off for London. However, I persuaded Gary Burton, Roy Haynes and Steve Swallow to go on without the great Stan and they brought the house down.) Listening to Philip Cranmer conducting Spem in Alium in the lobby of the Great Hall? Hearing Norma Burrowes singing Dies Natalis? The list is truly endless...

Michael Emmerson, former Director of the Belfast Festival at Queen's

One of my highlights was the release of Cal at the Festival in 1984. It was the first internationally recognised feature film to represent Northern Ireland during the, then, current Troubles, this became something of a sensation - all of the performances of the film were complete sell-outs and the box office was beseiged with ticket requests by telephone that could not be fulfilled.

Michael Open, former Director of the Belfast Festival at Queen's

A few funny things happened at the Belfast Festival at Queen's……Seamus Heaney's late afternoon poetry reading with a civilised glass of sherry had to be moved to a bigger venue due to ticket demand. Imagine the mayhem of hundreds of sixth formers guzzling sherry in the Whitla Hall at 5 o'clock in the afternooon...The Waidiko Ichiro drummers were unable to manoeuvre their largest drum up the narrow starircase to the Arts Theatre in Botanic Avenue. A first floor window was removed and a fork lift truck hired, which resulted in a TV photo opportunity and a sold out show...We will always remember the image of classical pianist John Lill on his knees in his shoes in front of the university in a convincing imitation of Toulouse Lautrec.

Robert Agnew, former Director of the Belfast Festival at Queen's

There was a great social side to the festival for staff. Guinness was a main sponsor, every year we would go to the Guinness office off Boucher rd and get stands and banners for the festival, it was great advertising for them and the banners helped to dress up the venues for the festival. Once the festival was over Guinness organised a yearly bus trip for staff, we would always end up at St Jame's Gate where the drinks flowed all night.

Rodney Brunt, former staff member at Belfast Festival at Queen's

Bill Papas's (Guardian Cartoonist) work was shown in the Whitla foyer and was a shaft of Mediterranean sunshine in a gloomy Belfast.

Mary Emmerson

I had so many good times at predominant memory is of waiting in the quiet foyer at Stranmillis, chatting to Eddie Burns, then having a satisfied feeling when the happy looking audience came out.

Richard Froggatt

When I went to the Shlomo and the Lip factory concert I was not sure what to expect. I had heard of beat boxers before but had never been to see one perform. The type of music played and the talent shown was completely new to me. The group of people I was with were of mixed age and background...I felt it was a good. A lot of entertainment I would usually see is directed at a political or social group. I felt a connection to the music, it was very much a case of, love it or hate it, and it could not be judged on social, political or cultural grounds. That's what left an impression on me.

WEA Hitchhiker participant

I'd been taking a few groups from the city and beyond to see Hamlet delivered in Lithuanian at the newly opened Lyric Theatre, in which we had front row seats, three feet from the action…As props, the heavy leather and steel chairs were liberally scattered around the stage and in turn these were thrown violently by the actors as part of the first act.  The action was enthralling and exhilarating right up to the point when one chair bounced right across the stage and in seeming slow motion, arced in a perfect parabola it landed squarely on top of my left arm…  As it turned out apart from some bruising, I was uninjured. However, by chance the seat to my left which had been reserved for a member of an older learners' group, who had not been able to make it, had been left vacant. If they had turned up, it could have been a very different and much more serious outcome. I couldn't but help think of Hamlet's musings on the vagaries of fortune and that most famous line "to be or not to be."

Stevie Johnston, WEA Hitchhiker Guide

The WEA Hitchhikers programme has facilitated a number of trips to festival events for our cross community men's group from West Belfast, one such performance was "To Be Straight With You" at the Opera House. This was a play that dealt with the issue of homophobia in our society, that provoked a lot of discussion when we stood in the lobby afterwards and talked about some of the issues that had been raised…we had  learnt so much that night and felt empathy…however it is important for us as a group not to always be tackling the thorny issues and to be able to sit down together to talk about the merits of a dancer or live music, this is important for personal relationships.

WEA Hitchhiker Participant

In 2010 there was an Irish music event at Clonard Monastery as part of the festival, we went with a group from nationalist west Belfast. That event was a big distance to go for some of the guys on the Shankill in that in a straight line it's only 100 yards away but in terms of stepping out of a loyalist area to a nationalist area this was a big journey to make, this is journey was made possible  because it was facilitated by the Hitchhikers programme at WEA.

WEA Hitchhiker Participant

One event which stands out was "This is what we Sang" which took place at the Synagogue on the Antrim Road. It was really very enjoyable. Having never been in a Synagogue it just added to the whole experience and made for a great night.

Marie Close, Survivors of Trauma, WEA Hitchhiker participant

Some random memories of mine include Jimi Hendrix in the Whitla, November 1967, when he threw his guitar through the windows behind the stage..."The Reunion", a QUB Drama Society play with Seamus, Liam, Gerard and me, produced and directed by Barry Cowan and Derek Hobson in November 66...Festival Club in the South Diner every night of the week!..How many artistes didn't turn up? Nina Simone and who else?

Alan McKelvey

I have an interesting tale from 1994, during the Queen's Festival the Crescent Arts Centre was used as a venue for a play I was in as well as the after show club for the various artists and families. The play was by the Shankill Community Theatre Company. There had been some heavy rainfall and it caused the drains to overflow with horrendous consequences. The toilets backlogged and there was a substantial amount of water just outside the entrance to where the stage and the venue was. We went through several mops and air fresheners but the show went on with an appreciative audience. The after show event was also a success even with all the water.

Amos Gideon Greig

Festival Highlights? Mmmm that's difficult but here goes: Alfred Brendl and Mathias Goerne at the Waterfront, Tinariwen at the Mandela Hall, Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra at the Waterfront, Romeo and Juliet at Stranmillis Theatre, and Macbeth at Crumlin Road Gaol.

Anthony Kirby, Festival Volunteer

William Shakespeare's unique stage direction evokes memories for me of autumn 1984 and a Festival Royal Shakespeare Company promenade performance I attended of his late romance "A Winter's Tale". Staged in QUB Whitla Hall, this was proverbially the Bard as I'd never seen him before and never to date have since. The play also gave my fair consort and I a unique opportunity to become RSC background artistes. Audience members were welcome to mingle with, even sit amongst, the cast.

Ron Culbert

My biggest festival memory is "Catchpenny Twist" at the QFT which was part of the huge Stewart Parker retrospective in 2008… After the performance, at the bar I talked to this Swiss academic who was only in her twenties but said being there that night and feeling the proximity to all the people connected to Stewart was one of the most moving, exciting experiences of her life. I remember there were tears in her eyes. And I thought it was amazing that a writer could provoke both this sadness and elation in people who were too young to have met him but loved him through his words, through what on the surface is no more than a dry fleshless page but is so much more. And that's when I thought that's what it means to be a writer.

Rosemary Jenkinson

My first Festival memory is as an audience member. A friend persuaded me to see A Clockwork Orange in Maysfield Leisure Centre and I was very impressed by the dramatic production in such an unusual futuristic venue, which suited the storyline perfectly. One of the things that I loved about the Festival was the range of places where events took place, and even if I didn't get to all the events I wanted, I loved reading through the brochure and seeing the array of things that were going on all around the city. It really made the city come alive and connected us all even if we were spread out at different venues around it. We were all part of something bigger.

Therese Bann, Former volunteer and current performer for the Belfast Festival at Queen's

One overall memory I have was of being at the mixing desk when acts came in for the sound check. They'd usually look at me and say, "Where's the sound engineer?" I had to overcome the initial barrier of gender and tell them that I was. I often got looks of suspicion. I'd give them 10 or 15 minutes to get their gear on stage and powered up, then tell them I had 20 minutes left to do their sound check so could we please get started. Things usually went smoothly after that. I don't remember any major catastrophes or breakdowns happening probably because of John Connolly's fastidiousness of checking and repairing every small potential problem with our leads and equipment daily.

Alexandra Connolly, Former sound engineer for the Belfast Festival at Queen's

I took part in the first Festival at Queens. It was a performance of William Byrd's five part Mass given by Grosvenor High School Choir, conductor Ronnie Lee. The event took place in the gallery of the Great Hall
QUB at 10pm and was the concluding event of the Festival.
As a 15 year old, I felt that the occasion was rather special because the music was followed by total silence from the audience, rather than the usual applause. This made a suitable impression on the choir members as well.
To sing such music in its liturgical setting is a different experience again, but I was conscious of the great privilege it was to have taken part in that first Festival, especially for a choir of mostly working class youngsters from east Belfast.

Mervyn Kingston

The Workers' Educational Association (WEA) has worked in partnership to offer the 'Hitchhikers Guide to the Belfast Festival' for about ten years. The programme involves access to the arts for people who are have previously been denied the opportunity of engaging in activities of this kind for one reason or another and would usually see arts events as being elitist or not for them. The WEA recognises the importance of experiential and social learning, often using non-conventional approaches. This programme has collected many success stories of people being informed, inclusion, increasing their confidence and changing attitudes as a result of attending the arts.

In the profound words of one participant, 'Hitchhikers proves that you don't have to wear a pink leotard to go to arts events'.

I have been a 'Guide' in the scheme since 2008 and I must admit, it's now a highlight in my annual schedule. It's such a privilege to bring people into arts events and venues right across Belfast. I could tell so many stories of many people have enjoyed these opportunities: for some, this has been the very first time they have attended cultural experiences like this. We've gone to events which have shocked people, while others have connected, resonated deeply and indeed, we have been changed as a result of what we have witnessed.

Groups who attend come from centres such as Corrymeela: where international students have been involved, Survivors of Trauma, older peoples' groups, Take Two men's group from the Shankill who mostly had never entered a theatre before Hitchhikers (but that has changed), Ballybeen Womens' Group, mum's and tot's groups and many others who get involved in the programme.

Carmina Burana was on last years' list and a group from an old people's home from north Belfast came along. Half way through the first half, one of the ladies dropped her glasses. I slipped forward to pick them up and as I reached them to her, I was struck at how very old she was: she was so petite, vulnerable and her face owned a world of life experiences, yet here in the middle of the Waterfront, was this little lady listening intensely to orchestral and choral music, only because of this project.

Over the years, there are a few events which have really stood out to me…

The precision of 'The Animals and Children Took to the Streets' in the Brian Friel Theatre, was incredible, clever and innocently entertaining. The clarity and ethereal beauty in the voices of Anuna in Clonard Monastery transported us in time, to another era where we listened intently to unamplified but pure voices.

We saw, 'This is What we Sang', in the synagogue and at the end of the performance, because of the unexpected twists and turns in the narrative which unfolded in front of us, I found myself gripping the arm of a Hitchhiking participant from Survivors of Trauma sitting beside me, only to find that she was holding on to me too!

The play 'Black Watch' took place at the Girls Model School, where the audience was graphically drawn into the reality, brutality and hatred of war: the patriotism of youth and disillusionment of heroism. How the minds of young men are changed as the sights and mass of loss of life become impossible to comprehend. These experiences inflict post traumatic stress throughout the remainder of their lives. The group who attended this event are still impacted and whether they agree with war of this kind or not, recognise the messages of what was being presented.

'Be Straight With You' by DV8 in 2009 presented through an outstanding quality performance, issues relating to homophobia: the struggles around exposure, the persistent desire for spiritual acceptance and the tensions involved regardless of which faith belief. The blood shed and trauma: emotional and physical, also, the different levels of acceptance (or none at all) from one country or another across the globe.

The Hitchhikers who saw this event happened to be all men from the east of the city and after the show was over, we informally met in the foyer of the Opera House and respectively discussed what we had witnessed and indeed learned in the previous couple of hours. Even now, when we talk about this play, we still recognise the experience as life changing.

There is one Festival experience which stands out for me: in 2008, we were meant to go to an event which explained Opera: 'anything that we wanted to know but usually scared to ask'. For some reason this couldn't happen during the Festival, but Graeme Farrow who was the Director at the time, asked if we could host a workshop after Festival was over. Towards the end of January, I received a call and we arranged this session.

About twelve participants met in Greenway Womens Group, off the Cregagh Road: near the streets where George Best grew up. A venue which, it's safe to say, isn't usually associated with opera. A first Soprano from Dublin, an accompanist and her keyboard, together with a facilitator took us through a few drama techniques, explaining the emphasis in operatic performances.  

The interaction that followed was by far, the most amazing treat: the soprano sang two Puccini pieces. It was just incredible: to hear the clarity of her voice in a community environment such as this. I felt goose bumps on my neck and quite emotional. Afterwards, the soloist said that she felt the same as she was used to singing in concert halls or large performance venues and hearing her own voice in this kind of an environment, triggered different emotions for her. This experience impacted her as an artist as much as the listeners.

Carole Kane - WEA Development Officer

On the Wednesday of the first week of Festival and as we were starting the programme for Hitchhikers, I was asked quite unexpectedly, if I would participate in an interview about our involvement on the project on UTV Live. This wasn't a completely new experience for me but it was the first live TV interview that I had done, so as soon as it was over I rang home, as I knew my folks had been watching.

My dad answered the phone and breaking his tradition of being quite undemonstrative, he went to great lengths of telling me exactly how pleased he was about the interview, how proud he was of me and the work that I am involved with: both my own creative work as well as my development officer job. He was always interested in my work and it gave him great pleasure as he was always there to support and encourage me. This however, was a very special conversation, as he took the opportunity to clearly affirm me and make known his feelings for me.

At the time, I didn't appreciate how important his words would become, or the consequences of what was about the happen. The following week, in the early hours of the Thursday morning, lying beside my mum, my dad passed away in his sleep. Unknown to either of us, his affirming conversation the week before was amongst our last. Its words I want to ring in my head, not so that I can boast but that I can for ever know his affirmation and love.
Indirectly but very definitely, Festival created an opportunity for this expression, sharing and tenderness too happen, and for this, I am indebted.

Carole Kane - WEA Development Officer

November 2011, Lyric Theatre Hamlet (in Lithuanina) OKT/Vilnius City Theatre Company

To be or not to be…the dangers of hitchhiking.

'Honestly it will be great, yes I know Shakespeare can be difficult even in English and yes, in Lithuanian, following the plot will be a little more challenging but this is a really good show'.  As a WEA Hitchhiker guide to the Festival, this is the kind of conversation you get used to. As your job is to help people who don't usually attend the Festival to feel at ease and enjoy the shows which they are invited to through the Festival Hitchhiker's scheme.
What you don't expect is physical danger! On the night in question I'd been taking a few groups from the city and beyond to see a Hamlet delivered in Lithuanian at the newly opened Lyric Theatre, in which we had front row seats, three feet from the action. The opening scenes were delivered in a stage setting which simulated the dressing room within a theatre - literally a play within a play. As props, the heavy leather and steel chairs were liberally scattered around the stage and in turn these were thrown violently by the actors as part of the first act.  The action was enthralling and exhilarating right up to the point when one chair bounced right across the stage and in seeming slow motion, arced in a perfect parabola and land squarely on top of my left arm.  
Unfazed the actors continued. However at the end of the act, the Theatre Management came down to make sure I was not too badly hurt, no doubt having first checked the public liability and risk assessment procedures. As it turned out apart from some bruising, I was uninjured. However, by chance the seat to my left which had been reserved for a member of an older learners' group, who had not been able to make it, had been left vacant. If they had turned up, it could have been a very different and much more serious outcome. I couldn't but help think of Hamlets musings on the vagaries of fortune and that most famous line 'to be or not to be.'

Stevie Johnston - WEA Hitchhiker Guide

It was probably listening to my aunt's stories of looking after Judy Garland during the fading star's last great hurrah in London's Palladium that sparked my interest. Along with her stories about Frank Sinatra and the swooning English girls who fell head over heels in love with the crooner in the fifties. Our house always had music somewhere - from piano -practice to the big awkward radio set that sat brooding in the corner of the living room. Workers Playtime, Edmundo Ros gave way on the Light Programme to Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee and by the end of the Fifties into the early years of the sixties, the radio gave ground to the transistor and more emphatically to the glumpy record player that took over the front room.
My mother enjoyed jazz. She listened to it on the radio and when her rother was home on leave and when he finally left the RAF and settled  briefly back in Belfast, he brought records with him. The television which formed part of our communication centre sat under the radio and between them both the sounds of British jazz started to filter through -Acker Bilk'sStranger on the Shore was a signature tune, Kenny Baker, with his bouncing 'Brylcreem' hairline, George Chisholm and the cool perplexing beauty of Cleo Lane's voice with Johnny Dankworth, a seemingly shy presence in the shadowy background of whatever show it was we were watching.
She sounded so different, so cool to what was breaking into air time - in my recollection Helen Shapiro and Dusty Springfield. There was something so utterly contained in her voice that even when she went off on one of those scat-like A cappella riffs - part madrigal, pure invention - I wasn't sure what to make of it. The calm seriousness, the conviction, the controlled flights of invention - for a young lad it was all quite breathtakingly uncertain what was going on.
There was a jazz combo I used to love hearing called The Pedlars and on one show in which they were guests (which included a brilliant version of 'Misty') Cleo Lane appeared after their set. The mood she created on our black and white TV was haunting. It was literally mysterious. When the chance came around many years later, during Belfast Festival at Queen's, I went along to hear Cleo Lane and Johnny Dankworth talk about their music and play little extracts. It was in (I think) the old Music Room, one of the smaller lecture theatres, and to my remaining embarrassment there was about twenty people present. That's what it seems like in memory, at least; my discomfort at being one of a few and not really knowing where to look; but they talked and joked and we had a session, unplugged before unplugged happened. I'll never forget that. This is what real artists do. The size of the audience isn't in view.
The Festival made those kinds of things happen. Great professionals, great artists would be around for a day or two and the hype of today (where so much is about meaningless celebrity) was away in the future.
Belfast owes a lot to the Festival at Queen's. But Belfast also owes a lot to all of its own musicians who have played their hearts out over many decades - jazz, pop, R'n'B, Punk, folk, traditional Irish, choral, classical, country… you name it. Maybe it's time for their art to be civically recognised too, once and for all.

Gerald Dawe - Poet and Director of the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing