15th Oct 2019 in Arts

Meet Richard Wakely, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Belfast International Arts Festival.

Belfast International Arts Festival, the city’s longest-running international arts event, opens today (15th October) and runs until 3rd November 2019. It’s the festival’s fifth outing since being reconstituted as an independent organisation in 2015 – before this, it was known as the Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

Richard Wakely was the founding director who led the new vision for the festival, having joined the Belfast Festival at Queen’s as Artistic Director in 2013. Richard’s passion for theatre, dance and international and contemporary art has been virtually a lifelong one – he grew up in a family who shared a “great interest in music”, and his two brothers are professional musicians.

His career aspirations did not immediately lead him along a creative path, and he completed a degree in geography at Queen’s University in Belfast. It was here, however, that his love of art – theatre in particular – bubbled up to the surface.

“At university, I found that I was spending more time in the drama theatre than the lecture theatre,” explains Richard, “I’m aware of my limitations and never had any ambitions to be on the stage – my place is backstage, in the wings, managing things.”

Richard became involved in the Fringe Festival at Queen’s University, as well as the then Belfast Festival at Queen’s, where he worked both in the box office and front of house. After university, he went on to work in many prominent and prestigious roles within the world of theatre and the arts in general, which have included transferring and/or co-producing 18 West End productions, including transferring Frank McGuiness’ Someone to Watch Over Me to Broadway.

He has also held senior management roles in theatres across the UK and Ireland, including Hampstead Theatre in London and Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He also worked as Commissioner for the Government of Ireland in their China/Ireland Cultural Exchange.

This would prove to be a defining moment in his career, providing one of his first opportunities to “programme across art forms”, as opposed to solely theatre-focused. He comments, “This gave me a taste of working for a multidisciplinary arts event, rather than purely theatre.”

Fast forward to 2015 and this multidisciplinary experience would stand him in good stead when it came to the challenge of reimagining the Belfast Festival at Queen’s. Richard set up the new festival as an independent legal entity (it’s a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity) and a new artistic remit, which he describes as a “challenge I didn’t shy away from”.

He continues, “We felt it was time for a more civically oriented event in Belfast and of international standing and appeal. Whilst respecting the event’s long history and contribution to Belfast’s cultural life, there was also a feeling that we needed to re-examine and refocus the festival and connect to all the parts – and all the people – of the city of Belfast.”

Belfast International Arts Festival HQ has been located in the Cathedral Quarter since 2015 and Richard believes that being based in the cultural and creative hub of Belfast has only been a good thing for its continued success.

“We are close to so many of our colleagues and key sites for the festival events. It’s definitely a focal point; this year we have a large architectural installation – Unique Instruments, Expectant Spaces – in the Belfast School of Art at Ulster University and many of our contemporary stage performances are centred at The MAC. We also have a site-specific event by Big Telly Theatre – The Worst Cafe in the World – happening at Cotton Court.”

Pic: Rory Gardiner

“The Cathedral Quarter’s not the only focal point,” Richard continues, “We are very proud to have events happening right across the city, on the Falls Road and the Newtownards Road for example.” Cultural diversity, equality and showcasing the best in contemporary arts practice are the key strands of the festival’s vision, and bringing that vision to all parts of Belfast lie at the heart of the festival.

However, the Cathedral Quarter does play a key role, offering the resources and infrastructure to support an international arts festival. “The University is central to that,” says Richard, “You have the next generation of artists there.” As an international festival, the next generation of artists – along with the rest of the audiences – are able to experience world-class art right here in Northern Ireland, and as Richard says, “the festival’s role as an arts platform is extremely important.”

Just as important to Richard, is using this platform to showcase the wealth of creative talent we have here in Belfast and Northern Ireland as a whole.

“Local performers stand shoulder to shoulder with acts from all around the world and that’s something we are very proud of,” says Richard, “The Worst Cafe in the World is an innovative production by a fantastic local theatre company, Big Telly and something we are very much looking forward to. Oona Doherty’s Lady Magma: The Birth Of A Cult is another of our key highlights and we have chosen it as our closing event, which is a mark of how highly we regard her and value her work.”

Pic: HR Press

The 2019 edition of Belfast International Arts Festival runs from 15 October until 3 November at various venues throughout Belfast. Check out belfastinternationalartsfestival.com for the full programme and keep an eye on this website for more articles and event news, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for special giveaways!

The Cathedral Quarter BID is very proud to be supporting The Worst Cafe in The World through the CQ Events and Projects Fund.

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