Imag­ine that

The brain­child of Dun­gan­non man Peter O’Neill, the Imag­ine Fes­ti­val of Ideas and Pol­i­tics aims to ‘en­gage with the power of rea­son’. A timely ven­ture in these gloomy days of po­lit­i­cal stale­mate

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - CONTENTS - WORDS BY JANE COYLE

The Belfast fes­ti­val where com­edy and pol­i­tics collide

Ideas? Pol­i­tics? The two to­gether, side by side? In these gloomy days of po­lit­i­cal stale­mate in the North, the very no­tion reg­is­ters as an alien con­cept. With the much talked about democ­racy deficit caus­ing un­told un­cer­tainty and pes­simism, and with the Brexit con­ver­sa­tion be­com­ing more di­vi­sive and em­bit­tered by the day, was there ever a time when the in­tro­duc­tion of new ideas, fresh think­ing, imag­i­na­tion and rea­son into the broader po­lit­i­cal arena felt more nec­es­sary?

The in­au­gu­ral Imag­ine Fes­ti­val of Ideas and Pol­i­tics took place in 2015. It was, and still is, very much a one-man show, the brain­child of Dun­gan­non-born Peter O’Neill, who, in 2011, es­tab­lished the Belfast Com­edy Fes­ti­val of which this is a sis­ter event. That fes­ti­val was set up to show­case the vi­tal­ity of the lo­cal com­edy scene in Belfast and to cel­e­brate what O’Neill calls “the nat­u­ral wit and hu­mour of the city.

“Our start­ing point was the no­tion of com­edy and conflict. Com­edy is part of conflict, in that it can open up de­bate and off­set in­grained prej­u­dice. It was a multi­genre event whose pro­gramme was aimed at analysing and look­ing at com­edy in a va­ri­ety of ways. It was also im­por­tant to me that it rep­re­sented great value for money in strait­ened eco­nomic times.”

That same spirit of open­ness and en­gage­ment per­vades the Imag­ine Fes­ti­val, whose strap line reads: “En­gage with the power of rea­son.” Its con­tent and agenda have evolved or­gan­i­cally out of the back­ground and pro­fes­sional life of its cre­ator, a hu­man rights lawyer and a for­mer pres­i­dent of Queen’s Univer­sity Belfast’s stu­dent union, di­rec­tor of the North­ern Ire­land Stu­dent Move­ment (NUS-USI), pol­icy of­fi­cer with Hous­ing Rights Ser­vice and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the North­ern Ire­land Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion. De­scrib­ing him­self as “a po­lit­i­cal geek” he ex­plains how, like the com­edy fes­ti­val, Imag­ine took root dur­ing a pe­riod of po­lit­i­cal stag­na­tion.

‘Vi­brancy and de­bate’

“It was 2015, in the run-up to the gen­eral elec­tion,” re­calls O’Neill. “The at­mos­phere here was flat and neg­a­tive, the pub­lic just was not en­gag­ing in the de­bate sur­round­ing the cam­paign and voter reg­is­tra­tion for young peo­ple was way down. In con­trast, the Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum was cre­at­ing vi­brancy and pub­lic de­bate, there was wide­spread en­gage­ment, the women’s move­ment was par­tic­i­pat­ing. It was very ex­cit­ing.

“I thought, let’s start up a fes­ti­val of pol­i­tics and ideas that would gal­vanise in­ter­est in the elec­tion. Four years on, with a team com­posed en­tirely of vol­un­teers – my­self in­cluded – and with a bud­get of just £20,000 we are still go­ing and are get­ting big­ger all the time.

“The fes­ti­val has been suc­cess­ful in merg­ing arts and pol­i­tics. I saw early on the power of per­for­mance to com­mu­ni­cate with peo­ple in an im­pact­ful and emo­tive way and en­gage them in po­lit­i­cal themes. This year there are over 80 free events in over 30 venues across the city, en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to lock into the big is­sues of our time, like Brexit, poverty, in­equal­ity and fake news, as well as mark­ing cen­te­nar­ies like the end­ing of the first World War and vot­ing rights for women.”

In the line-up are Grammy-nom­i­nated singer-song­writer Michelle Shocked; activist Car­men Perez, na­tional co-chair of the Women’s March on Wash­ing­ton; veteran po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ist Martin Row­son; con­tro­ver­sial jour­nal­ist Peter Hitchens; Kil­dare co­me­dian Jar­lath Re­gan with his stand-up show Or­gan

Free­man; and Ox­ford pro­fes­sor Danny Dor­ling, who will ex­am­ine the ef­fect of in­equal­ity on the Leave vote in the Brexit ref­er­en­dum.

Per­cep­tions of space

The pro­gramme is a stim­u­lat­ing rat­tle bag of talks, work­shops, theatre, poetry, com­edy, mu­sic, ex­hi­bi­tions, film and tours of lit­tle-known ar­eas of Belfast. One tour comes in the form of Do­minic Mon­tague’s Quar­tered, pro­duced by Ka­bosh and pre­miered at the Out­burst Queer Arts Fes­ti­val in Novem­ber. It takes the form of an au­dio-guided stroll though the Cathe­dral Quar­ter in the shoes of a gay man, paus­ing at sig­nif­i­cant spots which may hold lit­tle sig­nif­i­cance to most passers-by. It per­fectly fits O’Neill’s phi­los­o­phy of reimag­in­ing the city and us­ing theatre as a means to open up di­a­logue on per­cep­tions of space and per­sonal pol­i­tics.

Ac­ci­den­tal Theatre con­trib­utes two provoca­tive new pro­duc­tions, as well as a video-linked de­bate and Q&A ses­sion with France-based writer Paul Cu­denec, who will put for­ward his the­ory that an­ar­chy is a good thing.

Pa­trick Ayr­ton, con­duc­tor, harp­si­chordist and pro­fes­sor at the Royal Con­ser­va­toire in The Hague joins with Ger­man vi­olin­ist Dnaiela Helm and the Cormeen Ris­ing Sons of Wil­liam flute band for an evening of mu­sic and friend­ship.

Writer and co-founder of Macha Pro­duc­tions Fion­nu­ala Kennedy, in part­ner­ship with Par­tic­i­pa­tion and Prac­tice of Rights and An Cul­turlann, will in­vite three ac­tors to read as­sess­ments for per­sonal in­de­pen­dence pay­ments (PIP), based on real-life ac­counts. A panel dis­cus­sion on this un­com­pro­mis­ing process fol­lows.

Off-piste, the fes­ti­val club in the Cres­cent Arts Cen­tre of­fers a nightly bring-your-own bot­tle gathering, with op­por­tu­ni­ties for con­vivial chat and ban­ter, punc­tu­ated by short mu­si­cal and the­atri­cal per­for­mances. And on March 17th, the Pub­lic Pul­pit in the car park of St Anne’s Cathe­dral will “trans­form a pow­er­ful and au­thor­i­ta­tive ar­chi­tec­tural ty­pol­ogy into an open plat­form for dis­cus­sion in the con­tem­po­rary city”. It will be free for use by all. Heck­lers wel­come. Imag­ine Fes­ti­val of Ideas and Pol­i­tics runs from March 12th-18th. See imag­inebelfast.com

Peter O’Neill: “Our start­ing point was the no­tion of com­edy and conflict. Com­edy is part of conflict, in that it can open up de­bate and off­set in­grained prej­u­dice”

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