THE QUEEN'S MAN
17.12.2010 / AI Profile / 0 Comments
The director of the Belfast Festival at Queens has enjoyed a hugely successful rise in audiences and box office, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing, he tells AI.
Graeme Farrow’s “outer office” is the busy cafe of Queens University Students Union. Surrounded by the buzz of undergraduate conversation, this seems entirely appropriate - since this is where it all began. Ireland’s biggest arts festival was the brainchild of bored undergraduate Michael Emmerson, who in the best tradition of Hollywood, decided that since he couldn’t get much cultural sustenance in early 60s Belfast, he would get culture to come to him.
Emerson’s tiny campus operation had ballooned by the next decade into a major attraction which could boast names like Dizzy Gillespie, Jimi Hendrix and Sir Laurence Olivier amongst its headline acts.
Now that it’s completed its 48th year, Emmerson’s successor as director of the Festival , is pleased that the Festival is still growing. Box office takings have doubled in four years and has expanded to more than 60 acts at 37 venues, including a monastery. Alfred Brendel, Merce Cunningham, Philip Glass, Nick Cave, Ennio Morricone and Yoko Ono have also appeared on recent bills.
People in Belfast feel strongly about this event - which provided a lonely cultural beacon during the darkest days of the Troubles, when performers and promoters shunned the stricken city. Those who did cross the water to appear at the university still speak warmly of their welcome from audiences.
But Farrow is well aware that resting on its battle scarred laurels is not an option. In a hugely competitive market – there are many more arts festivals now – he has to persuade artists that a trip to Northern Ireland is not just about welcoming audiences, but a worthwhile artistic endeavour.
“I make a decision based on what I think the Belfast audience wants and needs but I am not afraid to take risks,” he says. “It’s no accident that Belfast - maybe because of its recent history - is one of the most exciting cities in which to create work. It’s the most politically active area of these islands and possibly the only place where you could entertain the idea of two shows which focus on the war on terror, about feminism, teenage suicide and have talks on M16 and espionage and the legacy of Edward Carson.”
Nor has Farrow contented himself with the traditional venue for controversial work. When Replay did a version of Macbeth in the abandoned Crumlin Road gaol, every one of the 25 shows was sold out and there was a waiting list for tickets of 2,500 people. National Theatre Scotland’s award winning Black Watch came - but to a school hall in North Belfast. And he has persuaded novelist Colin Bateman to take his brand of black humour from the page to the stage in a show which beards the prickliest set of politicians in the UK.
Farrow, like many who have made their careers in Belfast’s arts world, is not from the area. He came here as a recent Leeds French and Philosophy graduate, having met the Belfast woman who was to be his wife, while teaching in France. She told him about this fantastic thing called the Queen’s Festival.
“I had never heard of it - so I thought she was exaggerating,” says Farrow. “But I came here, loved it and the next thing was I enrolled as a volunteer.” He began at the lowest rung - delivering bottles of water and towels to the artists’ dressing rooms. He also volunteered at the Queens Film Theatre, and combined his duties as an usher with a course in film production. After a spell as a freelance camera assistant and maker of short films, he was taken on as a press officer/programmer with the fledgling Belfast Film Festival - part of the Queens Festival Fringe.
He ended up programming the entire festival, taking on a lot of responsibilities, but he is eternally grateful to Stella Hall, then festival director for the opportunity to test his mettle. “You can’t pick up a book and learn this stuff. It’s all about learning on the job - and by making mistakes. I still make them.”
He rose through the ranks to take the director’s job but even for one as thoroughly steeped in festival lore as Farrow, it’s a challenge. “Here, everyone has an opinion about the Belfast Festival at Queens. It gets blanket media coverage locally and you are there to be shot at.”
But it was not artistic choices that were his toughest test. Back in 2007, there was a real risk that the Festival might be severely diminished, if not disappear altogether. The university, under new management, felt that subsidising an arts festival, however prestigious, was not part of its ‘core business’ and threatened to withdraw funding. A rescue operation, allied to a pretty vociferous local campaign, persuaded other funding partners, like the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the city council, to dig deeper into their pockets and prompted Ulster Bank to sponsor the festival to the tune of £1 million between 2008 and 2011.
Farrow admits it was a difficult, defining moment in his tenure.
“In that year I learned an enormous amount, ” he says. “But we came out of it stronger, with major sponsorship, bigger audiences and a refined programme - perhaps less ‘fringey’.”
It’s once more seen as a flagship and the city and university market it heavily to visitors and potential students as a good reason to decide on Belfast rather than Manchester or Glasgow for a visit.
But Farrow is even more ambitious - seeing the festival as a vehicle for demonstrating that Belfast is a vibrant European city. There are plans to produce work for the first time under the festival banner (a major post-conflict drama with a US director), for a link up with Derry City of Culture and a massive celebration of the Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2012.
Of course, all of this will have to take place in a difficult funding climate and Farrow, like many in the arts world, has a few choice words to say on the subject of the economic impact of the arts in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere. But he is pleased that his Ulster Bank sponsors, which recently commissioned a report on the festival, are well satisfied with the results. “It’s been hugely successful.” It does help having the bank manager on your side.
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