Eastside Arts Festival 2017 (Thank You)

It’s Sunday evening. It’s 10pm. I’m sitting in my bedroom having a wee glass of wine and listening to the last bit of Ciaran Lavery’s gig come floating up the Greenway from CS Lewis Square. I have to say I could get used to appreciating live music from the pyjama-clad depths of my own bed. It’s the final night of the Eastside Arts Festival. I’m knackered. Everyone who’s been involved looks similarly knackered after ten fantastic days of running round the East like headless chickens, gigging and circus skilling and writing stories and reading stories and eating cake and pausing every three of four minutes to cover a different Van Morrison song with tremendous enthusiasm. I’m biased, (and lazy), and will always champion the arts festival that’s happening hundred yards from my front door, thus requiring zero effort to get involved. But still, what a festival it’s been.

I’d be hard pushed to pick a highlight but if I had to select a few magic moments I’d definitely go for watching everyone get joyful to the Belfast Ukelele Jam at our Play It Again Jam last Sunday night, or maybe it was Anthony Toner being heckled by a randy older lady at one of our Highlights from Home gigs in an East Belfast Fold, or sitting in a TeePee, slowly boiling as I read the Tiger Who Came to Tea twenty seven times in a row to little people who live just down the road and up the road from me, or listening to people’s imagination come out to play during the Postcard Stories workshop, or watching -literally- hundreds of locals line up at our Pop-Up Pharmacy to receive a kindness prescription, created by their neighbours, or it might have been hearing Hannah McPhillimy raise her beautiful voice and soothe an entire room of distressed older people living with advanced Dementia, or one of the incredible, haunting concerts in the gorgeous surrounds of St Martins Church, or seeing a whole alleyway bloom with brand new street art, or bringing beautiful words, music, flowers and cake together with a bunch of people I love for a sneaky wee gig on the roof of the Skainos Centre. Nope, I definitely couldn’t pick a single highlight. This year’s Eastside has been a blast from start to finish. I’ve enjoyed every second of it, but it isn’t the art which makes this festival magic, and it certainly isn’t the enormous budget, (though if anyone out there does have an enormous budget they’d like to pass on, I’m sure the team can think of something wonderful to do with it). Eastside is a festival which works because people are right at the heart of it.

Running through every event Rachel and Jacqui have put together this year, is the implicit understanding that everyone is invited to the party. With fun days in the Square, another jam-packed set of nursing home gigs and performances and an incredible team of volunteers and staff members who excel at making people feel welcome, the team have down their best to ensure everyone is included. I’ve met so many people this week who normally find themselves on the margins of these kind of events and have been made to feel like they not only belong here, but have something important to contribute to our community. I’ll not go into details but every single day this week, I’ve met different people who are really eager for connection, and watched them meeting others, trying new experiences and beginning to realise that there’s a place here for them. I’m a little sappy but last Saturday afternoon, seeing CS Lewis Square jammed with happy local residents, little kids, families, older people, artists, folks from up the road and down the road and all over the East, really made me realise how far we’ve come in such a short period of time and just how much potential there is here in the East. Festivals are great but I honestly don’t think there are very many festivals in Belfast, which aide and encourage ongoing community development as much as the Eastside Arts Festival has over the last few years.

The events aren’t always the sleekest: my reading tent had a bockety felt tip sign, handmade by my seven year old niece and I’ve lost track of how many times I, or one of my performers, has had to pause mid sentence to make way for a Ryanair flight, thundering overhead en route to the City Airport. I’ve found myself winging it at most events I’ve looked after this week, and even ran an extension cord half way round a building in search of a power socket to plug the band in.Whilst the art this year has been of an incredibly high standard, there’s a fair amount of homeliness about this festival too. Let’s just say I’ve eaten a lot of cocktail sausages and custard creams this week and sung along to Brown-Eyed Girl more times than I’d care to mention. And that’s ok, because it keeps things accessible. I’ve long since bored everyone to tears going on about how our arts offer, (output? experience? gah, I can’t really think of a word that doesn’t sound like it’s been lifted from the Tourism and Arts Strategy), here in Belfast needs to maintain a high level of quality without compromising on the thing we do better than anywhere else in the world, which is welcome.

This week Eastside Arts has been an incredible example of what can happen when good art is delivered with an incredible emphasis on welcome, not to mention heart and humility. It’s not rocket science folks. You put a marvellous show on and you make sure there’s nothing stopping people from joining in. So, hats off to the volunteers and staff at Eastside Arts, to Rachel and Jacqui, to Matt McIvor on constant sound, to all the performers and creators and providers of coffee and cocktail sausages and tireless welcome, to the nursing homes who let us in and the nursing homes who came out to see us, to everyone who came early and stayed late to tidy up, to everyone who went out of their way to make an older person feel noticed this week, (you have a special little place in my affection), to those who said encouraging things and those who said, “it would be remiss of me not to play a wee Van cover,” and those who took the time to get to know somebody they didn’t know last week,  to those who brought cake which was way better than the cake we were expecting and those who brought flowers without being asked to bring flowers, you’ve all been a tonic. But mostly I want to raise a Sunday night glass of cheap Rioja to those who shook their cynicism off and let themselves think it could actually be like this all the time. Rest well. There are further adventures to come.

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