Richard Wakely is a busy man at the minute, the Belfast International Arts Festival is in full swing until Sunday 1st November. The festival has gone mostly online this year but the 2020 edition continues to explore contemporary matters of interest to audiences such as gender equality, multi-culturalism, representation, the climate crisis, and democracy.

I’ve meet Richard a few times over my career and have worked with him in few different roles so it was nice to get 5mins to ask him a few questions:

Q. 2020 has been a difficult year for the arts but what strengths have you seen shine through the festival?

In recent months, due to the restrictions facing the arts and cultural sectors, artists and innovators from right across the creative industries have adapted their storytelling efforts to leverage technology. The industry is nothing if not resilient. Artists remain creative and anxious to maintain a meaningful connection with audiences. For example, our theatre programme for 2020 features three new online productions from Big Telly, Cahoots NI and Teatro Praga & Pedro Penim that are interactive, and to different degrees rely on audience participation. Digital and online presentations clearly also have the capacity to increase the overall reach and broaden the demographic of our audiences, not just in NI but across the globe.

Q. What are the acts not to miss?

We have just as strong and compelling a programme of events entering the final week of the festival as we did when we opened on October 12. This week, The Belfast Ensemble, under the direction of Conor Mitchell, will premiere Septet (For Four), a new piece of work produced to mark the 250-year anniversary of the birth of Beethoven. It fuses beautiful musicianship with cutting-edge visuals and captivating performance art by a quartet of actors. I’m also informed the piece draws a parallel between Melania Trump and Marie Antoinette, so it’s one not to be missed!

We’re also approaching the final weekend of our Talks & Ideas strand. From 30 Oct – 1 Nov we’ll be streaming discussions with established and critically acclaimed novelists Sebastian Barry and Sarah Moss, Jenny Offill, and the newer voices of Bryan Washington and Paul Mendez. We’ll also explore the feminist movement with Lennie Goodings, the chair of ground-breaking feminist publisher Virago Books. We’re also delighted to host two leading French authors, Scholastique Mukasonga and Nina Bouraoui, who are relatively unknown here, but are well worth discovering.

As US presidential nominees Joe Biden and Donald Trump enter their final full week of campaigning, we’ll be live-streaming a discussion with two British-American experts on US history, civil rights and politics, Sarah Churchwell and Michell Chresfield.

On Sunday 1 November, they will discuss how the history of white nationalism in American politics has led us to this point, and what’s at stake when US voters go to the polls.

Importantly, many of the word-class performances, screenings and discussions showcased to date are still available to view online via the Belfast International Arts Festival YouTube channel.

Q.Your favourite act so far?

It’s impossible to choose just one. The arts community and creators have shown remarkable resilience and innovation to ensure they continue to deliver their craft in these unique times. I’m particularly amazed by the work of indigenous artists. In the early stages of lockdown our very own Big Telly Theatre Company made waves throughout the industry with their critically acclaimed production, The Tempest – Live. Since then they have continued to push the boundaries of what’s possible on the digital stage with new technology.

Our festival opened this year with the premiere of their latest online and interactive theatrical production, an imaginative reboot of Shakespeare’s timeless, blood-soaked tale, Macbeth. It was performed live on Zoom and loaded with technology for a fully immersive experience.

Then we have the mesmerising work of leading children’s theatre company Cahoots NI. Their newest production, The University of Wonder and Imagination, continues 29 Oct – 1 Nov and it really is a fun-filled, immersive theatrical experience for families broadcast from an extensive, purpose-built set where magic and illusion have no boundaries.

I found Call Nina! to be as compelling and of-the-moment as the original showstopper, and am proud that BIAF secured the exclusive world premiere of the documentary, which follows the making and touring of Nina – A Story About Me and Nina Simone, by British actress and activist, Josette Bushell-Mingo OBE, who brought the house down and audiences to their feet at BIAF in 2018.

Q. Words of advice for the sector going forward?

The truth is we simply do not know where the industry will be in 6-12 months’ time. What we can safely say is that many of the necessary rules we live by today – proper hand hygiene, the wearing of face masks, and social distancing – will remain in place for some time to come yet.

We adapted the festival this year, but with that also came opportunity to reach a far greater audience than ever before. We champion global connectivity and programme the best international contemporary arts and culture in Belfast, but this year we were truly international in scale. For the first time, viewers from around the world were able to engage with us through the power of technology. We’ve had people watching events from Brazil, Finland, Egypt, Romania, Washington DC, and New York City as well as those closer to home in Great Britain and throughout Ireland.

This digital adoption, I believe, will be a strong feature in many festivals to come. There may still be some corners of our community that will be hesitant to attend physical events when we are able to come together once again, so a digital offering will be a major programming consideration going forward.

Find out more about the Belfast International Arts Festival and this years programme here: https://belfastinternationalartsfestival.com/2020-festival/