What was the genesis for Festival in a Van? What can audiences expect over the coming weeks?
Festival in a Van is a total lockdown baby… I had been writing a piece, back in April 2020 for the Irish Times, talking to all the behind-the scenes and tech people who were losing their jobs as, one by one the summer festivals were being cancelled. They were all so cool and positive, and after I’d filed the article, I began wondering how you could make live performance safe in a pandemic. Then, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking: Festival in a Van… It would be a van that could pull up outside houses, flats, on the greens in estates, and people could watch from their windows or front doors.
After that, I thought (modestly!) that it was such a brilliant idea, someone else would do it, and then I could enjoy it. I waited for a couple of weeks, and nothing happened, so I started looking for people – and money to make it happen. Creative Ireland were amazing, as to begin with it seemed you could only get funding within the existing strands – and obviously we were in such a new situation, the existing strands didn’t quite fit. We also have a great crew who seem to be able to solve any problem (from high winds, to reluctant vans).
Words Move is our summer project, with Poetry Ireland and the Arts Council. There are ten poets and ten singer songwriters, including Landless, David Hope, Maria Kelly, Samuel Yakura, Beau Williams and Kate Quigley, going to ten counties. In Ireland, we’re proud of our poets, in a really beautiful way, but sometimes we forget what an impact the right words in a certain order can have – with or without music.
Can you tell us about your commissions and the off-shoots which will bring them to life in other forms?
You know the way you can start something for one reason, and then find all sorts of other reasons to keep going? Festival in a Van was initially about creating work for theatre technicians. Then, of course, it immediately became about making opportunities for artists to perform live, and getting to audiences around the country. We quickly realised that, because we were mobile, we could go to people who might not come and find us – so we’ve been visiting care homes, Deis schools, DP centres, and are starting to work with Men’s Sheds.
I suppose what I’m saying is that we wanted to keep thinking differently, going to new places, and making things happen at times when it didn’t seem like much could happen. So – when it came to commissioning work from each of the poets, we also wanted to help them travel beyond the Van.
A poem is being written for each county, and Stoney Road Press are printing them up for us, which we’re framing to give to one of the groups we visit each day. We’re also putting them on postcards, and taking advertising space in the local papers. We think it’s rather gorgeous that poems might surprise you over breakfast…
Will there be a fusion between the poets and musicians?
Poetry Ireland are fantastic. We had a couple of long and fun Zooms (when did you last hear those words all going together?) finding poets with roots in, or connections to each county, and doing the same with the singer songwriters. After all, singer songwriters are poets too. Then we had the job of hoping they’d all say yes!
It’s turned into a lovely mix. You can see the full line up on our website (www.festivalinavan.com), and as the commissions have come in, it’s coming alive. That’s the lovely thing about working with artists. You have all sorts of imaginings of your own, but then the work comes back and it just blows you away.
What did you learn from its first outing and accordingly adapt and amend for this summer?
Our first outing was in a friend’s field in Co. Carlow last September. It was a trial run, and Fin Furey did the honours – so I’m particularly delighted he’s joining us for our Westmeath gigs, with poet Jackie Gorman.
What did we learn? That even if there is just six of you in the audience, live performance can raise the hairs on the back of your neck, and bring up all sorts of emotions – you know, the laughing and crying at the same time thing… We also learned that our system for creating the pop up stage (pin hinges and a lot of hefting of panels) wasn’t ideal – so now it all flows smoothly, and glides out when the back of the van goes up.
“Even if there is just six of you in the audience, live performance can raise the hairs on the back of your neck, and bring up all sorts of emotions.”
We developed nifty ways of wrangling hand sanitizer, and amassed paperwork the size of a small pony to make sure we didn’t run any risks. We also learned that you need to measure the sides of an arch, rather than the top height if you want to be sure you can fit a van in underneath. Though that one was easily solved by letting the air out of the tyres and reinflating them again once we were inside!
Can you tell us what people can expect in IMMA on Tuesday? How can they attend?
When we were putting the tour together, we were keen to make sure it was cancellation proof – no matter what the restriction levels. So our sessions are a mixture of community groups and some more public events. The ones at IMMA feature Rachael Hegarty, Geoff Finan and Farah Elle and are for invited community groups, from Fatima, Rialto and their sister organisations. As we go, and things open up more, we’ll be able to widen it out.
“The ones at IMMA feature Rachael Hegarty, Geoff Finan and Farah Elle and are for invited community groups, from Fatima, Rialto and their sister organisations. As we go, and things open up more, we’ll be able to widen it out.”
We’d love all the gigs to be for anyone who wants to come, but at the moment we’re still treading the line between making opportunities to make things happen, and making sure everyone is safe. It’s a tough one –artists and arts organisers have pushing boundaries written into their DNA, but in this case the boundaries are ones that are there to help, and we all have to agree to them, to make sure they work.
Do you think there’s a fine line between critiquing culture and producing it? What have you learned on the other side?
It’s a balance, and a fine line. I love writing. I love the opportunity to think about things, and the rewards of getting that out in some sort of sense onto paper. But writing is quite lonely. If you’re critiquing culture, you can’t be friends with everyone all the time – or even some of the time. But I feel very lucky to be able to do it because not only do I love writing, I really love art and culture, and a climate of criticism is part of a healthy arts world.
On the other hand, I love people, and the energetic buzz of being part of a collective effort to make things happen. I also love seeing art without having to think about what it all means. Producing makes me realise again how damn hard it is to make art a reality, so I’m doubly aware of everything that goes in to making a performance happen. But that actually underlines all over again why critique matters. If everyone just goes round saying how lovely everything is because we all tried hard, we’ll never get to the other side of effort where the really excellent and amazing and life changing things live.
Words Move by Festival in a Van and Poetry Ireland goes to venues in Dublin, Laois, Westmeath, Fingal, Monaghan, Wicklow, Waterford, Limerick, Kerry and Kilkenny this summer. More info at www.festivalinavan.com
Poetry Ireland, IMMA – 13 July
Dunamaise Arts Centre, Laois – 17 July
Westmeath County Council Arts Office – 20 July
Draíocht, Blanchardstown – 24 July
Monaghan County Council Arts Office – 8 August
Garter Lane Arts Centre, Co. Waterford – 17 August
Limerick County Council Arts Office – 20 August
Kerry County Council Arts Office – 21 August
Kilkenny County Council Arts Office – 10 October (For Kilkenny Day)