“We’re tasked with programming for Dubliners of all ages and visitors to the City and adhere to a strong programming brief; events are thematically linked to Bram Stoker, his works, his life, his philosophy, Victorian Dublin, all things Gothic and the supernatural.”
We talk to the industrious Tom Lawlor and Maria Schweppe, co-directors of the Bram Stoker Festival, about their plans for 2019, and engage in a spot of idle speculation about the kind of things the creator of Dracula might be getting up to if he was hanging out in Dublin today.
How did your involvement in the Bram Stoker Festival come about?
TL: I’d worked on festivals in various roles for years, and thought Bram Stoker Festival had huge potential to both entertain audiences and programme high quality artistic experiences. I tendered for the contract (it’s a Dublin CIty Council and Failte Ireland initiative) with previous Fringe Director Róise Goan and we were awarded it. When Róise took on other projects, Maria came on board and as a co-director for the second year and we’ve worked together since then.
MS: I was living in London and working for the Clore Leadership Programme and had also set up the London Irish Comedy Festival as a way to keep my hand in something that was creative. Tom recommended me to programme and produce the Vodafone Comedy Tent at Body&Soul, so we started working together. I moved home from London in September 2015 and got the call from Tom the following January to ask if I wanted to work on the Festival with him. This is my fourth year working on it, it’s been an amazing experience to date; very rewarding and, at times, very challenging!
How has it evolved during your stewardship?
TL: We took over after three editions of the festival, and we’re now entering the eighth year. In that time, we’ve expanded from literary and family-friendly events to inject some fun, irreverence and more engaging art forms into the mix. We’ve programmed comedy, large scale visual art installations, parades and spectacles, huge parties and intensely intimate contemporary dance, to name a few. We’ve also worked hard to ensure the audience is broad and diverse; people who never go to the theatre, or to dance, or visual arts come to our events because they’re initially attracted by the inherent craic associated with that time of year.
What is your approach to programming? What is the balance between submissions and shows/spectacles which you identify as natural fits?
MS: We’re tasked with programming for Dubliners of all ages and visitors to the City and adhere to a strong programming brief; events are thematically linked to Bram Stoker, his works, his life, his philosophy, Victorian Dublin, all things Gothic and the supernatural.
We’re really interested in using venues that our audiences may not ordinarily visit, particularly at night-time. We’re also interested in outdoor spaces, which sometimes seems a bit mental, given that the Festival is held at the end of October! For example, this year we have a show called Séance on Wolfe Tone Square; the Victorians were really interested in spiritualism and Wolfe Tone Square is on the site of an old graveyard, so it’s a natural fit.
We hold an open call each year where people can propose events to us and submissions have to meet the programming criteria. We have a mixture of paid ticketed and free events each year and aim to keep ticket prices reasonable for our audiences so that the Festival is accessible to all. Three quarters of our programming budget is allocated to free events this year.
Night Watch is the centrepiece of Bram Stoker Festival this year. Can you tell us what it is about?
TL: Night Watch is about blurring the porous membrane that exists between our time and time passed. It’s set in Grand Canal Dock, Dublin’s flashiest, most contemporary looking area by international standards, and we wanted to flip that on its head by anchoring this ancient, water-based spectacle there, bringing a haunted vision of a Victorian ship, appearing from nowhere, pulsing with light and sound and surrounded by writhing figures, either protecting it or us. It’s by world-renowned spectacle creators The Lantern Company, who are presenting with us before they create work for Galway 2020.
What other highlights should attendees look out for?
TL: Stokerland has become an incredibly popular annual event for families now, and if you haven’t brought your kids yet, come along. I’ve wanted to programme The Craft for years and this year we finally have – well, the public did really, as they voted for it! It’ll light up the dead of night in Meeting House Square.
MS: I’m excited this year for Sounds of Wood on Muscle: A Modern Radio Dracula, which will be held in St. Ann’s Church where Bram married Florence Balcombe. It’s a reinterpretation of Orson Welles’s 1938 radio play of Dracula, by Matt Smyth and Eoin Quinn of Collapsing Horse. We also have the Irish premiere of Séance, created by Darkfield who are a company set up by David Rosenberg (one of the co-founders of immersive theatre company, Shunt) and Glen Neath. The show is an unnerving 20-minute audio experience in complete darkness in a sealed shipping container.
If Bram Stoker were alive now, what do you think he‘d be up to?
TL: We know from his journals that Bram was obsessed with detailing street scenes and overheard conversations, some of which are still hilarious to read and prove Dubliners have always had quick, biting and sly wit. So, I’d say he might run something like Humans of New York, or write or perform comedy. He was also, according to newspaper reports at the time, one of Dublin’s best dancers at society balls, so maybe he’d just be on the sesh all the time.
MS: Bram worked as the manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London for a long time so maybe like a lot of emigrants and with Brexit around the corner, he might be considering moving back to Dublin and have his eye on the top job at the Dublin Theatre Festival… Watch out Willie White!
Scariest movie/novel/thing exercising your mind right now?
TL & MS: Brexit.
What do you work on outside of the festival?
TL: When we’re not working together, trying to terrify the city, I work primarily as a marketing and sponsorship consultant for festivals, events and arts organisations… where my advice would typically be: don’t terrify people.
MS: My partner and I, Naoise, have a company together and we both programme and produce festivals and events. This year, as well as working on Bram, I’ve programmed and produced the comedy programme for the Bulmer’s Lounge at Body&Soul, produced The Irish Times Theatre Awards and worked on some corporate events. Working on Bram is my first love, particularly dreaming up and researching new ideas for the festival programme.
Bram Stoker is on across the city from Friday October 25 to Monday October 28
Photo: Killian Broderick