2020 was shaping up to be a big year with projects such as debut novels, feature films, festivals, music showcases and even a trip to the Olympics on the cards. And then a global pandemic put the kibosh on everything.
Jenny Jennings (ThisIsPopBaby) launched and closed the Where We Live festival on the same day in March. The following is her account of how that day unfolded.
7.45am – Marty Whelan’s reassuringly terrible radio jokes catapult me out of bed, my laptop still open beside me from late-night ‘notes’ emails for last-minute fixes today.
It’s opening night.
In ten hours, 300 people will crowd into Project Arts Centre to celebrate the official start of our 10-day marathon of new work – Where We Live. The second iteration of this festival-within-St-Patrick’s-festival will feature over 80 artists presenting 22 events, and nearly 3000 tickets sold as of this morning. I may even have time for a blow-dry.
It’s been 18 months in the making, this one. And like every significant endeavour we (ThisIsPopBaby) undertake, we can yet again hand on heart say it’s “our most ambitious project to date!”
I mean, what company puts on a 10-day festival of new work where you’re not just programming it (that is, selecting the work), not just producing the majority of it (that is, project managing each step), you are also creating a good chunk of it! Nobody, that’s who. Mad People. Us.
It has not been an easy birth. We lost the venue we were designing the whole shebang around three months out, we were missing a couple of key team members, we had a massive fundraising target (most ambitious project to date!) and nearly every person on the core team was, bizarrely, dealing with various personal tragedies all at the same time.
But here we were, opening night. We made it. Thanks to Project Arts Centre saving our bacon, producer Lara Hickey steering the ship skillfully and all of the artists and the team pulling it out of the bag, we had some serious history-making potential going on.
8.47am – Email in from Lara. One of the artists showing a work-in-progress at the weekend wants to do it via video link, as opposed to live in the room. She’s concerned about the Corona virus. Dammit…Grand.
Three, or perhaps four, weeks earlier (time is elastic in the rehearsal room), and I’m chatting on the phone with my Popbaby co-conspirator and major multi-tasker Phillip McMahon, who is in Manchester putting the finishing touches on a new musical with neo-cabaret superstars Bourgeois & Maurice.
J: So what do you make of this Corona virus thing? Storm in a teacup or…?
P: Well, our Eurovision choreographer is pretty worried. He thinks by May it could be a big deal and it will get cancelled.
J: Right. Hmmm…seems unlikely? Where We Live should squeak through anyway…
9.11am – Karen Walshe, director of St Patrick’s Festival, calls. I ask her to repeat herself but it turns out I heard her correctly the first time. They have made the decision to pull all of their events in the festival, not just the parade. They are announcing the decision at 10am. We are free to make our own decision as a partner event, but they are cancelling all of their self-produced projects in the interests of public safety.
(This feels premature. An overreaction maybe?)
Can you give us until noon before you announce, so we can figure out our response? She can.
An emergency senior team meeting is called for 10.30am. Looks like I won’t be getting that blow-dry after all.
We’ve all worked ourselves to the bone to transform Project Arts Centre for our festival take-over. And she is looking mighty fine. Designer Emmett Scanlon has applied his architectural sensibilities to reimagining and repurposing every inch of the space in the most exciting ways, collaborating with Niall Sweeney on stunning large-scale window decals and Sarah Jane Shiels on fun dynamic lighting effects throughout the building.
In the Cube space, Peter Maybury’s immersive multi-screen and sound exhibition – Landfall – is more beautiful and profound than we could have dreamed of, while Space Upstairs is completely reconfigured in a brilliantly discombobulating way, with Emmett’s gorgeous raised stage design evoking cityscape, river, cardboard shantytown and imposing financial centre all at once. It’s been a long time in the making, and we cannot wait for people to see it.
11.07am – We decide to hold our nerve. We will open and we will stay open, following all Government Health & Safety Guidelines, until we are told to close. Leo’s making an announcement at noon. Everybody is saying it’s going to be schools. That’s ok, we have a Covid-19 Childminding plan in place for our team. We can all still work.
Sometime around Noon – The whole production team are gathered around my mobile phone in the lobby of Project Arts Centre, listening to Leo’s Churchillian-esque speech on speaker.
The speech is dramatic. It’s emotional. It’s historic. It’s holy shit did he just say all cultural institutions and events over 100 people were closed from 6pm tonight? He did. He did? He Did. That’s it so. We’re done.
We’re shaken. We’re shaking. We’re numb. We’re adrenalized. It’s impossible to process until much much later, at which point it will hurt deeply. In the future, the sense of loss will be profound. But in that moment, we do the only thing we can do. We finish the job.
Emmett puts the finishing touches on the design elements around the building. Production Managers Èanna Whelan, JC, Aisling Mooney and their heroic teams continue with all the fixes already scheduled for the day. Lara begins the epic communication task – extended team, then stakeholders, then artists, then opening night guests. Marketing Manager Carla Rogers oversees the public communication while organising photographer and videographer to at least document what we have made.
Artistic teams in rehearsal rooms all over the city get as far as they can get with their work, recording run-throughs, creating detailed notes and packing props and costumes carefully away.
I enter Project Space Upstairs and, together with the designers, stage manager and incredible cast, we finish technical rehearsals for the opening (and now closing) show of the festival.
Later – We perform the show to a modest assembly and a prolonged standing ovation. We record it for posterity.
The building is locked behind us as we leave, with the stage and all the festival elements remaining suspending in time and space for the foreseeable.
We gather. We drink and dance until well beyond dawn. A party at the end of the world.
Photo of Philip McMahon & Jenny Jennings by Fiona Morgan
Ahead of the 2020 opening of Where We Live we caught up with Co-Directors, Phillip McMahon and Jennifer Jennings on their formative years and what they led to, the power of the dancefloor, and the state of the city today. Read it here