Wednesday 21 February 2018

Perfect 10 the stuff of dreams for Drogheda Arts Festival

Drogheda Arts Festival chief Aoife Ruane
Drogheda Arts Festival chief Aoife Ruane
William McKeown’s exhibit, ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’.

Sophie Gorman

Given our unpredictable weather, it may be a little optimistic to describe it as the first festival of the summer, but the Drogheda Arts Festival (droghedaartsfestival.ie) certainly heralds the beginning of festival season when it opens next Tuesday. This year is a particularly special one, as the Drogheda festival is 10 years old and is marking its special birthday with an expanded programme that for once lives up to that perennial boast of being bigger and better than ever.

What is most remarkable about the Drogheda arts fandango, though, is that, unlike other similar arts festivals, it comes together without staff. It is entirely voluntary.

Now, of course, that is to be applauded. Bringing together a festival of this quality and size without any full-time, or even part-time, staff is remarkable. It is also slightly frightening.

Volunteers are the backbone of the Irish arts community. Imagine running the Dublin Film Festival, for example, without all those hordes of dedicated altruists in their bright T-shirts shepherding everyone about, making sure nobody chokes on their popcorn, or attacks the celebrity guests?

Well, almost altruists, as they do get up close and personal to some great films into the bargain.

But the key difference is that these volunteers are the helpers not the creators. How can a festival have any real substance without a paid-up-in-full artistic director overseeing everything and having the final call to give it a sense of unified vision?

Somehow, this medieval town fights the odds and beats them. Different people programme different elements and they all seem to get along.

"We have been working on this year's festival since last June," explains Aoife Ruane, the chair of the festival's programming team and quite possibly the modest secret of their success. "We meet every second week and then there are sub-committees of sub-committees. It is all very complicated but does all hang together. The main funder is Drogheda Borough Council."

Aoife is also co-curating the main exhibition in the Highlanes Gallery, where she is also the director in her official day job. And it comes as no surprise that there is a most impressive visual arts strand to this year's programme.

Says Aoife: "One piece I am particularly excited about is William McKeown's Cloud Cuckoo Land and its beautiful handmade wallpaper. You are entering a room, but it is not all safe and domestic, there is a sense of claustrophobia, the lovely cuckoos have nooses around their necks and there is a feeling of entrapment.

''And there is what appears to be a window in the middle of it, opening hope of escape or possibly taunting you with a world beyond this one."

McKeown's cuckoos feature in the exhibition 'Re-framing the Domestic' in Irish Art at Highlanes, which includes the work of over 30 artists and spans the centuries from William Orpen to such leading contemporary names as Alice Maher, Abigail O'Brien and the wonderful Dorothy Cross.

There are lots of new elements to this year's expanded festival programme to mark its decade, including the first festival public interview with local lass, comedienne and actress – currently to be seen as Debra, mother of Moone Boy – Deirdre O'Kane.

Another new inclusion will be a rehearsed reading of Austin Clarke's haunting epic poem 'Mnemosyne Lay in Dust' performed by Declan Conlon and directed by Annabelle Comyn, with sound design by Philip Stewart.

The festival spans artistic disciplines and also the town of Drogheda itself, with site specific theatre, visual art, traditional, classical and contemporary music, film, literature, spectacle, children and family events.

There is even a forward-looking gaming and technology event merging traditional art forms with digital technologies and presented over two days by Droichead Arts Centre and Coderdojo. My own festival picks would be This is How We Fly, which brings together four musicians, each from a different musical culture: a traditional Irish fiddler, an Appalachian hard shoe dancer, a Dublin jazzman and a Swedish percussionist.

In another coup for Louth Contemporary Music Society, composer Alexander Raskatov will be coming to Drogheda's St Peter's Church next Saturday, May 3, for a very special performance of his Monk's Music by the Carducci Quartet and Robert McDonald.And the quite spectacular Beaulieu House will open its doors for a special bank holiday Monday afternoon of music, workshops, tea cakes and special guided tours of this rarely seen and truly magnificent 17th century house and gardens.

Every festival should have its entirely outlandish and unique event and Drogheda is no exception, with the Irish premiere of a 12-hour sleep concert, where, yes, you are encouraged to sleep. Breakfast and airbed will be provided for this collective sleepathon in a secret location where you will be encouraged to doze along to large film projections and the ambient music performed live throughout the night by DJ Steven Stapleton.

The stuff of dreams indeed.

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