Wednesday 19 June 2019

The magic behind the mask as magic of Macnas parade looms

I hope we've advanced the parade from something to be observed, to something that's completely immersive

Visionary: Macnas artistic director Noeline Kavanagh. Photo: Andrew Downes, XPOSURE
Visionary: Macnas artistic director Noeline Kavanagh. Photo: Andrew Downes, XPOSURE
Imagination: Parade designer Orla Clogher. Photo: Andrew Downes
Preparations at Macnas HQ. Photo: Andrew Downes
Final preparations for the Macnas parade. Photo: Andrew Downes
One of the masks. Photo: Andrew Downes
Preparations at Macnas HQ. Photo: Andrew Downes
Photo: Andrew Downes
Photo: Andrew Downes
Photo: Andrew Downes
Immersive: Last year's Macnas parade in Galway. Photo: www.juliadunin.com

A sunny midweek morning in Galway, at the intersection of Cross St and Quay St, and something a little out of the ordinary is happening. Three young people, dressed in outlandish clothes and super-colourful, carnival-esque make-up, are striking a pose for assembled photographers.

More than one pose, actually: a tall woman in front urges Yvette, Caroline and Barra to "move as one molecular body, one plasmatic body… find the energy of different emotions, the mystical power of the sea gathering momentum, different levels of joy, sadness, fear." She has them bark like dogs, pull faces, leap about, instructing them to "discover that sense of coming home". Go "into the mystic", she says, with an "inhalation of joy".

Snappers snap, writers scribble notes, tourists stop and smile. Perhaps surprisingly, bustling normal life continues all around. Then again, maybe the scene isn't so unusual. This is Galway, after all - and this is Macnas.

For 31 years, this legendary artistic company has made magic seem real, with its thrilling, large-scale parades and public events, on the streets of Galway and further afield. This year, for instance, the company put on St Patrick's Day parades in its hometown, as well as in Dublin and Cork, and became the first ever "spectacle art" to feature at the über-hip South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas.

Imagination: Parade designer Orla Clogher. Photo: Andrew Downes
Imagination: Parade designer Orla Clogher. Photo: Andrew Downes

So pioneering, inventive and radical is Macnas, that in the words of its visionary artistic director Noeline Kavanagh (the tall woman guiding events on Quay Street), it has "a signature now". You only have to say the word, Macnas, and the listener automatically conjures up images of giant heads and walking colossi, mime artists and music, something simultaneously spooky and exciting, comical and contemplative, the sense of a dream made real, on a gigantic scale.

Rather delightfully, that name translates from the Irish as "joyful abandonment"; what Noeline summarises as being "frisky, risky, youthful, a bit bold, a bit wild - like a young calf bursting out of the barn!"

She's talking to Weekend in Macnas HQ on the NUIG campus. Downstairs are two smaller workshops, where those instantly recognisable masks and head-dresses, along with costumes, are designed and manufactured (larger items are assembled in a workshop across town).

With the company's famed Halloween parade looming on the horizon, Noeline is buzzing around, busy as anything. She's not the only one: there are a dozen others working here today, flying it, with less than a month to complete costumes and sets for the festivities in Galway and Dublin.

For this year's Port Na bPúcaí - the subject of that morning's photoshoot - the visual/sartorial themes are centred on beachcombers, ancestors and submarine life. Tonnes of sketches, photos and other visual cues are pasted up as inspiration: faces, landscapes, even a magnified image of purple bacteria (the way they move together, we're told, is like how things flow underwater).

A startling array of masks lines the walls: giant pig and fox heads, horses, frogs and hares, skulls of long-horned cattle, creepy masks of aliens, monsters, wolves and tigers, and dead men with trees growing out of their heads. Out of context like this, just hanging on the wall, they seem somehow creepier and, at the same time, more magical, even oddly beautiful.

Final preparations for the Macnas parade. Photo: Andrew Downes
Final preparations for the Macnas parade. Photo: Andrew Downes

People sewing, knitting, sketching, thinking, collaborating, making things…creating, in short. It's the definition of "art meets craft".

Upstairs, in her office, Noeline describes how spectacle art "captures something that's ordinarily unknowable and inexpressible".

"I think it has to do with the scale, and using a public landscape: you usurp everything, you get to be kings and queens for the day, and the audience aren't behind a barrier or kept on the sidelines," she continues.

"Macnas creates a world that descends upon the city, and invites the audience in. It pulls you in, it slaps you, tickles you, teases you.

"I hope we've advanced the parade from something to be observed, to something that's completely immersive.

"There's a lovely universality to visual and performance arts, to music, poetry, chaos, anarchy… and I love that it happens in a public place. It reminds us we have permission to play, to be unruly, to have access to imagination in all its lewd, crude, weird and wonderful ways. It gives us permission to relax and just exhale. Disruption, uncertainty and change are necessary, and part of who we are. It's important to reclaim public spaces, come out and gather, engaging with each other. Imagination is the access for that to happen. It gives people a sense of freedom in a world that feels less free every day."

Immersive: Last year's Macnas parade in Galway. Photo: www.juliadunin.com
Immersive: Last year's Macnas parade in Galway. Photo: www.juliadunin.com

Born in 1975, Noeline is athletic-looking and brimming with energy, she's an articulate and passionate guide to Macnas: who they are, what they do, and why.

A Galway native, she started with the company aged just 17. Precociousness was to become a theme: Noeline became the first female director of the Macnas parade, and its youngest, first helming the event at the age of 23.

Then, plot twist: she left Macnas, and eventually Ireland, for 12 years, "to learn about art and life". Noeline worked in Fatima Mansions as an artist-in-residence, with Rough Magic and the Abbey, then avant-garde troupes Els Comediants in Barcelona and Le Théâtre du Soleil in Paris.

"That was a mixture of theatre and visual arts," she explains. "Then I did five years with the British group Welfare State International - who would really be the pioneers of spectacle art in Europe - where I learned that hybrid of visual meets performance meets theatre meets music meets cooking and whatever else.

"I wanted to get more exposure to different styles of theatre practice, particularly in a socio-political context. And to learn how other artists were evolving spectacle, both indoor and outdoor, across Europe. It felt necessary to me. I needed to let go of what I had."

The importance of letting go, of knowing when to evolve or step aside, informs developments at Macnas. Noeline has been steering the company to the point where she can nurture the next generation of spectacle artists.


"I'm really excited this year because I'm not artistic director of the parade. I was, up to now, but to allow the team to develop and grow, we have a wonderful new creative director for the 2017 parade, Orla Clogher, who's come up through our artistic ensemble over the past eight years," she says.

"So this year I've kind of become CEO, to allow that next generation come through. There's a new diversification of the work; I don't feel like such a control freak anymore. And there's real freedom in admitting to myself: I don't know everything, there are people here who are better than me at certain things."

The company has a tiny staff: at present it comprises Noeline as full-time chief, a part-time administrator (three days a week), part-time communications person (four days a month) and part-time bookkeeper. It is in the process of appointing a part-time executive producer.

A small core ensemble of visual artists, designers, performers and directors, then, expands to "about 45" professional artists who work on big events, and help run its annual programmes: free weekly classes for an ensemble of young performers, organising the emerging drumming troupe, running public workshops for the ever-growing "citizens' cast".

So what, roughly, is the process for putting together a large-scale event such as Port Na bPúcaí, which premieres in Galway on Sunday, October 29 and then is "packed away, loaded onto articulated trucks and brought to Dublin for the Bram Stoker Festival on Monday", under the Anglophone title, Memory Song?

It started in conversations with Orla Clogher, one year ago. She was interested in looking at the role of mystics and transcendentalism: people like Seamus Heaney, John O'Donoghue. She also wanted to draw on the landscape of the west of Ireland, particularly in the context of an Irish wake, and reflect on grief, transition, the life-death cycle. Other influences included a film on hermeticism, while her title was inspired by a piece of music from the Blasket Islands.

Noeline continues: "She took that sense of what happens in Samhain, that liminal time between life and death, and made this story of a mystic journeyman, that sense of a hauntingly beautiful pilgrimage. It's a celebration of life on the edge of the Atlantic, with all of those elements of poets and musicians who derive their inspiration from the sea and mountains, who live in isolation and go into those worlds that allow us to listen to something we can't quite articulate. It's something that moves us, and moves within us."

Around February or March, Orla started making the abstract a little more concrete and visual: drawings, ideas. Once the concept really took hold, Noeline says, the company began having meetings with the ensemble and different artists.

"Then it really kicks in from July," she says. "It's mad busy, it's epic. The actual physical build for the parade only started the week of September 18. But you just have to make it work, and we've never known any other way. This is all only made possible by the time people give; the resources don't cover it.

"And 15 years ago the parade was just made for one day, whereas now we've developed a repertoire that tours the world. Travelling is an entire industry in itself; we have four containers of gear being shipped to Hull (where Macnas performs the closing event at the British City of Culture in November)."

The mechanics of, well, the mechanics are astounding. Take those iconic giants, stalking the streets and giving the public a delicious chill up their spines. Noeline explains how she "wanted to get away from big machines behind the structure, making it move".

"Working with brilliant artists like Gavin Morgan, Dave Young and Paul McDonnell over the last few years, one of the things we've been interested in is: how do you give authenticity and integrity to the movement of a structure? Our giants aren't someone on stilts: it's a kinetic, scaled structure that's designed and built in Macnas. We've taken a large-scale giant and inserted a puppeteer inside its body. It's almost like driving a spaceship from inside their head. There's no fuel, just brilliant engineering and invention that goes into it. Pulleys, ropes, all the stuff that wizards use behind the scenes," she says.

Macnas, she says, is less about impressing the audience with size, as making a real connection with them.

"There are great companies around the world, creating large-scale structures. But I wanted to bring more movement and poetry to the piece, more performance energy, so it wasn't just grandiosity of scale - it was about getting to connect and interact, to be personable and intimate and create a world within a world. It's not just: build a big guy. Everything comes from a real place, a place of integrity of truth."

It has also branched out into AR and VR (augmented reality and virtual reality). This year, for the first time, Macnas is developing a prototype AR sound-app.

"Orla has conjured up an amazing lead character for Port Na bPúcaí," Noeline says, "and I was interested in hearing the thoughts of a 15-foot kinetic structure going down the street. So he'll have a device on him that will be triggered on people's phones, and at certain points they'll be able to hear him. At another stage, people with the app will become 'submerged' underwater, the rest of the parade noise drowned out.

"We also hope to collaborate with a VR filmmaker called Paula Keogh, on a 60-second dream sequence of all our giants. The audience sees the giant in one context, and then put on their VR headsets and dive into his dreams for a minute." Macnas uses technology to enrich storytelling, and not just because it's cool. "Ultimately we're storytellers, we create epic stories and bring the audience on a journey. The digital aspect enhances that," Noeline says.

There's also original music, composed by musical director Orlagh De Bhaldraithe, based on the world invented by Orla Clogher. It's a "whole generation of artists", Noeline says, "pushing the boundaries in really exciting ways."

There's something wonderfully appropriate that Macnas has become synonymous with Halloween. The original Celtic festival of Samhain, after all, wasn't just about ghost stories and scary vampires, as fun as those may be. It was also a way of marking - and celebrating - the passage of seasons, the turning of time's wheel, how all things are changed, inexorably.

"We try to reclaim the proper meaning of Samhain," Noeline says. "It's not just horror, it's transformation. We've been waltzing with that shadow and light for five years, and the parade really fits now: Macnas at Halloween, it's become iconic.

"It's fun. It pokes and it stokes, and the themes are fundamental to who we are: love, hurt, fear, transformation. Everybody needs to have these cathartic moments.

"It all reminds me us of who we are, as a 21st century community, and Macnas creates those rituals and rites of passage."

macnas.com; bramstokerfestival.com

Tips for creating your own Halloween costume

From Cherie White, Macnas costume designer

1 Think outside the box. Something surprising wins, every time.

2 Let your imagination run riot, recycle, reinvent things around you. You don't have to spend a lot of money; the best investment in a costume is time and creativity.

3 It doesn't always have to be a ghoul or monster. Scary comes in many forms. But if you're gonna be a monster... don't hold back - really go for it.

4 If it's a character or theme that is personal to you, you'll want to make the extra effort to find a way to express that: from clothing to hats and wigs to make-up. And most importantly: attitude.

5 The most important things of all are: have fun, enjoy making, get messy and laugh!

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