'I left school at 16 and now run my own festivals and events company' - Bram Stoker Festival co-director Maria Schweppe
Behind the Scenes: We meet key Irish and Ireland-based talent working behind the scenes in the TV, film, radio, theatre, and music industries. Here we chat to Maria Schweppe, co-director of the Bram Stoker Festival and Director of Schweppe Curtis Nunn.
From leaving school at 16 to earning a diploma to moving to London and back and setting up her own business, Maria Schweppe reveals what it takes to build a career in the arts.
How did you get started in your career?
"I joined Dublin Youth Theatre when I was 15 and it changed my life. Every Saturday morning, 40 or so young people would meet in a Georgian house on Upper Gardiner Street to do workshops in all aspects of theatre. The range and quality of practitioners was amazing. I met people there who’ve become lifelong friends, a lot of whom now work professionally in the arts. It was there that my love of the arts was nurtured.
"I grew up in Ballymun and left school when I was 16. I was pretty academic and loved English, art, photography and school plays but I was unhappy. My mum was very supportive of my decision to leave school; she just wanted me to be happy and I promised her that 'I’d end up doing what I wanted to do’. I volunteered with Valerie, who used to be the General Manager of DYT, in the office. I really wouldn’t be doing what I do today if it wasn’t for her. She was an amazing mentor. In 1997, I worked for St. Patrick’s Festival as PR Assistant and Production Assistant - really, doing whatever needed doing!
"My first proper, full time job in the arts was as Administrator at Axis, Ballymun. It was a really exciting time as the centre was at that time just a hole in the ground - our office was in a unit in the shopping centre. The regeneration had just started and there was an incredible sense of community spirit. When I was 21, I came full circle and became General Manager of Dublin Youth Theatre, where I worked for 10 years. I learned on the job while completing a diploma in Management Practice for the Arts, which helped to consolidate what I’d learned but also strengthened by innate skills.
"In 2005, I moved to London to take up a position with the Clore Leadership Programme - I didn’t move because of financial reasons, I just needed a change. I moved back to Ireland, for love, three years ago. My partner, Naoise, encouraged me to go freelance and we set up a company together – Schweppe Curtis Nunn. We haven’t looked back since. We work on lots of festivals and events including; Bram Stoker Festival, Vodafone Comedy Tent and Library of Progress at Body&Soul, The Irish Times Theatre Awards, Mindfield at Electric Picnic, Kilkenomics and this year we produced the first ever live show for Waterford Whispers News.
What do your job involve on a day to day basis?
"At the moment, I’m commuting every day by train from Kilkenny to Dublin for Bram. I’d love to say that I’m one of those people who gets lots of work done on the train, but I’m not - I’m terribly grumpy in the morning!
"The Festival team, having worked remotely and largely online for a few months, come together full-time six weeks before the Festival. That’s the point that decisions need to be made quickly, so it’s important that everyone is in the room. As we’re just two days out from the Festival, this is the time when Tom (my Co-Director) and I start to visit the venues during build and sit in on dress rehearsals.
"At this point, it’s our fantastic Bram team who are running the show and we’re there to oversee and solve any problems that arise. In the lead up to the Festival, we meet regularly with our Steering Committee, which is made up of staff members from Dublin City Council and Fáilte Ireland, who are incredibly supportive and were the initiators of the festival. There are a huge amount of stakeholders involved in the Festival, particularly in relation to our largest scale event, the Macnas Parade."
What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job?
"There’s been a point every year during Bram that Tom and I look at each other and ask ‘how is this all happening?’ and the answer is always ‘Marcus!’ (our Production Manager). That’s the point that I love, when we’re able to actually visit all of the shows and events and enjoy the hard work that we’ve put in over the course of the year."
What are the challenges?
"Sometimes you need to know when to let go of an idea when programming. There were two events that we really wanted to make work as part of this years’ Festival but couldn’t, because for one we couldn’t find the right venue and for the other we couldn’t make the finances work. These will be realised in 2019, so often the challenge can be met with a solution when you’re confident in the idea itself."
Which skills serve you best?
"Attention to detail is key when working on festivals. You have to be incredibly good with setting budgets and also managing budgets. It’s also very responsive work - you have to be good at solving multiple problems every day!
What type of person would NOT suit this job?
"You can’t have a ‘white gloves’ approach when working in the arts or on festivals - the work needs to get done. One day you could be making a projector bracket from a shopping basket and the next setting up a backstage green room and sweeping the grass from the marquee. As Naoise says about working on events ‘At the end of the day, no matter what level you get to, it’s all about moving chairs.’"
Any misconceptions about your job and what advice would you give?
"I kind of fell in to working on festivals but the skills were totally transferable because I’d worked in the arts for so long. When programming, you have to do a lot of research on your theme so for Bram Stoker Festival, we spend a lot of time reading about Bram Stoker, his works, his life, what Dublin would have been like at the time that he lived here, Victorian Dublin, Samhain and other Gothic writers.
"Working on festivals isn’t glamorous: the majority of the time I’m sitting in front of my laptop but the payoff is the buzz of the Festival weekend and seeing all of the hard work come to life. "
How has the industry changed?
"The ability to work remotely is amazing for festivals and the arts. I live in Kilkenny and wouldn’t be able to work on Bram Stoker Festival if I had to be based full-time in Dublin. Cloud storage means that our Festival team can work from home and then come together just before the Festival. We all work from Google Drive. Being able to work remotely gives your team lots of flexibility, especially if they have children. It helps to keep overheads down and enables you to spend more on programming."
About Bram Stoker Festival
One of Dublin’s biggest festivals, Bram Stoker Festival (October 26th – 29th), brought to you by Dublin City Council and Fáilte Ireland, celebrates the supernatural, the thrill of Samhain and the legacy of one of Ireland’s most treasured authors. The programme includes theatre, readings, illustration and animation, outdoor screenings, audio treats, free family fun parks, podcasts and adventures in unusual locations throughout the city.