'The arts can address the vacuum created by Brexit'
As a trilogy of festivals get under way on both sides of the Border, curators Seán Doran and Liam Browne explain how the ethos of bringing people together has never been more pertinent
The concept of the site-specific arts festival has become popular in these days when each party on the busy summer-festival circuit is desperate to try and carve out a distinguishing identity for itself.
You get everyone down into a cobwebbed crypt and screen Dracula, or perhaps load the gamey festivalgoers on to a retired train carriage for a theatrical reading of Murder on the Orient Express. That sort of thing.
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There's something slightly different, however, about the work of Arts Over Borders. The festival company run by entrepreneurs Seán Doran and Liam Browne has 12 years under its belt of bringing what it calls literary "bio-festivals" to the Border counties each summer.
The pair have made an art form out of viewing the imaginary political border between the Republic and the North as a unifying feature rather than a dividing line.
The annual trilogy kicks off next week with Happy Days, Enniskillen's international Beckett festival that is now in its seventh year. There is the Lughnasa FrielFest in mid-August that plants a foot in Donegal and one in Derry. In the week between them, meanwhile, Enniskillen will play host to the second Wilde Weekend "on the shores of Lough Ernest".
"You're trying to establish an international arts festival in a rural situation where funding is very minimal," Doran says. "After 30 years working in the arts, you come to learn that the greater the resistance, the greater the act that's demanded. It took us to a place where what you have is what you work with."
With necessity proving as ever to be the mother of invention, Doran and Browne (who both have done their time running festivals in big capital cities) looked at Enniskillen's sole theatre and saw it not as a limitation but as excuse to discard the "grid" that so many festivals are locked to and open up the town's neglected corners.
Suddenly, depending on what side of the community you hailed from, you were finding yourself in neighbourhoods and buildings that were either hitherto off-bounds or just not on your geographical radar.
"It meant we had to go out and find unusual, surprising spaces," Browne explains. "For the international visitor, they get a much wider, truer sense of place instead of just coming in, going to major theatre and then they're gone again. But for locals, they get to know their own home town better and see parts of it that they've maybe never seen before in all their years of living there. In Enniskillen, for example, where you have different communities, you might be putting something on in a Protestant church or a Catholic church. There was also an event we staged in a local police station.
"In very tiny ways, these events change things for the guest, but then that is what arts events and festivals should do."
Out of very meagre beginnings, Doran and Browne have created a promenade of cultural events that straddles jurisdictions and copes with all the logistical and occasionally community-based conundrums that such an undertaking is bound to throw up.
This year, more than any other in the seven-year life of this "transnational festival", there is piercing scrutiny on the region right now that is seeing it being bandied about the reams of Brexit political analysis as if it were an abstract concept.
And with that of course comes the looming prospect that this year's instalment of Arts Over Borders will be the last to enjoy the easy access of having an intangible boundary between the jurisdictions. Some 40pc of the festival's audience comes from the Republic, while 70pc are coming to the Enniskillen legs each year from outside Fermanagh. The uncertainty must give things a slight edge this time around?
"Brexit has ironically created more interest from both sides of the Border," Doran says. "This place is in the spotlight. The word 'border' has been bled dry by the Westminster debates. Border, border, border.
"It's like, Christ, why would anyone want to go there? It's a no-man's land or a place to fear. The arts can address that vacuum, and they should be used much more in the vanguard of developing Northern Ireland. It's not just about arts per se, it's about destination arts and cultural tourism, where outsiders come in to see an event, mix with locals, and bring self-esteem to the place. "I've done festivals for 15 years but I've never experienced the meaningful impact of doing what I'm doing at the moment. I've also never had anything more difficult in my entire life trying to make it survive, let alone thrive."
"Natural movement back and forward over the Border will happen anyway," Browne adds, "so we felt we should try and emulate it. We have also felt really strongly that if you want to see great work, you shouldn't necessarily have to go to a capital city. This year we have [internationally renowned dance choreographer] Mark Morris coming to do a world premiere, and if you want to see that then you have to come to Enniskillen."
Underpinning everything that Browne and Doran are doing is an insistence that a rich artistic seam can be traced along the Border that represents one of the most dynamic cultural clusters in the world. From the Táin, Europe's oldest vernacular epic, to Jonathan Swift's creative sojourns to Loughgall, and on then to John McGahern, Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, and so on. Beckett meanwhile qualifies by way of his schooling in Enniskillen's Portora Royal School. If any region has the right to host a triptych of literary weekends, it does.
What's more, Arts Over Borders earns the right to monkey around with formats and settings. Bringing people together is thankfully now an implicit theme of life in the northern quarter of this island, and there's nothing like "slow theatre" in a bemusing location (piers, caves, lake islands, beaches, city walls, etc) to get an audience mingling, Browne believes.
"They feel they're going on an adventure," he says, explaining how one event in the programme involves a performance of Friel's The Faith Healer across a series of village halls in west Donegal, a monologue per venue over a number of hours. For the interval, the ticketholders' bus stops for a barbecue at Portnoo Pier (where Friel's Wonderful Tennessee is set).
"You're experiencing the play in the sort of halls where Frank Hardy, the main character, would've gone into as a faith healer. The dynamic of that over that space of time, of a group of strangers getting on a bus together and heading off to be part of a mystery. By the end of that, friendships have been made."
Happy Days: Enniskillen International Beckett Festival takes place July 25-28. A Wilde Weekend follows in Enniskillen between August 2-5. Finally, the Lughnasa FrielFest is happening in various locations across Donegal and Derry from August 9-18. For full details and to book tickets, go to www.artsoverborders.com