On Thursday, March 12th 2020 I was in VISUAL Carlow with 180 TY students preparing for our second performance of the musical ‘Back to the 80’s’. When I entered the theatre that morning, I was preparing for some fixes and a full dress before that evening’s performance.
By 12pm I was standing onstage, in front of said students giving them the news that there would be no second performance. Quite honestly, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. To say there were tears would be a gross understatement. The musical is one of the highlights of the school year and we had been entrenched in rehearsals since the first week of January. It is no mean feat to stage a show with two schools and such a high number of students, but despite the work involved (the sheer logistics involved would cause any Company Manager a migraine) it is also one of my highlights of the year as a Director.
We were allowed one final finale and curtain call and though the vocals left a lot to be desired – it’s very hard to sing when you’re balling your eyes out – the students gave it their all, their final curtain call to an empty auditorium only ever to be watched on their phone recordings. Little did we know at the time that watching performances on tiny screens was to become the norm for the foreseeable future. By 2pm the theatre was empty of students, costumes, props and set. The silence was heavy and the weight of what was happening hit me like a ton of bricks and I cried. A lot.
I have spent the past few weeks writing this blog about virtual and digital events, things that can be accessed, viewed and enjoyed online. I have praised so many festivals and venues for finding ways to keep their audiences entertained and I have been amazed at the ingenuity and determination of so many of my colleagues to Just. Keep. Going. In recent weeks, it has been such a relief to start reporting on events that will involve real, live, in-person performance. I’m sure I am not the only one suffering from screen fatigue. There are some things that, no matter how incredible a recording may be, simply cannot be replicated. Walking into a space, with other people present, to enjoy art (of any kind) and have a shared cultural experience: no screen can replace that.
Today, I am going to talk about returning to that space. On Saturday, July 25th 2020, I returned to VISUAL, a full 135 days since I walked out. As a Theatre Maker in Carlow, VISUAL is my home ground, and I am fairly certain, with the exception of when I was living in London, that is the longest I have ever been absent from that building since it opened. It figures therefore that I was more than a little emotional walking through those front doors again. It felt both incredibly exciting, and at the same time oddly illicit, as if I were somehow breaking the law.
The very first blog I wrote for theatremaker.ie was all about Carlow Arts Festival finding a way forward with one of their core events: ARTWORKS. At the time of writing that blog post, there were no dates or plans, just a clear determination to make it happen. A few weeks later, the enterprising team announced their re-imagining of the whole festival as #SLICES comprising of 6 ‘slices’ of the arts festival of which ARTWORKS is Slice #4 and opened this week.
I got to go online, book my free tickets, travel to the venue and check in at the box office which involved actually speaking to a wonderful human. There were some people ahead of me. I could hear voices in the gallery. There were some people behind me. It was all very giddy. Freshly sanitised I entered the first gallery and a wave of peace. It took me about five minutes to actually start looking at the exhibition properly, and I’m not sure, sitting here now that I actually took it all in and I will have to return.
The theme for this year’s open call is ‘climate and our natural environment’ and was titled, rather fittingly in my opinion The Sky is Blue. (Inspired by John Tyndall, the Carlow Scientist who discovered why the sky is blue – 2020 marks the bicentennial of his birth and he is understood to be one of the founders of climate science).
There are many wonderful pieces in the exhibition, some thought-provoking, beautiful and eye catching and it is well worth a visit. Congratulations to Helena Gorey and Ciara Roche, the winners of the The Artworks Award and the The Eigse Graduate Prize respectively.
Also currently showing in Visual in the main gallery space is the Irish Tree Alphabet by Katie Holten. This is just stunning. Katie has made drawings of trees, existing natives and non-natives that are now calling Ireland home due to the changing climate. Each tree replaces a letter in the Latin alphabet. The project finds its roots in the Ogham alphabet, the ancient Irish writing found on standing stones littered around our countryside. The trees encircle the entire gallery and above them is a message written in Ogham for you to translate. (I won’t spoil it for you) and on top of all that – the alphabet is available as a digital font called Irish Trees which you can download HERE so you can write a love letter with trees. We are also invited to write our own message about our visit to VISUAL and our hopes for the future written in trees.
I brought my 7 year old niece with me, and was thrilled to discover they had a brilliant activity booklet for kids so they could actively engage with the art and even draw their own ‘exhibition’. She had a field day with this and took it all very seriously indeed. As part of the booklet, children are invited to ‘find the rainbows’ around the galleries. Oh, the excitement! We managed to find three, all above eye-level, all made from light, all sparking joy and wonder for both of us.
I couldn’t help but feel there couldn’t possibly be a better visual metaphor for the world right now: even when it’s pouring down, the clouds blocking the sun, the light will find a way through to brighten our lives if we just remember to look for it.
VISUAL re-opened on July 23rd and the current exhibition runs until October so you have plenty of time to go see it. Due to current restrictions, they ask that you book online in advance. Congratulations to everyone at VISUAL and Carlow Arts Festival – it’s great to have you back.
If you yourself are situated outside the ‘Pale’ and you have (or know of) some form of event or happening that you would like me to cover in this blog, please get in touch – I want to hear from you!