FROM FRIDAY, on screens in living rooms, home offices, and bedrooms around the country, the Galway Theatre Festival will be streaming, offering a feast of live theatre, works-in-progress, workshops, and talks.
The festival, which runs from Friday April 30 to Saturday May 8 will be the most different in the event’s 13 year history. With the Covid-19 pandemic ongoing, and public health restrictions still prohibiting indoor gatherings, the GTF will be an online experience, and a reflection on how the creation and presentation of theatre has changed dramatically in the past 12 months.
Steering the GTF through this challenging and turbulent time, is festival director Sorcha Keane, originally from Dublin, and living in Galway since 2016. Her own journey to theatre began at a very early age.
“As a child I was given this comic book that was this abridged version of Shakespeare’s plays, it was full of pictures of the audience throwing things at people, and all this activity and movement,” Sorcha tells me during our Monday afternoon interview over Zoom. “My parents also brought me to the theatre, and when I went to college my favourite modules were always drama.”
Following graduation from UCD, Sorcha undertook a degree in Cultural Policy and Arts Management, before coming to Galway to do a masters at NUIG’s Drama Department. By now, her passion for theatre had fully “bedded down”, and was also solidifying into a career. In 2018, she became the director of the Galway Theatre Festival.
An exploratory process
Detail from the GTF 2021 poster, designed by Lara Luxardi.
That this year’s festival is going ahead, is a testament to the resilience and creativity of Galway, and Irish, theatre makers in the face of adversity. The first lockdown in 2020 saw the cancellation of last year’s GTF. Yet, despite that enormous disappointment, a reaction took place which would help fuel GTF 2021.
“That was tough, but throughout last year we also saw how generous artists were in reaching out and sharing online,” says Sorcha, “but there was a tendency to forget what artists were going through during the pandemic, while also looking to them for solace.
'The panel discussions will allow people really get under the hood of what goes into making art'
“We wanted to recognise that generosity and be supportive to artists, especially as, with digital, artists are bringing theatre into a new unknown. We want to be aware of that, trying to make sure the work we present responds to their vision and practice. Some work was specifically digital, other works are adapting to that. It’s been an exploratory process for artists. People are coming at this from different perspectives, and it’s all being done with a sense of compassion. That’s what will get us through this.”
A scene from Fizz and Chips Theatre’s Dragon.
As a result, a number of shows from the cancelled 2020 Festival are back, with re-imagined productions of their shows - from the award-winning audio play, GirlPlay by the Rampant Collective; Dragon, Fizz and Chips Theatre’s musical theatre piece about toxic masculinity and Tinder; while Oxbo Theatre will lead a workshop based on the making of their play Waterford Crystal.
Theatre and the pandemic
Much of the 2021 Galway Theatre Festival will be a reflection, and comment upon, the experience of living through a pandemic. Chief among these, and a potential highlight of the festival, will be the music and dance show Embodying Glass, a collaboration between the Contempo Quartet, the Galway Music Residency and dancer/actor Jérémie Cyr-Cooke, set to Philip Glass’ ‘Company’.
“It is amazing how a piece of dance theatre can represent what it’s like to sit on your couch everyday for the last year,” says Sorcha. “It lulls you into this world of stasis and repetition, yet it’s very emotive. It is also very physical - something we have lost this year with restrictions on movements. The piece really represents and explores all these feelings.”
Another aspect of the Covid experience - the Zoom show, occasionally allowing the kind of interaction with an artist that normally does not happen (they can see into our home, we can chat with them ) - is the subject of Eszter Nemethi’s Asking the Audience, which will ask audiences to discuss what it means to be an audience member in their own home. “With digital shows, artists are often being ‘invited’ into our homes, directly into our own space,” says Sorcha. “This show will be teasing out what that means.”
The pandemic has resulted in many businesses having to remain closed, while at the same time there has been a noticeable spike in online shopping. This relationship with technology and local businesses will be the focus of Mona, a GTF commission, and work-in-progress by two of Galway’s leading theatre makers - Mairead Ní Chronin and James Riordan, along with vocalist and composer, Anna Mullarkey.
“Mona is an AI character from the future, and in this piece she will lead audiences around Galway city,” says Sorcha. “The digital world has impacted on how we shop, but this show is really about our relationship with local businesses, those businesses we feel committed to the communities that creates, and what happens when such businesses close down.”
'Payment and conditions for artists was not addressed, and made worse by the pandemic...A lot will have to be done to support people working in the arts'
As well as theatre shows, the festival will feature numerous talks and panel discussions. “There will be a lot in these to allow people really get under the hood of what goes into making art,” says Sorcha. “We’ll have discussions on the making of Irish language theatre, lighting, and much more. It will be an opportunity for audiences, and artists, to dive into what goes on and find out more.”
The future of theatre
The manner in which theatre can be produced and performed has been impacted dramatically by Covid-19. How does Sorcha think such changes will still impact theatre, post-pandemic?
“Digital and hybrid digital/physical theatre will be here to stay,” says Sorcha. “That opens up huge new possibilities. That said, I will be the first in line with my ticket once theatres can open up again. There is a magic about being in an audience, in a theatre, as the lights go down, that you don’t really get anywhere else.
“However it will be a long time before we are back to where we were before Covid-19, but where we were in terms of funding and resourcing was not enough. Payment and conditions for artists was not addressed, and made worse by the pandemic, especially for technicians, people involved in sound and lighting. A lot will have to be done to support people working in the arts. It will have to be a huge priority.”