Director Marie O'Byrne
Marie O’Byrne has been the Director of Hawk’s Well Theatre since 2011. Prior to that she was production manager at glór Irish Music Centre in her hometown of Ennis, Co Clare, where she also held responsibility for traditional arts programming for a number
of years. She has worked in production roles with festivals such as Open House Festival Belfast, Eigse Carlow and Doolin Folk Festival over the years also. Marie holds a degree in Architectural Science, and masters in Music Technology and Traditional
Irish Music Performance. She has produced many large scale performance projects in recent years at the Hawk’s Well including The Second Coming, The Far Off Hills and Constance.
Hawk's Well Theatre is a 340 seat theatre in Sligo dedicated to showcasing and promoting a diverse programme of arts and culture including professional and amateur theatre as well as a wide range of music, dance, comedy and family events and workshops.
The theatre was opened in 1982 and has since been, and continues to be, the ‘empty space’ for a huge number of cultural events.
The theatre is annually funded by the Arts Council, Department of Social Protection and Sligo County Council. Firmly rooted as a social and cultural hub in the North West in recent years it has commissioned and produced several exciting collaboration
projects with local and national artists, including The Man in the Woman’s Shoes and I Hear You and Rejoice with Mikel Murfi, The Second Coming with Fidget Feet and most recently Constance with Kellie Hughes and Michael
How has daily life in your Arts Centre been affected by the COVID-19 health crisis?
Daily life at the Arts Centre has changed beyond recognition as a result of the COVID-19 health crisis. Our doors were closed on 12 March and the building only opened again to the public on Friday, 14 August when we presented a small capacity concert
featuring an incredible local musician, Seamie O’Dowd.
From the closure until late June, the only people that frequented the building were the tech manager and I doing bi-weekly safety checks although the management team have all been working from home through the whole period. Liaison with work colleagues
has taken place remotely in circumstances previously unimaginable with staff zoom meetings daily. We moved to an online programme during the first few months of lockdown, commissioning local artists to make new work, initiating online projects and
sharing some productions we had created over the years.
Thankfully since late June, we have been able to have artists back in the building and have since facilitated a wide range of rehearsals, project development sessions and live recordings. So our back of house has been relatively busy for the last few
months which has been great. Office-wise we are still mainly operating from our homes though we plan to move back to at least a level of onsite working from mid-September once all the capital works needed to facilitate distanced working within the
building have been completed.
It’s a completely new world which has been gutting to accept, but I have to say, the opportunity to present weekly concerts for the last few weeks, although terrifying, has been incredibly rewarding and has given us all the inspiration needed to keep
going on this journey towards our new reality.
What do you think about what Arts Centres might do into terms of digital programming in the future?
I have to admit, while we dived headlong and with gusto into the world of digital programming last March I am personally at a point where I feel that looking at a performance onscreen is no substitute for being in its presence. I have noticed my own interest
in engaging with online events wane in recent times and then I immediately feel guilty for not being energetic about it as it is clear we are not anywhere near returning to levels of live performance of pre-pandemic times. I also feel guilty as the
live performance that we can present right now is available to so few people, I feel a weight of responsibility to do something to broaden that reach and digital capacity seems to be the obvious solution.
So we have to somehow find a way to cohesively merging the worlds of live and digital transmission but I’m really struggling with how to do that successfully. The ideal is that we would all be able to share high–quality live-streams of our live performances
as it’s obvious that performers get an energy from interacting with audiences that is palpable in their performances. But capturing that through cameras in a live setting with an audience is fraught with difficulty and comes at a high cost in many
I’m afraid I don’t really have the answer to this question, except to say that I absolutely trust in the fact that we as a sector are resilient, resourceful and imaginative and we have amassed incredible levels of skill in the area of digital transmission
over the last few months so we will find a solution that works easily and that is rewarding for everyone...it just might take a little time to navigate our way to that end point over the next few months.
Prior to the pandemic, did digital content play a role in your programme?
I couldn’t honestly say that digital content played a role of significance in our programme prior to the pandemic. We had actually included its investigation in our 2019-21 strategic plan, under the goal of local and national impact wherein we had planned
to interrogate our platforms for dissemination with an aim of defining a strategy for experiencing the Hawk’s Well beyond the physical building by April 2021. It’s one of the few areas of the strategic plan that we were actually able to progress over
the past few months!
What sort of digital content have you presented during this time?
As I mentioned above, we bounced with gusto into the world of digital programming last March, at a time when we, rather naively, thought we would be back to normal operation by roughly July. We did this as we felt it was important to retain strong bridges
with both our community and our local artists at a time of such uncertainty. We also desperately wanted to give artists an opportunity to continue to make work and maintain their relationships with audiences as well.
We were really lucky to have the resources and skills on our staff team to be able to do this and so we produced a number of online performance and participation projects including:
Lockdown Songbirds Singalong – a project we ran with Roscommon Arts Centre wherein Cathy Jordan performed daily online sing-along sessions
for 60 days in March, April and May.
Trad Tune at Lunch – we commissioned fiddle player Oisin MacDiarmada to perform and teach a traditional Irish music tune a day online for 28 days in April.
Come Together: The Isolation Collective – a project in which we commissioned 10 theatre artists to collaborate with 10 music artists
to create 10 new pieces of online work.
Sing for the Hell of It – an online choral project where the general public took part in recording an online song scored for choir by a local musician
The Bed –a performance project created with Cairde Sligo Arts Festival which brought together theatre makers Sorcha Fox, Charmaine T Matonsi, Abigail (Ashley) Ramaabya,
Amir Abualrob, Wasekera-Sekerani, Nokwanda Siziba, Grace Moyo, Donal O’Kelly and poet Rafeef Ziadah to explore ideas of homelessness, life, safety, exile, incarceration, the reality of life in Direct Provision and freedom. A sharing of the
work-to-date on this project funded by the Arts Council Invitation to Collaboration Scheme with Sligo Arts Service premiered online in July.
Poem for the People – a couple of months ago we commissioned local writer Brian Leyden to write a poem about the magic of live performance which we then invited
local people (performers, audience members and staff) to record for an online presentation.
We also collaborated with a host of local artists to record and present a number of online concerts in recent months including; No Crows at Windmill Studios in collaboration with the Seamus Ennis Centre and two online festivals from the Sligo Musicians
Festival Community, among others. We also presented a number of recordings of past performance projects including, The Second Coming and several events that we had produced in recent years celebrating local artists.
What are the advantages/disadvantages of creating initiatives or presenting work in this way?
During the first few months of shutdown, I really believe the time was ripe for online initiatives. People wanted to engage with friends, family and their communities however possible, and I definitely believe they looked towards online content for distraction
from the harsh reality of the pandemic that was rolling out in front of them. The Arts came rushing in to fill that space and provide inspiration.
We were part of that movement and relocated towards an online programme offering and discovered
some real advantages to presenting work in this way. There are, for one thing, no spatial boundaries so there is, in essence, an unlimited audience capacity for the work. Geography also becomes immaterial and we suddenly found we were engaging people
from all over the world with our work, a new phenomenon for us! We seemed to be reaching more people than we ever had before which is a huge advantage of presenting through an online medium.
Online presenting offered us a vital platform to try and maintain our relationships with both artists and audiences when live performances were not a possibility. Online viewing also offers a level of comfort to audience members who can watch performances
from wherever they wish and literally in the comfort of their pyjamas if they so wish.
The downsides though are also plentiful. Performing to a camera rather than a live audience can be hard for artists. The energy you get from an audience is missing and I know that many artists have struggled with this in recent months as that energy adds
immensely to performances. I think it’s also fair to say that, as an audience member, it’s easy not to be very focussed when watching online performances. I completely ruined my own enjoyment of an online theatre show a few months ago by pausing it
several times to take phonecalls and finish making my dinner of all things.
In conclusion, I don’t think I could put it any better than Brian Leyden did in the poem we recently commissioned from him...
“...streaming content can never replace
The buzz and energy of the live performance space.
...With patrons all seated and the crew in place
Anything can happen in this magical space.
It’s a collective experience founded in trust,
It has, and will always, make live theatre a must.”
Have you learned any do’s and don’t’s from what you’ve been doing online and will this inform what you do in the future?
Over the past few months we have worked really hard to improve the quality of what we have published online and have learnt a lot by simply going through the process of creating a number of online projects which has and will inform what we do in the future.
One of the main things that became evident very early on was how time-consuming creating online work is...it really seems that you can never give yourself too much time to create a project specifically for this medium. Whether it is that things come up
with the technology that you aren’t expecting or a platform you have used many times before glitches on you at the last minute – it just seems that things can sometimes be beyond your control in this medium so being as prepared as possible and leaving
yourself excess time is a must!
The type of hardware and software you have can also make an enormous difference to the creation of online work. You really have to invest in the very best products you can afford to make life a little easier. We also learnt that it’s really important
to consider what is being filmed as some art forms translate better in an online context than others.
While we obviously paid all the artists involved in all the online performances we commissioned and produced over the past months, one thing we didn’t investigate so far, and which I think we will have to look at in future, is a business model for online
transmission. Over the past few months there has been so much free content available online it felt that asking people to pay to view could be challenging but I worry about what that does to artists as free content definitely deflates the market.
It’s a really difficult tension to resolve but one that I think we will all have to look at for the benefit of all involved in creating online work into the future.