Arts Festival started almost 20 years ago as a celebration of touring theatre and live music. Over the years, it has grown into a week-long arts festival where national and international acts share a stage with some of the best local talent.
edition went ahead in a re-worked and re-imagined fashion. With a theme of 2020:Visionaries, the festival created and commissioned over 50 digital events from 4-12 July for their festival channel, as well as a series of visual arts installations in
the town itself.
How has your festival been affected by the Covid-19 health crisis?
A festival is a communal thing, a sharing of the emotional, psychological, and physical experience of being together. Junction has always been aware of and interested in that intersection between the arts programme and audiences from the town, visitors,
the arts community, be they local, national, or international.
That was impossible this year. The planned festival, like everyone’s, was cracked open and fractured. The re-imagined festival took on many of the aspects of its original, but at a remove from the audience and sometimes the artists. Despite these challenges,
there was also a certain level of freedom. Artists and production staff responded imaginatively to the questions of “What can we do? What do we want to do?”
What informed your decision to present creative work through digital means?
Even before the lockdown, we had started discussions with some of our international artists, such as Adrian Jackson in London and Cleary Connolly in Paris, about remote contributions, as even in early March we were aware that international travel would
be impacted. When the extent of the coming crisis began to reveal itself, I went to my trusty and boring Excel worksheet, putting the existing plan aside and starting from scratch. What do we have, what do we need, is there anything left? There were
lots of phone calls, surprises and heartache. Only a month after the festival did we really come to grips with how traumatic the March-July period was for us all. I’m so proud of the team for their creativity and for holding it together when we needed
that, and so grateful to the Board for their support.
The digital plan was originally a Plan B. We wanted to present some placeholder events digitally in July, at the planned time, and to produce live performance events in the autumn. However, the strictness of the lockdown and the uncertainty around safety
issues raised concerns around the logic of holding live events later in the year. We decided to do as much as possible of the original programme digitally and to programme all our activities during the original festival time period.
What role did digital content play in your festival prior to this crisis?
Before 2020, any digital content was created purely for PR and marketing reasons. We had a steep learning curve but there was certainly a sense of play and of experimentation in what we did with the digital content. Can you film a poet on a rowing boat
travelling down the Suir for the spoken word event? Of course you can. We probably should have said ‘no’ a little more.
What sort of digital content did you present for 2020?
Almost every aspect of the original programme took place in some shape or other. One of our two planned productions ‘Overlook – A Military Story’ was referenced with three monologues from the cast, and a documentary narrated by director Jack Reardon detailing
the design and devising work that had taken place up to the point in early April that we pulled the show. The intended ‘Overlook – A Military Story’ production was the first time that the festival was producing original work in quite a few years.
The form of certain things changed completely – a concert performance of extracts from Roger Doyle’s electronic opera iGirl with libretto by Marina Carr became an art music video by Trish McAdam; The School of Looking installations and provocations became
a fascinating series of daily lectures on the nature of light; the Visionaries Symposium, hosted by Sean Rocks, moved online with the host and the three artists communicating via computer. There was a lot of equipment testing, sending phones and webcams
by courier, and a large degree of patience from the technical team.
What are the advantages/disadvantages of presenting work in this way?
It’s difficult to perform in a vacuum. Particularly for music and theatre, the presence of the audience is integral to the work. We tried different solutions to this – having live concerts with the audience commenting via social media; monitors for the
performers so that they could ‘see’ their audience. We have a long way to go to solving this one in a satisfactory way.
For visual arts and literature, it’s perhaps easier, although work presented in a digital way is easier to skip away from than work you experience in a physical space. The interaction with the audience can be quite superficial.
One advantage of digital presentation is geographical reach – there’s someone in Kazakhstan who watched a lot of the programme!
How do you see digital work playing a role in the future of your festival?
Obviously, 2021 will still have COVID restrictions in place. It would be unwise to plan the programme without an eye on audience size, location, a permanent Plan B for any live event. I think a mix between purely live, blended events and purely digital
is possible, and with more time and experience, we can be more creative.
There are also partnership possibilities. We’re talking to organisations in different parts of the country and abroad about sharing events, and about creating connected events. However, there are access issues – one of our most dedicated patrons saw very
little of the festival as her rural area has poor broadband.
We have time to experiment now and to re-evaluate what we want to do next year in a way that best serves the artists and the audiences.