All-Ireland Performing Arts Conference

A plethora of informed speakers consider the theme of change

Change. It's a small word, with potentially huge implications. Some people fear it; others confront it only if circumstances demand; others positively seek it out and embrace it.

Nowhere in Ireland is change currently more in evidence than in Derry~Londonderry, where the second All-Ireland Performing Arts Conference draws some 300 delegates to the Millennium Forum for two days of formal conversation, informal chat and discussion.

As the world and its wife is aware, for many years the city's very name has been both a punchbag and the butt of ironic humour, but suddenly, even it has fallen in love with the notion of change and widespread acceptance of the double-barrelled moniker, which would have been unthinkable not so very long ago.

The first conference of this kind was held in June 2012 at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and was judged to have been an enormous success. This year, even greater numbers have gathered in Derry.

Artists and administrators, programmers and practitioners – but, regrettably, few representatives of public funding bodies – from across Ireland demonstrate an impressive show of strength, as though to underline the fact that, particularly in these straitened economic times, the sector is immeasurably more effective when it comes together in unity.

In their opening remarks, the chairs of the two organising bodies – Louise Rossington of the Northern Irish Theatre Association and Loughlin Deegan of Theatre Forum Ireland – stress these themes, focusing on collaboration, innovation and communication (Rossington) and familiar faces and new places (Deegan).

Rossington describes Derry as 'a city that is transforming as we speak' and insists that 'change must be embraced so that the sector remains relevant'. Meanwhile, Deegan praises the conference programme as 'truly inspirational' and confides that it was not a difficult decision to come North again.

'How glad we are to be in Derry-Londonderry at this historic moment as City of Culture,' adds Deegan. 'We had let relations with our Northern neighbours slip over the years. It is good to be renewing old friendships and relationships. It is important to build on these relationships, reuniting two theatrical countries.'

The conference curator, Maureen Kennelly, is a Dublin-based programmer, who has had an extensive and varied career in the arts. A former director of the Kilkenny Arts Festival, she has also worked for high profile independents like Druid and Fishamble, and brings all that experience and expertise to a multi-faceted line-up.

Speakers include the distinguished writer Thomas Kilroy, the executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Anita Walker, the new director of the Belfast Festival, Richard Wakely, and Derry-born Sean Doran, widely regarded as one of the world's most exciting festival programmers.

'The conference is becoming a multi-arts event,' reflects Kennelly. 'I would like to expand it even further. The fantastic turn-out this year is proof of the need for the performing arts sector to come together to share problems and experiences.

'I came up with the theme of "change", initially, out of my own individual experience of changing jobs and moving around the country. Within organisations, change is important, though it is not always easy to effect.

'Festivals are always changing. You can't repeat something that happened a couple of years ago, no matter how successful it may have been. At company level, that may be more difficult. But in the current financial landscape, the big question is how do we respond. And the answer is, we have to change.'

Top of Kennelly's wish list for the keynote speakers was Sean Doran (pictured above). He began his professional career as a clarinettist and founder/conductor of the musical ensemble Innererklang, and has since gone on to curate some of the most memorable moments in the cultural life of Ireland and far beyond.

In conversation with BBC broadcaster Marie-Louise Muir, also a native of Derry, Doran modestly denies the title of 'changemaker' before proceeding to outline a dizzying series of ground-breaking events he has programmed during his tenure as director of IMPACT '92, the Belfast Festival at Queen's, the Perth Festival, English National Opera and, now, the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival.

Changemaker or not, Doran clearly derives pleasure in recounting how, amongst many other stand-out events, he staged a performance by the great dance artist, Merce Cunningham, on a beach in Australia and defied the purists by taking ENO to the Glastonbury festival, where they wowed the mud-soaked audience with their performance of Act III of The Valkyrie.

'It wasn’t a gimmick,' recalls. 'It wasn’t about being populist but about making opera accessible. Wagner wrote that he wanted The Ring Cycle to be done at a festival, outdoors and for free. Going to Glastonbury ticked all those boxes. But, yes, I would admit to being a maverick. People know what they are getting when they appoint me.

'As a festival director, what I'm most interested in is destination festivals. Doing Beckett in Enniskillen makes perfect sense. For a start, it's where he went to school and the place is so completely Beckettian, with that deep, mysterious sense of a layering of pasts, of being lost in time. There are a number of direct references to Fermanagh in his writing.

'I tend to be a bit of a loner in the world in which I work, but you have to be prepared to go into virgin territories and break taboos. There are so many festivals now but the real power of a festival comes when you're least expecting it. I would describe myself as a doer. You have to do, do, do. I'm very attracted to a sense of failure. Success frightens me more. It's easy to fill spaces with familiar things.'

Doran will be putting those theories into practice again at the end of August 2013, when the other dominant figure of the second Happy Days Festival will be Dante, described by Doran as Beckett's mentor. So hang onto your seats for a cruise through the darkness of the Marble Arch caves to the strains of the Inferno and Dido's Lament from Dido and Aeneas.

Or be prepared to rise at dawn for a performance of Purgatorio on Lough Erne. Or for performances of 13 short Beckett plays in a variety of spaces, including crypts and cellars, performed by Juliet Stevenson, Miranda Richardson and other leading actors. 'I see my job as exciting people,' Doran concludes. 'Change in our industry is constant. Quite simply, it is what we have to be doing.'

Thomas Kilroy takes to the stage at the end of the first day of the conference. He is one of the titans of Irish theatre and literature, whose quiet, authoritative presence touches even his interlocutor, the director Wayne Jordan.

Jordan's directing debut at the Abbey Theatre was in 2010 with Kilroy's powerful play Christ Deliver Us!, widely interpreted as the writer's response to revelations of abuse in Irish culture, as most notably documented in the Ryan and Murphy Reports.

Great drama, Kilroy observes, is reliant on change. He goes on to note how significant cultural movements have arisen during critical historical moments. He illustrates that point with reference to Field Day, the Derry-based theatre company founded by Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, Stephen Rea, Seamus Deane and Tom Paulin, and of which he was subsequently invited to become a director.

'Field Day was born out the turbulence of the horrendous decade of the 1970s in Northern Ireland and then the Hunger Strikes of the early 80s,' Kilroy explains. 'It was fuelled by the whole business of change going on across this island. All its founder members came from a Northern background but were living outside the North. That idea of displacement was crucial in terms of looking at the Northern situation from a certain angle.

'Seamus Heaney had it just right when he said of the original group that they liked to think that they had less a position than a disposition, but that the disposition came from displacement. And again, in the context of acknowledging and responding to a constantly changing world, he recalled Seamus Deane's astute observation that all the Field Day playwrights showed an interest in freedom, by working their way through history, not avoiding it.'

The packed conference programme also includes a conversation with Declan McGonigle, currently the director of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, and one of the earliest cultural pioneers in his native Derry. Under questioning from Anne McReynolds, chief executive of The MAC in Belfast, he talks about the arts as an agent of change and argues that the arts continue to be an essential catalyst for societal and political change.

Elsewhere a number of parallel sessions look at issues such as the ways in which culture can make and transform a place; how the arts can embrace changes in technology; and how imagination can be brought to bear upon funding – communicated through a compelling address by Anita Walker.

She outlined how, in Massachusetts, organisations are required to communicate directly with public representatives and lobby them into increasing funding for the arts. Arts organisations are required to undertake site visits, to see what can be learnt and shared through collaboration.

During the technology session, Philip King, musician, film-maker and co-founder of the world-famous music event Other Voices, talks about how high definition, live streaming of gigs 'can make the tune in the room visible'.

And Anna Newell, artistic director of Replay Theatre Company, engages the audience with her account of making theatre and technology play together, particularly in the innovative work that the company is making for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties, as well as toddlers and babies.

In surveying the wide-ranging topics contained in the programme, conference curator Maureen Kennelly does not hesitate from admitting that that the conference's chosen location, in the first UK City of Culture, heavily influenced her choice of theme.

'It's thrilling being here in Derry and seeing how much the city has changed,' she says. 'You can't but be impressed. I would hope that what has happened here will have a positive effect on us all. At the end of the two days, I'd like everyone to go away saying, "if I can change one thing in my thinking, it will be no bad thing".'