Kilkenny Arts Festival mixes risk and safe-bets in search of magical chance

From Rough Magic’s Tonic to Mozart’s Requiem, the festival starts August 6th

Olga Barry, director of Kilkenny Arts Festival, says: ‘Sometimes it’s only by keeping trying that you unlock the possibilities.’

One of the great beauties of Ireland's summer arts festivals has always been the element of random chance. You go to see one thing, and find yourself falling in love with another. At a loose end on a Tuesday morning, you pop into a church and get your socks knocked off by an art installation or a classical concert, when you've actually gone for the latest Shakespeare. You have chats in cafés, and more, later on in bars. I have done all these things at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, and always ended up thinking, as the man said in the song: wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time…?

Of course it hasn't been like that lately at all, and events organisers must join those in the hospitality industries as some of those most fatigued at the constant denial of spontaneity, and the seesaw of hope and dashed expectations. Olga Barry, director of Kilkenny Arts Festival, is both swan-like and sanguine. And by that I mean, she appears calm and unruffled, but the mad paddling, with and against the current, is definitely going on under the waters.

This year's programme, a wise balance of adventurous risk and more-or-less cancellation-proof sure bets, includes the Irish National Opera performing Strauss's Elektra, starring Belfast soprano Giselle Allen outdoors at the Castle Yard. Then there is folk and traditional singer Karan Casey creating a theatre piece, I Walked into My Head, with Sophie Motley at the Watergate; and Róisín Remembered, a new piece by Muireann Nic Ambhlaoibh with the Irish Chamber Orchestra at St Canice's Cathedral.

Giselle Allen as Elektra at Castle Yard, Kilkenny. Photograph: Ruth Medjber

As work can start on a festival event anything from three years to three weeks ahead of time, the programme, which launches today, has more TBC notes beside various productions than a director would usually like. While Barry sees the benefits that filming and live streaming has brought during Covid, she’s also on tenterhooks as to whether audiences will be able to attend the events.


For all event organisers, the calendar of the past sixteen months has been marked by chance. If your festival fell at the right time you could have (limited) audiences. If a hard lockdown was on, all bets were off. At Carlow this year, they had a bit of both, with restrictions lifting half way through their programme. But we have lived and learned, and some events at Kilkenny can carry on regardless.

Carnival of Shadows by Dumbworld takes place at Kilkenny's new outdoor Skatepark, which opened in April. Don (carefully sanitised) headsets and wander through after dark to see projections and a soundscape by John McIlduff and Brian Irvine. Meanwhile, a success from last year, Encounters will make a comeback as household pods can book "private" music performances, the identities of all remaining a secret until you step into the room.

If mini-concerts for a pod seem like the quintessential Covid show, what about Rough Magic's Tonic? Fionn Foley's play, directed by Ronan Phelan, is staged in a van. A cure-all medicine has been created to immunise a people against a toxic affliction – this time the result of biological warfare among the world's superpowers. Too soon? Given that, here, a travelling family folk band are in charge of the rollout, we know it's not going to be po-faced.

In the programme notes, the INO opera is billed as their “largest-ever outdoor undertaking”, while Tonic is described as being “a spectacular new medicine show infused with a wild, genre-spanning live score and staged with dystopian panache”. Even though the theatre world doesn’t necessarily suffer from shrinking-violet-syndrome, it does feel like a huge effort of energy and will, especially given the year we’ve all had.

“Exactly,” says Barry, via the inevitable Zoom. “I have most empathy and sympathy for those who can’t work, but those who have worked all the way through are exhausted, and guilt is making us all try to do even more things. Small is not necessarily less,” she says, notwithstanding the massive efforts going into her own programme. “We’d become so obsessed with bed nights and having thousands of people, we vary rarely look at those individual experiences and how we can value things differently. We don’t have to change the world and have 50,000 people to be meaningful for artists and audiences.”

Through their experiences of filming, and the smaller more personal live events, Barry and her team also came to re-examine the exchange that takes place between artist and audience. “The audience completes it,” she says, a remark that reminds me of Marina Abramovic’s iconic performance, The Artist is Present, which saw Abramovic sit silently opposite individual members of the public. Beyond story, beyond music, beyond set, lights and drama, live performance is an exchange of energy – emotional as well as physical.

Classical music

This feeds into another of Barry's passions, and one for which the Kilkenny Arts Festival is widely renowned: classical music. "I think," she says, pausing to choose her words carefully, "we have put a great deal of energy over the past two hundred years into telling people that they shouldn't like classical music, that classical music is not for you."  Having previously worked with Crash Ensemble and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Barry is well placed to know the classical world backwards, and she has an honest and open passion and enthusiasm to get more people to see how great it can be.

The off-putting parts, she finds, are what I would describe as the “table manners” of classical concerts. These may extend to what you wear, how you sit, when to clap, and include the often arcane language of programme notes. Still, I’m also aware as an audience member, that I’m always hoping for that moment when your soul might take flight. Classical music can be more fragile than some other art forms, the mood more easily fractured by an ill-timed whisper.

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh in a new collaboration with the Irish Chamber Orchestra. Photograph: Bríd Ní Luasaigh

Barry agrees, remembering a concert where someone nearby decided to sing along, but she still believes there’s more space for human interaction, and that some of the unnecessary veneer of sophistication could benefit from being rubbed off. “There’s this kind of austere thing, particularly in symphonic repertoire. And you shouldn’t make the audience feel bad…” She draws the line at putting obligatory smiling in to artist contracts, but she does advocate for a general lightening up. “I always thought it was an interesting thing seeing kids dancing to classical music, and parents watching them not having that cultural baggage.”

Crash Ensemble feature strongly in this year’s programme with both live performances, and small sessions and installations in the Butler Gallery. While some events are continuing on a wait-and-see basis, ambitious plans for Mozart’s Requiem with the Irish Chamber Choir and Irish Chamber Orchestra at St Canice’s Cathedral had been an event marked with the now omni-present TBC. It has just been cancelled, victim to the lack of clarity over restrictions around indoor public performances of music. Theatre, it seems, can take place to limited socially-distant audiences. A heart-lifting classical Requiem? Not so much.

Emotional responsibility

Last year, Kilkenny had one of the few shows to make it to a public stage, with Lynne Parker's production of Mike McCormack's Solar Bones, starring Stanley Townsend. Back then, people worried about whether small audience numbers could still generate that magic theatrical atmosphere. We've learned a lot since then. "We'd always joked that if the people on stage outnumbered the audience we were in trouble," laughs Barry, who has a brilliantly earthy laugh that is initially surprising and remarkably infectious.

“I used to think this is too much emotional responsibility for the audience – say you want to leave? You can’t slip out and leave early, the way you can if it’s a full room. You have that emotional responsibility to the people on stage.” As she ruminates about these differing levels of care, and talking with her about the ups and downs of programming and her irrevocable commitment to continuing, it’s clear why artists value her so much themselves.

Also at Kilkenny this summer is Richard Mosse, Incoming at the Butler Gallery. Barry has huge praise for the Butler's director Anna O'Sullivan – "Kilkenny is the luckiest place in Ireland to have someone of Anna's experience and perspective," she says. Another art project, Shiftings, will show the work of Kian Benson Bailes, Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, Ursula Burke, Ruth Clinton, Maeve Coulter, Niamh Moriarty and Katharine West, exploring alternative histories and imagined futures. The Design and Crafts Council will host the work of fifty makers to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary.

Pan Pan show a series of screenings of readings of Beckett poems, read by the likes of Aoife Duffin, Andrew Bennett, Olwen Fouéré and Gina Moxley at the Watergate, while Peter Power's The City is Never Finished will be a part-live, part-projected installation in the ruins of Kilkenny's Franciscan Abbey, now emerging from the works to redevelop that part of the city. "One of the things we always want to do is to get people to see the city at different times in its development," Barry explains as we recall different installations that have invited you to explore, such as Max Streicher's clouds in a church, Aideen Barry's video in the old Victorian Tea House, a quest out to Burnchurch to see Helena Gorey's work back in 2002.

Still, all the while, alongside Barry’s palpable excitement as the programme gets ready to launch, there’s a sense of underlying strain. “Yes, I’m mithered with nightmares and insomnia,” she says – a seemingly incompatible mix that will be familiar to so many these days. “But none of that has anything to do with tempering or reining in any artist. The distress comes from: how do we find a pathway to making it happen? Sometimes it’s only by keeping trying that you unlock the possibilities.” And that’s what all the best festivals are about: the possibilities. Go Kilkenny.

The Kilkenny Arts Festival, August 6th – 15th,