Proving necessity really is the mother of invention, Dublin’s pubs and clubs are experiencing a surge in ‘DIY events’ – and producing some of the most original, exciting gigs around, writes DAVIN O’DWYER
THERE HAS long been a perception that the arts thrive during a recession, a notion that with more time on their hands, creative types can go about making culture free from the shackles of commercial imperatives. That is probably news to those artists struggling with slashed funding and lower attendances, but there is a perceptible increase in the number of high-quality, DIY cultural events happening across the country, and especially in Dublin. With these events comes a palpable change in how audiences “consume” their culture – the mere commercial transaction of the boom times is being replaced by a more considered, active participation during the bad times.
One of the earliest of these events to develop was Nighthawks at the Cobalt Cafe on North Great Georges Street, an eclectic monthly evening of music, literature and comedy. The brainchild of playwright Stephen Kennedy, Nighthawks grew out of the Shoestring Collective, a similar evening that originally ran in the James Joyce Centre.
“When I set up the Shoestring Collective in September 2007,” says Kennedy, “I don’t think anyone else was doing this mixed club stuff.” The model has proven a tremendous success, with the Nighthawks team, which includes poet Colm Keegan, Kennedy’s wife, Mary Cahill, and Julie McGovern, branching out into charity fundraising and festival curation – they ran a stage at the Flat Lake Festival last weekend.
In a very similar vein to Nighthawks, but with a decidedly more freewheeling atmosphere, is the Brown Bread Mixtape, a monthly blend of Scrap Saturday-style sketches, poetry, music and stand-up comedy hosted by poet Kalle Ryan and musician Enda Roche in the Parlour Bar above the Stag’s Head pub.
“I wanted a show that I’d like to see,” explains Ryan. “We had a lot of friends in those circles in Dublin, and we wanted something to showcase their talents, rather than just open-mics, which can be a bit half-assed for people of this high standard.
“The difference from Nighthawks is that we put on a show with a theme to tie it together, and we’re there to unify it as a kind of a revue or variety show. It’s a bit more raucous than some other arts shows.”
Above all, Ryan points out, there is a sense of solidarity and shared purpose between these events. “There’s something really cool and DIY happening at the moment,” he says, “and in this group of shows, there’s a really helpful support, a feeling we can push each other on. I think the recession is definitely a factor. I wrote a poem about this bubbling scene, The Reformartists, [about] a sense of people putting on great art, reforming whatever this art world is that we have now.”
A cornerstone of the scene is the Glór Sessions, poet Stephen James Smith’s weekly poetry and spoken word event downstairs in the International Bar. “There is a movement going on, there is something exciting,” agrees Smith. “Hanging out with Colm Keegan [of Nighthawks] and Kalle, there’s a lovely, healthy camaraderie going on, there’s no backstabbing. I do feel that the rising tide lifts all ships, that by helping each other and spreading the word about all our work, we all benefit — it helps us push forward.”
Each of these nights has their own identity, focus and attitude, but there seems to be a shared sense of purpose, and a pride in being outside the conventional art and culture scenes. “We don’t need an official recognition or stamp of approval from anybody to go out there and be creative and create this space,” says Smith.
What Glór is to poetry, Kaleidoscope in the Odessa Club is to classical music. Organised by violinist Clíodhna Ryan and cellist Kate Ellis, the monthly concert is a break from the more formal concert setting.
“Some people say what we do is progressive,” says Ryan, “but it’s actually quite the reverse – the idea of the concert hall is very much a product of the 19th-century, and previous to that, all music was performed at parties and balls and salons. There’s a kind of an intimacy to that, a very direct relationship with your listeners.”
Ryan also echoes the key ingredients of these events. “Everyone’s doing it out of passion, and musicians who are performing in Wigmore Hall one week will be playing Kaleidoscope the next, because it’s something they want to do. We have a family, really, and the audience feel a part of that family, it’s like a collective.”
These evenings have also grown to include storytelling, with Milk and Cookie Stories starting last October in the Exchange arts centre in Temple Bar.
Established by Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh and Sarah Quigley and run by a group of volunteers, the evening sees participants performing stories, from folk tales to first-person anecdotes, while eating cookies and drinking tea.
“I do think there’s a different attitude and atmosphere now than a few years ago,” says Ó hÉigeartaigh. “People are more interested in doing things that don’t cost a huge amount of money, but they’re also more willing to give more of their own time. I’d be interested to see if we’d tried to start this three years ago at the height of the boom, whether we’d have had the same success.”
The Irish theatrical scene, of course, has been long used to operating on shoestring budgets and embracing a DIY approach, but the three-part Werk series of cabaret nightclubs in the Peacock is an unusual blend, even for Dublin.
“It’s a realisation of a long-held dream in the sense of a place where clubbing and theatre and art and a good night out all come together and work,” says Jenny Jennings of Thisispopbaby, the theatre group behind Werk. “We’re convinced that theatre and performance and art have a much broader audience than the confines of traditional theatre would suggest.”
While acknowledging the constraints imposed by the lack of money to make these events sustainable, Jennings sums up the current sense of can-do optimism. “There’s a great freedom in everybody having no money,” she says. “Some people have more time, there is space, and in a way, magic always happens when you have time, space and talent. And Ireland is a really talented country.”
Do it yourself
For more information on some DIY events, see
Brown Bread Mixtape
Milk and Cookie Stories