Performers on 2020: ‘This year wasn’t difficult, it was a wipe-out’

Elaine Kelly, Steve Wall, Sharon Shannon, Seán Millar and others on a tough year for the arts

One of the reasons we’ll never forget 2020 is because we’ve relied on culture to keep us going, while ironically, performance was for the most part frozen-in-action. As audiences we’ve relied on screen and recordings and reading, streaming and the very odd sliver of live performance. What has this year been like for the performers who make it happen? We asked a few.

Denis Conway
In March I was in the Theatre Royal in beautiful York, playing Otto in Alone in Berlin, before touring to Oxford. The day before St Patrick's Day the show was pulled and we never got there.

I returned home and answered Ireland’s Call. Because of my chemistry background I volunteered for five months with a team designing a nationwide system of contact tracing for healthcare workers. I don’t know how much use I was, but I met great people and was grateful I was doing something that might be of use. In September I got a part in a Dutch TV drama. Flying over and back to Amsterdam meant quarantining for two weeks every time I came home. With the latest vaccine news I’m hopeful we can all get back to doing what we do best.

Peter Daly
Knowing how tough 2020 was for lots of friends and colleagues, I feel guilty admitting mine wasn't terrible. Some acting work was cancelled, but I managed to bookend the year performing with Druid Theatre. In summer I worked from home (my accountancy sideline), loving bonus time with my wife Lauren and Robin (4). I spent much time keeping up with the Pandemic Unemployment Payment's changing rules, doing my best to disseminate information with Irish Theatre Institute and National Campaign for the Arts. I was heartened the Government recognised the essential role of the arts getting us through, increasing investment after years of underinvestment. I'm excited about the proposed Universal Basic Income for artists. 2020 will be remembered for this pandemic, but maybe also as the year Government arts investment finally grew up.


(Comedians Sue Collins and Sinead Culhbert)
We had just launched our third live show #NoFilters two days before the first lockdown. Like everyone else we were initially shocked, frightened and at a loss as to what to do. Fortunately Dirtbirds were born online so we decided to keep posting sketches to keep everyone's morale up. Obviously we couldn't meet up so we had the idea to record our characters, Carmel and Debs, having a cocktail zoom party. The reaction to the sketch was fantastic. Since then we've continued to post sketches every week and people have expressed great gratitude for the laughs during this tough time. We can't wait to get back up on the stage and give people a good laugh... Lord knows they need it.

Elaine Kelly
This year has reaffirmed for me many of the things we take for granted, one of which is the need we have for others. No more so than for me as a conductor. My job revolves around actions and interactions with others and I have felt that loss this year: of breathing, singing and playing together without barriers. There have been too many disappointments and lost opportunities to count, yet I'm incredibly thankful to be involved in many innovative projects led by Irish National Opera. I can only hope the new year will allow us to get back in a room together, making, appreciating and sharing music like never before.

Michael McHale
In mid-March I was halfway through a long USA tour, and was lucky enough to get a last-minute flight home from New York before everything shut down. My teaching at the Cork School of Music immediately went online, and after a long break, I was finally able to make some recordings and give some live BBC radio broadcasts in London and Belfast (it's a surreal experience playing in an empty concert hall!). Whilst we have all really missed playing to live audiences, many musicians have already been forced to sell their instruments and seek other employment – so let's hope for some encouraging news in 2021 to help bring live music back around the world.

Seán Millar
This year wasn't "difficult", it was "wipe-out". I think, though, that as musicians it's forced us to focus in on what we really want to hear, to play, to be.

Fun, freedom and expression have become precious gold to my ears – and I’m working on a raw folky album, for 2021, that tries to spin that gold. I want people to feel like they’re in the room with me! I’m calling it Ruining Everything!

Covid-19 has also, honestly, masked many of the problems we were already facing – the lack of mainstream radio support for Irish music and decades of poor arts investment in this country: we were already on our knees.

A moment for reset, then, and not just return.

Bríd Ní Neachtain
I am in a very precarious profession and Covid-19 accentuated that. The pandemic cancelled productions and closed our theatres. It was a year of learning. I tried to embrace the Zoom calls and rehearsals; although innovative and exciting projects emerged online, I felt it was a compromised version of what I would be doing live.

I was delighted and very grateful when I was cast in the Abbey’s production of Patrick Kavanagh’s epic poem The Great Hunger on the grounds of IMMA, playing to a live audience for two weeks. Although socially distanced, coming together and performing was so joyful that it made me appreciate the essence of why I love theatre.

Let’s hope we can open our doors and tell our stories in 2021. Dá fhad an oíche tagann an lá.

Liv O'Donoghue
Actor and dancer
Working in the arts is precarious at the best of times, so it really felt like the house of cards that is my career collapsed with just the faintest whisper of the words "coronavirus" and "lockdown". An international tour was the first thing to go, and then everything else just evaporated with it.

But as artists we’re nothing if not creative – without access to live audiences, we turned to film and online platforms. This year I’ve developed several film projects, and while working under lockdown conditions has proved tricky, it’s been amazing to see the inventiveness and resilience of my colleagues thriving against the odds. It’s also heartening to feel a renewed national appreciation of the arts through the comfort and relief they have provided throughout the Covid crisis.

Gavan Ring
I have mixed feelings about 2020. The onset of Covid-19 in March was devastating, with my first proper season as a tenor totally decimated; I was due to make tenor débuts at Glyndebourne Festival Opera and La Monnaie in Brussels. As they say in the business world, however, I pivoted. As a qualified primary school teacher, I rejoined the Teaching Council. I invested in some high-spec audio-visual equipment so I could both teach singing online and augment my digital presence. I got involved with the Covid Care Concert Series, Gerald Barry wrote a short opera for me which I recorded for Irish National Opera and I've recorded recitals for festivals around the country. I've also consistently been at home with my family, which has been truly wonderful.

Sharon Shannon
In lockdown first I got my teeth into house painting and other DIY overdue for 20 years. On YouTube I learned painting techniques and went mega-colourful - my house now looks like a crazy Mexican restaurant!

In early April I was challenged by Robbie Henshaw to learn a new skill in five days for charity. I’ve been playing electric guitar ever since and loving it. I had no touring so started a patreon page with music podcasts and accordion tutorials. We released a CD in memory of Leo Healy, supporting Rosabel’s Rooms, and I collaborated with fabulous Denise Chaila on a PBS project – we’d a magical video shoot at the Cliffs of Moher.

My biggest challenge was to record a new studio album of original material, and I’m immensely proud of The Reckoning. One of the biggest honours of my life was a Late Late tribute this month.

Barry Simpson
Mid-2020, myself and my class would have completed training as actors at the Lir Academy, graduating into an already daunting and uncertain industry as professionals. When Covid struck, career pathways narrowed instead of broadened. A few of us have got acting jobs (for when theatres re-open or on TV). Myself and Naoise Dunbar were cast in the Abbey's outdoor production of The Great Hunger. The lucky few. Luckier still that we've been a part of a national academy for dramatic arts. When I was at school I didn't know what a drama school was.

All I know in these gloomy times is the performing arts will survive. They have survived constant budget cuts, authoritarian governments, plagues, even postmodernism. But it shouldn’t be just surviving, it should be flourishing.

Steve Wall
The Stunning last performed in front of an audience on December 29th, 2019 in Carrick-On-Shannon. It's a good job those shows were electric as the audience energy kept us buoyed throughout 2020. We badly need a top-up now though. Joe [Wall] was working on a songbook for our debut album Paradise in the Picturehouse, and the first printrun arrived in early March. This was to sit alongside vinyl and CDs at our merchandise stall at shows. Now we're just selling it from our website. We usually sign copies and pose for selfies after gigs. It's great craic as we get a good laugh out of the fans and they often have funny stories from when they were teenagers, such as sneaking out of bedroom windows to go see us. Actually, Imelda May told me she did just that and travelled to Drogheda to see the band. I have to say I was flattered. I've missed more than just playing music, it's the interaction with people that's a huge part of the joy.