After almost 40 years of being the best of the arts to the West, GIAF can still excite and entice with world-class events
While most of the country was left disappointed by France knocking Ireland out of the European Championships over the weekend, for Paul Fahy, artistic director of the Galway International Arts Festival, the game was bittersweet. “It’s something we’ve noticed over the years, when it comes to box office. It slows down a bit when Ireland are playing in a sporting tournament,” Fahy says from his office in Galway. “And ticket sales picked up again yesterday after we were knocked out!”
Not that ticket sales are of huge concern to the festival’s organisers. With GIAF now in its 39th year, and a highlight of the country’s cultural calendar, last year’s festival broke records, with more than 200,000 people descending on Galway to sample world-class theatre and visual art projects that are carefully curated for wide appeal. “So whether you’re eight or you’re 80, you’ll find something to engage in, to excite you, and to entice you in.”
A Galway native, Paul understands perfectly the role that the city of the tribesmen plays in creating an interesting and inviting arts festival, one that embraced the challenges of presenting the arts in a place without a well established cultural infrastructure.
"It’s a real A-list of directors in town this year,” says GIAF artistic director Paul Fahy [GIAF]
“When I was a child, I was always so struck by the ambition of the festival, and the risks taken by the organisers. Risks taken out of necessity,” Fahy explains. “GIAF used to capture people’s imaginations back then by going into disused warehoused and all that kind of stuff. But now, 39 years later, out biggest venue is the Big Top, which is basically just four plastic walls and a plastic roof, albeit with the lap of luxury for everyone inside it. And the Festival Gallery, which normally only exists in my head for nine months of the year before we know where it’s going to be. And that gives GIAF a great sense of excitement to patrons who are as interested in the art as where it will be this year, the spaces used and how we’ll re-imagine it.”
The Big Top, the custom built venue that made its GIAF debut in 2008 [GIAF]
For an arts festival in a country where arts funding has been in decline ever since the global financial crisis of 2008, GIAF has never shied away from its ambitions to come back every year, bigger and better than the one before. 2016 is no different.
“There was a big shift back then when the whole world came crashing down. At the time, you couldn’t help but notice that what used to sell out two weeks in advance would slow down and not sell pout for two days before the show. But when it came to planning for the future, we had commissioned the festival Big Top in 2006, and it made its debut in 2008, in the middle of the turmoil. And we had no intention of backtracking, because we have this great new venue and we are going to fill it.”
The festival organisers worked hard to consolidate GIAF’s Irish audience, with people from Galway City and county making up half, with the remaining quarters filled by people from all over the island and the world.
“Our target this year is to be break 200,000 again and hopefully we will,” Fahy says, revealing that his goals are also backed up by considered planning. “We’re also bringing on an extra venue this year, as well as retaining all the others from last year. Enda Walsh is directing a new play of his in Leisureland, which is a space that hasn’t been used in a long time. We’re building a new stage. I was in at rehearsals a couple of days ago, and it looks like it’s going to be great.”
Walsh, whose last venture back to GIAF saw his Cillian Murphy-starring play Ballyturk receive rave reviews and tour internationally, is just one of the stellar line-up of directors coming to Galway this year. His new play, Arlington [a love story] will bring Love/Hate and Rebellion star Charlie Murphy to the new stage at Leisureland, along with Hugh O’Connor and Oona Doherty. Walsh and Murphy are also collaborating on another project at the festival with Rooms, an immersive theatrical experience that invites spectators to step inside three white boxes and into three very different worlds, each contained within a single room.
Actors Hugh O'Connor and Charlie Murphy star in Enda Walsh's new play, Arlington [a love story] [GIAF]
Another highlight not to miss is the newly commissioned piece Invitation to a Journey, a collaboration between GIAF, CoisCéim Dance Theatre, Crash Ensemble, and Fishamble: The New Play Company. A fusion of drama and dance, this major new production will see its world premiere at GIAF, and explore the life and work of the once-forgotten and now much-celebrated Irish modernist Eileen Gray.
“She is one of the most amazing 20th-century icons of design, she is almost like Ireland’s Picasso in terms of what she achieved and the world she lived in,” Fahy says.
Other heavyweights from the theatre world making an impact in Galway next month include Ivo van Hove, the director who just picked up a Tony Award in New York and recently directed Saoirse Ronan in a revival of Arthur Miller’s classic The Crucible. Van Hove directs Song from Far Away, by British playwright Simon Stephens.
“Ivo is a total sensation, I’ve been a massive fan of his for a long, long time,” gushes Fahy. “And I’ve tried to get work by him and he’s always in demand, so it’s brilliant to have a show from him this year. But that said, the calibre of directing talent is really strong this year. Along with Enda and Ivo, Vicky Featherstone is directing Lee Hall’s Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, and we have our own Garry Hynes from Druid Theatre directing Waiting for Godot. It’s a real A-list of directors in town this year.”
So what advice for anyone who’s never ventured to the Galway International Arts Festival and is tempted by this year’s programme?
“Roll your sleeves up and dive in!” says Fahy. “Festival time is a real time when people aren’t afraid to dip their toes into something and say, ‘Well, you know what, I will try something different.’”