Westival moves to virtual world


MAKING MUSIC Graham Sweeney, The Brennan Sisters, Matt Molloy & Friends, The Clew Bay Critters and Coda were all filmed performing live around Westport last week, and these performances will be shown online as part of Westival’s Grace O’Malley Music Sessions.

Westport music and arts festival starts October 21 and runs for six days

Ciara Moynihan

If there’s anything that ‘living with the virus’ has taught us repeatedly, it’s the folly of best laid plans.
Thinking ahead, the people behind Westport’s renowned and much-loved annual arts festival, Westival, had decided to take a new approach this year, aiming to pandemic-proof the programme.
They sensibly decided to focus on talent within the county’s borders – with no artists travelling in from elsewhere. They fervently hoped to stage some live performances in a Covid-responsible way, and they poured creative energy into preparing engrossing gallery experiences.
But as the dates for the festival drew closer, it became more and more obvious that with the deteriorating public-health situation and the tightening of Covid restrictions, even these carefully planned ‘real world’ events would be impossible. And so the decision was made late last week to move the entire festival online.
“There will be 26 creative events being held online,” the festival’s new director, Seán Paul  O’Hare tells The Mayo News, “and we urge people to check our website and social media sites for all the latest news. We really want to deliver a festival to you in your home or if you’re sitting outside having a coffee,  so no matter where you are on the planet, you can enjoy this year’s festival, be it in a family pod or creative outside bubble.
“People are being urged to stay at home and stay safe, therefore we want to hold a festival that can exist in any of the Government’s five Covid restriction levels.”
Seán Paul says the festival team has been working extremely hard, learning and adopting new technology that allows them to capture events on screen and push them out to audiences through  Westival’s website and social media. “With so many people cocooning and not being able to get out and about, Westival will deliver a programme to you on your smart phone, TV or laptop,” he said.
The festival’s theme – ‘Keep the home fires burning’ – is all about celebrating local talent. “We wanted to use these exceptional times in 2020 to remind people that there are so many fantastic artists and musicians who live next door or live down the next lane.”

The programme
Even back in Level 2, the Westival crew were preparing for a potentially more difficult operational programme, recording music and theatre pieces so there would be a festival presence no matter what lay ahead.
The Grace O’Malley Music Sessions, for example, will feature five local acts performing a number of acoustic tracks at iconic landmarks around Westport. Local filmmaker Joshua Nueva last week teamed up with Westival to film each act performing their own original pieces, and the screenings will be aired on Westival’s website and social media sites throughout the festival. The acts involved are Graham Sweeney, The Brennan Sisters, Matt Molloy & Friends, The Clew Bay Critters and Coda, and the sessions are sponsored by Grace O’Malley Spirits.
With a record number of visual artists responding to the festival’s visual arts open call, the Westival judges had a tough task whittling them down, but eventually they did, with over 90 exhibits due to go on show. The Covid restrictions mean that all indoor events have had to be cancelled, so the team has developed a new virtual gallery to showcase the very best of this year’s work. Look out too for the interactive ‘My Corona’, created by Orla Casey, which will be on show across the town.  
The online section of the programme has been strengthened by the new partnership with Belfast International Arts Festival, and there will be seven online spoken word events with prominent writers and entertainers, such as Patrick Freyne, Jenni Murray, Robert Web, Kevin Maxwell and Nazir Afzal, all in conversation.
The successful entrants of the immensely popular Westival Poetry Competition will be announced on the festival website, and the winning poets will be reading their poems to an online audience.  
Education is very much a core aim of Westival, and there are a  number of virtual workshops, including a workshop with the massively popular Westport painter Jimmy Lawlor, who will be looking at various painting techniques, including composition, colour and texture. Multi-award-winning photographer Michael McLaughlin is running a photography workshop again this year too.
Like any festival, there are a few last-minute additions, and the festival is thrilled to be showing the screening of St Patrick’s Drama Groups award-winning production of Martin McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane. Also added to the line-up is John Connors, who will be part-taking in an online Q&A session after the online screening of his powerful one-man show, ‘Ireland’s Call’.

The future
While some of Westival’s indoor events due to be held over the six days have inevitably had to be cancelled, Seán Paul says he much prefers the term ‘postponed’. “The public will miss the electric atmosphere of a gig or the stunning artwork within an exhibition’s live space, but once the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted Westival will be back,” he insists.
“We have been in constant contact with the artists who were to be a part of this year’s programme, and outlined our plans for how we can return to having performances in front of live audiences here in Westport.
“We are discussing pop-up festival ideas and looking at outdoor spaces and how they can be used to create safe, welcoming and fun events in 2021.”
So, for now, we can enjoy the annual celebration of creativity that is Westival in the comfort of our own homes, while also looking forward to the return of live music, theatre and more when our current predicament finally resolves itself and we can get back to rubbing shoulders with real, actual, 3D flesh-and-blood audiences.  

For more details on this year’s Westival events, visit www.westival.ie.