28 Sept 2022

Kilkenny arts in the pandemic - a salve for the soul in time of distress

Cathy Hogan, writer of the Surviving Coronavirus in Spain series, on how the arts have become even more important in these times

Kilkenny People

Busy in rehearsals for Panic Stations, a one-act play which forms part of the Love in Lockdown II series, were Robert Holmes and Nancy Rochford-Flynn

Since the start of this pandemic, a lot of people appear to be in one of two categories: those who are busy and stressed with working from home while home-schooling, planting a vegetable patch, studying online, and catching up on Zoom.
And then there are others who are bored senseless and blame the virus for their excessive drinking and putting on the Covid stone.
But most people I know are getting on with the challenges and joys of life, and what we have in common is our love of the arts.
Needless to say, the pandemic is adversely affecting everybody, whether it be financially, emotionally, or physically. But thankfully, many of us have cobbled together some semblance of our own personal, New Normal.
Most of my circle of family and friends back in Ireland and globally, successfully adjust and readjust. We are thriving despite the pandemic, and yet we sometimes feel too guilty to proclaim this.
I’ve often wondered why certain people are struggling when others are flourishing. In my experience, aside from the unfortunates who are directly impacted by the virus, most who are finding it difficult to cope now, were not at a good starting point pre-pandemic for a myriad of reasons. Some hated their jobs or had overinvested in their house or other purchase. Some struggled with family or personal relationships.
And for these people, this pandemic has pulled a ragged rug from under their feet. Their support network or inner resources have proved inadequate to cope with the extra trauma that this crisis continues to inflict on us.
Equally, there are others who have spent years focusing on sustainable, healthy and productive lifestyles and relationships, and they can now draw from within, as well as from their loved ones and networks.
For me, the contribution of the arts to humanity is vital and has become more apparent over the past year.
Humans have always turned to the arts for help in understanding the world around us, as well as our inner thoughts and emotions.
The world’s oldest art dates from the Later Stone Age, over 40,000 years ago, while the first handicrafts began in the Neolithic Period (10,000 to 3,000 BC). More recently we recognise the vital role that the arts play in our survival and recovery. In 1946, just months after the Second World War, the Arts Council of England was established. Its Irish equivalent followed five years later. Today, more than ever in our own lifetimes, we need to protect its precious place in our coping and healing process.
When the virus took hold in Italy, and the first lockdowns outside of China were imposed, the world watched in rising terror at empty and silent streets.
But within weeks, the confined residents took to their balconies to sing opera and the national anthem, and to play classical music.

For me, the contribution of the arts to humanity is vital and has become more apparent over the past year.

This phenomenon began as a stunning expression of empathy and solidarity: love, universally felt and understood. And thankfully, like the contagion that it was responding to, shared music and communal expression spread swiftly around the world.
Although I’m based in Spain, thanks to modern technology I stay in close contact with my family and friends back in Kilkenny, as well as globally.

Barnstorm and Barn Owl Players during a Love in Lockdown II playwriters’ Zoom meeting

One person with much hands-on experience of connecting creative communities is Martin Bridgeman of KCLR. We chatted recently about the effects of the pandemic on the arts.
“I remarked early into the first lockdown that the very people to do things differently and find ways to weather these challenges were the creatives and so it has been proved,” he said.
“Live events, the innovative use of technology, home recordings, rethinking and re-imagining, have all played their parts. I get most of my music in digital format so even when I was unable to get into KCLR, I continued to broadcast.
“The local (commercial) and community radio sector play a hugely important role in fostering local arts and should be given proper financial recognition from funding sources.”
For Mags Whitely of Barn Owl Players, the sudden removal of the arts from her life was strongly felt.
“The arts are a salve for the soul in times of distress and can help people to process trauma in their lives,” Mags told me following a Zoom rehearsal for my play that we’re working on.
“I used to take time off work every year to attend arts festivals in Kilkenny, Carlow, and Galway, and I regularly went to gigs at the weekend. So, the arts were a huge part of my life.
“Luckily, I have been involved in collaborations between Barn Owl Players and Barnstorm Theatre Company throughout the pandemic.
“Last year there was a call-out for locals to write monologues about the initial lockdown, which we produced and recorded on YouTube. This year it grew into a series of duologues called Love in Lockdown.
“Both projects have been my sanity during the past long year, and great praise is due to all involved in adapting local theatre to the Covid restrictions. Some live online gigs, like Jack Lukeman, have been most enjoyable, but they will never replace the buzz of an actual live performance.”
I feel that, finally, there is a global realisation that the likes of Netflix cannot satisfy and sustain long-term. Trying to fill this virus vacuum with instant gratification simply will not cut it.
Jane Blunden, who is sitting out the pandemic in the Cotswolds in England with her twin sister Caroline, puts it well:
“The arts are vital to our survival and our wellbeing, and the lockdowns have proved this,” she said. “In the broadest sense, art, for example, expresses beauty, and in the greater sense, it nourishes the individual. Whatever life throws up never lose heart - keep in touch with nature and art!”
Back in Kilkenny, another friend, Sabine O’Dwyer, is feeling the loss.
“The arts are vital in our lives; they offer us escapism, inspiration, and distraction, especially in these difficult times,” she said. “They were a huge part of my life and I miss live plays and shows in the Set Theatre, awfully. I went from going to gigs weekly, volunteering for most Watergate Theatre shows, and attending a book club, to nothing.”
It took some organisations and individuals most of the year to transition to online events; others were adapted within weeks of the pandemic starting. Martin Bridgeman speaks about this evolution:
“So much great work was done across all genres in spite of the technical challenges,” he said. “The Kilkenny Arts Festival’s video performances proved to us that quality will out.
“Interestingly, the recent downtime has led to many projects being completed and publicity via interviews became feasible using readily available tech solutions.
“The consequence of the loss of tours is that I have never before seen the sheer volume of quality of music in all my time in the radio or music business,” he continued. “Increased experience with the logistics of this new live experience suggests that there will be more online events to come, especially to replace festivals that seem certain to be cancelled this year. And an arts enthusiast friend, who is confined to a wheelchair told me that one of her biggest issues with the arts was accessibility, and that has now been addressed.”
I asked arts reviewer, Liam Murphy, for his take on how artists and the industry are coping.
“Not having live arts has meant accepting online events, and the range is impressive,” he said, “but I don’t expect large venues of over 300 seats to survive on quarter, or even half-full houses.
“We need to look at change and not return to how it was: normal was cosy and Covid is a war - not a bad flu.”
And Mags agrees.
“If these restrictions continue, we will have to look at presenting theatre in the outdoors or adapting our venues to allow for more space between seats or creating pods within the theatre for groups.”
I asked Sabine what she thought of the move to online shows.
“The arts sector is doing its very best and I applaud the organisations that have adapted,” she said. “I’ve watched some theatre and opera online, but it doesn’t hold my interest as much as attending live events did – it’s too much like watching television.”
“I have made many longer-form interviews called “Comhrá Covid” as, naturally, the pandemic and its impact on the work of musicians has been a constant thread,” said Martin. “All are to be found on the KCLR website, but plans are afoot to collate them into a podcast.”
Rethink, reimagine, reinvent - they sound like clichés but, A: we have no choice and B: they work.
Every day I discover and share online events and resources. Many are free, though I’m happy to buy tickets or donate as often as I can.
There’s a near-endless supply of plays and operas, concerts and gigs, lectures, and museum and city tours. There are all kinds of workouts, yoga, meditation, art, and music classes. I’m in a writers’ group, attend talks, do virtual bootcamps, study Spanish, and learn cooking – all from home. I read and write, listen and learn, watch and share.
Don’t get bored, get moving: it gives infinitely ever more than it takes. If I had no internet connection, I guess I would listen to the radio, and read and write more.
Obviously, the following is far from an exhaustive list of pandemic-friendly events, but it features some of those that I have found and look forward to.
A is for: Art classes online. The Abbey Theatre’s Dear Ireland and Home. Axis Ballymun.
B is for: Bealtaine Festival, Butler Gallery. BBC World News. Book clubs. And more books…
C is for: Creative thinking and writing.
D is for: Druid Theatre to Dirt Birds.
E is for: Everyman Cork streaming theatre.
F is for: Friends who mailed books to me during lockdown. Facebook for keeping us informed and connected.
G is for: Galway Theatre Festival, Galway International Arts Festival, Glastonbury.
H is for: Healing Arts. The History Show.
I is for: Irish Writers Centre resources and their writers’ group, Inkies.
J is for: Jack Lukeman Live Lockdown Sessions on Saturday nights. Sabine’s tip: John Grant in St Canice’s Cathedral this October.
K is for: Kilkenny Arts Festival.
L is for: Local Arts offices. Love in Lockdown Part II: New one-act plays, including mine - Panic Stations - April 29.
M is for: Museums’ online collections and talks.
N is for: National Library of Ireland lectures and tours.
O is for: Twenty Shots of Opera from INO and on Demand from the Met in New York.
P is for: Podcasts: From The Almanac of Ireland to There’s No Such Thing As Fish.
Q is for: QI.
R is for: The Radio and RTÉ Doc on One.
S is for: Smock Alley Theatre. Spotify for podcasts from Serial to Sunday Miscellany.
T is for: Tommy Tiernan everything, including his podcast – Private Investigations.
U is for: Upskilling online.
V is for: Virtual Arts to keep us going.
W is for: Watergate Theatre. WhatsApp groups and video calls.
Y is for: YouTube for hosting so many of our events and tutorials.
Z is for: Zoom for meetings, parties and large family chats.

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