It was the worst of times, according to composer John O'Brien; "the worst part of the pandemic." When Lorraine Maye, director of the Cork Midsummer Festival 2022 offered a commission things changed: "that paid me to live and work when no other work at all was available, and that's the kind of thing Lorraine does. She's brilliant at finding the potential, at supporting the artists, discovering the ideas and providing the organisational groundwork that gives us a chance."
It’s the best of times for Lorraine Maye. Although director of the festival since 2017. she retains a sense of wonderment now heightened by the lifting of Covid restrictions: which, she says, “means that we have no inhibitions this year!” Sitting in the boardroom of the Civic Trust House from which the festival is managed she stretches her arms wide and high as if to embrace all the coming revels.
That airy expansion is expressive of Maye’s advocacy of the range of creativity and partnerships gathered again under the festival’s unwalled tent.
“There is no hierarchy in our programming,” she says. “And our focus is not confined to Cork. We see many artists at an emergent stage and with them we build networks and exchanges. We also have international recognition, now more important than ever, which provides pathways to other communities, other connections.”
As she speaks Maye’s span stretches to express the dimensions and the impact of Luke Jerram’s Gaia, an insubstantial globe 7m in diameter, invoking the mythical Greek earth mother of its title.
For the duration of the festival it will be suspended from the roof-beams of St Colman's Cathedral in Cobh as if in space, which it might well be as it is designed from the startling NASA images of 1968. No David Bowie, but a soundtrack from BAFTA-winning Dan Jones. In its beauty and originality it suggests an excitement, almost a metaphor for this entire Midsummer season, uniting as it does a partnership with Belvelly Castle, a mighty cathedral and an international art work of environmental and political significance.
New and resuscitated partnerships are crucial to the adventure of any festival and this year Maye navigates such institutions as UCC’s Glucksman Gallery and Connolly Building, or The Good Room, The Glasshouse, the Marina Market Warehouse, the Cork Circus Factory and the MTU College of Art and Design. Her encompassing arms seem to engage the opportunities of a rediscovered city alert to footfall.
She enumerates these collaborations with an enthusiasm which doesn't falter as the obligatory credits are acknowledged: the "hugely supportive" Arts Council grant increased this year to €450,000, a sum which covers "everything we wanted to do."
Failte Ireland’s contribution up by 40 per cent, Cork City Council’s help through project grants and bursaries and especially through the Parks Department in finding what Pat Kiernan of Corcadorca calls “ performable spaces”.
“We would always programme work around the festival”, says Kiernan. “It offers us a better engagement with the local audience and it brings people into the city.”
The space that director Kiernan wanted for his company's production of Guests of the Nation demanded such expensive crewing that the original project had to be scaled back and adjusted to the Cork Opera House and Triskel Arts Centre and the streets in between, which indeed would have been familiar to Frank O'Connor.
His famous story is the inspiration rather than the material for a script from Kevin Barry with sound from Mel Mercier in a reflection on wars, alarms and controversies.
Like Corcadorca but as a venue, Everyman is one of the festival’s stalwart collaborators and its artistic director Sophie Motley sees the event as a strong conduit into a cultural community with which, she says, Cork is showing its best and truest colours.
Currently celebrating its 125th anniversary as a theatre, Everyman engages with the festival as a flagship for challenging new work. “This theatre has that fantastic vocal quality which belongs to an old building made for live music,” she points out, and this year the music is going to be very live indeed, with the Battersea Arts Centre and BAC Beatbox Academy’s Frankenstein promising to run a claw-hammer though the works of Mary Shelley, Pachelbel and Prodigy.
Expected to "rock the local scene" this event should also help to create new audiences by inviting young people to attend the BAC Beatbox Academy workshops. Not only does Motley agree that Lorraine Maye is strongly concerned with the artists, she is "very smart as well" in bringing another lively partnership for Everyman through electronic composer Liam Farrell, known to so many as Dr L, whose creative residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris results in a combination of embassies promoting hip-hop Midsummer concerts by performers from Ireland, France and Senegal.
When Anthony Burgess wrote an introduction to James Joyce “for the ordinary reader” in 1965 his chosen title was Here Comes Everybody. So here comes Ulysses along with everybody from Branar, the Galway children’s theatre company working here with paper artist Maeve Clancy. The production unites Anu in its first visit to Cork with Landmark Productions and the Museum of Literature Ireland.
At the same time the prominent Cork youth theatre company Graffiti brings John McCarthy's musical Humans: A Robot, to its venue in Blackpool while he moves to a larger stage for his new piece Whale at Cork Opera House.
Lorraine Maye believes that the festival must operate in a context which offers a support system of established networks and an accomplished background team. “All that knowledge and expertise is available to our participants.” With 13 presentations listed as world premieres John O’Brien’s assertion that investment in the artists is Maye’s number one concern does seem grounded in seasoned co-operation, especially when the city itself becomes less a background and more a gallery as for installations selected through the Pluck Projects Connections scheme.
The Nightwalks conducted by Midsummer's artist in residence Peter Power will share the urban landscape with Darren O'Donnell's Mammalian Diving Reflex company from Canada leading Nightwalks With Teenagers.
With so much happening in the world since planning for the 2022 festival took shape Maye’s team had to tackle the question of how to reinvigorate the necessary critical mass of live audiences. “It’s a contemporary programme. We don’t set themes but themes emerge where the artists are reflecting on what’s critical now, in the moment.”
There’s also the backward look with, for example, Anu’s second item The Wakefires, a questioning directed by Louise Lowe of the submerged experiences of women in revolutionary Ireland up to the Civil War. This interrogation could be thought a counter-balance to John O’Brien’s treatment of the Old Testament’s Book of Ecclesiastes. Commissioned with Arts Council funding, Maye thinks it the perfect piece for this moment.
“We’ve been living in this duality for the past two years. We want to reflect where we are, we want to be together, and we want to celebrate. Something like this work from John really captures all that.”
It’s not entirely the King James version. O’Brien’s script uses translations which made the most sense to him. “I put a lot of thought into Ecclesiastes with this guy writing in a desert 3,000 years ago, finding the philosophical ideas in it and how modern some of the thinking is.
“It shows we can live both through our ancestors and our descendants and there’s a sense of anarchy and nihilism but also a lot of fun – it’s as though someone smuggled Ecclesiastes into the Bible.” And yes, he says, with Derbhle Crotty and The Carducci Quartet it’s a top-of-the-range production but again, “that’s what Lorraine is looking for, making stuff that’s here and now with the best people in the world and offering it a life that’s also beyond the festival itself.”
Midsummer is not only looking to the future by continuing its new works residencies at the Cork Arts Theatre, it also introduces a developmental artist exchange with the Bristol Old Vic, Mayk and Everyman under the title Tales of Two Cities. But Lottaine Maye was also wishing for a parade, and she’s getting one.
Midsummer, she says, has a mythic resonance, still relevant to the Midsummer Solstice. Working with Cork Community Arts Link her aim is to create a new civic moment in the city. The festival, she believes, “has to build into bigger things.”
Cork Midsummer Festival 2022 runs from June 15th to 26th.