When you walk into the heart of the city, you feel as if you are entering a giant party. It is packed with activity – people everywhere, musicians sharing their craft with the masses, food and drink galore. Quickly, your spirit starts to lift and a smile sneaks across your face. It’s eclectic, lively, and social. It’s Galway, Ireland.
Galway has a reputation of its vibrant lifestyle and numerous festivals, celebrations and events including the Galway Arts Festival which takes place every summer. The city boasts about its visit from John F. Kennedy in June 1963. In fact, they are so proud of it that they officially named their town square John F. Kennedy Park (although everyone still calls it Eyre Square).
We had a brief, but amazing time in Galway. Upon arriving, we walked to busy Quay Street in the Latin Quarter and pulled up an outdoor seat at one of their many pubs. We were mesmerized (and entertained) by the throngs of characters passing by. It is colorful!
Our visit to Galway, and then the Aran Islands, was designed to be a mini-break from my meeting schedule, but I couldn’t resist one meeting – a visit with Macnas, one of Galway’s finest arts groups. I’ve been a fan of their work ever since I became aware of them. Macnas is imaginative, wild and absolutely wonderful! They refer to themselves as master storytellers who inspire and engage audiences by creating big, bold, visual shows and performances through world-class theatrical spectacle.
I had the pleasure of talking with Noeline Kavanagh, the Artistic Director and mastermind behind it all. She told me about how the group began some 30 years ago when a small group of Spanish street performers came to the city and took imaginations by storm. Today, Macnas helps to define the city. Their annual Halloween parade and their work in the Galway Arts Festival are infamous. In addition to these two signature home-based programs (which draw tens of thousands into the streets), their work takes them all over the world.
I’m not sure that I can adequately describe their work. It follows in the European tradition of street theatre , circus and parades, but I’m confident it is unlike any other “parade” you’ve scene. They train and costume approximately 200 artists & volunteers from the local community to be a part of the show which is like a series of giant, interactive vignettes. It combines visual and performing arts (dance, music, theatre) and turns a narrative into spectacle. They unexpectedly morph ideas, characters, and stories to create something that is a bit weird, magical and head-turning. For instance, when I asked Noeline about one of the giant puppets she said, “oh, that’s Maya Angelou as an elephant!”
Noeline focuses their work on themes and stories of love, hurt, fear and transformation. Utterly human, with sociopolitical elements. It is celebratory theatre that takes an audience of strangers and turns them into a community. And that is what really strikes me about their work. It is community engagement at it is finest. It is civic arts. It pours out of streets and alleys, so that everyone is part of the performance. Noeline shared a great story about this. After one of their recent performances, one of Macnas’ staff members approached an older homeless man who looked completely blown away and unsure of what he had just witnessed and said, “thank you for sharing your home with us today.” The man gave a teary reply, “No, thank you. I never get to see theatre and today I was IN the performance. My home became a stage today. I’ll never forget this.” That’s the beauty of the arts. It has the power to transcend boundaries and connect people in unexpected ways. I’d love to see Macnas create their pageantry down Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis someday. I think it would be magical!