Busy Bees down at Spraoi HQ: 26 years of the Waterford festival

Artistic director Mike Leahy tells Ellie O’Byrne how the south east’s annual street art festival had its origins in a DIY ethos that sprang from the recession of the 1980s.

Busy Bees down at Spraoi HQ: 26 years of the Waterford festival

By Ellie O'Byrne

Artistic director Mike Leahy tells Ellie O’Byrne how the south east’s annual street art festival had its origins in a DIY ethos that sprang from the recession of the 1980s.

There's a buzz in the air at Spraoi HQ, and it’s not only because the theme for this year’s closing parade for their annual street art festival is ‘Bugs’.

With the countdown on to the August Bank Holiday weekend, Spraoi’s artistic director Mike Leahy is a very busy bee indeed: one minute he’s offering words of encouragement to volunteers who are meticulously painting a flotilla of plate-sized ladybirds, while the next he’s issuing instructions to staff members who are perched on ladders, putting the finishing touches on the large floats, which include a towering praying mantis and a vast and ominous boot.

“We’re having a ladybird band section, there’s choirs, there’s wasps, there’s grasshoppers,” Leahy says, as he gives a quick tour around the workshops and costume department. “All the floats have strong individual stories, but if you delve deeper, there are nice little messages hidden in the stories too.”

Spraoi celebrated 25 years of their annual Waterford street arts festival last year, and there’s no denying the cultural institution they have become in the Déise. As they move into their second quarter century, the August bank holiday weekend is known as the Spraoi Weekend in Waterford, and over 100,000 people attend the free outdoor events.

The festival is comprised of three days of street theatre from Irish and international acts, as well as a free pub music trail and outdoor stages and SprÓg, a programme of children’s events. It all goes out with a bang as 200 local performers take part in the night-time Spraoi parade, culminating with a fireworks display on the quayside.

It’s a huge homegrown production, with a budget of €300,000: up to 40 makers, costume designers and set-builders work on the annual production, a combination of Spraoi’s staff team and volunteers.

“I’m incredibly proud that we’ve assembled such a creative team out of the city and that we can mount this scale of a festival with the people around us,” Leahy says. “We could go to an events management company in Dublin, but we do it all ourselves, and there’s a sense of ownership over it as a result.”

Spraoi’s ethos was developed on an arts-for-all basis and the entire festival remains free to this day. Leahy says bringing the festival to the streets has seen audiences who may never walk into a theatre or a gallery be challenged and entertained.

“We didn’t mention the word art for the first few years because we didn’t want to scare people,” he says. “But it was a big part of the ethos, to reclaim the public space for something other than cars and going between Penney’s and Shaw’s. There’s an economic barrier to walking into a theatre to see a play; there just is. But we bring it to people.”

Reaching out to other European cities with a strong culture of street theatre to bring in visiting acts is a large part of what Spraoi does well. But the parade is the huge, flamboyant centre-piece.

“The first time we see the whole thing together with lights and sound will be on the night,” Leahy says. “You can’t do a full dress-rehearsal, so we do it by sections and cross our fingers and work to get the pacing and music right. And then, you’ll never see it again.”

A blow-in, Leahy is originally from Cashel and arrived in Waterford on an archaeological dig in the late 1980s. Eventually joining the dole queue, he says it was in the pubs, where young, bored creative people were hanging around, that Spraoi was born.

The festival he’s helped to create is a far cry from its inception in the early ‘90s, when a handful of makers, musicians and performers started staging a pop-up street performance on the bank holiday weekend. For Leahy, as for many, it’s been a question of learning on the job.

“Had we been starting now we would have disappeared within a couple of years,” he says. “Everything we did would have been up on Facebook and Youtube and the floats were shite, really pretty ropey. But luckily there’s no record of it. We thought it was great, but we’d nothing to compare it to.”

Spraoi director TV Honan is another co-founder, who was already well-known in the performing arts in Waterford for having been a founder of Red Kettle Theatre Company.

Waterford had an underdeveloped arts scene in the eighties and nineties and was in the grips of a “grim” period of recession when Spraoi was formed, Honan says.

“Hatch 4, Wednesday, 2.15pm: that was my slot in the dole office. I think Mike’s was on Friday. The queues out of the dole office stretched down the street.

“But with nothing to lose, all sorts of people started to gather under the Spraoi flag that you never would have gotten if they had been in employment. There were guitarists and drummers, there were makers. There were sculptors; they just didn’t know they were yet.”

Founded in part because there were no arts events on in Waterford on the bank holiday weekend, for the first time this year Spraoi finds itself with a large-scale competitor in the county: All Together Now, a three-day music festival in Portlaw, is just 20km from Waterford city.

With crowd-pleasing headliners like Fleet Foxes, Underworld and Roisín Murphy, it’s unclear as yet what impact All Together Now will have on Spraoi’s audiences, or vice versa.

Video by Ellie O'Byrne

Honan shrugs and smiles. “What impact it will have in terms of local audience remains to be seen, but all we can do is roll up our sleeves and get on with it,” he says. “Theirs is a destination-type event so we’re unlikely to share an audience. They were very good, and they came to us in the planning stages and we’re supplying them with decorative stuff for the site.”

What ambitions does Honan have for Spraoi’s second quarter century?

“Spraoi could do anything it set its mind to, but I’d like to see us foster more Irish acts,” he says.

To this end, the festival’s NEST (New Emerging Street Talent) programme takes applications from Irish performers with shows in development and provides resources and mentorship to get their act street-ready. Two out of three of last year’s NEST acts are now performing at European festivals.

“That’s everything Spraoi is about,” Honan says. “Finding worthwhile and meaningful young talent and giving them a little leg up.

“I know it sounds idealistic, but this is the truth: Spraoi is the grand experiment of cultural togetherness, of how a community has found a way to express itself as a collective for three days a year.”

Spraoi International Street Arts Festival takes place in Waterford City, August the 3rd-5th.

Info and programme: www.spraoi.com

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