Waterford’s Spraoi Festival: When all the city’s a stage

IT HAS been a tough few years for arts organisations around the country with budgets slashed and funding in short supply.

That Waterford street theatre company Spraoi has continued to flourish is testament to the hard work of those behind the scenes and the people of the city who have embraced their mission to entertain.

The company’s cornerstone event, the Spraoi festival, is now in its 22nd year and has become part of the cultural landscape of Ireland’s oldest city, this year celebrating 1,100 years in existence.

Founder and director of Spraoi, TV Honan, says the input of volunteers and local people has been a significant element in its success.

“The Spraoi festival is professionally run but its energy comes from local people being involved. Because Spraoi has such a strong voluntary input, observers can miss the fact it is now rated as a significant festival on the European circuit of street art festivals.”

To illustrate how this blend of professional management and volunteer participation works so well, Honan draws an analogy with the GAA. “It is rooted in its own community but understands that as it has grown, it needs professional management that is always aware of the roots of the organisation and the amateur ethos of the organisation.

“Spraoi is now part of several European festival networks. One of our biggest selling points when we are trying to attract international performers is what those performers hear about Spraoi as they travel around Europe at other events.

“Local involvement generates local loyalty and local loyalty creates the conditions for sustainability.”

A generation has now grown up with the spectacles of Spraoi, which every August bank holiday weekend transforms Waterford’s medieval streets, squares and quays into stages for Ireland’s biggest free party.

“My daughter was born in 1993, the Spraoi year, and has grown up with it. We are into the second generation of the people who drive Spraoi. This is an event where Waterford people reclaim the streets of their city and have a fantastic party. Using the streets to put on popular art forms is similar to the model you find around the Mediterranean countries,” says Honan.

In 2003, Spraoi moved to purpose-built studios, which remain Ireland’s only specialist street theatre creation-space. Gradually they received commissions from other festivals and have contributed to St Patrick’s Day parades in Ireland and many high-profile events.

Performers from throughout Ireland have attended residential workshops at Spraoi’s studios where they are helped develop new shows. As part of this desire to nurture performers of the future, this year’s festival features a new element termed NEST, which stands for New Emerging Street Talent.

“Some of the performers who attended workshops will have their work premiered and tested at Spraoi and we’ve already secured them bookings at the National Circus Festival in Tralee and the Great Yarmouth Festival in Britain,” says Honan.

While Spraoi is much-loved and supported by local audiences, it also attracts a significant number of Irish and overseas visitors. However, its funding from Fáilte Ireland has been reduced to €15,000, representing a 73% cut in two years, despite 29% of last year’s audience originating outside Waterford.

But the festival maintained its arts council grant of €237,000 this year. “This represents a tremendous vote of confidence in Spraoi’s output,” says Honan. “I was delighted for the artistic team and the technical crew too — they worked very hard, not alone at the festival but at some great events all over Ireland last year.”

The story goes that at the inception of the festival, someone suggested the name Spraoi because it rhymed with ’93. “But it won’t rhyme with ’94,” replied someone else. “Don’t worry about it, we’ll probably never do it again,” was the reply. Thankfully, they were proved wrong.

Spraoi festival takes place this weekend, from August 1 to 3. See www.spraoi.com


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