IN the cavernous interior of the old Lido building in Blackpool, other buildings are being constructed: a team of artists and makers are busily assembling enormous floats for the impending Patrick’s Day Parade.
In keeping with this year’s parade theme of ‘Stories of Cork’, Cork Community Art Link (CCAL) have come up with one of their characteristically elaborate and fantastical street spectaculars: a parade extravaganza dedicated to the buildings of Cork and the stories they house.
As well as buildings inspired by Cork landmarks and representing iconic Cork storytellers including Frank O’Connor and Rory Gallagher, the parade submission will include 150 performers from 11 different community groups, including Cork City Firebirds Roller Derby team as a phalanx of zooming ‘Echo Boys’, representing the story-telling of this newspaper.
“You’ll see elements of Cork landmarks and storytelling and iconography on the buildings, but we’re going for a more surrealist approach,” CCAL’s parade Project Manager Mars O’Reilly says, raising her voice above the racket of power tools.
“We’re building four buildings and a bridge representing different elements of storytelling in Cork: a music shop, a bookshop, a bridge, a multi-cultural house and a family home.”
Dancing with the Stars’ Dayl Cronin’s Tower Street based dance troop will perform alongside volunteer performers in the parade.
Local artist Francesca Castellano has been the costume designer for the project, which requires the ever-busy costume team to produce more than 100 bespoke costumes for the parade.
With an audience of more than 50,000 expected at this year’s Cork Patrick’s Day Parade, and with costumes, props and floats to finish for the CCAL team, it’s a busy time for the community arts group, who have emerged as a very Cork story themselves in the quarter century since a handful of artists passionate about participatory street theatre started arranging workshops with community groups.
It was a small, grassroots movement that sought to increase arts accessibility in Cork and help marginalised groups, including people with physical and intellectual disabilities, to tap into the joy of creativity.
They are best known for their ‘Cork Story’ of The Dragon of Shandon, the annual Halloween parade that’s Ireland’s largest annual night-time street spectacular, but Mars is keen to stress that they work on a wide variety of arts projects throughout the year.
“We try to keep the momentum going throughout the year,” she says. “We’re going to be involved in the Rebel Street Art Festival, we decorated the Young Offenders bus and we do murals; We’re always open to ideas and suggestions.”
For child protection purposes, CCAL can’t work with unattended under 18s, but aside from this they have an open-door policy when it comes to the artists, groups and creatively inspired people they work with: they believe that art truly is for all.
Mars says that this year’s theme is an ideal one for such a large and diverse team.
“Every group has stories to tell, so everyone can be involved,” she says.
“In CCAL, we like to keep our process very organic, built by volunteers and participants. We let the people tell the stories: we’ll have ideas, but we want people to come to us and add to the stories. We basically want to work with everyone who has ideas.”
While the heavier and more expert work is done by CCAL’s in-house team of staff and designers, lighter prop-building and the fun “make and do” elements of the parade preparations are undertaken in facilitated workshops with community groups.
Artist, performer and puppeteer Elisa Gallo-Rosso is facilitating the workshops with Enable Ireland’s Cope Foundation and Farranree Springboard this year.
Working with groups with a wide range of challenges and needs, Elisa says that when it comes to creativity, everyone is engaged and excited by the process.
“They are really artistically capable and super-creative,” she says.
“The Cope Foundation group are going to be performing around the bridge in the parade, so we painted flags for the bridge, and we thought about their characters, and the connection to the water. Some of them are going to be captains in their own little boats and one wanted to be a scuba diver, and there are also herons and a submarine.”
Using materials including foam, cardboard, corrie-board and bubble-wrap, as well as recycled household waste like shampoo bottles and aluminium cans, workshop attendees make their own props and are involved with the project, from dreaming up the initial big ideas right the way to the thrill of performing live in the parade in front of thousands of friends and family.
Although the weeks before the parade are naturally busiest, Elisa says the first meetings to discuss the 2019 parade happened before Christmas, with brainstorming sessions.
“We imagined if the walls of Cork could talk, what could happen,” she says. “The buildings are so lively that characters are climbing out of them, and these characters are from Cork.”
Elisa, who is Italian and who moved to Cork three years ago, says it’s perfectly in keeping with her growing awareness of Cork as a story-teller’s city: “People here always have stories: as an outsider it’s pretty impressive and you can relate to it. There’s a definite gift for storytelling here that I haven’t found in other places.”
Elisa prepares for the workshops and can spend up to three hours after they finish making sure that the props that were made are not only as beautiful and colourful as their makers intended, but are also practical and durable enough to last the parade route on the big day.
“If it was just community work it wouldn’t matter, but it is also a big production and we need things that work and will last for the parade,” she says.
The rewards and challenges that come with the workshops are clear.
“No matter how much you prepare, there will always be surprises,” Elisa says.
“You have to expect the unexpected and go with the flow and allow that anything could happen.”
But the inspiration, fun and enjoyment for all the participants is a sign for Elisa that creativity and arts access for all is a massively important concept.
“I have no doubt when I see how much they’re engaging,” she says. “I say, OK, I’m doing a really good job and it makes me really content even when it’s tiring.”
“It’s actually really moving. There is an opening of potential that’s not even possible to foresee at the start of the project.”
Elisa, who has worked on participatory arts projects in several countries, says Cork Community Art Link is a true original, founded on the vision of the group’s artistic director, William Frode de la Foret.
“He’s capable of visions that allow everyone to dream and find a piece of themselves,” she says. “That’s possibly why so many people are thrilled to come here and make things happen.”
As a result, she says, Cork Community Art Link is “very special, and based on the heart. It’s powerful. I just feel really lucky to be a part of this from the beginning to the end.”
Cork Community Art Link are seeking volunteers to help push floats in the Patrick’s Day Parade on March 17. Get in touch at: info@corkcommunityartlink
The parade starts at 1pm. See www.corkstpatricksfestival.ie for further details of the Parade and information on travelling into and around the city on the day.
The Echo and Cork’s RED FM are media sponsors of the festival.