Maria Gray at a previous launch of the Aisling Children's Arts Festival. Photo: Joe McDonagh.
The Aisling Children's Arts Festival kicks off in Longford this week and, to celebrate 20 years of Aisling, the Longford Leader is publishing a number of articles from the Aisling Festival Supplement, which were written by Transition Year Students from a number of local schools.
The Aisling Children's Arts Festival is celebrating its 20th year running thanks to the many people who helped to organise it.
It is a week-long event that encourages children to try different art forms. One of the long-standing committee members, Maria Gray, has been helping out since the project started 20 years ago.
What made you interested in taking part in the committee?
Back in 1998 when Aisling was founded, I had young children, which meant I was on that trail of looking out for different activities that they could become involved in.
In that first year I was a volunteer during the week of the Festival and was really impressed at the variety and quality of the Festival programme.
It’s important to remember that, at that time, there were no similar type festivals outside of Dublin or Galway, which meant that the young people of Longford would have to travel far to have access to these kinds of events.
The following year Mona Considine, General Manager of Backstage who has been involved with Aisling since the very beginning asked me to join the Festival committee. I haven’t looked back since then.
What kept you interested in staying on the committee for such a long time?
Aisling is such a worthwhile project to be involved in. While it certainly is hard work, the rewards are great.
Seeing the fun and excitement experienced by the children (and adults) during the week of the Festival really is reward enough.
Aisling delivers every year what it sets out to do. It genuinely brings art in all its forms to the young people of Longford in an affordable and accessible way.
Throughout the 20 years I have been involved in Aisling, I have worked with the very best of people. Every member of the committee works so hard to get the Festival up and running year after year. This is all done with enthusiasm, creativity and, most of all, lots of good humour.
I have made life-long friends during my time on this committee.
Do you think your work has a positive effect on local communities throughout the county?
Aisling is now firmly rooted in the calendar of events in Co Longford. Over the past 20 years we have forged strong links and partnerships with many local organisations such as Backstage Theatre, which has been our home for the past 20 years, primary and post primary schools throughout the county, libraries, homework clubs, crèches, sporting bodies, local HSE facilities and local Drama groups.
It is our relationship with these groups that gives Aisling its life line and allows us to ensure we are reaching all corners of Longford.
What do you hope to improve on with your work for the Aisling Children’s Arts Festival?
The Festival committee continuously reviews the Festival programme, introducing new initiatives and art-forms, such as our print and digital media projects, to keep the Festival fresh and exciting for the young people participating.
In recent years we have begun to focus on longer and more specialised arts-based projects.
We work closely with Backstage Theatre to secure a theatre programme of high artistic quality.
Over the years we have programmed aerial dance theatre from Fidget Feet, classical music from Graffiti Classics and mime from Ukranian company Mimirichi.
If funding allows, we would love to be able to attract more international acts.
People might not realise that Aisling is different from other similar children’s arts festivals in that it is operated entirely by a voluntary committee. Most other children’s arts festivals are managed by an existing organisation or County Council.
We are very fortunate to receive fantastic support from Mona Considine and Backstage Theatre who provide us with a professional space, assist us in programming the Festival and with box office sales.
The Festival is, however, run by a small group of volunteers from the local community. We have no employees, no administrative support, no office space etc.
This committee gives freely of their own time, their resources and their skills.
We are more than happy to do it, but we cannot magic a festival out of thin air - we do need financial backing and the support of our community.
Do you think your work has had a positive effect on your life?
My experience of working with Aisling has always been very positive and rewarding. Aisling has given far more to me than I have given to it!
How has the Festival grown over the years since it started up?
Every year, the Festival has grown in terms of the breadth and diversity of the programme delivered.
We have always tried to introduce and develop new artforms within the programme to ensure that the children and young people experience the arts in all its forms.
Our theatre programme has included a diverse range of artforms such as music of various genres, dance, aerial dance and puppetry.
In 2010 we were nominated for Pride of Place award. We developed a new brochure for 2014, which is much more user friendly in both size and design. It was also more cost effective from a budgeting point of view as we are increasingly more reliant on social media to advertise and promote the Festival.
In 2016 we worked with a local community media organisation on a digital media project. We have also worked on several occasions with the regional newspaper on a print media project for post primary students.
We have collaborated with Backstage Youth Theatre, supporting the creation of work and providing a platform within the festival for the youth theatre to present their work.
The Youth Theatre and Aisling share a common objective in nurturing a love of theatre and in encouraging young people to develop their own performance skills.
Last year, over 1,500 people attended the free family day in St Michael's BNS. We had capacity audiences at our five theatre events and almost 2,000 children participated in schools events.
What differences have you seen in Longford since it has started up?
Longford is a very diverse and vibrant community and Aisling embraces this in the Festival.
The international communities represented in Longford are very much part of our week long celebrations.
Much of the Festival is programmed through school participation, which ensures that children from all backgrounds, social, cultural and ethnical are afforded the same opportunity.
Of course the economic decline over the past decade has meant funding cuts and tight budgets.
We have tailored the Festival to fit within financial constraints, which has at times been an onerous task especially given the fact that we have not increased our ticket price in over ten years.
Local business sponsorship has been vital to the continued success of the Festival. 50% of our funding comes from local business, local fundraising events and box office sales, which really means that the Festival is funded by the community of Longford.
What advice would you give to young people who would like to get involved in the Festival or the arts in general?
Come along to Aisling 2018, experience the fantastic family open day in St Michael's BNS, the wonderful theatre programme in Backstage Theatre and the outreach workshops throughout the county.
Once you see the smiling faces and hear the squeals of delight, chances are you will be hooked… just like me 20 years ago.
Contact any committee member, we would be delighted to hear from you and you won’t regret it.