Séan Doran believes the next step for Derry and Donegal’s arts and tourism sectors is to establish the region as an essential ‘destination’ for visitors interested in experiencing the North West’s unparalleled literary heritage.
Mr. Doran (57), who grew up in Pennyburn and attended St. Columb’s College, is now, perhaps, the pre-eminent arts festival director in Europe.
At the moment he’s in Liverpool, where, with Asylum Road-native Liam Browne, he is co-curating ‘Sgt. Pepper at 50: Heading for Home’ a three weeks multi-disciplinary arts festival celebrating the revered Beatles record, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.
But Séan, who’ll be bringing Brian Friel back home later this summer, reckons Derry has its own cultural giants with which to attract visitors from far and wide.
“What we deal in is ‘destination arts festivals’, in the sense that we’re trying to attract tourism alongside the international artists coming to engage with a writer or an artist in their homeland, and trying to create a sense of place. I think it’s something we could build quite extraordinarily over time: literary tourism. It’s something we’ve probably underestimated as a strength in our part of the world.”
Séan knows what he’s talking about. Though his own chosen art form was originally traditional music, a conversion to classical and the clarinet took him to London to study at the age of 19 in the late 1970s. In the 1980s he established a musical theatre group in the English capital, which was patronised by the acclaimed conductor Simon Rattle, before going on to forge a career as an internationally respected artistic director, curating festivals in Britain, Ireland and Australia.
The first Irish artistic director of the English National Opera (ENO), he spectacularly put on Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ at Glastonbury during his tenure in the early 2000s.
This morning Séan and Liam, who have been collaborating on various artistic projects over the past 25 years, will be turning Liverpool upside down with city-wide performances of the John Lennon-penned classic ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’.
“We’re just between the two big weekends [of Sgt. Pepper at 50]. We’ve commissioned 13 international projects to respond to the 13 songs. We’re doing ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ at 7.30 a.m. right across the city on Friday, with theatre and flashmobs and comedy and dance and music and live chickens! The song is all about waking up in the morning, really dozy and depressed, and as the day moves on, there’s late afternoon in the theatre, the lights of the city turn on and you can flirt and have a good time and it all finishes much better but then its back to ‘Groundhog Day.’ We’re sort of inverting the evening economy. What would normally happen in the evening would happen first thing in the morning and then its back to ‘Groundhog Day’.
“Of course it will probably be doubly the blues as it’s the day after the General Election, which we didn’t know at the time. It think we’ll be pretty depressed in Liverpool!”
Despite a projected Tory victory likely to dampen spirits on solidly Labourite Merseyside, Séan and Liam will be doing their utmost to lift the mood with a continuation of three weeks’ of circuses in celebration of SPLHCB.
Already they’ve got 500 musicians to discordantly perform 75 different Beatles tunes simultaneously at Aintree, inspired by the late avant-garde American composer John Cage’s Musicircus; they’ve enlisted pyrotechnics genius Christophe Berthonneau to light up the Liverpool skyline for ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’’; and they’ve worked with New York-based choreographer Mark William Morris, among others.
Apart from the high-end collaborations, which is all a day in the life for the seasoned director, Séan, reckons his hometown can learn a trick or two from its sister city in the North West of England. The post-industrial, maritime cities, which have both been bequeathed distinct ‘City of Culture’ legacies, have a lot in common, he believes.
“It’s interesting because we connected to that quite quickly as two Derry men. To be honest when we started we felt very at home with Liverpool. There’s a natural resonance between the two cities. Obviously Liverpool’s much larger and the amount of things that are going on there week-to-week is quite colossal. Derry and Liverpool linking in whatever way would be a good thing because they are two harmonious cities and peoples.”
As it happens the municipal authorities in Liverpool offered the Sgt. Pepper gig to the Derry duo following their work in Enniskillen promoting Samuel Beckett. Over the past couple of years under their new artistic partnership, DoranBrowne, they’ve also been involved in the establishment of, and programming for, the new Seamus Heaney Home Place venue in Bellaghy.
Two years ago they put on the Lughnasa International Friel Festival in Belfast while the late great playwright was still alive but due to funding difficulties the festival was put off last year. Excitingly, in what’s sure to whet the appetite of theatre fans across the North West, Frielfest: Brian Friel International Festival is coming home to Derry and Donegal.
“It’s coming back in August and we’ll be releasing the programme on that at the end of June. It’s something we hope to build annually. I’m really looking forward to it, because it was a great success two years ago when we tried it out the last time.”
Séan can’t spill the beans on exactly what to expect, but ‘Making History’, Friel’s 1989 play, which imagines Hugh ‘The Great’ O’Neill and the Archbishop of Armagh, Peter Lombard, agonising over the Nine Year warrior’s legacy, will be its centrepiece.
“We’ll be looking at ‘Making History’ in light of what we’re dealing with in today’s world, you know, with the contemporary relevance of ‘fake news’ and what is truth and what is not. We’ll also be doing some Homer. I don’t think I should tell you anymore otherwise I’m going to give you the whole programme, which we haven’t released yet! But Friel was a big fan of Homer, The Iliad and the Odyssey.”
Séan believes Friel, Heaney and co., can help establish Derry as a world leader in literary tourism.
“There’s an extraordinary richness of writers here and we need to shine a light on what we have. We know Friel merited the Nobel Prize for Literature, equally to Seamus Heaney. He’s an extraordinary writer and it’s a gift to the likes of us, celebrating the arts, and taking these extraordinary artists from our own community as a starting point to create these events.”