Evolving an arts-led approach to community engagement and rural development
It’s that time of year and Spookemon 2 is creeping up on us again, but what is Spookemon I hear you ask?
Spookemon is a human spooky pokemón that adapts the idea of a treasure hunt, with clues leading you to a character. Each character contributes to a story that is only complete once you complete the treasure hunt. CoDesRes artists, Anita McKeown and Seán O'Laoghaire introduce Spookemon and how its evolution can contribute to the work of CoDesRes; in particular, their focus on Sustainable Development Goal 11, (SDG11) Sustainable Cities and Communities
On returning home from West Cork in 2016, after an exile of 10 years, Seán was introduced to SMARTlab Skellig; one of many approaches to developing contemporary projects and innovative research in Iveragh. Little did he know, a simple chat with his old school friend, June O’Connell would lead to a whole new world of possibilities, including meeting Jean Byrne and Anita McKeown. With a doctorate in creative placemaking, Dr. McKeown moved to Iveragh in September 2017 after a six-week visit visit in June. Quickly Anita and Seán found out that they worked and collaborated in a very combustable manner, almost like a “Hart to Hart” encouraging an arts-led approach to community engagement and development in the world of South-West Kerry.
Created for Halloween 2017, by the artists within CoDesRes collaborative duo, SeÁnita aka Seán O’Laoghaire and Anita McKeown and a team of local performers, Spookemon was a unique piece of location or site-specific theatre creating a fun-filled atmosphere around the town of Cahersiveen. Sometimes known as promenade theatre, Spookemon requires the audience to move around and actively follow the action to discover performers that reveal the whole story while becoming participants in the co-creation of the story.
Image Credits, Marc Moller Spookemon, 2017
We all know about Halloween, but we should also remember Halloween is a major Celtic festival, called Samhain, marking the beginning of the Celtic New Year and the dark half of the year. It was the day the Formorians gathered their taxes from the Tuatha De Danann and a time when the veil between this world and the next is at it’s thinnest. Countries and cultures all over the world have haunting festivals and honour the dead at this time of year e.g. Dia de los Muertos / the Day of the Dead in Mexican culture; Hop-tu-Naa, Isle of Man; Fed Gede, Haiti and off course All Hallows eve, in Christianity.
For generations, Halloween has been celebrated in Ireland, marking this time of year and Seán and Anita sought to keep up the tradition, in a culturally-sensitive way with entertainment, humour and frights, coming together with fun. Seán and Anita took these and many other factors into account including the local context and working on many different ideas, eventually whittled it down to the idea of a treasure hunt, where the clues lead to a character, a human spooky pokemon and came up with the name of Spookemon. They gathered some volunteers, wrote a story, worked out the clues and really had a great time. Working as a team, in a creative manner for the good of the community really got the camaraderie flowing and it showed on the night; there was entertainment, humour, scares, re-training children and adults alike to go out there and co-create their own fun.
And we did it all again in 2018!
Using the pCr methodology, developed through working in diverse global contexts and over twenty-five years artistic practice, Anita and Seán are now exploring and expanding an ethical, artistic practice together. Halloween 2017, saw Anita and Seán's aka SeÁnita's first public community collaboration. They wanted to create a unique and fun-filled atmosphere around the town of Cahersiveen and Iveragh in general, drawing on local traditions that avoided nostalgia and the more commercial aspects of the festival. This year the project continued by becoming part the CoDesRes research project that looks at how an arts led / co-design approach to rural development can contribute to resilience; social, environmental and economic.
The core creative team also saw the addition of Liz McGuire, increased the story trail sites from six to thirteen, increased performers from 6 to 15, all local residents, a very special flashmob performance from the Ina O'Dwyer School of Dancing, a video projection project with KDYS and a fancy dress party hosted by Sean Constable. This Halloween night, 31st of October, 2018 an extended spooky trail began at 6.30pm, starting at the Old Barracks in Cahersiveen. Groups were given a set of clues and then sent out on a specially-created adventure, to gather pieces of a story and explore Cahersiveen, in an entertaining way as well as address some of the issues aligned to SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities.
Preparation for Spookemon 2 2018 Image Credit A.Mckeown
But how can this contribute to SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities?
We believe in a number of ways.
At the core of CoDesRes is an interventional process and set of tools that develop situated (emerge from the situation) artistic art projects. The process was developed to encourage people to participate in Creative Placemaking and re-imagine their narrative of place. This year the story was a direct and creative challenge to a narrative that is based on a perception of loss and negativity, further re-enforced by an article in the press.
The performers told parts of a story that played with local contexts and concerns creatively confronting the town with its own demons and fears. This contributes to the bigger story, based on an original story composed by Iveragh’s very own Seanchaí, Seán O’Laoghaire, that states the problems and possible solutions that can be collaboratively addressed. You can read the story of Jack Shadow here.
Each performer interpreted a theme that linked into the bigger story of rural depopulation, the post-industrial and post 'boom' landscape and the impact of these factors on a community. Over-stretched parents, lonely musicians, bogus bankers, demon chefs, GAA teams pulling from six parishes and more all had a playfully frightening story to tell. The performers have some insights into their characters with the creative team casting and writing the characters specifically for them.
For example, the lonely musician bewailing the loss of band mates to the bright lights is a well-known local musician and music teacher, one of the demon chefs angry at lost customers is a highly successful award-winning local chef, adding another layer to the narrative playing also to an adult sense of humour. This also means constant adaptation along the way as performers and sites change up until the last possible minute.
Another significant contribution to SDG 11, is through proof of concept, in 2017 there was some concerns about lack of attendance ; families have other plans, already go trick or treating elsewhere, but the team worked these factors into the event scheduling. The event was a success, in fact so much so the team where overwhelmed and ran out of clues within the first 30 minutes. This year, the audience was approximately 350+ up from approx. 100 in attendance in 2017. This shows that there is an appetite for the project locally, with return visitors and new visitors.
The increase in our performers, from 9 to 15, none of which have specifically trained in theatre, shows how the event has contributed to social resilience, through the confidence to try new things and contribute to the town's activities in new ways, while developing new skills. All performers really enjoyed the event and already have ideas for next year - this local creativity and enthusiasm is a valuable asset within any community, which we aim to nurture and support.
Image Credits, Marc Moller Spookemon, 2018
These aspects have a knock on effect, making the event increasingly sustainable both through local talent and community support. There are also contributions to an economic resilience. Every performer was paid, not to the value of their input, but it indicates that with strategic marketing and promotion there's no reason that the Spookemon event couldn't become an annual Halloween destination experience, for all the family. By attracting local, national and international visitors to the town, the financial sustainability of the event could be secured. The story integrates the local context, history and concerns but as we have to engage small children as well as adults the story is constructed to work on multiple levels, so visitors would not be excluded.
We hope by growing year-on-year, gathering support from all the community of Iveragh, not just as punters, but as comprehensive and lively partners, Spookemon, as one of a number of artful, participatory and collaborative interventions, the town's resilience can be increased from the inside out. In 2019, we plan to be working with the town, its residents and businesses to plan an event that caters for more visitors and harnesses a diverse range of local creativity, both as artists and entrepreneurs. Spookemon looks to the past for inspiration but it is not nostalgic, we have a strong tradition that can carry young and old alike into the future, confronting monsters and demons, transforming the town, and ourselves.
Come and join us next year to be spooked by characters telling their own particular story, a story that is simultaneously unique, but addresses larger commonly-shared human themes.