How Irish is the new Kennedy Center festival celebrating 100 years of Irish arts and culture since 1916? Well, it will be presented at a location named after the first sitting U.S. president to visit Ireland, and was opened by Vice President Joe Biden and Taoiseach Enda Kenny on Tuesday night.
The festival will bring together many of the most accomplished Irish writers, poets, composers, theater makers and artists currently working.
“America and Ireland have been very close friends for centuries,” festival curator Alicia Adams tells the Irish Voice. “That's why Vice President Joe Biden [attended] the opening of the festival this week as [did] Taoiseach Kenny.”
Why has the Kennedy Center programmed such an ambitious Irish-focused event to celebrate the centenary of the Rising? “Ireland is in the dirt and the soil of this country. We have all been touched by Irish arts and culture in this country in some way and here at the Kennedy Center I have presented over the years many Irish artists,” Adams explains.
“Ireland 100: Celebrating a Century of Irish Arts & Culture will be the centerpiece of all the major commemorative 1916 events in the United States,” says Adams.
“This is an event that we have worked on in collaboration with the Irish Embassy and the Irish government to celebrate the centennial of 1916. It's an international celebration and we believe it will be the flagship festival in the United States, looking at 100 years of Irish arts and culture and also looking towards the future,” Adams says.
The goal of the festival is to invite world class Irish artists to perform over the three weeks of the festival and to showcase the best of Ireland's traditions through music, dance, theater, literature and art. “We even have a Guinness truck and a whiskey tasting so we are cover every aspect,” Adams laughs.
So what can festival-goes expect? The Abbey Theatre will present Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars which is set in 1916. This is the masterful production of the play that I saw and reviewed in Dublin in March during the 1916 commemorations, and I urge you to see it if you're in D.C.
“We are also doing a new opera by the composer Donnacha Dennehy,” says Adams. The Hunger is about the disaster of the Great Hunger and its lasting impact on Irish society and on individual lives. The opera was inspired in part by the diaries and personal accounts from the period of the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-52).
The staging of The Hunger cannily implicates everyone who attends, including the performers, because in a departure from the convention where the ensemble is concealed by the orchestra pit, Dennehy's work actually integrates the players into the action and storytelling on stage.
Meanwhile, acclaimed Irish stage and screen actress Fiona Shaw will attend the festival as the artist in residence. The Tony Award nominee and two time Olivier Award winner will direct and host the festival’s opening performance, offer a master class, and premiere her performance Blowing the Heart Open featuring the work of W.B. Yeats and Emily Dickinson.
Shaw wants to facilitate a conversation between Ireland and America and so she has selected the work of two of its greatest poets for an evening that will reach a hand across the water between these two distinctive titans.
The Kennedy Center is the living memorial to the late John F. Kennedy, housing the National Center for the Performing Arts. It’s also the largest performance arts center in America under one roof.
“We're proud of our association with Ireland, and indeed President Kennedy was the first sitting president to travel to Ireland in 1963. This year we will begin the celebration of the 100th year of his birth with a launch on May 29,” says Adams.
That celebration will be incorporated into the wider 1916 events. “They just happened to coincide,” says Adams, taking obvious pleasure in the fact.
America, for the revolutionaries of 1916, was often a pole star, the nation they looked to for inspiration and aid in the planning of the Rising.
“We are not focused on the political aspect of the Rising and its legacy, but those kinds of reflections can come through the literature and the plays,” Adams says.
Getting in touch with the earth is an Irish tradition too, and to this end Adams has created, for the first time, a green space at the Kennedy Center to make the point that land, whether it is contested, fought over, sung about or left behind, is at the heart of the Irish experience.
“When I was traveling to Ireland one of the things I was struck by was just how green and beautiful it really is,” says Adams. “So I'm turning the north plaza of Kennedy Center into a green area.
“We have put down grass, there are picnic tables and a stage for performances that will take place every evening. We have a truck selling bangers and another selling fish and chips. Not exactly Irish but as close as we could get. I think that'll be fun. It's the first time we have ever created a green space.”
For decades now the Kennedy Center has been the busiest performing arts facility in America with seven theaters and stages and center-related touring productions. The three main theaters at the Kennedy Center are the 2,300 seat Opera House, the 2,442 seat Concert Hall, and the 1,100 Eisenhower Theater.
Overlooking the Potomac River, it's America’s most impressive living memorial to President Kennedy and it strives to fulfill his democratic vision of making the arts accessible to everyone.
“One of the performers I am most excited about seeing is Camille O'Sullivan. She sings the music of David Bowie and Jaques Brel, and I think she's just fantastic. She is not known here yet so I think it will be particularly exciting to have her in the house,” Adams offers.
Meanwhile, novelist Colm Toibin will also appear in conversation with Evan Boland, professor of the humanities at Stanford University, to discuss his novel Brooklyn and the film of the book which stars Saoirse Ronan.
The emigrant’s perspective and experience is an inevitable part of the discussion between the two countries and a reminder of just how deep the ties between us have grown. “I think this discussion will be particularly engrossing for Irish Americans and the wider American public,” says Adams
A final highlight will be the adaptation of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake by acclaimed Irish actress Olwen Fouere. Joyce wrote the book as a kind of incantation to protect, revive or reanimate the broken Irish tradition, so it's the perfect performance for a festival that looks to the past, the present and the future of Ireland itself.
Ireland 100: Celebrating a Century of Irish Arts & Culture, runs until June 5. For a full lineup of events visit www.kennedy-center.org.