Outgoing Artistic Director of Baboró, Lali Morris (left), and Aislinn Ó hEocha who has been appointed Executive Artistic Director. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

Outgoing Artistic Director of Baboró, Lali Morris (left), and Aislinn Ó hEocha who has been appointed Executive Artistic Director. Photo: Joe O’Shaughnessy.

Babóro: Art is not a matter of age

Kids are the best critics when it comes to children’s shows, as the board of Babóro International Arts Festival for Children knows all too well. And with their biggest critics giving them increasingly good feedback, one thing is for certain: Babóro is not standing still.

Now entering its 19th year and recognised as one of the stellar examples of an inclusive, energetic, exciting festival, Galway’s Babóro is showing no signs of slowing down as Galway native Aislinn Ó hEocha steps up to the newly-created position of Executive Artistic Director.

Previous Artistic Director Lali Morris has passed on the baton to Aislinn after steering Babóro from a six-day festival, primarily for schools, to what has become one of Ireland’s flagship family arts festivals.

Leading the organisation for 14 years as Artistic Director, Lali and her dedicated team have developed international partnerships with 17 organisations in 15 countries across Europe, as well as attracting visitors from all around the world to the annual Galway festival.

“Galway is a unique festival town. The people love a festival. But it’s also built for a festival. You can make it very inclusive, with short distances between the theatre spaces, and you can really fill the city centre with a festival vibe very easily,” said Lali, listing the city itself as one of the main reasons for the success of Babóro.

It was the summer of 1995 that Lali first got involved with Babóro. She moved to Galway in 1996 when her husband, Ted Turton, became the Artistic Director of the Galway Arts Festival. At that time, Babóro was part of the Galway Arts Festival, but there was talk of it breaking away to become a completely separate festival – something which came to pass in 1996 and has been happening annually ever since.

“So I was on the Board of Directors from the moment it started and until I took the position of Artistic Director in 2001,” Lali explained.

Since she first got involved with Babóro, Lali has seen the festival grow at an incredible rate and has enjoyed every minute of it; “There’s the thrill of bringing a programme to Galway because you get the opening night jitters for every single show that you start. You’re saying ‘Oh my God, will people look at me like I’m crazy for bringing this show? Will they laugh, will they like it, will they throw things at them?

“It’s funny but it’s kind of a real buzz. The adrenaline buzz of ‘Yes, it worked!’ It’s a real high. Festival week is a brilliant high, because you see the festival going nice and smooth and then behind the scenes, everybody is like mad little ants running around and that’s a real buzz. I’ll miss that buzz.”

But Lali feels like the festival will be in good hands with Aislinn, saying that the newly-created position of Executive Artistic Director goes “hand in hand with the growth of the festival”, which she feels has spread its wings into different areas.

“It really needed to have someone overseeing the whole thing – not doing everything, but at least one eye really handling the overall thing, because it was growing so much that it really needed to have a top person,” she said.

Aislinn herself is more than qualified to take over as Executive Artistic Director. Her own journey with Babóro began in 2001 when she worked as a venue manager for Lali’s first festival in the Town Hall.

“I was working there for a week and I just loved it. I loved every minute of it. And I remember being really struck by Lali’s passion for work with children and her way with children. And it never left me, so I began my passion for children’s work as well,” said Aislinn, naming her predecessor as her inspiration.

“And seeing children’s reactions to work on stage was just phenomenal. They were just completely sucked into everything that was happening. And what’s really unique about children as an audience is, in terms of their critique, they don’t hold back.

“Children verbalise everything and they stand up and they clap and laugh, unlike an adult audience who sit there, waiting to the end to finally clap. It’s fantastic, so I remember really being struck by that and the fact that we’ve worked together in the past and we’ve just come full circle.”

Aislinn has gained over 14 years of experience in arts marketing and programming whilst managing Glór in Ennis and working as a freelance arts consultant. Most recently, Aislinn was Artistic Director with the Source Arts Centre in Thurles where she led a team of 16 through a reinvigoration of the centre, with a particular emphasis on developing audiences for children, theatre and visual art.

She was successful in finding new sources of funding for The Source and facilitated professional development opportunities for arts professionals in the region. In 2014 Aislinn completed an Audience Development Programme, initiated by Arts Audiences and the Arts Council and facilitated by the Irish Times Training and accredited by the University of Ulster.

But despite all this phenomenal experience, Aislinn still feels like she has big boots to fill; “I feel very privileged really, but very conscious of having to follow those footsteps as well. Lali’s background and training even before she came to Babóro was all steeped in education and so her knowledge of the area is vast and deep.

“And I suppose I’m bringing some different experience to the table as well in this new role and in terms of leading the festival into the next stage of its development.”

Aislinn also has the experience of being an audience member at previous shows, as a delegate and as a parent – something which will serve her well in her role as she brings some fresh ideas to the table.

“The board has developed a strategic development plan, which is still in draft form at this point, to bring this festival to 2018,” she said.

“Part of my role will be to develop that with the board and to lead the organisation into delivering in that regard. I have some ideas but it’s too early. I need time to get through a festival and to get to know it.”

Babóro is out in the open for a weeklong festival every year, but that’s only a fraction of the work that goes on. Throughout the year, there are a number of projects carried out by the Babóro team, including ‘Small Size’. Babóro is partnered with 11 European countries to research, develop, disseminate and present cultural activities for young children from age zero to six.

Small Size, performing arts for early years is funded by the European Union programme Creative Europe 2014-2018, and ranked second out of the 21 projects to achieve funding.

“There are, at this point, 17 partners from 15 countries, all around the idea of developing and presenting the arts and culture for babies from zero to six. And you just cannot believe that a baby would love shows at such a young age, but infants will respond. It’s beautiful to watch.

“There’s a nice phrase we’re using now, that art is not a matter of age, but of curiosity. So there are no boundaries. It’s lovely and a fabulous organisation to belong to. We’re very, very proud,” Lali explained.

“We have a very small core of people who are very strong. But we have an amazing volunteer core who come back year after year to work because they love the vibe of the festival.

“And something I always tell them during the festival time is that they are the face of the festival. They’re out with their red shirts and people recognise Babóro.”

Babóro is more than just an annual festival. It places creativity for children at the very heart of everything, with workshops and events planned throughout the year. An upcoming conference on 28 May will look at placing creativity at the heart of every subject in the classroom and will review a three-year project called ‘BEAST’, which Babóro ran with a number of Galway Schools.

The day-long conference takes place in the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre, NUI Galway on Thursday 28 May and will include an address by Professor Pat Dolan, UNESCO Chair in Children.

For more information on this conference or on Babóro in general, see www.baboro.ie.

*Originally published in the Connacht Tribune

Written by Jessica Thompson