One Saturday afternoon in September I paid a visit to the Ark, a cultural centre for children, to meet its director, Aideen Howard, and the cast and crew of What Did I Miss?, the first part of the centre’s 25th birthday celebrations.
It was eerily quiet inside. The child-sized benches and beanbags had been vacant since the Ark, like arts venues across the country, closed in March. Still, Howard was optimistic that in the coming weeks the foyer would be filled again with the sound of children’s laughter.
As the pandemic would have it, the show did not go on. But, undaunted, Howard and her colleagues continued to plan their programme for the rest of the year to see “how we could bring the arts to as many children as we can. That is basically what the Ark was founded 25 years ago to do.”
Indeed, despite the difficult circumstances, 2020 has been a bumper year for audiences at the Ark. In late March, they transferred all of their work online and have had more than 14,000 virtual engagements since.
“One of the lovely things about Covid, if you can say such a thing,” Howard says with a laugh, “is that it reaffirmed for us our vision and values. We continued to make arts for and with kids, and extended our reach beyond anything we had ever done before. We were engaging with schools, not just locally but on a national level, and because of that we were able to engage with a more diverse community of children.
“We made huge progress in reaching children with special needs, for example through the July provision project, so to be able to have these positive outcomes during such a difficult time was huge. Although we would love to be making real, live, tangible work, it has been heartening that there are ways to continue to reach children, who have been disproportionately affected by restrictions of the last few months, and to advocate for their needs.”
Howard sees advocacy as a huge part of the Ark’s responsibility to young people and she sees the growing awareness of children’s cultural needs in the contemporary climate as one of the Ark’s key achievements. She speaks passionately about the way in which the Ark “has played a major role in putting children at the heart of cultural life”.
“With the support of the Arts Council and the Department of Education we have been able to use our position to advocate for children’s right to a voice and to be heard. Irish society has changed significantly for children since the Ark opened,” she says. “There is now a full ministry for children, there is an active Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and the Ark has definitely played a role in this culture shift [around children’s rights].”
It is not just tokenism either: “Through our Children’s Council, we have given children a channel to communicate their needs and their contributions permeate everything we do,” Howard says. “The success [of that] has enabled the Ark to have an impact on national policymaking for children, working hard to make sure that children’s rights to art and culture is embedded in a national strategy and in all aspects of State decision-making for children.”
The Ark’s 25th birthday has also given the cultural centre a concrete view of how their work has impacted young audiences. “The first generation of young artists influenced by the Ark have come of age. We now have people working with us as artists, who used to visit as a child,” Howard says.
Illustrator Duffy Mooney-Sheppard and actor-playwright Thommas Kane-Byrne are two of the many children who “grew up at the Ark”, as the former puts it. “I remember the first time I walked through the doors. It felt like being in a cathedral. There was definitely this other-worldly feeling: you knew that going through those doors meant something unusual would happen.”
Mooney-Sheppard was a regular at workshops until she got too old for them. When she left school and started studying at the National College of Art and Design she found herself volunteering at the centre one summer: “I found studying art really stressful but at the Ark I saw how it could be fun again.” She went on to work in the box office and then in administration, eventually finding her way back to her own practice again. She has been facilitating drawing workshops as part of the Ark’s At Home programme since March.
Kane-Byrne was a regular visitor too, taking frequent trips to the cultural centre with his local inner-city school. He was particularly inspired by the work he saw in the child-sized theatre space. He mentions two Roddy Doyle plays as particularly significant.
“They were funny and charming and so quintessentially Dublin and that was important for me. The theatre was so close to my school and where I lived, and the play felt close to my background. So before you are even thinking about class or anything, you are getting a sense of ‘Yeah, I could do that.’”
Kane-Byrne returned to the Ark as a performer with the 2019 production of The Haircut. “Oh it was very intimidating to be on the other side,” he says. “Because children don’t care about etiquette and if they are bored, you’ve lost them. I remember that from being a kid myself.”
Howard will miss seeing those discerning audience members as the Ark’s projected Christmas play is also postponed. So the Ark’s creative team members applied themselves to delivering an interactive theatrical experience in collaboration with RTÉ2’s After School Hub. Every day from November 30th to December 4th the After School Hub team and a specially commissioned theatrical troupe guided young viewers through the production process.
Playwright Mollie Molumby introduced her script while director Shaun Dunne showed viewers how to get started and how to bring special touches to their own productions. Actor Jade Jordan shared performance tips, and composer Tom Lane and designers Salieóg O’Halloran and Sarah Bacon gave audio and visual design tips.
With all the elements in place, it was up to young viewers to transform themselves from audience members into active art-makers. They may not be able to visit the Ark this year, but they can still be empowered by its creative offerings.
The Show Must Go On! features on the Afterschool Hub on RTÉ2 from November 30th to December 4th
Five From 25: highlights of the Ark
President Michael D Higgins – 1995 and 2011
In 1995 then minister for arts one of Michael D Higgins’s first activities was officially opening the Ark. In November 2011 he returned to the Ark in one of his first activities as President of Ireland.
Faces in the Window (1995 and 2016)
One of the first projects to take place in the Ark when we opened in 1995, where photographs of children were displayed in the windows of the building to show the world who the Ark had been created for. In 2016, this iconic project was re-created with a new series of professional portrait photographs of 264 children (one for each pane of glass) as part of the Put Yourself in the Picture programme.
ArkLink at Fatima Mansions (1999-2005)
ArkLink was a six-year project to establish links with children living in disadvantaged communities. Following the success of a film club and visual arts programme, ArkLink was transferred into community ownership in 2006.
Teddy Bear Story (2014)
touring exhibition, enhanced by bears on loan from well-known Irish faces including Bono.
Right Here Right Now! The Ark’s Festival of Children (2018)
In 2018 the Ark held a festival of children, co-curated by children. The pinnacle moment of which was a rally that saw children gather in Meeting House Square to highlight things that concerned them.