Behind The Scenes: The Making Of Stendhal
In-depth Interview with Festival Director Ross Parkhill
Interview and Video Footage | Stacy Fitzpatrick
For those who have ever enjoyed the festival experience, it’s a weekend in your calendar, good times to remember and eventually back to reality. The enormity of work that goes on behind the scenes to bring your favourite artists, to create that stage, to transform a field for one weekend. The ideas and action to make the experience the best it can possibly be doesn’t happen overnight.
Stendhal Festival, the annual event nestled in the quiet country backdrop of the Roe Valley is now in it’s 6th consecutive year. The significant thing about this festival, is that wasn’t created by a multi million pound company, it was and still is run entirely by committed, ordinary people with a vision to make a difference.
An idea between friends, borne from their own festival going experiences, has led to becoming a multi-award winning festival.
“It was something we had battered about between friends at other festivals-we said ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do something like this in Limavady’. Says Festival Director Ross Parkhill. From Limavady himself, attending Glastonbury for the first time opened a new world to him.
“I was 20 when I went to Glastonbury-I wasn’t into music or the arts. I didn’t know Radiohead! Radiohead was the gig. My first full concert and festival.
“That weekend had a massive impact on my life. That’s why Stendhal exists really.”
The sentiment of the experience is immortalised at Stendhal with the main area of the festival dedicated to Radiohead.
“‘Karma Police’ was my favourite song, hence Karma Valley! Which Radiohead will play at someday, on the pyramid stage that we build for them!
“Anybody who wins the lottery will you book us Radiohead?!” he adds laughing.
The first attempt at Stendhal was organised in 2008, ambitiously and experimental, as Ross reveals:
“We tried to launch in 2008, very young naive, very ambitious. We tried to do it from inception to launch within two months and we had to cancel 10 days before-we lost a lot of money but it was a big learning curve. I don’t regret it though because had we not done it we wouldn’t of learned and tried to do it again in 2011.
“It took a couple of years to pay that off then in 2011 we got it rocking.”
Undeterred and more determined, Ross along with best friends John Cartwright and Colm O’Donnell with invaluable help from family, friends and the community brought Stendhal back.
“The effort and the commitment that goes in…it’s very much a family thing. My sister, my mum and dad, johns family so many families.. I guess we are just one big family when it comes to Stendhal.
“I’d like to acknowledge my parents and John’s parents especially.. Without our parents support we definitely would not be here. Be it financial or moral support through the madness of it all. So massive thanks to them.
Everybody’s incredible, amazing.” he proclaims.
The first official Stendhal Festival took place in 2011. It has grown year on year currently attracting thousands of visitors from far and wide.
“Now versus 2011, it’s a totally different monster. Everything about it. The stages, infrastructure, the planning the detail, the size of the team, everything.
Every year the festival becoming more awe inspiring, Ross reflects on the early days of Stendhal and the personal attachment:
“The first one is always going to have a special place in my heart. It was 1200 people, with the site being the same size. And it was all quite new to us and it wasn’t so complex so we all got to enjoy it. I was able to walk about and see friends who were over from London and get to enjoy it. I suppose that was one of my favourite moments. It was very sentimental.
“John’s parents own the farm. Turin Brakess were his most-seen live band throughout his own musical journey and there they were out there playing in his ‘back garden’. I was pretty proud right then..”
It’s huge success and acclaimed awards are indeed well deserved. Growing increasingly popular year on year, what festival goers don’t see is the hard work, immense commitment and sacrifices made by Team Stendhal to bring it to life.
“Planning starts as soon as the last festival is done. It takes two or three months to tie off the last one but the festival is never out of my head. As long as I’m awake there’s something about the festival banging about[in my head]. I’m thinking about stuff five years from now. It starts straight away.”
“Team wise on the weekend of the event we have 120/130 volunteers a. Sixty of the team would be active from May every weekend. Evenings and weekends, up on the site building stages, fencing, painting..all sorts of stuff. We all have day jobs.”
Many volunteers who put in the hard, physical graft are from the local community. The costs to run the festival are immense and any income generated goes straight back into the festival.
“There’s a massive community behind it. That’s the beautiful thing about it to me, the relationships.” says Ross.
“As a social outlet Stendhal is a massive thing in Limavady. We have a core team of about 60 people.
“A lot of the team take weeks of their annual leave from their paid jobs for the last week or two of Stendhal which is phenomenal. Those guys…that’s how we exist; Everybody’s efforts.”
The community spirit attached to Stendhal is admirable and is what makes Stendhal such a unique and progressive festival. Setting it apart from other festivals, it isn’t about money, ego or prestige. It’s about real people joining selflessly together to create a memorable experience.
“We work with a lot of community groups and likewise they do a lot for the festival. Most sports clubs would struggle to get 50 or 60 people helping and we’re an arts organisation in the rural world.
“I’m all about rural arts. There’s such a limited amount of opportunity to engage with the arts, in my experience. I suppose that’s the driver to what Stendhal’s about.
“Thats pretty much the ethos-to get people into the arts.”
A festival in a rural setting, bringing to the people things they have never seen before. Perfectly emulating it’s namesake, the festival named after a French 19th century writer who discovered the experience. “People used to come in from rural Italy in the 1850’s to this art gallery.” Ross explains,
“And they had never seen art before in their life. They would come into the Uffizi and they would pass out-the art just overtook them. So that’s the name and the theme- ‘Come and discover the arts’.”
Stendhal aims to engage a community and bring opportunities to explore the arts in all forms.
“Our mission is to hold an annual celebration of the arts and to develop a creative place and creative opportunity.”
“I’ve seen some amazing things through my time at Stendhal of what arts can do and the impact on people. And that spills out into the ethos of what it’s all about. Getting kids into the arts a bit earlier.”
“Even through workshops we have held recently, crocheting, knitting, music, pottery…people of all ages for the first time in a long time are coming out of the house, as a social outlet and a general outlet for kids to gain confidence. And confidence is the key to any success.”
With an impressive musical line up to accompany the arts events and experience, the different thing about Stendhal is their intentions in their choices. True to the Stendhal heart, their direction is always crusading to bring the best opportunities for others. Ross explains the musical focus for the festival:
“Our motto is to try bring in international acts, maybe 5-10 percent of of the bill that will bring larger audiences to the other 90 percent of [local] artists and performers thus accessing much broader audiences.”
“Programming doesn’t get any easier. Every year we have 50 or 60 acts and each year every act wants to come back. So it’s hard because the whole reason we had them is because we wanted them and we liked them and they make sense to the festival but we want to keep it fresh too and give other acts a chance too. And that’s a really really hard thing.
“There’s a few that have been every year that are like great friends of the festival now.”
What new wonders is Stendhal planning to unveil for this year?
“Programming wise we are pretty meticulous in designing it in a way that it is friendly to all age groups. We get four generations of the same family coming out to the weekend which is amazing but that all stems from the ethos that it is a family built thing.
“We look at who comes each year and listen to feedback. The main thing is keeping that family atmosphere. Its safe, its good people. Friendly, happy, colourful. That’s it.” Ross states.
The annual Secret Garden, always a hit with the children is back. “Our secret garden, which is always themed-last year it was Alice In Wonderland. This year it is going to be Toy Story themed”
A new Sensory Tent specially aimed at 0-4 year olds will be unveiled this year and the Family Programme will be combined into one tent in a new location as Ross reveals: “Last year there was two marquees for the family programme. One was performance, one was arts and crafts. That’s going to be one tent this year mixed together. We’re going to take the family programme out to the woodland stages so it’s not all a concentrated area.
“They can walk around and have a nice journey walking past the venues and stages around the festival and take in a puppet show or a bit of theatre for the kids. So that’s quite exciting.”
Glamping is back and better than before for those who want to camp in luxury, as well as a sugar free healthy eating zone at the family area and the Oh Yeah and Nerve Centre Stage is back. A stage for artist development and young emerging artists to showcase their music.
Some of Stendhal’s staples- the familiar, popular areas and attractions have been carefully planned and developed to keep making the experience as stimulating as ever.
Annan’s Arch: “The mythical willow weaving making area is back and it will be bigger and better as always. A few surprises coming there. Last year we did an artists residency program down there which was a really nice project.”
Main Stage: “The main stage is going to be bigger and better-with a big screen for a couple of visual shows-our first time doing that.”
Karma Valley: “The Karma Valley stage is getting a lot of focus on how it’s going to be finished. I’m designing a lot of aspects of it myself, kinda building it around Lynched who are going to be playing on that stage, Saturday evening.
“Its very much listening music [from Lynched] so it’s going to be a very homely environment. Karma Valley, the whole vibe was to be that. There’ll be carpet and cushions and the art gallery will be in the audience area there.”
Sculpture Garden: “There’s going to be a sculpture garden,looking forward to it massively.
Woodtown: “Woodtown has all sorts of developments there-we’ve just built a big sound booth hidden in the trees which is stunning. The upper Woolly Woodland stage last year got a treehouse and DJ booth and there’s a Prosecco Bar we’re going to put in there. Prosecco and nice kids fruit juices!!”
Garden Shed Stage: “The garden shed stage is getting most of our focus this year-a total makeover. A totally fresh space. That houses a lot of acoustic stuff and spoken word and comedy.”
A lot of focus has been paid to pathways around the festival site, for people walking around the festival site with a pushchair or wheelchairs easing access and making it easy to manoeuvre around.
“That’s something that’s very close to our hearts” states Ross “This year particularly a focus was the accessibility. Last year we focused on roads for vehicles, people to get to the festival. But this year we have focused on the festival goer accessibility as opposed to infrastructure.
“So now disabled people can land at the yard and there’s pathways around the whole site and astro turf paths that take you to the stages and performance areas. That’s going to continue to be a be a big focus. Obviously it’s a working farm, there’s areas we can’t yet get to but there’s plenty of scope for disabled users to have good craic at the weekend.”
As well as a sweeping collective of arts, spoken word, poetry and craft events, the music line up Stendhal delivers is epic spanning every genre conceivable making it the ultimate festival experience. This year’s headliners including Badly Drawn Boy, Therapy?, Lynched, DJ Yoda to name a few.
Summing up Stendhal in a nutshell Ross says: “Stendhal is about bringing a bit of colour and character to the Roe Valley and Northern Ireland as one of two Summer music and camping Festivals.”
Winners of the Best Small Festival for the last three years, best family festival and best lineup in 2014 this year the aim is to be even better. “We want to win the family one back this year” asserts Ross. And not forgetting the other ultimate goal for Stendhal: “We WILL get Radiohead! That’s the mission statement!”
Visit www.stendhalfestival.com for the full Stendhal experience and lineup information or to book tickets. Stendhal Festival 2016 takes place on 12 and 13 August at Ballymully Cottage Farm, Limavady.
Video: Stacy Fitzpatrick (Stendhal 2014)