Loving Your Work: Meet The Irish Woman Behind The Bram Stoker Festival

Whether you’re a resident vampire or visiting from further afield, you need to know the anticipated Bram Stoker Festival kicks off in Clontarf, Dublin tonight until October 30th. The premise of the festival is to honour author Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker - born on 8th November 1847 in Clontarf, Dublin - and his infamous novel Dracula. This all culminates in a four-day cultural gathering of live performances, scary screenings and monstrous tours - apt for anyone wanting to unleash the vampire within. And as we prepare to sharpen our fangs, we thought there was no day more fitting than today to chat to co-director of the festival Maria Schweppe.

Maria has over 20 years’ experience working professionally in the arts: as well as being founder of the London Irish Comedy Festival, she was the Fellowships and Operations Co-ordinator at the prestigious Clore Leadership Programme and since returning to Ireland, in 2015, she has produced the Vodafone Comedy Tent at Body&Soul, The Irish Times Theatre Awards; the Father Ted Experience at Electric Picnic and much more. She spoke to IMAGE.ie about striking out, starting over and what to expect at the festival over the long weekend:

When was your 'a-ha' moment?

When I was 15, I joined Dublin Youth Theatre, it was, and still is, an amazing organisation where you get to meet people from all walks of life, learn performance skills from leading theatre artists, which enhances your confidence, and also what it takes behind the scenes to make a show. I was quite academic in secondary school, but also unhappy, so I left when I was 16. My Mum was incredibly supportive, she just wanted me to be happy, and I promised her at the time that I’d work hard and end up in the career that I decided upon. I volunteered in the office of Dublin Youth Theatre in my teens with the then General Manager, Valerie Bistany, which is when I discovered a love of the business side of the arts. I then went on to work for St. Patrick’s Festival, Axis, Ballymun and became General Manager of Dublin Youth Theatre in 2001, where I worked for ten years.

What does your working day look like?

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It’s only in the last two years that I’ve been working as a freelancer, I keep regular office hours working from home, and by 10 am, I’m usually sitting in front of my laptop. Myself and my partner both work from home, so we usually spend all day sitting at either end of the kitchen table. Working on festivals and in the arts can be seen as glamorous, but there are a lot of spreadsheets! I’m usually juggling a couple of different projects and each day can be very different; one day I could be programming the Vodafone Comedy Tent for Body&Soul and the next developing an open call application process for the Bram Stoker Festival. Sometimes, I feel guilty at quieter times of the year when I may only work half days, but I have to remind myself of the 12 hours a day that I work when it’s really busy!

Maria Schweppe

What is your advice to anyone who feels unhappy in their career?

It’s hard to make a change, it requires a lot of work sometimes, and it can be terrifying! After my Mum passed away, I decided that I wanted to move to London, but it didn’t happen overnight. I spent six months applying for jobs, chatting to people who worked in HR about how best to lay out my CVs and cover letters, deciding on the right jobs to apply for that would fit my skill set and that I thought I would enjoy having coaching sessions. I also had a ‘vision board’ on my bedroom wall that kept me focused on the final goal, which included a picture of a lovely row of pastel- coloured houses in Kentish Town, where I’d decided I wanted to live. During that time, I got a lot of help and a lot of advice. There isn’t really a huge culture of coaching in Ireland but I’d highly recommend it, it helps to take away the enormity of reaching your goal and breaks it down into smaller, easier tasks…kind of like life homework. Never be afraid to ask someone for guidance or advice.

Tell us a little about what's involved in putting the Bram Stoker Festival together?

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Without a programme of events, there’d be no festival, so our first job is to put this together. The programming brief is extensive and includes Bram Stoker and his works, the Gothic, the Victorian, Samhain and more. This comes together through a mixture of ideas that we or the team have, an open application process and approaches that are made throughout the year. For most of the year, it’s just Tom and I working on the festival, and then we bring our 'Bram-ily,' the rest of the fang-tastic team (the puns never get old), together. We have great support from the festival funders; Dublin City Council and Fáilte Ireland. There are so many elements to getting it all together; programming, production, PR and marketing campaigns and engaging Dublin businesses, it requires lots of creativity and attention to detail.

What can we expect over the weekend?  

This year, we're really interested in unusual venues and locations and making them accessible to members of the public who maybe wouldn't ordinarily visit them. For instance; a pop-up Victorian fun park in one of Dublin City Centre's public parks, discussions with a Vampirologist in the Royal College of Surgeons and a series of horror radio plays in a former Georgian schoolhouse. We’ve got the king of camp, Al Porter, doing a stand-up show called Camp Dracula, a party in Vicar Street with Lisa Hannigan, Wyvern Lingo, Saint Sister and lots more special guests and the Macnas parade, which if you haven’t experienced before you should make it your business to go to, it’s a very special and magical event.

See the full rundown of events at www.bramstokerfestival.com

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