andrew kruse-ross | celtic nights | feb. 2016
'Celtic Nights' celebrates 100-year anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916, a pivotal point in the Irish struggle for independence with 'Spirit of Freedom,' which comes to the Weidner Center on Feb. 12. The show tells the story of Irish independence through a blending of vibrant Irish music, dance and storytelling sure to appeal to audiences of all ages.
Fielding questions via telephone from Lancaster, Calif., while on the West Coast leg of their 54-location North American tour, Scottish-born singer and co-producer Rebekah Johanne and Irish-born singer Ciaran Olohan talk heritage, history and music with Frankly Green Bay.
I've had the pleasure of speaking with people from many different places around the globe, but to the best of my knowledge you're the first person I've spoken with that's of Orcadian descent. Who are the Orcadians and how do they relate to Celtic heritage?
Rebekah Johanne: Basically, my family all come from Orkney. It's a small group of islands right up the top of Scotland and my granny was born there, my mom was born there. It's a big family; granny had seven children, which is really common back in the day, especially for people living on the island. We still have family up there now, but my granny moved nearby to where I was born. It's a really, really tiny place. The place where they were born is actually called Flotta, and you can actually walk around the island in about an hour and a half. That's where my heritage stems back to.
The current show deals with some very serious material, historically speaking, and while some North Americans will be familiar with the Easter Rising, 'Celtic Nights: Spirit of Freedom' may be for some the first exposure to this chapter in Irish independence. Both as producer and performer, does handling history like this require any special work on your end? Is there an added responsibility or maybe even pressure knowing that this production may serve as an historical introduction to many in the audience?
RJ: Basically when it came to putting the show together it's obviously still entertainment, so we tried to find the balance between telling the story, but at the same time, it isn't a history lesson. It's enjoyable. We've had children at the show that are two or three years old and then we've had people that are in their eighties. So, we're appealing to everybody. The whole story, it's obvious what it's about, but it's kept light and entertaining. Even the feedback that we've gotten, people are like, “It's such a heavy subject, but we were laughing and the next minute we we're crying."
Ciaran Olohan: As Rebekah was saying, we are very much concentrated on keeping the entertainment and lightheartedness to a maximum with this show, but it is addressing a very serious issue that so many Irish people still hold in high regards. The 1916 rising was really the launchpad for Irish independence and Irish freedom. To be celebrating it 100 years on is really a great honor for us and it's a real privilege. So many of the Irish songs really are just telling stories and to have so many in one show telling the whole story of Irish independence coming right up to the modern day is great.
Partially for me, I come from Wicklow, which is just south of Dublin. The show deals with the 1798 rebellion as well in the first half and so, the 1798 rebels all hid in the mountains very close to where I'm from, so I grew up hearing stories of these rebels hiding in the mountains. From a personal point of view as well, it's really great to be expressing what we're getting across in this show.
I understand this isn't your first visit to the United States, and that you'll even be visiting Canada for the first time with this tour. How have American audiences responded to the show thus far, and what about 'Celtic Nights' do you feel American audiences are most drawn to?
RJ: For me, we're really active on social media. We keep in contact with a lot of people that we've met and we see that as we go along — especially this, going into my third year now — I've met the same people every year. And for me that's really nice when you're traveling and are away from home and you're seeing familiar people in the audience it's really nice.
We do a meet and greet after every show, so we actually get to meet everyone that comes to see it. We get to say hi. They might just say thanks and go, or they might have a story to tell you about their past or their visit to Ireland. We're not any sort of character on stage; we're very much ourselves and I think that comes across and that's why people keep coming back to see the show. I think that's something that sets us apart from other shows. We really break down that wall on stage and the audiences are very involved in the show.
You mention breaking down that wall, a lot of times we talk about how interactive a show is or how well it connects with the audience, 'Celtic Nights' has an interesting way of achieving this with an 'unplugged session.' Would you like to talk about that for a moment?
CO: I think it's one of our favorite parts of the show. In Ireland you could be out any night of the week and all of a sudden someone would pull out a guitar or an accordion or a fiddle and this little sort of session would just spring up out of nowhere. That's something that we're really trying to bring over and recreate in the show. And as Rebekah was saying, we try and keep it as personable as we can. It's really a little insight into our social culture at home. You could be out for a drink or a bit of food and as I've said, you get this little session popping up out of nowhere in a corner or whatever and people start singing songs. It's a way of sharing an evening with total strangers even. It's been going down so well. We come and get quite close, we mingle amongst the audience, we get them clapping along and singing along. It's a really nice part of the show where everyone is involved, from the very youngest to the very oldest. It's fantastic.
Rebekah, we mentioned that you're not only a singer, but also the show's co-producer. How are you finding playing two different roles, and how has your past as a performer affected or aided you in your role as co-producer?
I don't find it hard to crossover; I really enjoy it. These shows are prepared a year, if not more, in advance, so it's really special for me to have worked with Michael, our producer, it's actually really special to see what he's created then come alive on stage. Although I never get to sit in the audience and watch the show myself. It's a really amazing experience. Michael was a performer himself, and obviously, I've trained and am still performing, but I think in that perspective you get a completely different show [compared] to somebody that hasn't had that musical background. You have a wider understanding. You know what it's like from an audience perspective, you know what it's like for a performer to stand onstage and do something. I feel you get a different performance from something put together by performers.
In case we haven't yet, let's talk about the musical selections for the show; are they songs pulled from history, or songs written specifically for this show?
RJ: When we were looking at the selections we wanted to tell the story from the very first rebellion up until the modern day, so there are pieces in the show that are as old as America itself.
CS: Oh, absolutely.
RJ: They're really special. There are a couple of more modern numbers in the show, but we had to find some [selections] that an American audience would know, so there'll be some songs that they would know and have heard a hundred times and then there's songs in there that they never have heard before. We try to keep a nice balance: telling the story, keeping it historic, but keeping a good feel within the show.
For tickets visit weidnercenter.com. For more information on 'Celtic Nights,' visit gfdpromotions.com/celticnights. Find 'Celtic Nights' on Facebook (facebook.com/CelticNights) and follow them on Twitter (@CelticNightIE).