There’s nowhere quite like the International Bar. Walk in on any given evening and you’re guaranteed laughs in the attic and tunes in the cellar.
If you’re a spontaneous kind of person – or you don’t like stairs – there’s a good chance some of the regulars will be having an open-to-all jam session on the ground floor.
But head down to the basement on a Monday night and you’ll get a potent mixture of all the above, with a dose of poetry and spoken word thrown in for good measure. The Circle Sessions has only been running in the International for just over a year – in a past life it was a Bray-based open mic – but it’s already more than made its mark on Dublin’s underground arts scene.
The event is frustratingly hard to define. Depending on who you ask, it’s anything from a “mic-less open mic” to a performance collective to a media brand. What this means in practise is that a typical Circle Session will include new performers who don’t know what to expect, pre-booked acts drawn from the cream of Dublin’s acoustic crop, and “regulars” who appear every week to showcase their material and support one another. For committed Circlers, the word that describes CS best is “family”.
One of the most distinctive things about the show is its imaginative features, which break up the night and prevent things from ever becoming monotonous. There’s the weekly “A-musing” (a showcase for top-notch poets and comedians); occasional slots like “Discovery” (where regulars cover each other’s work) and “Popsicles” (where they take on pop and rap classics); “Tales vs. Tunes” (discussed below); and the monthly “Original Circle” (a return to the event’s open mic roots that emphasises spontaneous jamming and crowd interaction).
Recently, 20 of CS’ best and brightest were featured on an album of originals, a labour of love which was overseen by the event’s committee at every stage, from funding through recording to distribution. Selected members of the group have also got the chance to play at Body and Soul and Electric Picnic.
But for all of this talent-nurturing, CS’ fundamental aim is to give newcomers the chance to be heard by a receptive audience. The event remains open to all, and every first-time performer gets an extra round of applause at the end of their piece. Bray, Dublin or Electric Picnic, the focus of CS remains the same: gathering a bunch of talented people together and seeing what happens.
David Halpin has been the event’s main organiser and principal host for over a year. We talked about where the Circle Sessions is now and where it wants to go.
I guess the first thing to ask is, what is the Circle Sessions?
The Circle Sessions is a performance collective based in Dublin. It draws together performers of music, poetry, spoken word, comedy and other forms of performance art in a supportive and respectful environment.
You haven’t always been CS’ main man – what made you decide to take the reins?
The two men who made CS a reality were Brian Kingston and Feargal Harris. Unfortunately Feargal was forced abroad to pursue his career, whilst Brian could no longer afford the time to run the event to its full capacity. At which point I stepped in. I had hosted the night on occasions at that stage – but nothing could have prepared me for the amount of background work to keep the group moving forward!
How does CS work? What’s the format of the night?
CS is a 3 hour weekly show, based around planned and unplanned acts – roughly 50:50. Planned acts are normally allowed 20 minutes and are booked in advance. Unplanned acts are allowed 5 minutes (or 1 piece), in order to add depth and variety to the show. Often some of the best performances on a night come from unplanned acts.
What sets CS apart from other nights?
There are 3 main things that set CS apart: the level of variety, the lack of a microphone or amplification, and a not-for-profit approach to earnings. In the live performance sphere in Dublin there is limited interaction between the genres (music, poetry, spoken word, comedy etc.). What CS does very effectively is allow each of these genres time without over-emphasising any.
Where do the earnings come from, and where do they go?
CS earns money through sponsorship and through its merchandising. This money in its entirety is then returned to its regular members by way of promotional opportunities, rather than as cash for performances. This year we concentrated on putting together an album and bringing our acts to festivals such as Body and Soul and Electric Picnic. This ensures that members stay active and that the event remains free to the public.
What keeps you doing it? What’s your favourite thing about hosting CS?
The variety of talent. Some hosts do it because they have a band or want to promote themselves; some do it to earn extra cash; some do it to get into management. I do it because I enjoy being creative – and every single week I come to CS and see different ways of performing, different ways of expressing things. When I started as a performer at CS I was only a singer/songwriter. Since then, I have written comedy songs, poetry and spoken word – all things I thought I would never do – and all down to inspiration found from being at the event every single week.
How about you take me through the process of making the album? Who’s on it?
The album was first suggested by our committee as a way of promoting our artists as well as the event. There are 19 different performers on the album (if I were to name them all I’d be here for a week), varying from rap music to comedy monologues to poetry about serious social changes. There really is something for everyone. The studio tracks were recorded by Damien Brady of Mother Universe productions in Gorey. He believed in the project from the get-go and was a pleasure to work with.
How did CS get involved in festivals?
We applied through the open application process on festival websites – just like any other event would. Those who accepted us were impressed by the ideas of the group and the delivery of our events at the festivals themselves. There is no secret to a festival application, it’s just have a good and innovative idea and keep pushing it!
What are some of your best CS memories?
My favourite times in CS are when the crowd is so enthralled by the performance you can literally hear a pin drop! Most of my favourite performances in the past year have been part of a section we call “Tales vs. Tunes”, where 2 performers (1 musician, 1 poet) get assigned 2 random words and are given 2 weeks to come up with brand new pieces. Then they face off against each other and there’s a public vote. The level of creativity I witnessed as part of that was jawdropping.
What are your plans for CS going forward?
Ultimately, we are aiming to put on more shows in larger venues and get our own stage at festivals. But in the short term, we doing things as simple as flyers and a video promo. You can’t lose sight of the everyday.
Finally, it’s time for one of those irritating “journalist” questions that people like to ask and hate to answer. How would you sum up CS in 3 words?
Performances. Passion. Pride.
The Circle Sessions runs in the International Bar every Monday from 8-11. Admission is free and anyone can perform. Copies of the CS album are available at the show for €5, and the songs are also available on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play and Amazon.
All images courtesy The Circle Sessions