OPEN HOUSE : CONTINUING TO CREATE MAGIC AFTER 10 YEARS

TEN years ago this week, the Open House Festival made its big debut in Bangor.

A feast for culture vultures as well as something of a culture shock for many surprised to see a month-long series of events big and small on their doorstep, Open House was an instant hit.

In the decade since it has gone from strength to strength, growing from its initial focus on music, film and literature to also take in food and drink events, local cultural history, theatre and stand-up comedy.

From bringing big name bands to play scenic seafront shows to providing a vital platform giving a leg-up to local creatives, the festival has made Bangor the place to be during August – and just last year the Open House team realised a long-held dream of turning Quay Street’s derelict court house into a bespoke venue open all year round.

It’s been quite a journey for the driving forces behind Open House, directors Kieran Gilmore and Alison Gordon. That’s especially true when looking back at the Bangor they started in; not yet a city, it was a town where, while there were isolated pockets of creative activity going on, few would have imagined there could be an audience large enough for something on the scale of a month-long arts festival.

But that audience was there, and hungry for what Open House had to offer.

“The feedback that we get from local people is one of the best things [about running the festival],” says Alison. “It’s the feelgood factor that this is happening in our town, it’s really nice.”

Back then the focus was almost exclusively on Bangor’s collapsed retail sector, which had seen chain stores pull out en masse in the face of a double-blow of a recession and the increasing ubiquity of online shopping.

For a lot of people, the only way they could see to get the town on its feet again was to get those stores to come back. Kieran and Alison had a different vision.

True believers in the power of the arts to drive change, both in terms of the local mindset and the economy, they saw Bangor’s potential beyond retail; that the right kind of festival could spearhead a regeneration of the town, a shift in its focus from commerce to culture that would point the way to a new future.

“We saw the opportunities of Bangor, and all its resources,” says Alison. “The glorious beaches, the architecture, the amazing artistic and musical talent and a huge cultural history.

“Bangor had started to believe it was just a suburb of Belfast, but we wanted it to reclaim its identity as a town, and now city, in its own right.

“What had happened to Bangor was not an isolated case; it wasn’t local failings, it was symptomatic of seaside towns throughout the UK and Ireland. There are many reasons why seaside towns are struggling, ranging from the ease of cheap air travel to a focus on retail and out of town shopping centres.

“Nationally, we’d seen other seaside towns reinvent themselves – Whitstable, Hastings, Margate – and in that context we thought, why not Bangor? So we wanted the festival to communicate that it is a town in transition, to give people optimism about the future and the confidence to help build that future.”

Adds Kieran: “When we started, one of our ambitions was to get people to stop talking Bangor down and start talking it up. It’s still in transition, but we’d like to think we’ve helped go some way towards that.”

Still, starting a month-long large-scale festival in Bangor was a gamble; the town wasn’t on the map for touring acts, lacked dedicated venues and had seen its nightlife dip from a popular peak in the 1990s.

But August 2013 saw Open House bet big, recruiting a wide variety of national and international names ranging from music legends Noddy Holder and Glen Matlock to Northern Ireland’s punk heroes the Undertones, to BBC 6Music regulars Midlake and the Staves for the festival’s first salvo.

That’s in addition to programming the cream of the period’s local talent such as Farriers and Kowalski, as well as kicking off what were to become festival favourite events such as folk on a boat and a free bluegrass picnic in Ward Park.

“It was a gamble, but a calculated gamble,” says Alison. “We’d been running a festival in Belfast, but from our box office data we knew we were attracting a lot of people from Bangor.

“That was part of Bangor’s problem; audiences were coming in their droves to Belfast to be entertained and spend their money. We calculated that if we staged events in Bangor, all those people and more would attend – and we could attract some of our loyal Belfast audience down to Bangor, if we packaged it in a way that was attractive.”

With so few venues on hand and necessity the mother of invention, Open House staged their shows in some very unusual places – memorably including bands in the hallowed surroundings of Bangor Abbey and a screening of Jaws in Aurora Leisure Centre’s swimming pool.

“For years, we were using pop-up venues – hotels, churches, even a disused auction house – which led to some magical experiences,” remembers Kieran.

But they found those pop-up shows could be awkward to organise in terms of set-up and equipment. Gigs in churches, for example, meant bringing in and later dismantling hefty lighting rigs and sound systems on the day of every concert, to avoid disrupting regular religious services.

A few years into the festival, the team realised that the Walled Garden was, as they put it, ‘one of the greatest assets Bangor has’, and started to focus on that site. They’d already employed it for open-air movie screenings, but started to wonder if, with a little bit of planning, it could house much more.

“We decided to cover it with a stretch tent and put in seating that could accommodate 400 people,” says Kieran. “It allowed us to put on consecutive events – whether comedy, music, classic film or spoken word – as we could keep the infrastructure in place.

“It also felt like we had our own venue for several weeks in August, which we couldn’t do with the pop-up venues. Having the Walled Garden for a run of 18 to 20 shows on consecutive days made things a lot easier operationally; plus, somewhere as beautiful as that is the best venue we could ever hope to find. Even the toilets are fantastic.”

When Covid hit, Open House began to rely on the Walled Garden as the perfect venue to stage shows while still meeting social distancing requirements; it’s still a regular home for larger festival events, even now the Court House is open.

“For us it’s about never doing things to a formula,” says Alison. “We wanted to try different venues, just for the fun of trying them and to get people to look at Bangor through different eyes.

“We’ve had events in the British Legion, the Masonic Hall, Grey Point Fort, in restaurants and on boats; a lot of that was just saying ‘why not?’. Anywhere can be a venue.”

Over the past decade Bangor has seen some amazing sights thanks to Open House; most visibly million-selling music stars rocking the seafront, but also crowds of thousands enjoying free Sunday events in Ward Park, as well as the Sundown Market and Seaside Revival events that transformed the seafront into celebrations of Bangor’s vintage cultural history.

They’ve also offered a stage for locals to show their stuff, ranging from musician Rachel McCarthy’s folk-history project Bangor’s Ghost, to a headline show from magician and now Blue Peter presenter Joel Mawhinney when he was still at school, to a showcase for West End performer Niamh Perry, to bringing music critic Gavin Martin back to town to interview rock‘n’roll greats.

Of course, there have also been plenty of challenges for the team too; at one end there’s the everyday risk of typically bad Northern Irish weather spoiling outdoor events, and at the other the globe-spanning impact of the pandemic severely curtailing their activities – and just this year they suffered a funding blow as massive budget cuts hit Northern Ireland’s arts and tourism sectors.

“Every year brings something new,” says Kieran. “We lost what had been our main indoor venue, the Marine Court’s ballroom, when the hotel closed; we used to partner with Eason’s for our literary events, but they pulled out of Northern Ireland entirely.”

“And Covid really did change everything,” adds Alison. “It affected every aspect of running a festival; some of its effects are still there, some audiences never really came back, and a lot of artists cancelled tours or even went into different lines of work.”

But with the festival now back at full strength after the pandemic, the team say that their free Sunday afternoon gigs at Ward Park’s bandstand have a better vibe than ever, with a stronger sense of community and joy among the thousands of people jointly experiencing live performance together.

And while they have big plans for the future – including a city of culture bid currently gathering steam – Kieran and Alison say that 10 years of running the festival has brought such a change of perspective that they no longer have a wish list of acts they’d like to book from here on in.

“Well, I think Rod Stewart would be a blast on the seafront,” laughs Kieran, “and there’s certainly people we tried to get, but couldn’t.

“But it’s less about the individual artists and bands, and more about maintaining the positivity and atmosphere; just having a great gig, whether that’s for 50 people or 5,000 people.

“At the start, I may have been thinking along the lines of a wish list; now, we’re about creating magic, whatever that is.”