Samhuinn Through the Years: Matt’s Story

Matt at Samhuinn 2012 by Richard Winpenny

Matt first took part in Samhuinn seventeen years ago as a fire performer for the Summer Court, having one last dance of heat and light before being blacked out by the arrival of Winter…

I started in BFS in 1998, having seen Samhuinn and wanting to be involved (I didn’t know at first that there was a Beltane – I watched Samhuinn and mentioned it to some juggling friends the next Summer, who pointed me in BFS’ direction in time for Samhuinn ’98!). I’ve been in many different roles over the years – Elemental, Red, White, Drummer, Blue – also behind-the-scenes roles in Tech, on the Board as Chair, running the website and producing events.

I see Samhuinn as a time of preparation and acknowledgement of the hardships of the approaching Winter – a season which you have to acknowledge and respect, unlike Summer which you can ‘skip through carefree’. During the other seasons, nothing ever stops – even after death there is life in the
processes of decay. But in Winter, time can stand still – animals hibernate in a sleep close to death; the fallen fruit or dead body will remain in suspended animation until spring arrives to thaw them and allow life to begin again.

As well as acknowledging the hardships, Samhuinn is a time to appreciate the ‘coming together’ of the people around us that Winter brings – a time to be indoors, to share company, warmth and light in an otherwise dark and lonely time. It’s also a time to ‘clear the air’ and start afresh with those who you will spending those dark days with – it is never a good idea to keep holding a grudge against someone you will have to spend your days in close company with!

What struck me most about Samhuinn was how much happened behind the scenes, and how much a part of your life BFS can become! I’d seen the performance a year before I took part, and assumed it would be more like a traditional theatre environment, where you could turn up, take part and leave again. I hadn’t realised that BFS can become part of your whole life, through the strong sense of community, the year-round activities, and that taking part in a festival is almost more a ‘spiritual journey’ than a theatre performance.

The strength of the community also really impressed me – the fact that a large-scale performance in the heart of a major city could be put on by volunteers giving up their own time and money, cobbling together amazing props, costumes out of bits and pieces foraged from around the city, and putting on an impressive performance from nothing in just a few weeks. It’s hard not to be motivated to do your best when all around you are amazing people giving 110%

That it all takes place in a very public space, in the heart of the city, makes it extra special for me. It wasn’t indoors, it wasn’t in a theatre or other performance space – it was on the streets that people walk down every day. And what better place to draw people’s attention to the seasons and the environment than in the place they interact with them!

Throughout its life, Samhuinn has got bigger as it has evolved from a small-scale community event into a larger performance. In some ways this means it has lost some of the inclusivity that it had for the audience in the early years (it’s just not possible to interact ‘one-on-one’ with 5k-10k people!). However the fact that the core has remained unchanged is powerful and perhaps remarkable, given the strength of artistic ideas that resound within the community!). The key imagery and archetypes of the battle between Summer and Winter are accessible and understandable by those who come to see it, whether new to the festival or old-timers.

I’ve had a few years out from performing, doing behind-the-scenes stuff instead, but have jumped back into a performance role this year (in The Faces) as I want to re-explore that aspect of the festival which I feel I’ve been missing for a bit too long. I’m most looking forward to the journey that a group takes in the run up to the festival, and the buzz of the final moments of putting on costume and facepaint and slipping into character before the performance begins. But most of all I’m excited about experiencing the Kings’ battle and the unveiling of the Cailleach from ‘inside’ the performance again – there’s something quite different about it when you are part of the performance than when you’re observing it all from outside.

Photo of Matt (centre Blue) at Samhuinn 2012 by Richard Winpenny

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