Behind the Scenes with Body & Soul director Avril Stanley: ‘Business people whose advice I trusted told us we were crazy launching in a recession’

This summer solstice marks the tenth anniversary of Body & Soul, the independent music and arts festival that draws hoardes of passionate devotees to the stunning, sprawling grounds of Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath in June every year. Having founded the festival back in 2009, Avril Stanley (originally from Galway but now living in Dublin) has been steering the Body & Soul ship to huge success ever since, despite launching in the throes of a recession, and facing steep competition every year in an increasingly saturated market. Here, the 45-year-old mum of one tells us how her extensive travels and experiences abroad led to her setting up this quirky, beloved Irish festival.

What qualifications/training did you have setting out and what was your career path prior to Body & Soul?

Qualifications:  BA. hons in Italian and French language & literature, Shaitsu Practitioner, Ten Directions Integral Facilitator, Diploma in Relational Mindfulness, and currently doing an MA in Mindfulness based Psychotherapy.

“I travelled extensively in my twenties through much of Asia and South America, with an extended period of time in India, Japan and San Francisco.  Being immersed in different cultures and traditions was an incredible experience that influenced the rest of my life, and work.  I was most inspired by the way in which different cultures came together to celebrate their customs, and rituals, song and dance, mythologies and histories. Each country had its own unique interpretation and particular way of gathering people at different times of year to honour age-old traditions, and customs.

“The most precious moments were those spent with a local community as they prepared a huge feast to celebrate the harvest season in Peru with parades in traditional dress, folklore dances and pan pipes, experiencing Los Dia De Los Muertas (Day of the Dead) in Mexico – a multi-day day celebration honouring their deceased loved ones with offerings of sugar skulls, flowers, candles, and fruit for the spirits in the hope that they in turn would provide good luck and protection to families; the ancient Hindu festival of colours known as Holi that celebrates the spring equinox, the victory of good over evil and a festival day to meet others, play, laugh and chase one another around the village with dry coloured powder and water bombs; an elaborate tea ceremony in Japan with its ritualised zen like performance art that takes up to four hours, the Burning man festival in the Black Rock desert in Nevada with its wild abandon and symbolic burning of a 30ft man.

“It led me to research how we as a culture and race celebrated our own rites of passage, be that collectively or individually, and opened the door to a part of our own cultural history, and mythology that I knew very little about prior to travelling.  It is why I based Body & Soul on the summer solstice, so as to engage with our own celebrating of age-old traditions and the Celtic calendar that several of our own customs are built on.

“I was also very drawn to the healing modalities I came across in India and Japan and trained in massage,  Shiatsu and contemplative psychotherapy, which then led me to work as a therapist until I committed full time to Body&Soul.  In retrospect, I can see how my travel and studies contributed to the creation of Body&Soul in more ways than one.”


You started Body&Soul at the height of the recession.  What were the challenges? 

“Banks and sponsors turned us away.  Business people whose advice I trusted told us we were crazy. Why on earth would you start something in the height of the recession?  The overriding opinion was that it would be doomed to fail but I felt compelled to start something at that time nonetheless. 

“It was needed more than ever. Our entire country was on its knees and the opportunity to gather people together to celebrate our customs, our song, our spoken word, our ability to laugh, dance and navigate challenging situations collectively won out over the ‘don’t do it’ advice.”


Were there any advantages to kicking off at that time? 

“Ten years ago we created something that didn’t exist in Ireland. We successfully navigated a tough economic climate with uncompromising integrity and vision which gives you real back bone and establishes a deep sense of trust.  Taking place on the summer solstice each year gives it a new, contemporary, celebratory twist to an age-old tradition that honours our heritage in a unique way.

“Body & Soul was the very first festival to create a carefully curated ‘experience’ for festival goers.  We believed that the festival experience is as important as the festival lineup. It was the first to feature commissioned art installations, spoken word, holistic arts and sustainability into its programming. 

“It is now what is expected of a festival in Ireland – to be copied is to be complimented, right?  The festival landscape back then was very headline act-driven – with beer, burgers and chip vans as the main food offering and no real attention to detail!”


What is the ethos of Body & Soul?

”Body & Soul is a celebration of life, diversity, music, culture and the arts across three days and nights, hosted on one of Ireland’s most stunning country estates. The festival is built on four key pillars; Innovation, Incubation, Inclusivity and Sustainability.

“Every year our latest crew of Body & Soulers make the pilgrimage to this beautiful, verdant land that is transformed into a colourful festival village. It’s filled with hand-crafted stages, 16th century walled gardens, hidden forest dens, magnificent art trails and al fresco spas where the only rule is to expect the unexpected.

“What began as a back garden gathering has slowly grown into an unrivalled event, where every moment is curated and every sound considered. Body & Soul is comprised of creative collectives from Ireland and abroad that have sought to push the limits and explore the fringes of how the festival mould can benefit the world around it.

“Beyond the music there is plenty to enjoy from a masquerade ball to culinary delights from independent producers from all around Ireland, from steaming hot tubs and seaweed baths to spoken word performances and poetry readings, from late night raves to early morning magic.

“The festival is also dedicated to reducing our impact on the land, taking new steps each year to make the festival more sustainable. Through affecting positive change we want to continue to use the land that hosts us for many years to come, and we encourage our Body & Soulers to join in the journey.

“Sustainability is at the heart of all our planning, production and programming. It is as much about pursuing renewable energy sources as it is about personal sustainability, and that message emanates throughout the festival through art, talks and workshops, holistic art and wellbeing programmes and our communications strategies.

“Body & Soul has been a consistent leading light in the Irish festival scene as the first festival to switch to compostable server-ware, the first to intro eco-camping and the festival with the highest recycling rate in the country. This year 50% of the festival attendees (5,000 campers) will sign up and commit to its Us&You campsite committing to ‘Leave No Trace’.”


Were people a little sceptical ten years ago about a music festival championing wellness, yoga etc?

“We are a group of friends, curating a party. It’s an independent festival with a small team that is immersed in the creative world – that is where we live. Living in this world means we are at the cutting edge of Irish contemporary culture, collaborating and creating with the very best. The festival offering is an extension of our world and thus produces an authentic experience for the audience. The festival is intentionally built on four key pillars; Innovation, Incubation, Inclusivity and Sustainability – not because we wanted to tick boxes but because they were areas that inspired us – and we felt we had something unique to contribute to the festival landscape by creating a new model to inspire future festivals and generations

“We have collaborated with those at the centre of Irish and international creativity, innovation and wellbeing which has in itself given us a distinct edge and personality that people have come to expect. Some of that was of course met with skepticism, but yoga and mindfulness has now become mainstream – we are proud to have supported that movement of change in our own way.”


How has that evolved over the years?

“Ten years ago, we created something that didn’t exist in Ireland. It is now what is expected of a festival in Ireland – to be copied is to be complimented, right? It sounds trite but it’s true – we don’t follow trends, we create them.  We had yoga, well-being and sustainability initiatives before they were sexy.

“With wellbeing at its essence since inception, Body & Soul offers an extensive programme finessed over a decade, attracting top practitioners and speakers from all over the country. Masseuses, leading yogis, workshops leaders, sound healers, inspirational talks, meditation classes and classical overtures await in The Sanctuary, with the Spa available to soothe the senses in seaweed baths, wood-fired hot tubs, Balinese steam treatments and transformative tonics.

“People are looking for meaningful engagement nowadays – we have always been in that space and will continue to provoke and engage. We see our festival as a platform to create social change and weave that initiative through our programming and partnerships in a way that adds to the festival experience and invites people to stop and think, to challenge the status quo.”

“Our music booker Jenny Wren is a taste-maker bringing some of the world’s best music acts to Ireland even before they become household names including Solange, St. Vincent and Santigold but the line ups have been carefully curated to include acts that not only entertain but challenge us to think. For example last year’s music line-up included Fever Ray and Reykjavíkurdætur who are known for their searing live shows and social commentary around gender politics and feminism, and this year hosts the likes of spoken word performer Kate Tempest, The Blaze and Mashrou’Leila.

“As well as throwing the best party around we want to be a part of a movement of change. We can be a catalyst for change for people. We want to challenge the status quo and shake up the room whilst at the same time making people feel cared for and celebrated.”


What does the job entail on a day to day, month to month basis?

“Imagine building an impermanent village in the middle of the countryside on a piece of land that has no roads or infrastructure? A village that hosts up to 15,000 people, and provides all the amenities required to live well (water, food, parking, showers, camping facilities, security, etc). We have a duty of care for each and every person that comes to our festival. 

“In essence, we are tasked with both creating a safe container that holds their experience for the three days and nights, and creating a magical unforgettable experience that sends them back home inspired and ignited!


“From setting the theme of each year’s festival, to booking acts, negotiating sponsorship agreements, setting budgets for all elements of the event, working with curators, agreeing deadlines, liaising with the local authorities and An Garda Síochána, signing off on the location of new roads to building bespoke stages, contracting staff to redesigning the website, aligning the marketing strategy to dealing with food traders, end of year accounts to visioning for next year’s event – it’s endless, consuming, and demands your full attention and commitment. But ultimately so rewarding when you see how people respond and how well cared for they feel.”


What are the most enjoyable aspects of the job/perks?

Working with an incredible team of exceptional people who come from all walks of life to give their all the festival. They blow me away on a daily basis – both in terms of their capacity, professionalism, willingness to learn and innovative approach.

“And seeing our audience, our guests let their hair down and fully immerse themselves in the Body & Soul experience.”


What are the misconceptions about your job?

“That we are hanging out with rockstars! Even if we do, it’s to ensure they feel supported and cared for versus drinking Veuve Clicquot. We are mostly behind the scenes making sure that everything is running like clock-work!

“Also misconception number two: that it’s a glamorous job!  It does encourage freedom to be who you want to be however, and that is the best perk of all!


Has there been one particular highlight, and low point, of the past ten years?

“It’s an endless rollercoaster.  Highs and lows are part of the terrain.  Finding the mid-point is the way to navigate with ease.”


Have there been any particularly challenging moments/crisis you’ve had to overcome?

“We had a very wet year in 2016. Watching our team galvanise and pull together to deal with flooded fields, unserviceable roads and incredibly difficult conditions left me utterly in awe of our capacity to navigate challenges with an incredible team spirit, and dedication to keep the show on the road despite the odds. That level of commitment is rare and left me so incredibly grateful.”


How do you manage to compete as an independent festival in the current competitive landscape?

“‘Protect the pearl’ was the best advice I was ever given. We trust our offering and don’t look around at what other festivals are doing but stay focused on what is unique about Body & Soul. The market is currently over saturated and over commercialised with few independent festivals of our ilk in the running but ironically that gives us the impetus to innovate and stay ahead of the curve. That’s always been part of ethos – and keeps us on our toes.”


How has the industry changed in the past decade?

“Every day is a school day. The industry has changed enormously in the past decade – and has become very competitive. But change is inevitable and the things that are authentic always withstand the test of time. You can buy just about anything with money but you can’t buy authenticity and creativity.”


Which skills do you think serve you best in this job?

“A flexible mind, a perfectionist who also has an ability to surrender to the unknown, an entrepreneurial mind, a love for the unknown, a genuine appreciation for the arts, a willingness to learn longingly, the humility to say ‘sorry’, an endless drive to co-create and collaborate.”


What kind of person would not suit this job?

“Someone who needs to know what is around the next corner!  Someone who doesn’t like playing Russian Roulette.”


What advice would you give to anyone who wants to work in this area?

“Rather than looking at how much further you have to climb, turn around and look how far you have come. When always looking at the list of jobs to be done – it’s really important to look back and be inspired with what has been achieved and to take pleasure in that moment.

“I think also having a desire to learn something new every day and being open to that is a very powerful place to be – adopting a ‘beginners mind’ can open you up to a whole new way of thinking.”


What do you do in your down time?

“Hang out with my gorgeous son and partner. Go on silent meditation retreats. Have baths. Go on adventures to foreign lands. Dance like no-one is watching.”


Where do you see yourself, and Body & Soul, ten years from now?

“We hope to leave legacy for future generations, to inspire people to think outside of the box and co-create together.  We may well venture overseas – and see how we can shape shift in a fresh landscape. The future isn’t written thankfully. That’s the beauty of life!”

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