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Dublin Theatre Festival: ‘We put the world’s best artists on Dublin’s stages’

Dublin Theatre Festival will feature Sean McGinley and Seana Kerslake in King of the Castle Dublin Theatre Festival will feature Sean McGinley and Seana Kerslake in King of the Castle. Photo: Matthew Thompson
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The Irish capital’s arts festival has mirrored the expansion and evolution of its host city over the past 60 years. Eleanor Turney finds artistic director Willie White in buoyant mood and determined to continue sating appetites with a programme that reflects the pressing issues

Dublin Theatre Festival celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, and artistic director Willie White is buoyant. “Anniversaries are nice,” he says. “We’re celebrating our durability – but given how much has changed in the past 60 years, we can’t take for granted that we can go on as we were. We’re also seeing this as an opportunity to refresh and renew.”

Despite the name, DTF isn’t just about theatre. “We’re quite cheeky and have a very permissive attitude to what theatre is,” explains White. “A lot of projects that we’re premiering aren’t ‘theatre’ in a traditional sense; we have contemporary dance, we have opera, we have a new version of an Ancient Greek play, we have work on the borders of performance art, and we have new plays. We don’t want to maintain a dogmatic approach to what theatre is.”

Dublin has changed since 1957, from the social housing boom of the 1960s and 1970s to the city’s rapid expansion and growing suburbs. “There’s a traditional idea of Dublin being a compact city, which no longer holds true. The festival has to reflect that and talk to everyone who lives here. There’s a dimension that’s about tourism, but first and foremost it is put on for the people of Dublin and anyone else who wants to join in.”

As a country, too, Ireland is changing. “We’re not as monocultural any more. You can no longer just say are you Irish or are you British, because many more nationalities live here now, and that’s really changed in the last 20 years. Previous ways of thinking become inadequate and we need to change.

Aaron Monaghan in The Second Violinist. Photo: Patrick Redmond
Aaron Monaghan in The Second Violinist. Photo: Patrick Redmond

“The world that we’re in at the moment is quite hostile, quite selfish. This festival is international, and we’re no longer just talking about ourselves and our own problems. There’s more to our own theatre than identity politics and our relationship to Britain, or the sorry history of the way the Irish state has treated women’s bodies.”

DTF programmes the best of Irish work as well as bringing artists from around the world to Dublin. “If I do say so myself,” laughs White, “this is the leading festival of theatre in the country. There’s an opportunity in Dublin to address a large and reasonably interested constituency. What’s great about having an audience that’s been with us for so long is that often it’s the older audiences who have the greatest desire to see experimental stuff, because they’re so experienced.

“We do pretty well with younger audiences, too, but my point is that it doesn’t break down that older audiences like the more conservative or traditional stuff and younger audiences are adventurous. It’s more complicated than that, and that’s great. It means that you can have a degree of confidence about trying new things.”

Does White see his job as pushing the boundaries, or feeding the appetite that already exists? “Both. There are people who go to one show, and they want something straight-down-the-line and just good, and there are people who are quite adventurous, and they can take on a lot in terms of playing with form or new work that’s not tried and tested.”


5 things you need to know about Dublin Theatre Festival

1. The festival was founded in 1957 – the Irish Tourist Board sought events to support in the shoulder months of the tourist season – May/June and September/October.

2. Its website hosts an archive dating back to the 1950s.

3. The first festival featured plays by Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde and WB Yeats.

4.The 1958 festival was postponed after complaints from Archbishop John Charles McQuaid about “obscene and objectionable” material.

5. The 2017 edition features the Irish premiere of Nina Raine’s Tribes, a new play by Stacey Gregg, a new opera from Enda Walsh and Donnacha Dennehy, and works by David Greig, Sebastian Berry, Emma Martin and Wils Wilson.

As ever, money is a concern. “I certainly can’t present as much international work as I’d like, because it’s expensive. It’s really important to consider that this is not London or somewhere where there’s a fair amount of international work throughout the year. A festival like this has to be an apotheosis of international work because it’s not something that happens year-round.

“What I love most about my job is going to see performances, but the biggest challenge is bringing them to Dublin. Theatre is labour intensive and materially intensive and resource intensive. We’re in a country where we haven’t got as diverse a set of funding sources. A lot of people think that the solution to their woes is more money, but it certainly would help us to put on a more ambitious festival.”

From a practical point of view, there’s a lot of work White can’t programme because Dublin simply doesn’t have a venue for it. “Dublin’s a bit eccentric – what we could really do with is a new performing arts space that has a large stage, 400 to 600 seats, and that functions year round. That’s my fantasy.

“It would be so good for the companies who fill 200-seaters but aren’t ready to graduate to 1,000 seats. Belfast is better equipped – it’s got the MAC, the Lyric and the Opera House.”

Girl Song by Emma Martin. Photo: Luca Truffarelli
Girl Song by Emma Martin. Photo: Luca Truffarelli

There’s been talk (again) this week about the lack of women whose plays are being produced on UK stages. In 2015, the Abbey Theatre launched its programme to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising, and only one of the 10 plays programmed was written by a woman, and only three had female directors. The DTF programme is considerably more balanced, though not entirely, and I ask White if that was a conscious decision.

“I’ve always championed the work of women,” he says. “I’m fully on board with the conversation around gender equality, but it’s harder when you’re talking about classic or canonical plays because unfortunately the canon is predominantly masculine. The challenge is around playwriting rather than directing.

Hamnet, starring Ollie West. Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola
Hamnet, starring Ollie West. Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola

“But there is inequality and it has to be corrected, and there’s no way backwards from this. One has to be open to all kinds of work, and to correct one’s biases. The conversation is ongoing. The challenge for us is about how we foster the next generations. If I look around and say, there’s no female artists that can get a gig at Dublin Theatre Festival, and if our numbers are still poor, then we need to look a few stages back down the line. What’s happening?

“It’s not enough to have the right principles. We have to, as a sector, do more. The challenge, and what we have to achieve, is giving female artists the opportunities to present work on our larger stages and not confining them to smaller stages.

“If you run an organisation, it behoves you to check your prejudices and make sure you’re doing everything you can. The task is to work out how to help people graduate to larger work – and that’s an international problem, not just an Irish one. There needs to be change, and we need to be part of that change.”

That said, it’s clear that White is proud of what the festival offers. “We do as much as possible with the resources we have. And we have the support of our audiences. When I think of my colleagues who run European festivals, they’re much less reliant on box office income and they enjoy a very different theatregoing audience.

“Ruth Mackenzie has talked about the audiences she gets in Amsterdam [at the Holland Festival], and there’s an appetite for different work. People can’t like stuff if they’ve never experienced it, so we have to be programming the more experimental stuff and introducing those artists to our audiences. We want to keep a conversation going, and support contemporary theatre in all its forms. We have to manage risk, but to always be developing what we’re here for, which is to put the world’s most outstanding artists on Dublin’s stages.”

Profile: Dublin Theatre Festival

Artistic director and chief executive: Willie White
Founded: 1957
Dates: September 28 to October 15, 2017
Number of performances/events (2017): 352 performances of 31 full-scale productions across 17 stages
Audience numbers (2016): In excess of 42,000
Box office revenue (2016): 557,624
Funding: (2016): 1.1 million, including in-kind support: 810,000 from Arts Council; 99,250 grants from Dublin City Council, Failte Ireland, Creative Ireland, NXTSTP, Tourism Ireland, and Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; 207,186 and in-kind sponsorship from The Doyle Collection, The Irish Times, RTE, Luas Cross City, Olytico and Mitsubishi Electric Ireland.

Dublin Theatre Festival runs from September 28 to October 15

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