Edinburgh is over, but a short hop over the Irish Sea, Dublin Fringe Festival is getting started. Nick Awde meets artistic director Ruth McGowan, who says the annual event is more than just a two-week fling in September
With theatre firmly at its heart, Dublin Fringe Festival is also Ireland’s largest multi-disciplinary arts festival. What ties it all together is a commitment to making Dublin very much the agenda-setting festival for new work in Ireland. Certainly this year’s 56 world premieres earns it the accolade ‘festival of firsts’.
“New work is really what we champion,” says artistic director Ruth McGowan, “because we’re not just a festival but a year-round arts support organisation that is centred around Fringe Lab, our building with rehearsal studios, a workshop innovation platform that operates all year.”
The 2018 programme is broken up into ‘chapters’ rather than the expected genres. With 80 events spread across 36 venues, explains McGowan, the chapters are a handy way to navigate. It’s a quirky yet inclusive touch. For example, under ‘Inventors and Mavericks’, she says, you’ll find “all of the interdisciplinary work – the work that’s really pushing the boundaries of theatre or dance, or blurring the lines between film and performance – all of that lives there”.
New work has always been central to McGowan’s career. Originally from County Donegal, at the very top of Ireland, she began as a dramaturg and independent producer. She says she quickly realised working solo or freelance didn’t make her feel connected to enough artists.
“I couldn’t work on as many projects as I wanted. So I thought, if I was in a big organisation, I would be able to support more, have more ideas and get more done.”
After jobs in new-writing departments in New York and at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, she joined Dublin Fringe in 2015 as programme manager, co-curating the 2016 and 2017 editions. She became the organisation’s director in 2017.
“I always knew Dublin was an organisation that created new work year round, and that was what I wanted to do. It felt like the right fit. I was able to bring all of that experience of developing new work to an organisation where that is the core mission.”
As is the case with any self-respecting fringe, Dublin is set in a highly walkable and laid-back city. But that doesn’t always follow for the spaces themselves, with venues posing a different adventure every year.
“There’s always a new challenge, but our fringe audiences are intrepid. They love the shows that happen in the trees at Phoenix Park at midnight or in an underground carpark in Cabra, or on a boat in the Docklands. Those off-road venues inspire me every year, because each venue is different. If there’s a really exciting idea, we say yes and then we figure out how to do it afterwards.”
Encouragingly, McGowan also has praise for Dublin Fringe’s partners with – from Dublin City Council (“it helps us make the outdoor work happen”) to the Gardai, which delivers essentials such as road closures. “But when you’re in new venues there are always new challenges. On the other hand, our core venue partners are the places that you find every year at the fringe, such as our wonderful neighbours Project Arts Centre and Smock Alley Theatre. We pack them with work every year, come festival time.”
The festival has also collaborated with the Abbey Theatre– the National Theatre of Ireland – and this year sees a mainstage co-presentation of Peaches Christ Superstar, in which Canadian electro-punk artist Peaches performs a solo rendition of Jesus Christ Superstar.
The international Dublin Theatre Festival, follows on from the fringe. “They’re our neighbours too, just across the road. Dublin Fringe Festival, when it was started in 1995, was designed to be the fringe of Dublin Theatre Festival. We’re now two separate organisations. Though we’re not financially or organisationally connected, we’re definitely connected. We support each other and see the work in each others’ festivals.”
Despite the two festivals running back to back across September and October, McGowan sees little risk of audience overload. “We haven’t found that. What we present is different enough that the festivals attract different audiences.
“Certainly Dublin Fringe’s audience figures have been going up and up over the last couple of years. There’s an audience for both, because the type of work in the festivals has provided variety. Obviously in terms of the industry, it’s a long eight weeks for those of us who are close to it and want to see everything.”
Pushing the envelope for any type of festival is the UK’s Scottee, who is over to do a public workshop on political theatremaking and mentor three shows in the festival: whimsical look-at-life show Billy, from Northern Ireland’s Sarah Gordon and Alice Malseed, cabaret piece Caged from Femme Bizarre, and queer cabaret performance The Fianna Fellatio Party Launch by Glitter Hole.
1. The Dublin Fringe Festival is curated and covers a range of dance, theatre, live art, visual art and music. It complements the mainstage Dublin Theatre Festival, which follows each year (this year running September 27-October 14).
2. The fringe was founded in 1995 by Bedrock Productions, with support from the Dublin Theatre Festival and Dublin City Council, to “promote and showcase the work of small and vibrant theatre companies and theatremakers”.
3. The first edition in 1995 saw the premieres of Conor McPherson’s This Lime Tree Bower, and the following year Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs. Subsequent premieres have followed from the likes of Owen McCafferty, Corn Exchange, Loose Canon and Pan Pan Theatre.
4. A variety of venues has always been a feature, with each performance playing the venue deemed most suitable to the show, ranging from cafes and theatres to a Spiegeltent, the Liffey Boardwalk or a Dublin bus.
5. Dublin Fringe’s Fringe Lab provides year-round practical and artistic support. It is a space for work and a platform of activities, and over the past year was used by more than 200 companies for more than 6,000 hours.
“We have a lot of Irish artists with a lot of inspiration from artists in the UK,” says McGowan. “It’s always been an easy place for people to travel to, back and forth to places such as London or/and Glasgow.”
That inspiration is reciprocated, exemplified by Dublin Fringe shows such as Dublin Oldschool, which played the UK’s National Theatre in 2017, while companies such as Dead Centre and Malaprop are also making waves across the Irish Sea.
Dublin is perched on a significant node of the calendar – it picks up the week after Edinburgh ends, says McGowan. “The two festivals definitely speak to each other, but we are different – not just in terms of scale but in terms of what we’re interested in. However, coming from Edinburgh straight to Dublin certainly works well for the artist.”
This year, for example, shows from Edinburgh include Samira Elagoz’s Cock, Cock… Who’s There, part of Finland’s From Start to Finnish showcase, Wildcard and Reid’s The Cat’s Mother, Bruised Sky’s Vivarium and Drip Feed, which Dublin is co-producing with Soho Theatre and Fishamble. All finish their run in Scotland then have a week off and come to Dublin.
And, conversely, companies create shows for Dublin then take it to Edinburgh the following year. My Left Nut, produced by A Prime Cut and Pan Narrans at Dublin last year, has done equally well at Edinburgh this summer.
It’s a good demonstration of how the arts in Ireland and the UK overlap to create a mutually beneficial ecosystem. And yet, despite so much in common, a solidly pro-Europe Ireland is baffled and perturbed by Brexit. Obviously, Northern Ireland is taking the brunt of the uncertainty, but how does Ireland itself feel about the fallout for our cultural relationship?
“It’s certainly affecting the arts industry of Northern Ireland very keenly. In general, there’s a feeling of uncertainty, there’s a holding pattern. In Ireland, we’re not sure what the repercussions of Brexit will be for us, because it hasn’t been decided yet.
Amsterdam Fringe Netherlands – September 6-16
Vancouver Fringe Festival Canada – September 6-16
International Ibsen Festival Oslo, Norway – September 8-19
Melbourne Fringe Festival Australia – September 13-30
Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre Georgia – September 14-30
“Certainly people, because of Brexit, but also because of the global politics, are thinking of borders more than ever. There’s a larger thematic effect because the political events of the last two years have made people feel that it’s not just the geography that is changing, but the way we see the world is changing. We’ve had to confront a lot of cold truths.
“Over the last couple of years, in all the work that comes to us [applications open in January and decisions are made in March], I’ve seen a lot more political work, of people really wanting to stand up and make their mark. Artists are driven to action in times of uncertainty, aren’t they?”
Artistic director: Ruth McGowan
Dates: September 8-23
Employees: Full-time five, seasonal contract staff 60, volunteers more than 150
Spaces/venues: 21 indoors, five open-air
Participating companies/artists: 80
Shows: 554 performances
Audience figures (2017): 38,000
Countries represented: Ireland, UK, Chile, Australia, Finland, Canada, USA
Total turnover/budget (2017): €1million
Ticket sales (2017): €383,000
Funders/sponsors: Dublin City Council, Arts Council of Ireland, Failte Ireland
Key contact: Conleth Teevan, PR and comms manager, Conleth@conlethteevan.com, +353 1 670 6106