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Risky business

SARA KEATING

From humble beginnings in 1995, Dublin Fringe Festival has been embraced by the mainstream, crossing over with its big sister, the theatre festival, but always providing a platform to take risks

THEATRE DIRECTOR Jimmy Fay was in his early 20s when he set plans for the first Dublin Fringe Festival in motion. It was 1995, and his theatre company, Bedrock Productions, had been stirring up the contemporary theatre scene with productions of challenging international work by writers such as Caryl Churchill and Sarah Kane.

“There were a lot of young companies emerging at the time,” he says, “but there wasn’t really any formal infrastructure for us to latch on to. At the time, the Dublin Theatre Festival concentrated on international rather than local work, but there was a load of work going on that was sort of invisible and I thought it was a pity that there wasn’t any similar event [that would] showcase it.”

When Bedrock’s proposal that year for a new production at the Dublin Theatre Festival was rejected, Fay approached the assistant director at the festival, Fergus Linehan, with an idea for creating a fringe event to run alongside the main festival.

“We thought maybe we’d get three or four companies together,” he says, “but there was unbelievable interest.”

Although fringe festivals are traditionally defined by their open submissions policy, for Fay “it was really important that the festival would be curated. If it was a free-for-all, the work might not be good, and it had to be good, because otherwise what would we be showing people? In the end we programmed about 80 events over three weeks, and we decided that we would be separate from the main festival, although they gave us about £800 of the £3,000 pounds [we raised]. We opened a week before them, so we would not be competing for press attention, and the reaction was great. We showed people that things didn’t need to be foreign to be new and exciting.”

That first fringe festival showcased a new production from Bedrock, but also new work by Annie Ryan, Conor McPherson and Pan Pan Theatre. These were theatre artists that would become some of the most influential of their generation, whose success is now such that their work regularly headlines the Dublin Theatre Festival. Over the past few years, artists who first began to experiment at the fringe have become increasingly prolific at the Dublin Theatre Festival, while productions that premiered at the fringe regularly find new life and international attention as part of the Reviewed season established by former artistic director of the Dublin Theatre Festival, Loughlin Deegan.

Fay would never have imagined this aesthetic and programming crossover in the fringe’s first few years of existence, he says, when the festival was “about punk-rock, chaos, anarchy; about everything we felt the [Dublin Theatre Festival] was not.

“It was easy to be oppositional to the main festival,” he says. “They wore suits; we didn’t. They were corporate [sponsored by Irish Life]; we produced work on a shoestring.” However, if the increasing overlap of the two festival’s curatorial impetus suggests a dilution of difference – or, as Fay puts it, “a sense of a five-week theatre festival under two different banners” – there remains an unrivalled experimental energy about the Dublin Fringe Festival, with its breadth of work, venues and innovative theatrical forms.

Róise Goan, current director of the Dublin Fringe Festival, says the identities of the two festivals remain distinct, despite the increased stylistic similarity and cooperation between them. “It is true that in its early days the fringe was antagonistic to the mainstream,” she says, “but the mainstream in Ireland has changed. Some of that is to do with the types of opportunities that something like the fringe now offers, because it is not about being ‘counter’ all the time any more – although at times that opposition still has its place. It is about being ahead of the curve, identifying trends and artists and new modes of production before they have been heard of in [a more mainstream theatre context].”

The fact that artists from the fringe have been picked up by the Dublin Theatre Festival, she says, “is a sign of the quality that the fringe has yielded and confirmation that the audience for this this new type of work is flourishing. We are not just a platform for showing new work any more. We offer year-round support and workshops to emerging artists, and the work we end up showing at the fringe is better [for that fact], more likely to be a success.”

Annie Ryan, director of Corn Exchange Theatre Company, is in a good position to elaborate. Ryan’s first production debuted at the first fringe, and she remembers the exciting new context it provided for younger artists, who previously had no network to tap into.

“In those days Irish theatre was much more divisive,” she says. “There had been a lot of avant garde work going on through the 1980s, but in the 1990s there was a much bigger divide between what was happening in ‘legitimate’ funded theatre like the Abbey and Gate and a new generation making work underground that had no platform. So the fringe was a welcome [invitation] to think outside the box and move away from the literary tradition. It was only natural that what we were doing started seeping in to some of the more established institutions; basically, everyone grew up.”

Corn Exchange continues to move between the festivals in their presentation of new work. The company’s last production, Man of Valour, debuted at last year’s fringe, while its new production, Dubliners, will premiere at Dublin Theatre Festival this October. If the obvious difference between their offerings at either festival appears to be one of scale, Ryan says this is too simplistic a diagnosis.

“Man of Valour was a one-man show, yes, but we had the same level of money to invest as a company as we do with Dubliners, and it was quite a big budget for a one-man show.” With Dubliners, which has a cast of 10, the company has “considerable investment from the Dublin Theatre Festival, who are in a position to split the risk with us, but we are also using a classic text”, which provides a certain amount of security in their audience demographic.

One of the main differences between the festivals remains the level of risk the curators are able to take with their presentation of new work. Apart from international work – and the Dublin Fringe Festival offers less and less of this in recent years – nearly every production at the fringe is untested until its first performance, so both the artists and the audience are never sure what to expect.

“For us the main difference between performing at either festival is the level of risk we are willing to take with the form and attracting the kind of audience that would be willing to go there with us. By its nature, the Dublin Theatre Festival offers less room for failure, but it also offers more room for success: it gives you international access you don’t get with the fringe, because buyers from international festivals will fly in to see you, knowing the work will be of a certain standard.” Ultimately, she says, “any crossover between the two festivals is great for artists, because it means that there are two platforms available to them, and that can only be a positive thing.”

Willie White, artistic director of Dublin Theatre Festival, sees it positively, too. While there is “some overlap, the festivals still have distinctive energies that are particular to them,” he says. “but the remarkable thing is that even in a small town like Dublin, even in a six-week period, when we bring something from the fringe to the Dublin Theatre Festival it attracts a whole new audience.”

Fay agrees: “It is only right that brilliant things in fringe get embraced by the mainstream. And that those whose ideas fall out of favour with the establishment go back to the fringe. You don’t just grow out of the fringe. It’s not a university you graduate from to get a real job in a theatre festival. It is a place you can go back to to take risks that you might not be able to elsewhere.”

An experimental home where there is room for failure, yes, but also for unexpected triumphs.

The Absolut Dublin Fringe Festival runs until September23rd; fringefest.com

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