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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 26, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

    How was it for you? How to improve our theatre festivals

    Laurence Mackin

    More celebrities! Comfier seats! Waiter service and free drinks!

    The Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival is looking for feedback to try and improve its offering for next year. It has posted a survey over here that you can fill out in about five minutes. The form is anonymous and one person will get a free dinner for their thoughts, so get clicking.

    The answers are of the tick-the-box variety, so we’d like to broaden the scope here. Let us know below what you would like to see improved and what positive elements you would like to see built on in both the Dublin Theatre Festival and the Absolut Fringe festival. Also, if there is anything about The Irish Times coverage, particularly on the Festival Hub, that you would like to see given a shot in the arm, do let us know.

    To kick things off, after the jump are a few of my own thoughts on what worked and what could be improved from the past month or so spent at the theatrical coal face.

    Change the dates On paper, it might seem like a great idea to have the Fringe running into the DTF – it gives the city an energised atmosphere for an entire month and inches Dublin closer to Edinburgh in terms of a citywide artistic spectacle. However, as the individual festivals have grown in size and stature, it’s starting to seem like we’re playing all our cards at once.

    It’s a bit rich that critics and writers like me are complaining about too much theatre, but it’s not simply the fact of getting jaded by having to see so many shows in a short space of time. The chances of getting the casual theatre-goer into a show for four consecutive weeks are pretty slim. But if both festivals were six months apart, they would make more of an effort to see more shows. And, quite simply, there seems little logic in having two of our best festivals running almost on top of each other when both could probably build up a greater head of steam and enthusiasm if there were several months apart.

    Ticket prices There were some excellent initiatives from both festivals on ticket prices – the Fringe kept the majority of its shows within the €10 mark, and the DTF was regularly plugging its excellent Final Call ticket offers for those willing to get into the box office and snap up some last-minutes seats on the day of the shows. The Friends of the Festival systems are decent, but it would be good to get a simple bulk-buy discount across the board – for example, buy eight tickets for one show, or indeed eight tickets for the festival, and get two more free, obviously subject to availability. In past years, I’ve spent hundreds on tickets, and I didn’t begrudge it for a moment – a free ticket or two, though, is always welcome and goes a long way towards thanking the audience for their loyalty and patronage.

    Availability: There were a few shows that we all wanted to see, but may have missed: World’s End Lane, Man of Valour, Year of Magical Wanking, Trade and Laundry to name but a few. I was at quite a few sold-out shows, and there were nearly always a few loose seats. Many people aren’t willing to take a chance and turn up on the night on the chance of getting some returns, but it worked for me four out of four times throughout the festivals.

    Some individual shows were great at getting the word out via Twitter, and some theatre-goers aren’t even aware it’s an option. A centralised system is probably not a workable solution, so perhaps a slot in the festival programmes recommending that people follow individual productions on Twitter or making them aware of the casual returns system might do the trick.

    Programming One of the most common complaints I’ve heard about shows in the DTF is that “This belongs in the Fringe”, and vice versa. To be clear, these festivals are independent of each other and programmed separately (the confusion is probably because they run into each other). I’m not sure it’s a legitimate complaint – I like the mix of adventurous and experimental theatre with more established offerings in the DTF, and, when going into a Fringe show, I’m expecting something that might be rough around the edges, so a touch of class here and there is often a relief.

    I’m not convinced the festival directors need to be more sensitive to shows individually. However, there is a sense that, probably because the festivals run into each other, their individual identities are being somewhat diluted.

    Make a night of it We ran several features on the Festival Hub and on the Arts pages showing how you could make a full night out of it at the festivals, with combined recommendations for dinner, drinks and a show. Both festivals negotiated discounted rates in various restaurants, but perhaps it could go a step further and offer all-in packages. Or perhaps some innovative producer would like to put on a full-blown cabaret-style show that would merge all of this in one location? For some theatre goers, this might be their worst nightmare come true, but a supper-club style production could be an interesting addition to either festival, be it a sumptuous, linen napkin affair for the DTF, or a pop-up restaurant style piece of culinary theatrical chaos for the Fringe. I’d happily take a chance on both.

    Advertised times Not everything can run smoothly on the night, and shows that started late were the exception rather than the rule. There were several, though, that started late and ran much longer than the advertised time. A minor fault perhaps, but it can be infuriating if you’ve other places to be, another show to go to, are dependent on public transport – or if it’s not a very good show in the first place.

    Star attractions Many of the more causal theatre goers I spoke to were a little disappointed that there were no major “star” names in either festival. I would much prefer to watch the likes of Paul Reid or Amy Conroy in a theatre, than someone of lesser powers from off the big screen, and seeing the work of Ivo van Hove felt like a rare treat. However, you only have to look at the success of having Alan Rickman in town for John Gabriel Borkman to see the effect a bit of celebrity can have on a festival. Like all things in festival land, budgets are key here, but would you like to see a concerted effort to have someone more internationally famous, particularly outside the theatrical circle, as part of the festivals? The DTF in particular has a history of this, from Vanessa Redgrave in 2008 to Tom Waits in 2001 (alright, he wrote the music for a show, but still, it’s not a bad contribution to have on your programme). So is it time to dust off the international contacts book?

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