Short walk to a new festival stage
The former director of the Project has been tasked with sustaining the breadth and impact of the Dublin Theatre Festival with reduced means. His approach is to give the people of the city back their stories, writes PETER CRAWLEY
WHEN WILLIE WHITE was appointed the new artistic director and chief executive of the Dublin Theatre Festival this time last year, an international search to fill a major position in Irish theatre seemed to find its answer just a few feet away. For the previous nine years White had served as the director of Project Arts Centre, the contemporary arts venue just two doors down the street from the Dublin Theatre Festival’s office. The jobs also seemed closely related, engaged with the development of Irish work, contemporary international practices and understanding the changing appetites of an audience. But White understood there was a greater distance to cross.
“It takes at least a year to learn about all the parts of the festival,” he says, a couple of days after sending his programme to print, relaxed and forthright over a mint tea. “But that’s what I wanted. I’d been at Project for nine years, so I wanted something different and I wanted a challenge and I wanted to learn something new.”
The demands of the Dublin Theatre Festival, now in its 55th year, would be high enough in any year. But White took over following an immensely successful five years under previous director Loughlin Deegan, which began with an expanded programme for the festival’s 50th anniversary. It was sustained in part by a significant title sponsorship deal with Ulster Bank, and which developed a range of progressive initiatives such as a professional development programme, The Next Stage, In Development public workshops, and the Irish production revival platform, ReViewed.
“The festival, it seems to me, has become even more important in recent years,” White considers. “If you look at the festival last year, pretty much half the programme was Irish. And not just from established companies such as Rough Magic. That’s one of the achievements of Loughlin, to bring younger companies into the festival. I can’t imagine a festival like last year’s having happened five years before.” (Some of those younger companies, such as Theatreclub and Brokentalkers, were hugely encouraged under White’s aegis at Project, a fact he routinely underplays.)
Deegan’s tenure may be a hard act to follow for more prosaic reasons. With the end of the title sponsorship, and both Arts Council subsidy and box office revenue tightening in line with the economy, White’s immediate challenge has been to sustain the breadth and impact of the two-week festival within reduced means. Then there is the small matter of introducing himself to the loyal festival audience, a constituency that appreciates a challenge but which likes to know they’re in safe hands.
An articulate and precise speaker, with an intimidating scope of reference and the extra authority of a deep baritone, White tends to talk softly and quickly, as though his mind is working two sentences ahead. That may also be why he is likely to pre-empt criticism and counter-argument, making even unobjectionable assertions airtight.
“Theatre needs to happen in front of people, generally,” he says, adding in the same breath, “notwithstanding the clever examples that we might be able to summon to contradict that.” You can take the man out of the contemporary arts centre, but you can’t take the contemporary arts centre out of the man.
Featuring 30 productions, slightly more than last year, his first programme boasts a couple of major coups, some gutsy manoeuvres and several repeat visits from familiar faces. Rather than summoning up a contrarian programme of ‘clever examples’, however, White has struck a canny balance between reassurance and adventure, albeit with fewer international productions than in recent years – just 10 of the 30.
“You might have wondered, is Willie going to do the weird stuff?” he smiles. “Well, if you look at the festival, it’s pretty recognisable. And it’s not because there’s been any purge, or me sitting on my hands. It’s because this is what I think is the best festival that we can achieve for this moment and with these resources. I never want to do something as an apology, though. There has to be a rationale for the work.”
As suggested by this year’s tagline, “Your city, your stories”, the rationale is one of narrative and place. The festival is opening with a world premiere, co-producing Dubliners with Corn Exchange, adapted from James Joyce’s short story collection by director Annie Ryan and writer Michael West. Programmed for the Gaiety, whose 1,000-seat auditorium can make or break the festival’s box office, it’s a gutsy move.
“It is conceived on a large scale which exclaims the opening of the festival,” explains White. “Dubliners has such an amazing insight into a city at a point in time, and the lives of the people in that city, which absolutely has resonances for now. You get some kind of understanding of the emotional history of the people of the city and the invitation is to come and see this staged and, significantly, to witness this together.”
In a particular coup, New York’s legendary Wooster Group makes its first Dublin appearance with Hamlet, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, which repurposes the film version of Richard Burton’s 1964 Broadway performance within a multimedia investigation of performance ghosts and contemporary perception.
It is one of three New York productions, joined by Elevator Repair Service, who follow 2008’s phenomenal Gatz with their more recent literary adaptation, The Select (The Sun Also Rises), based on Earnest Hemmingway’s novel, and an autobiographical multimedia piece by Zachary Oberzan.
White is also the first person to bring the Dublin Theatre Festival to the gargantuan, 2,000-seat Bord Gáis Energy Theatre with Wide Open Opera’s debut production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, based on Yannis Kokos’s staging for the Welsh National Opera.
Elsewhere, the festival seems to be relying on proven methods and recent innovations. Druid Theatre Company return to the Gaiety Theatre with its already world-conquering cycle of Tom Murphy plays, DruidMurphy, while other returning companies are playing to their strengths: the experimental Flanders company Campo return with Miet Warlop’s Mystery Magnet; Pan Pan, the cutting edge of Irish contemporary theatre, present with their latest intertextual riff on Shakespeare, Everyone Is King Lear in His Own Home; and highly anticipated new work features from Anu Productions, Brokentalkers, Theatre Lovett and Dylan Tighe, all of whom made their festival debuts in the last two years.
A festival programme is, at some level, a reflection of the personality of its artistic director. But if White’s reputation for spirited provocation precedes him, as someone who encourages people to discover influences and approaches beyond their immediate context, his first programme seems to send a more reassuring message: you can trust him.
He accepts that returning artists carry a “quality assurance mark” but he is slow to characterise the programme as reassuring. “I don’t just want people to be in their comfort zone. I don’t think you could call Tom Murphy’s work ‘reassuring’.”
Taken together with several new plays by Declan Hughes at the Gate (The Last Summer), Emma Donoghue for Landmark (Hatch) and the Dublin Theatre Festival at Project (the Maeve Brennan-inspired Talk of the Town), Deirdre Kinahan at Smock Alley (Halcyon Days), Gary Duggan at the Peacock (Shibari), and director Neil Bartlett’s new adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray for the Abbey, the diversity of the programme responds to the audience’s variegated interests, and it may demonstrate a deeper consideration of the city.
“I’m fascinated by Dublin,” says White, who is originally from Laois and has lived most of his life in the capital. “It has a really interesting history and at the same time it’s a contemporary city, a global city, it’s connected.”
As he describes it, the festival must reflect the city’s inspirations and its flux. (One outdoor installation, Public Face III, even mirrors the city’s mood with a giant neon smiley face.) “Stories are important. They’re what we exchange with each other socially. We make sense of things through stories. It’s really meant to be simple. Is the festival for me? Yes, the festival is for you.”
There is still room to agitate within that warm spirit: “You like an audience to think. To ask questions. That’s provocative as well,” he says, and White has never been one to sit on his opinions. “I’m most interested in theatre that – whether formally, through its content, or with the audience it gathers – is interrogating what’s going on now. Because I don’t understand theatre’s reason to exist if it isn’t trying to be contemporary.
He laughs, sounding both deadpan and self-deprecating. “The fire is still in me. It’s just prosecuted in a different way.”
The Dublin Theatre Festival runs from Sept 27th-Oct 14th. Priority booking for Friends of the Festival opens July 25th and public booking opens August 15th
Some DTF highlights
“What was appealing to me about the Dublin Theatre Festival was that there was a different audience to talk to as well as the one I thought I knew, or hoped I knew, at Project,” says Willie White. So how well does the new artistic director know his new audience? And what would he recommend to the following people?
“Speculating on what your mother might be like from you, she may be interested in Dylan Tighe’s Record, a very personal story which explores outwards into other things, Emma Donoghue’s new play about Maeve Brennan at The New Yorker, The Talk of the Town, and, if she’s bookish, she would also like Elevator Repair Service’s Select (The Sun Also Rises).”
Independent verification: Uncannily accurate.
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“I’d say Miet Warlop’s show for Campo, which is just chaotic, but fantastic. It has no words, is extremely colourful and uses the stage in a different way. It’s good fun. I would send you along to that in terms of a walk on the wild side. And The Company’s Politik.”
Independent verification withheld: No mates identify themselves as hipsters.
“I’d say it would be pretty mandatory they see The Wooster Group’s Hamlet and Forced Entertainment’s The Coming Storm, but also you’d like to think they should be more curious and see the new Declan Hughes play The Last Summer at the Gate. There’s a narcissism about only wanting to have your own experience reflected for you.”
Independent verification: Sounds good. But where is the Gate?
I’m going to see three shows. I want one solid good night out. One risky show and something appropriate for a date.
“Ok. Well, a good quality, vouched-for show is eitherDubliners or one of the Murphys. If you were cautious, I’d direct you towards A Whistle in the Dark. For a pushing the boat out one, I’d be saying The Wooster Group, but it’s long. It’s not so much about endurance, but what you recognise theatre to be. In terms of a date? Depending on what your intended was into and depending on how much you wanted to show off your own taste, I’d say The Talk of the Town.”
Independent verification: Pending.