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.