Can Dublin Fringe Festival lead the reopening of the city?

Ruth McGowan, the festival’s director, hopes the city’s reopening is a portal to somewhere new

The Veiled Ones, Junk Ensemble’s first dance for young audiences, loosely based on Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Photograph: Fionn McCann

The Veiled Ones, Junk Ensemble’s first dance for young audiences, loosely based on Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Photograph: Fionn McCann

 

On a recent evening, the chatter from people huddled around café tables and barstools on streets near the offices of Dublin Fringe Festival momentarily made the city feel brought back to life. After a long shutdown the capital is teeming with activity, its restaurant and bar industry beginning to open again, but walk these streets after 11pm and you will find them deserted.

Food and drink are part of Dublin’s lifeblood but so are the arts – theatres, nightclubs, music venues, comedy clubs.

“It can’t be underestimated how vulnerable the industry was made feel for the past 18 months,” says Ruth McGowan, director of the Dublin Fringe Festival. After a wearying limbo, the live events sector is finally planning a phased reopening this month, which will increase audience capacities for indoor and outdoor venues.

We welcome the chance to share the festival fortnight with more audience members in line with new guidelines. The comfort and safety of artists and audiences are top of mind in our planning

“We at Dublin Fringe Festival welcome the chance to share the festival fortnight with more audience members in line with new guidelines,” says McGowan. “The comfort and safety of artists and audiences are top of mind in our planning. We’re grateful to the NCFA, Give Us the Night and Minister Catherine Martin for their tireless advocacy.”

Fewer seats mean less ticket sales, and while many performances in the summer had the benefit of funding from the Department of Tourism, Arts and Culture to minimise the need for box office takings, it has led to a scant season of once-off or “pilot” events. That gives the arrival of this year’s Fringe, brimming with 30 productions, added momentum. Can it reanimate the city’s cultural scene?

“As Dublin comes back to life, people hope it comes back with new possibility,” says McGowan. It’s encouraging to hear her speak of the reopening as not simply a return to normal but possibly a portal to somewhere new. In fact, the current spiral of change is designated by the programme’s subtitle: Superflux.

“It’s the idea that in a time of great transformation there’s an overspill, an abundance of possibility,” she explains.

Such reinvention may be seen in even the programme’s most familiar artists, who stand the chance of breaking new ground. Leading the opening weekend is The Veiled Ones – Junk Ensemble’s first dance for young audiences, loosely based on Roald Dahl’s The Witches – while Masterclass, a novel co-production between contemporary theatre company Brokentalkers and choreographercomedian Adrienne Truscott, is a thrashing satire of the culturally prevalent idea of the “great male artist”.

It’s possible that the pandemic has made some ideas stay longer in the laboratory than usual. McGowan describes the arc of the past 18 months as moving from a protective focus on artist-development towards a pent-up enthusiasm for sharing experiences with the public. “The industry placed emphasis on artistic process at a time when we couldn’t present work. What artists crave now is meeting the audience,” says McGowan.

The question of artists’ profitability is something that our conversation keeps returning to. It’s no coincidence that Let’s Get Fun-erable! and Fetish 101 were commissioned by the festival

Are audiences ready to come out after the shutdown? When asked what productions might appeal to those dragging their heels on returning indoors, she singles out a few which will be staged outside on the grounds of Dublin Castle. The improv comedy troupe Dreamgun, acclaimed for their sharp rewritings of blockbuster filmscripts, present a performance of The Breakfast Club. The barnstorming new musical Tonic by Fionn Foley and Rough Magic, set during the apocalypse, focuses on a family of musicians spreading the word of a miracle cure.

For those looking to take brave first steps inside, McGowan advises that the expanse of Smock Alley Theatre’s 1662 auditorium, with its 177 seats, will be whittled down to a reduced capacity to safely allow for Glisten, Isabella Oberläder’s elegantly futurist dance solo.

Elsewhere, a strand of remote productions – titled “Night Classes” – offers a gentler, more socially distanced return to spectatorship. “We were thinking about how artists and audiences might not share space but they can share time. We wanted to prize active spectatorship, not the kind of show that you can press play on a screen and walk away from,” she says.

Unsurprisingly, these involve some interaction. Let’s Get Fun-erable! by visual artist-cabaret performer Sarah Devereaux is an uplifting art class taking place over Zoom (“We will create a visual, sculptural depiction of our internal goblins,” reads the blurb). With Fetish 101, a long-form comedy which sends its audience a newsletter each morning diving into the world of kink, the emergent comedian Matthew Tallon is already stepping outside of his comfort zone. “He is working outside his usual medium, which is TikTok,” says McGowan.

The question of artists’ profitability is something that our conversation keeps returning to. It’s no coincidence that Let’s Get Fun-erable! and Fetish 101 were commissioned by the festival. “Some artists, depending on their artform, may depend on box office more than others to balance their budgets. Comedians, DJs, cabaret artists - they’re not traditionally commissioned by arts organisations or receive funding. We don’t want those people to disappear,” she says.

Ruth McGowan
Ruth McGowan

Among this year’s commissions is You’re Still Here, the new installation-play by the inventive company Murmuration, and the final instalment in their trilogy including Summertime (2018) and Will I See You There (2020). Both those productions – seen from a distance and listened to through headphones – were populated by lonely desperate people, stung by overheard comments, their lives shaped by misunderstandings.

The built-in physical distance and absorbing sonics of their approach made Murmuration a company impressively adaptable to pandemic restrictions. “They can create the effect of intimacy without proximity. It was already unique to their DNA,” says McGowan.

Other aspects of the festival’s usual programming haven’t been as fortunate. In recent years, club culture has been elevated to the fore of the Fringe but late-night venues currently remain closed.

“It’s not achievable in its full artistic gesture at the moment,” she says. Dancefloors may be the literal centre of club culture but some productions are tracing the peripheral meanings of gathering at a nightclub. She mentions Sound Waves, the soundtrack created by the creative collective Gxrlcode. “They’re providing that sense of coming back out: a playlist for getting ready to leave your house,” she says.

The separation of the queer community from gay bars and clubs is a driving force for Abundance, a performance by cabaret artists Beth Hayden and Matthew Bratko, which can be attended virtually or in-person. (“They know how to throw a party,” says McGowan). 

Her voice grows urgent when discussing the fate of Dublin’s club scene. “Pre-pandemic, I could count on one hand the places in the city centre where you could legally make noise after midnight. Club culture is an important art space. We need to protect clubs as cultural institutions,” she says.  

One production McGowan is eager to highlight is You Are Magic, a large-scale interactive sculpture, by the American artist Alicia Eggert, that is destined to pop up in surprise locations across Dublin

Since McGowan’s first programme, in 2018, Dublin Fringe Festival has taken on a distinctive lexicon, with curatorial notes referring to artists and art-goers as “dreamers” and “pirates,” or art experiences as “elixirs”. She seemed to be building a festival as if it were a fantasy world.  Interestingly, new additions this year have countercultural inferences: “disruptor”, “princette”, “back-alley banshee”. That these, alongside messages like “Dublin Needs Dancefloors,” come printed as stickers within the brochure, ready to be unstuck and potentially used as street art, might reflect a growing struggle for the city.

“Alchemy” is another medieval term McGowan uses, specifically in explaining the synergy that led to the Weft studio - the festival’s talent development initiative for early-career black artists and artists of colour in Ireland. “We’re looking to move the needle in terms of representation,” she says, with determination. Guided by the black queer organisation Origins Eile, playwright Dylan Coburn Gray and Australian cabaret artists Hot Brown Honey (whose relationship with the Fringe began with their festival appearance in 2016), the hope is that it will activate new artists in the industry. 

Perhaps that will be one of the new possibilities in a reopened city. One production McGowan is eager to highlight is You Are Magic, the large-scale interactive sculpture by American artist Alicia Eggert. Destined to pop up in surprise locations across the city, Eggert’s artwork epitomises Fringe at its most thrillingly disruptive: something that allows even long-time inhabitants to turn a corner and discover something new. 

For McGowan, Eggert’s inflatable sculpture is a perfect metaphor for this year’s festival. You Are Magic remains deflated until its viewers attend to see it. To be activated, it requires at least two people to touch separate sensors at the same time, while holding each other’s hands.

“Galleries can disallow you from touching visual art. This turns that idea on its head: please touch the art!” she says. 

That is a poignant idea: an artwork, no less than a culturally vibrant city, within touching distance, waiting for us to close the circuit and make its energy flow again.

Dublin Fringe Festival: Superflux runs from Saturday, September 11th, to Sunday, September 26th

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