I’m reading the Dublin Fringe Festival programme on a sunny day. It is hot pink, and brimming with thrills. There will be raging parties, unmissable art experiences, celebrations of the curious, the improbable and the self-consciously weird. Shows are both hyperlocal and far-flung. There is a production in the Botanic Gardens, and the option to have an experience in your own bath. It is, we’re told, a reminder “to exist urgently, to dance uproariously and to embrace the full breadth of [my] inner oddities”. I’m already exhausted and the festival hasn’t even begun.
I’m being unfair: after the trials of the past two-plus years, everyone deserves a medal for enduring, and if it’s a party they want, well, why the hell not? The last time Fringe director Ruth McGowan and I spoke, it was in 2020 and she described “making lemonade in a year of lemons”. The idea of Zorb balls had been considered (although discarded) as a way to stage performances safely. Ultimately, the Fringe that year, “got caught in that strange three-week period where outdoor performance was not allowed, but indoor performance was”.
Looking back, the see-saw of restrictions seems almost weird enough to be the subject of a Fringe show. Fortunately, it isn’t, and while some shows clearly have their roots in lockdown experiences, Covid isn’t a direct subject. Instead, topical issues embraced, albeit often aslant, include the environment and forced migration through Irish National Opera’s Out of the Ordinary / As An nGnách; and Colm O’Regan’s one-person show Climate Worrier.
Back with its first large-scale programme since 2019, this year’s Fringe features 586 performances across 27 venues, including 50 world premieres. And unlike in the previous couple of festivals, artists have been allowed to think big. “It had been so much about working in what’s possible, within parameters,” says McGowan, “but this year it was really good to say: Go for it.”
Going for it, 2022-style, includes bringing thisispopbaby! to the party. Their calling-card show RIOT, described by one of its directors Philly McMahon as his generation’s Riverdance, first premiered at the Fringe in 2016 and soon wowed the world. Now they’re back with WAKE, which takes up residence at the National Stadium for the duration of Fringe. It promises “a howling, raucous, soul-stirring celebration of community, regeneration and the magic of collective catharsis.” The large cast includes (among others) Alma Kelliher, Bryan O’Connell, Felicia Olusanya, Philip Connaugton and Tobi Omoteso. There will be, we’re told, partial nudity and smoke machines.
I’m pretty sure it will be sparkling, moving, dancing and unmissable, but as I return to the programme notes, which describe the 430 artists taking part as “pied pipers, master poets, deep thinkers and agents of changes, joy foragers and maestros of mess ...” I wonder about all the people — audiences as well as theatre professionals — who are still a little punch drunk, or reeling in other ways from what we have collectively, and separately, been through.
Across the theatre sector people talk of burnout, stress and the struggle to dig deep for yet another production; the exhaustion exacerbated by Covid outbreaks and supply chain problems. Meanwhile, many still have mixed feelings about crowds, although their voices are quieter in public these days. I suspect that McGowan doesn’t “do” downbeat, so has this year’s Fringe found a space for them too?
“Big time,” she says. “When I talk about biggest and wildest ideas, I’m talking about artists being allowed to create in the full gesture of their vision. For some people that might not be something rowdy, it might not be something in a packed room. For a lot of artists it’s something quieter and more meditative.”
In this vein, look for Lookout, by Andy Field and Beckie Darlington, in which adult audience members have one-on-one conversations with child performers, high above the city at Capital Dock, to share thoughts about the future. Or there’s Shanna May Breen’s Gull, taking place along the Liffey and its bridges, getting up close and personal with the city’s seagulls via a few handy home-made beaks. There are more outdoor events, and some to try at home (see picks below); while for those who do want to venture back inside, how about an easing back with Without Sin, by Unqualified Design Studio, a one-on-one encounter in a confessional booth — Fringe style — billed as “a space to listen and be heard, away from the digital divide,” it sounds just the ticket for the times.
Loose themes help to make sense of the sprawling programme. There is, as always, a strong queer strand, cabaret and comedy. There are plays that investigate the future, and re-examine legacies, such as Xnthony’s Oliver Cromwell is Really Very Sorry, in which the man himself appears, tongue firmly in cheek, as “daddy of democracy, Puritan and total Taurus”.
Fruits of Fringe’s Weft programme are also on show. They include a network-building programme for early-career black artists and artists of colour; Samuel Yakura’s The Perfect Immigrant; CN Smith’s Spear; and the Fringe-Festival-commissioned installation Filmore at the Teacher’s Club; and a gig at the Workman’s Club, all from Weft studio artists.
The return of Australia’s Hot Brown Honey to the Fringe, this time with Hive City Legacy (see picks below), is also Weft-connected. “They played in the Spiegel Tent at Fringe in 2016,” recalls McGowan. “And it’s one of the few times in my life that I genuinely saw the audience dancing in the aisles at the end of the show. I know that’s a thing people say, but it’s quite something when you see it for real. It was such a moving, incredible experience.
“What’s so inspiring about them is not just the work they make, but the way they make it,” she continues, describing how it has become more common for some shows to have an inclusion rider, which insists on accountability for equality across a production. “But Hot Brown Honey were the first people to ask me that everyone on the team be a femme of colour. If the producer or the presenter is unable to staff that up, they say: ‘Okay, cool, well then we’d love you to create a learning role alongside each of your staff in each position, so that the next time we come to town, there will be someone with the relevant skills and experience.’ It was hugely inspiring to work with them. Also, the work is just mega.”
McGowan’s is inspiring and her positivity is infectious, and yet the Eeyore within me is still curious about disaster. “You learn a lot about pet passports, and what ferry company will take what animal,” she says, laughing. “And what to do when a drag queen arrives, but their luggage doesn’t: so where you can find middle-of-the-night drag in Dublin.”
I can imagine it’s even harder to find accommodation these days, for casts, crews, and audiences, and while McGowan does agree that “there are no rabbits to be pulled out of hats,” I realise I’m distracting her from all the positivity that a fortnight of Fringe fun and frolics can bring, whether that’s in a crowded theatre, an evening at the Botanic Gardens, or the comfort of your own bathroom. And I realise too that whatever the past couple of years have thrown at you, there’s almost certainly a Fringe prescription in this year’s programme to make it feel better, even if only temporarily. And that, after all, is one of the things that makes it all worth while. Party on.
Director’s Cut: Ruth McGowan’s Fringe Picks
Hive City Legacy
Hot Brown Honey are internationally acclaimed artists, game changers and party starters. It’s a dream come true to have them back in Dublin, creating a foot-stomping, fierce new cabaret show spotlighting the talents of eight extraordinary Irish femmes of colour.
September 9th-17th, Project Arts Centre, €18
We’ve got the keys to the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, for a night walk through a series of eleven stunning light and sound installations. This is one for night owls and nature lovers.
September 21st-25th, National Botanic Gardens Glasnevin, €12
After two festivals with no parties allowed due to Covid restrictions, we are bringing out the big guns with thisispopbaby! They are legends of both the theatre and the dance floor in Ireland, and this major new show is an art party so big we needed a stadium to contain the craic.
September 8th-17th, National Stadium, from €15
Minimal Human Contact
Thrilling new one-man show, as Gaeilge, from first-time playwright Naoise Ó Cairealláin, better known as the award-winning rapper Moglaí Bap from Kneecap. This unique piece of writing from the west Belfast Gaeltacht explores the world of compulsive gambling.
September 20th-24th, Smock Alley Theatre, €16
If you can’t get to the festival, Fringe will find a way to reach you at home. This 30-minute sound piece designed for audiences to listen to in the bath arrivals as a parcel, filled with an experience pack prepared by the artist.
September 10th-25th, in your own home (Ireland only), €12
Dublin Fringe Festival runs from Saturday, September 10th, to Sunday, September 25th