Cuts won't blunt edge of the Fringe


With 90 shows to stage, and less money to do it with, this year’s Dublin Fringe Festival will still thrive, says its artistic director, Róise Goan

BUDGETS ARE CUT, money is tight, and those in the arts are finding themselves with ever-shortening shoestrings with which to work. But what if you’re the kind of arts festival that’s always operated without an astronomical outlay, used to working on the margins with limited resources and minimal cashflow? And what happens when the coffers are empty but the show must go on? These are the questions the Dublin Fringe Festival – renamed this year as Absolut Fringe to acknowledge their new sponsors – is facing with an already small operating budget being squeezed, and 90-odd shows to put on regardless. But the shows will go on, according to the festival’s new artistic director, Róise Goan. “If anything can thrive in this kind of climate, the work of artists in a festival like the fringe can,” she says confidently, as the festival office buzzes in the background with its usual cohort of full-time staff, interns and oodles of volunteers.

“People are always working in a situation where everything is up against them and there’s a huge amount of ingenuity and ambition and a willingness to overcome all kinds of difficulties anyway.”

The artists involved, says Goan, have always worked with their backs against the wall, at least when it comes to fiscal matters. “I wouldn’t want to belittle the difficulty of trying to be an artist and make art in a very commercial world. It’s always difficult.” This may be true, but at a time when many industries are floundering, art continues to flourish. “People are more willing to do things in a cheaper way, and things are beginning to cost less, which for artists can only be a good thing. Definitely for emerging artists, there’s a really strong feeling of goodwill towards them and a sense that it’s a slightly easier system to negotiate.”

Expect this year’s Fringe, then, to showcase the usual array of new names, many of whom are contemporaries of Goan’s who, at just 28 years old, has already cut her teeth with the establishment of theatre company Randolf SD, with whom she produced a number of shows, among various other producing and directing credits.

Think Untitled Theatrics, Anu Productions, Una McKevitt, Dylan Tighe, Veronica Dyas and Ciaran O’Melia, as well as new companies and names making their Fringe festival debuts this year, including Talking Shop Ensemble, The Company, Monsters and Players and Manchán Magan. They’ll all be putting up shows alongside plenty of more established companies who are returning to the Fringe as an opportunity to push things beyond the traditional and into new spaces.

“This year’s programme has a lot more established Irish artists using the Fringe as a place to experiment, as a place to do something new and unusual, to use different kinds of spaces.” Among the spaces being utilised are Barnardo Square outside City Hall, the CHQ building on Custom House Quay, a city centre supermarket, an apartment entrance near Dublin Castle, the Bernard Shaw pub, St Mary’s Abbey, St Patrick’s Park and O’Connell bridge, not to mention what has swiftly become a festival favourite, the specially-erected Spiegeltent, visiting the Fringe for the last time this year.

THOUGH FEWER international acts are represented on this year’s more home-grown programme – perhaps another indication of tightening belts – some have made it through to the final cut, including the Australian production Holiday, A Useful Playfrom Argentinian Gerardo Naumann, a UK/Italy collaboration called Wondermart, described as an interactive audio tour through a supermarket setting, and the British company Coney, who introduce their concept of “pervasive gaming” to Irish shores for the first time.

Though the company may be a London import, the main players in their production in this year’s festival, entitled Long Lost Cousin, will be the Dublin audience they generate. Participants follow clues on the streets, online and in the festival brochure to find their mythical families in this interactive adventure, culminating in The Monumental Gathering in Smithfield plaza.

Using the audience as performers is one way of cutting costs, but other companies participating in this year’s festival have found other innovative methods of working within tightened budgets without curtailing their output.

Take Loose Canon, the Dublin-based theatre company finding themselves with two shows they wished to make this year – Anatomy of a Seagull, adapted and directed by Jason Byrne (after Chekhov), and a new piece called Jesus Has My Mom In There And Has Beat Her Up Real Bad, written and directed by Dee Roycroft – but only the budget for one. The solution? As the company puts it, “new times, new ways, new work.”

Out of that search for such new ways to work, the Piggyback Project was born. “A child looks for a piggyback to get a lift,” explains Roycroft. “I thought about how a smaller, alternative show could potentially ‘piggyback’ on a larger event. And when I proposed it to Jason and Loose Canon they were happy to give it a go.” The idea is that Anatomy of a Seagullrehearses for five weeks with a cast of nine, including Roycroft herself playing Masha, before its run from September 5th to 12th. Meanwhile, Roycroft’s show will use five of the same cast members, the same rehearsal room, the same designers, stage and production managers, and the same venue, but runs after Byrne’s show, from September 16th to 19th.

“The nature of the piggyback process means that Jesus Has My Mom In There And Has Beat Her Up Real Badwill use up any surplus materials, people and time,” says Roycroft. “Design for Seagullwill evolve with the knowledge that parts of the set and some of the costumes will have another outing.” The point, according to Roycroft, is to get a double benefit from the Loose Canon outlay this year. “If the lights are up and the stage is there, maybe we can put the same actors on it, just doing something different.”

It’s not only theatre companies that are strapped for cash this year, however. Audiences may find themselves with less to invest, which is another obstacle this year’s festival director is eager to overcome, by offering a variety of shows performed free of charge, or for under €10.

“The thing about shows in the fringe is that they are more accessible, purely because they’re cheaper,” says Goan, pointing out the average ticket price comes in at about €15.

THEMATICALLY, TOO, THE companies involved were specifically invited to tackle the economic crisis in their works when submissions were first called for. “We wanted the festival to embrace the year that was in it, ie the difficult economic climate, and the huge cultural shift that’s being experienced, particularly in Dublin,” says Goan. “We wanted artists to think about the resurgence in DIY culture and the fact that now is a time of possibility as well as change. We wanted . . . to be as current and as contemporary and as challenging as possible.”

Despite the fact that funding for the arts is being seriously curtailed, with question marks over the future of the department with arts as its remit, Goan is optimistic about the survival of festivals such as the Fringe.

“There is a danger in this very difficult situation we’re in now . . . whereby arts funding is going to be really challenged. And the arts community are really rallying together to make sure our voices are heard in terms of how absolutely necessary the arts are to Irish life and how important arts funding is,” she says emphatically.

“Nevertheless, I don’t think artists’ voices will ever be silenced, regardless. That’s not to say they shouldn’t get the funding, but there will always be a need to create, and I think there will always be an audience who want to hear.”

The Absolut Dublin Fringe Festival runs from Sept 5 to 20;