Return of the fit-ups: Irish theatre gets moving and heads for the outdoors

In these creatively compromised times, a surge in touring performances is proving a hit

Players prepare for a Fit-Up performance.

Players prepare for a Fit-Up performance.

 

The fit-up has a long tradition in Ireland. Until the latter part of the 20th century it was the way most people outside of Dublin got the chance to see professional theatre. The touring model – performed on a quick up and down stage – was borrowed from 19th century British players, who toured the regions in the summer with a rolling repertoire, but it was thought to be more popular here.

By the early 20th century there were about 60 different companies touring the Irish countryside. Lennox Robinson’s 1933 play Drama at Inish saw the backstage drama of the fit-ups as fit material for his comedy, which would become one of the most popular dramas of the period. Ironically, it was written for a metropolitan audience at the Abbey but it soon became popular on the fit-up circuit too.

In these creatively compromised times, there has been a surge in similarly motivated regional performances. Over the last few months, there have been marquees erected in the Limerick fields for Joan Sheehy’s production of Mary Lavin’s In the Middle of the Fields, while vehicles have been adapted into moving stages for Festival in a Van’s constantly evolving repertoire and Mikel Murfi’s current collaboration with the Gate Theatre In Middle Town. As artists contend with the new reality of digital performances, others are finding ways to take advantage of the “outdoor summer” and connect with regional audiences by creating live performances in local settings not usually used to house theatre.

Geoff Gould founded the Cork Fit-Up Festival in 2009 with the specific aim of reviving the fit-up model, which had been hugely popular in Cork right through to the end of the 1950s. A former artistic director of the Everyman Palace, he was very conscious of the fact that “the touring players around the country in the summer were often the only chance people got to see theatre. A lot of people are nervous of theatre and it can be hard to get people in who’ve never been in before, but when we are performing in their communities, in the local halls that they built and fundraised for, we are their guests, and they are much more comfortable. [In these circumstances], they don’t think culture is not for them.”

Before the pandemic, the Cork Fit-Up Festival was performing for five weeks across five islands and three mainland villages in west Cork; “we would visit each venue four times with four different shows.” In 2019, the festival sold 3,000 tickets and attracted its biggest audience yet. However, Covid put a stop to the fit-up tour.

“The islanders didn’t want us, with our Dublin cast and our northern actors, and that was fair enough.”

Keen to maintain continuity for their audience, this year the festival has scrapped the touring model and based themselves in Ballydehob, with a huge stretch tent with open sides that can seat 100 at a social distance; although they are limiting themselves to audiences of 50 at the moment. To encourage audiences to make the trip from their local communities, Gould has updated the programme to include three different shows a day, “so if somebody travels it will be like a mini-Edinburgh; it will be worth their while”.

Gould is also mentoring Tuam’s Three Ring Festival in Galway as they prepare to launch the first Galway Fit-Up Festival, which will tour northeast Galway from August 31st – September 19th. “There is no reason really,” says Gould, “why every county in the country shouldn’t have a fit-up festival. The actors could tour through the year, play to bigger venues in bigger towns and to local communities on their own terms.”

In Limerick, meanwhile, the Lime Tree Theatre and Belltable have come together with the creative producers at Honest Arts to make a new outdoor performance at an iconic city location: the People’s Park in the city’s Georgian Quarter. As the Belltable’s Louise Donlon explains, when the theatre began planning work for the Covid world, “we deliberately threw the net as widely as possible. We didn’t just want to target theatre audiences, but to get [work] out there into the community, for as broad an audience as possible.” The People’s Park, with its central location and Victorian bandstands, provided the perfect venue. “Twenty years ago,” Donlon says, “people used to say not to go into the park, but in the last five to 10 years it has been completely reimagined by and for the people who live locally.” Tara Doolan, creative director of Honest Arts, chimes in: “the park has already been transformed by this amazing community who live here. We are just borrowing it.” 

Waiting for Poirot, the show that the collaborators commissioned, is one that also “cast its net wide”. Donlon says that they were very conscious of “how badly Covid affected actors and stage crew, so we were keen to get as many people on board as we could”.

Double act: In character ahead of a FIt-Up performance.
Double act: In character ahead of a fit-up performance

Working with writer Mike Finn, the theatrical endeavour eventually evolved to include two dancers, 11 actors, four musicians and multiple designers. “Using the park as a set meant we could really focus a lot of [our budget] on getting people back to work.” Finn’s comical murder-mystery script, which has been written with audiences of from eight years old to 80 in mind, is also wide-reaching in its appeal  Donlon sums up the glass half-full optimism of many arts producers this summer: “we used to say we can’t do anything outdoors in Ireland because of the rain, but this country really isn’t so bad in the summer. If you told me [we would be doing] something like this a few years ago, I would have laughed you out of it.”

In Coole Park in southeast Galway, Druid Theatre are setting out their stalls again this summer for an outdoor production of Chekov’s The Seagull, in an adaptation by Thomas Kilroy. The former home of Abbey Theatre co-founder Lady Gregory has become a second home for the company during Covid times; an outdoor venue when their tiny theatre space on Druid Lane was closed. As Feargal Hynes, executive director with Druid puts it, “it took a pandemic to remind us of the beauty and availability of Coole Park! It gave us space [in which we could perform]. Our production last year was one-acts around the park, and this year will be a mainstage show in one location with tiered seating, so we are trying to use it differently.”

However, the site became “a source of inspiration for us too, to have somewhere of such literary significance on our doorstep”. The Coole Park Poetry Series, a series of poetry films performed by actors, provided “a great way to bring something to audiences around the world weekly”. As Hynes explains, Druid is determined to “reach and serve an audience in whatever way is possible. With the restrictions in place, we moved to live-streaming plays, poetry films, radio plays, outdoor staging and whatever way we could make work available.” Having experimented with digital and live staging, live streaming and recorded work, Hynes says, “we’ve reached 130 countries in 2021”.

Despite that reach, he concludes emphatically, “we haven’t been able to satisfy demand for in-person audiences. Hopefully by making [the live work] accessible online, the theatre-going audience will eventually grow. Hopefully it will make [people] more determined to see an in-person performance, from us or any theatre company.”

As the demand for regional work continues to expand, that audience is certainly there, waiting to take their seats, in the unusual improvised theatres near their home. 

Cork Fit-Up Festival runs until August 1st at Ballydehob Community Park; Waiting for Poirot runs until August 1st at the People’s Park, Limerick; and The Seagull runs from August 6th to 21st at Coole Park, Galway

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