Ruth McGowan, the new artistic director of the Dublin Fringe Festival, picks up the thick brochure of her programme and pauses before opening. For the curator of the multi-disciplinary contemporary arts festival, now in its 24th year, this is always a horrible question. Can you recommend a path of, say, five shows through its 80 different productions? It is test of decisiveness, sacrifice and diplomacy somewhere on the scale between the Trolley Problem and Sophie's Choice.
“Okay,” she says, “I can do that.”
Enthusiastic and pithy in conversation, if McGowan seems assured on the subject of her inaugural Fringe festival, it may be because, unusually, this is not McGowan’s first rodeo.
The things that interest me are more pronounced this year. Like programming a bunch of parties, programming a bunch of club nights
She joined the Fringe three years ago, just before the 2015 festival, as its programme manager, a job with already widely encompassing responsibilities. Very soon after, she took on another, co-curating the next two programmes with former artistic director Kris Nelson.
“It happened very organically,” McGowan recalls. “Kris and I had a very lovely collaboration, with shared tastes and interesting places where we differed too.”
When the Fringe held an international search for his successor, a process that has previously recruited heads from Ireland, Canada, Germany and Australia, the winning candidate was already in the building.
That invites an obvious question for an alternative arts festival: does a professional route through the organisation ensure continuity, or can real change come from within? McGowan can anticipate the question. She doesn’t rush to identify her fingerprints in previous programmes, editions that were marked by large-scale public works, political cabarets and provocative performances about sexuality, gender and morality. Instead, she points to what’s coming.
“The things that interest me are more pronounced this year. Like programming a bunch of parties, programming a bunch of club nights.”
Divided into chapters
This year’s programme, divided into chapters, begins under the legend, “Club Culture is Culture”, more on which later.
“And we’ve got 10 free shows this year, which is a big gesture towards some of my favourite art experiences ever.”
What makes a Fringe a Fringe? We had been talking about a previous show, Deadline!, an interactive comic game, staged in its creator's flat, in which the audience prepared a daily newspaper in the space of an hour (a short one). Without a better definition, we agreed it was the Fringe at its Fringiest: offbeat but not off-putting, risky, smart, lots of fun, something you couldn't find anywhere else.
“Things that I think are really Fringey are when Fringe gets to take you by surprise,” McGowan continues. “So shows that are out in the public realm that are unexpected, that will catch your eye on your commute or disrupt your lunchtime in a really happy way. Stuff you can stumble upon. Those kinds of shows are more pronounced this year.”
She mentions two: Spitfire Bird, from Irish milliner to the stars Margaret O'Connor, who sent her proposal in on spec to the Fringe by email with an idea to create eye-catching hats for Dublin's public statues. Another, Question Project, from Chilean company Mil M2, assembles and records the queries that Dublin's residents have for their city, presented in huge lettering on a mobile scaffold. It has no advertised times or locations. "It's going to find you," McGowan tells me.
McGowan started the job with her own questions for the city. "I promised myself that, if I'm going to do this, the right thing for the festival and the organisation was to pose the question, what would you do if this was year one? If the Arts Council and Dublin City Council said, create a festival for Dublin now, in 2018, what would you do?"
To find answers, McGowan and her core staff of four decamped to Co Down last January, to brainstorm in an inexpensive Airbnb.
“We were in the countryside,” she recalls. “It was really misty. It could have been Brigadoon! It felt like we weren’t so much imagining year one of the festival as year one of earth.”
From that primordial getaway came some agreements: that, being a city festival, it should have a keener conversation with Dublin.
“So this year we’ve got work on Moore Street and in the Phoenix Park. I felt this year it was really important to make space for art in the city and invite artists to take up space in corridors of power, in places that feel a bit verboten, where you’re not supposed to be.”
For both participants and audiences, the Fringe can be a festival of new experiences: more than half of the artists in the programme are this year making their Fringe debuts, while a sizeable proportion of the Fringe’s ticket-buyers get their first experience of the arts there. “It’s a gateway,” says McGowan. “So it’s important to be open for artists and audiences too.”
Curated festivals, however, must also by definition exclude. International work comes to the Fringe mostly through invitation, but the majority of Irish work comes through submission, and this year the festival considered some 350 proposals before deciding on a fraction. This still leaves the vexed question of quality control.
“With new work, even the most experienced chef can put all the right ingredients in place and sometimes the soufflé doesn’t rise,” McGowan allows. In a festival where risks are encouraged, some will be worthwhile, some will be duds, and whatever proportion of each you encounter colours your opinion of the festival. Some first-time attendees stay fans for life. Some never come back.
“I hope our curatorial identity is really clear,” says McGowan. “We’re forward-looking. For all our work, it’s essential that it’s contemporary.”
It may surprise some to see one chapter of the programme designated 13 Good Plays, a strand of new writing at a festival better known for devised works, interdisciplinary performances or – that quintessential Fringe cliche – the show in a car park.
McGowan, born in Donegal, came to the Fringe as a dramaturg – she worked previously in the literary departments of the Abbey Theatre and New York's Public Theater – and her profession has long involved the development of new work.
“Fringe is the place where I get to do that all the time,” she says. “Theatre, in particular, moves at quite a glacial pace. Work at the Fringe is really nimble: things tend to go from the idea stage into production quicker.”
Not just artists, but anyone on a low income is finding it hard to make a life, let alone make a living here
The focus on plays, though, is not intentional. “I read such good scripts through the application process. Better than anything I’ve read in the last couple of - ” She stops herself. “I shouldn’t say that.”
Grouped by form
McGowan’s first programme as artistic director is grouped by form – “Punchlines” is comedy, “Young Radicals” is children’s arts, “Sharpened Senses” is I’m not really sure what – but she perceives thematic patterns among them.
"Loads of inky black comedies about mental health issues," she mentions. Una McKevitt and PJ Gallagher's co-written Madhouse, for instance, based on Gallagher's childhood experience of living with schizophrenics, or Janet Moran's playwrighting debut A Holy Show, recalling the delusional hijacking of an Aer Lingus flight by a former Trappist monk. "That sort of revealed itself." Another trend is "a lot of work about parents – minding your parents and having children".
McGowan relates both to the housing crisis and the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment: what happens to families when no one can afford a home? How do people feel about the choice to become a parent? “Those two things took me by surprise.”
Her own programme note, though, foresaw a city in recuperation. “In 2018, we’re bringing you a festival of antidotes,” it reads, extending the metaphor to include “artist apothecaries” with “cures” and “balms” to “ heal our fight-fatigued souls”.
How bruised are we? “I do think a changed Ireland is working through a national to-do list,” she tells me, “a chance to come together and celebrate how far we’ve come, but also stimulate conversations about what’s left to do.”
To that end, McGowan's focus on club culture seems as shrewd as it is decadent, with nights organised by queer collective Glitter Hole, alternative upstarts District Magazine, and a Mother Club-sanctioned performance from electro-rock sensation Peaches. A new Festival Club, meanwhile, appears at Hely's Bar on Dame Street – the most central it's been for aeons. Making a space for art and interaction in the city has become an ever more pressing issue. Can Dublin still be hospitable to artists?
“Not just artists, but anyone on a low income is finding it hard to make a life, let alone make a living here,” says McGowan. “I think it’s crucial that Fringe is kicking down those doors to help in whatever way we can, but certainly I would like to see more space in the city being preserved for creative and community activities. I would like to see that taken into account when plans are made and drawn up for any huge development space. The creative community is a big part of what makes the city what it is.”
After our interview, I thought again about Question Project and wondered what McGowan would ask the city herself. She sent a message back shortly after.
“Dublin,” it read, “Are you listening?”
Fringe five: Ruth McGowan’s director’s picks
Ruth McGowan lets the pages of the Dublin Fringe Festival brochure fan through her fingers, like a dealer shuffling cards. “What I want for audiences, and I say this to all my mates, is to go see something you wouldn’t normally see. So one of those choices should be a roulette.” She stops at a random page. “Go wherever you land.”
Her own selection, though, is quite considered. Unwoman Part III, a Fringe commission from Australian feminist theatre makers The Rabble to collaborate with Irish director Maeve Stone and performer Olwen Fouéré, is topical and adventurous. "I think it's going to be really special," says McGowan.
The Money, from UK company Kaleider, is a game staged in the City Council Chamber, in which the audience can win a pot of money providing they agree how to spend it. "I think it's a really exciting show, because it's happening in the corridors of power. It does model the process of deliberative democracy." That mirrors the Citizens' Assembly, she points out, if the stakes are somewhat smaller. "It's a really fun show and there's a glass of wine at the end."
“Okay, I’m going to pick a party.” McGowan settles on Black Jam: Cure, from the Fried Plantains Collective, a gig night of Afro and Irish artists, “a punk and funk dance party”.
Turning to 13 Good Plays, the festival director settles on The Cat's Mother, by Erica Murray. "Talk about inky-black comedy," says McGowan, of a play in which two sisters decide the fate of an ailing mother. McGowan, restricted to five choices, hits a snag riffling through the pages of stand-up comedy and children's theatre. "This is hard now. Eek!" She settles on Trial of the Centurys, a full-blown courtroom comedy musical featuring popstar twins in the dock.
Her last pick, straddling family and dance, is Fable, "street-dance cautionary tales" for ages 13-plus: "Totally virtuosic. Four street dancers running up walls and they're inspired by things like Black Mirror. They're, like, sick."