Willie White, artistic director and chief executive of the Dublin Theatre Festival, has had a strange few years. The pandemic “was the longest period in my adult life,” he confesses, “that I have not left the country.” Personally, he loves to travel, but professionally, it is a critical part of White’s job: touring to theatre festivals internationally to see work that he can invite to come to Ireland for the festival he has run for 11 years.
In 2020, with the coronavirus crisis making international travel impossible, the festival’s scaled back programme of mostly Irish work encountered further complications when all live performances were cancelled, forcing the event online. There were some companies whose work had been designed to accommodate pandemic pitfalls — Dead Centre’s excellent To Be a Machine, for example — but it was disappointing both for White and his team and for many of the artists involved.
With uncertainty looming in 2021, the festival again took a local approach to programming, with an overwhelming focus on Irish artists mitigating risks of cancellation. “The more moving parts you have,” White explains with the experience of hindsight, “the more scope there is for things to go wrong.”
Despite his professional focus within the capital, White speaks passionately about how his own cultural interests have been influenced by exposure to global trends
Audiences, however, did not suffer. There were fine shows from Festival stalwarts like Fishamble Theatre and Anú Productions, invigorating experiments at the Abbey Theatre and surprising sell-outs from Fringe favourites ThisIsPopBaby. As Nicholas Grene, one of the judges for The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, observed earlier this year, “it was great to see so much good Irish work getting that kind of exposure.”
Still, White is delighted to be preparing once again to welcome a wide range of large-scale international work to Dublin for the festival’s 2022 iteration. “The risk hasn’t gone away,” White admits ruefully, “but we have learned hopefully to cope.”
White has called Dublin his home since he migrated to the city from Abbeyleix in Co Laois to study Arts at UCD in the 1990s. An active member of the college’s DramSoc, he went on to work at RTE before being appointed director of the Project Arts Centre, where he worked for almost a decade. He became a member of the Culture, Recreation and Amenity SPC of Dublin City Council just before he took on his role at the Dublin Theatre Festival, and became a Council member of Dublin Chamber of Commerce shortly afterwards.
Despite his professional focus within the capital, he speaks passionately about how his own cultural interests have been influenced by exposure to global trends, not least in the theatrical discipline in which he has made his career. When he remembers his own formative years as an audience member, he mentions Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan, the plays of Martin McDonagh, Sebastian Barry’s The Steward of Christendom, the work of Tom Murphy.
“All that gave me a really strong foundation, which originated in Irish theatre,” he says. However, it was seeing the controversial work of Italian director Romeo Castellucci at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2000 and 2004 where “my mind was properly blown”.
Encounters with Peter Brook’s productions at Bouffe du Nord and, later, at the Dublin Theatre Festival. Seeing Street of Crocodiles by Simon McBurney, which visited the Festival in 1994. These were the shaping works of White’s curatorial imagination. “Whatever about my origin in the Irish tradition,” he admits. “I have always been really attracted to the massive infrastructure for theatre and the performing arts in Europe, the attitude towards risk and accessibility, and I have been undeniably marked and formed by the work I have had the privilege of seeing.”
Programming this year’s festival, then, White felt unbelievably lucky to be able to travel again to select international work for the programme. “If the pandemic taught us anything,” he says, “it is that you just cannot replicate the theatre experience on a screen.” After an intense six months of trips abroad, he has selected work from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Brazil to sit alongside work from Irish companies like Teac Damsa, B*spoke, Junk Ensemble, and Brokentalkers as part of the 2022 Festival.
For White, it is critical that international and Irish artists get an opportunity to meet in a forum like the Dublin Theatre Festival, which offers “one of the few opportunities to present international work [in Ireland]. You have Live Collision, the Fringe Festival, the occasional show at Project Arts Centre, and then there is us. If you want to see large-scale international work, where else do you go?”
Arts Council Funding has never been better but the infrastructure in Dublin has never been worse
Programming Irish work, White says, “there is an appetite there for it, because the audience know the artists and have often seen their work develop, at the Festival or elsewhere, over a number of years. The disadvantage is that almost everything is a premiere. That is part of the excitement, but it is also the risk.” International work, on the other hand, has usually been critically reviewed and it has been vetted, of course, by White himself.
“The risk there is whether the audience will respond to it or not. It can be a harder sell because audiences aren’t familiar [with the work], but that is also where the opportunity is. You are not just watching life in another language, you are watching, getting to know, a different culture.”
The international context offers an important opportunity for Irish artists too. At the annual Irish Theatre exchange event, co-hosted by Irish Theatre Institute and Culture Ireland, Irish presenters get to meet representatives from international producers as well as regional Irish venues. White speaks about the importance of these potential relationships, and those between Irish and international artists too.
When German auteur Thomas Ostermeier visited the Festival in 2015, for example, to give a workshop to participants in the festival’s Next Stage programme for emerging artists, he saw Dead Centre’s production of Chekov’s First Play, and invited the company to perform it at Berlin’s Schaubuhne, leading to an enduring relationship. Dead Centre premieres a new work at the Festival this year, a collaboration with writer Emilie Pine, and it is striking to see how many of the Irish shows are partially funded by international partners from Belgium, New York, California, France and Norway.
However, what distinguishes the Dublin Theatre Festival from other international festivals, White says, is its local flavour. “Dublin is a small place,” he says, “so we like to be able to show our visiting artists and international presenters around.” With this in mind, White curates a playlist highlighting Dublin music, and leads an expedition to the Forty Foot “to get [artists] out of the city, show them a nice journey along the coast, the Joyce Tower, a swim. It is important to host people, to make them feel welcome as guests.”
The festival continues to face challenges, of course. “Arts Council Funding has never been better but the infrastructure in Dublin has never been worse,” White says. “That sounds extreme but it is true.” Like other theatre professionals in the city, he feels the need for “a proper 500-seater venue in the capital. There has been no new [capital investment in the arts] since the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.” Old venues that would have fulfilled the mid-sized needs of arts producers “are now hotels and office blocks”.
The problem is symptomatic of a greater difficulty, White believes, “how unaffordable [Dublin] has become for artists, for all kinds of people really. If people can’t afford to live here, can’t play here, that’s a problem.” Indeed, one of the most important roles that an organisation like Dublin Theatre Festival has is its part within “the civic, cultural and social life of the [capital]. We need a proper housing infrastructure, a cultural infrastructure,” he concludes. “We need the arts if the city is to thrive.”
Farm Fatale, Vivarium Studio (France): Environmental fable from the visually inspiring Philippe Quesne. Project Arts Centre, Oct 14th-15th
Jezebel, Frascati Producties (Netherlands): Cherish Menzo’s visceral dance performance about music video models in the 1990s. Project Arts Centre, Oct 3rd-4th
Crowd, Giséle Vienne (France): Ritualistic scenes set to a techno-trance soundtrack from French choreographer and visual artist Gisele Vienne. O’Reilly Theatre, Oct 7th-8th
Average, Campo in Association with ISM and HEIT (Belgium/Netherlands): Julian Hetzel’s performances are attempts to unravel the world, while trying to perform strategies to transform it. The Complex, Oct 13th-15th
Dublin Theatre Festival runs from September 28th-October 16th dublintheatrefestival.ie