‘A city like Dublin needs to have life, and we want to be part of it’

Dublin Theatre Festival 2020: Live performance is more important than ever, says Willie White

Dublin Theatre Festival director Willie White says a business model for digital theatre has emerged during lockdown. Photograph: Dave Meehan

It is five months since Willie White, director of  the Dublin Theatre Festival, sat in a theatre. The show was Farm Fatale, a dystopian performance about a depopulated world by Philippe Quesne. The venue was SESC Vila Mariana, an experimental performance space in São Paulo; White had made the trip to Brazil with a view to bringing it to Dublin, where the annual festival showcases cutting-edge international theatre as well as the best of Irish work. When a global pandemic was declared the following morning, White returned home as soon as he could.

In the following weeks it became clear that the crisis would have a lasting effect on the way in which people all over the globe live, work, make art and interact, and that the festival, which opens in late September, would need to be reimagined if it were to go ahead at all. White's programme was almost 90 per cent confirmed when Ireland went into lockdown, but he and his artistic collaborators immediately began thinking about how to  make the festival work in a context where live performances may not be possible.

“As an organisation,” White says, “we had the resources, so we wanted to work in whatever way was possible. We felt it was critical to give people an opportunity to make work and be employed and to maintain a relationship with audiences. We thought it was critical that we maintained our relationship with audiences as well.”

This is a crucial moment in the history of the live performing arts, he says. “We don’t want people to fall out of the habit of attending live events. We want people to be safe, to feel safe about coming together again, in whatever form we can make that available to them.”


The starting point for reconceiving the 2020 programme was to engage with the artists.

“We discussed various scenarios for how they might present their work,” White says, “but, one by one, all of the artists came to the conclusion that it just wouldn’t be possible to make their shows work without live audiences. It was a difficult decision, but [the artists] came to the conclusion that they would rather wait to present [their work] than to have to make the serious concessions in design and rehearsal given current restrictions, and to perform it for just a handful of audience members.

“It was very frustrating for artists, but of course it was the right decision.”

What White and his team began to plan and budget for, then, was “an entirely new vision for the festival”. The programme, which they announce today, “is an original programme of new work made for a new reality”. It is “much smaller than we are in the habit of presenting – we usually try to offer a variety of different types of work to as broad an audience as we can reach – but it is a programme that celebrates the live event. It is the liveness that makes theatre special.”

We don't want to shrink into our homes and be reduced to looking at the world through a screen

Like all regular theatre-goers and practitioners, White has spent the last few months watching developments in live performance on the internet, and his exposure to a variety of different models (recordings, Zoom shows, live streams) redoubled his commitment to celebrating the liveness that distinguishes theatre from all other art forms.

“It is hard to pay attention to a recording of a play,” he argues, “to something that is already over. It begs the question: why do I need to be there now?” With a live stream, however, “you have to be there at a certain time and there is always the risk that the technology will fail, that the signal might break down, so even if that liveness is mediated through a screen it can still hold that same quality of risk and attention.”

With this in mind, White has programmed two events for the festival that take a unique approach to engaging with the audience in an authentically live digital context.

The company Dead Centre will present an adaptation of Mark O'Connell's study of transhumanism To Be a Machine for the stage. Although the audience will not be present in the venue for the performance, each ticket holder will be represented physically in the theatre space by a tablet, their faces visible to performer Jack Gleeson. As White explains, "while the show is being live streamed to audiences in their home, the tablets function as a proxy for them".

Jack Gleeson in Dead Centre’sTo Be a Machine by Dead Centre & Mark O’Connell as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2020. Image: Jason Booher

Dead Centre, which has previously explored ideas of physical embodiment and digital representation in the theatrical space in its 2017 production Hamnet and last year’s Beckett’s Room, brings a sophisticated understanding of technology and theatrical semiotics to the project. As White affirms, “it speaks to the very real challenge of making a performance for the current context” and finds a way within those limitations to “keep the grammar of theatre alive”.

The second new commission sees Anu, masters of urgent environmental performances, create a new piece, The Party to End All Parties, with live digital transmission in mind. Set on April 18th, 1949, the day on which Ireland was declared a Republic, it will take a small audience on an intimate physical journey through the city centre.

People celebrating the independence of Ireland on O’Connell bridge before midnight on Easter Sunday. ANU’s new piece, The Party to End All Parties is set on April 18th, 1949, the day on which Ireland was declared a Republic. Photograph: Larry Burrows/The Life Picture Collection via Getty Images

Anu’s longstanding relationship with small audiences makes it easy to take social distancing guidelines into account, but the live stream will offer their work to a broader audience than they can usually reach. The outdoor setting and multiple perspectives of the storytelling present a particular challenge to a live stream, White says, so “we will need to find the best way of tracking that experience with a camera”.

There is a broader, ideological question at stake, however, with the digital component of the festival, White explains. “The big question arises around theatre online, and that is whether you put your content out for free.

“One thing that has not emerged during lockdown”, he says, “is a business model for digital theatre. The big companies like the National Theatre in London, they are presenting work that is tried and tested, that is already successful, that people would pay to see, in the cinema, say, as has been proven. But it is a totally different ballgame when you are talking about new work and connecting with new audiences.”

White is also proud to be able to present a select set of live performances for this year’s festival, from international as well as local contributors, which are, by nature or design, tailored to account for current social distancing guidelines.

Tim Etchells and Ant Hampton's Not to Scale draws two audience members into an intimate act of shared creation, where they create a picture inspired by a binaural soundscape. Pan Pan Theatre has created an audio installation for a socially distanced audience at the Irish Film Institute based on Beckett's late poems. Brian Irvine and Netia Jones' experimental musical Least Like the Other, Searching for Rosemary Kennedy will be performed against the sonic backdrop of a prerecorded orchestra. Shaun Dunne's What Did I Miss?, for the Ark, will take theatre to the schoolyards of Dublin.

Meanwhile, an extended programme of ancillary events, including play-readings and panel discussions, will be live streamed. With a new paperless ticketing system and the “theatre of hygiene” we have all become used to, White is confident that “every venue will be healthy and safe for audiences for artists to be in”.

However, White, who usually talks with swagger, is also nervous about the potential challenges that might not reveal themselves until closer to the festival’s opening in late September.

“One thing that Covid-19 has taken from us is the ability to make plans with any certainty, but I genuinely hope that this year’s festival is amazing, and that it satisfies what we are missing. The pandemic is very real and very frightening, but we can’t let go of culture and what it means to us and does for us. We don’t want to shrink into our homes and be reduced to looking at the world through a screen.

“A city like Dublin needs to have life and we want to be part of it; that’s what is motivating us this year.”

The Dublin Theatre Festival runs from September 24th-October 11th, dublintheatrefestival.ie