Dublin Fringe Festival 2020: Making lemonade in a year of lemons

Even amid the pandemic, the festival is about ‘new pathways, inspiration and discovery’

There was a while when Ruth McGowan was seriously considering zorb balls. Greenhouses too. “We had so many terrible ideas, we thought about a drive-through nightclub for [a] solid two days,” the director of Dublin Fringe Festival says. The festival is taking place this September; in the best spirit of theatre, the show will go on, but it will be a very different show indeed. Or will it?

As I talk to McGowan, she is positive, optimistic. Even via Zoom, her energy is evident, eyebrows raising frequently above bright pink- and orange-framed glasses, as she emphasises one of her points. “What do I miss?” she says. “There are no parties.”

She smiles her huge smile and laughs at the memories clearly gathering. “Fringe would usually be a real cacophony of experience. Foyers full, people running to catch three shows a night. And those really big ensemble works... And the Club Culture Is Culture strand [of the festival], it’s so difficult for artists in a club or night-time context to make their work just now.”

Her smile vanishes, but only for a moment. This year there are 23 shows in the festival, against 77 last year, and although some take place in well-known spaces, such as the Project Arts Centre, Smock Alley and the Peacock Stage at the Abbey, others are in a new venue, entitled Your Place. But lest anyone think Your Place is another euphemism for a programme of more YouTube stuff that makes you miss the magic of live theatre even more, for the Fringe, Your Place ranges from a garden to your livingroom or outside on a rainy day – and not one bit of it has anything to do with passively watching a screen.


“Once we had ‘unproduced’ the original festival,” says McGowan, “we had to begin again. So we made a couple of rules.” She goes on to describe the ethos for this year’s Fringe, dubbed the Pilot Light Edition: it involves including only work that exists within the Covid-19 safety guidelines, as well as “in its original artistic gesture. It has to be something [the artist] would want to make in 2017, or in 2027.”

Another rule was in relation to active spectatorship. McGowan describes “the intimacy of an artist invading your home, via your laptop”, and we pause to muse on the unexpected benefit of being able to break the boundaries of geography with this edition of the festival. “Any of the work that’s coming [to spectators] in the post, or is a live digital experience, can be accessed from anywhere in the county,” she agrees. “It’s one of the ways in which we can make lemonade from the lemons 2020 has served us so far.”

McGowan, expertly diplomatic, and an incredible champion of her industry, refuses to be drawn on the quality, or otherwise, of the great outpouring of online arts since lockdown. “A lot of people were trying to fly the plane while also building it,” she says, generously. “It was about holding the footprint. Fringe has had the privilege of the time to pivot.” So what are the fruits of that pivot?

Although disinclined to play favourites, McGowan has picked five highlights for this year's festival. (They appear at the end of this article.) A gallop through the rest of the programme also yields 1,000 Miniature Meadows, a performance to take place "in nature, near home", by Shanna May Breen and Luke Casserly, which involves something to do with sound, and something arriving by post. Emma Martin's United Fall brings dance to Draíocht with Birdboy, and Transmission, by Little Wolf and Caitríona Ní Mhurchú, talks about coming from a long line of people whose jobs have become obsolete: Ní Mhurchú's grandfather was the last lighthouse keeper in Ireland, and she was a continuity announcer.

One of McGowan's highlights is Malaprop Theatre's Before You Say Anything, at the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle. The show, says McGowan, "is about safety, and about the violence of imposing safety", which brings us back to those zorb balls. I tell McGowan I had seen a clip online of The Flaming Lips performing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert back in June. The band were in plastic bubbles, and the audience were in their own individual plastic bubbles too, zorb balls or something else, I couldn't tell. "This could be the future for gigs," was one description of the event. Perhaps everyone there was having a wonderful time, but seeing those bubbles, and the prisoners inside, enforced a sense of separation, of isolation. I came away from watching it feeling deep sadness.

“We were googling about how much zorb balls cost,” McGowan says, “when we realised that the artists would have much better ideas themselves. I had a gut instinct that we could make a festival, no matter what, but I needed to know that’s what the artists themselves wanted. They had brilliant ideas off the top of their heads, new ideas about what was possible. And rather than come back with works in response to Covid,” she says, “they were actually thinking about the eternal, the next crisis, about ecological concerns, and also about holding a place for joy. Although times are difficult and things are very serious, we need to offer a place for people to be together.”

I ask her about optimism. “I must be an optimist,” she says. “At the start of all this we had our framework in place, and our international programme, and key pieces that had been in development for a long time. Applications had closed at the end of the first week of March – and in those innocent days of March, we thought it would all be over by Fringe, and Fringe would be the party at the end of it all. It wasn’t until later that we realised that the pandemic would impact the arts, and the whole country, for a much longer time.”

“The first eight weeks were hardest,” she says. “But with the Government roadmap, and information from the WHO, we could start to plan, to dream while staying in the realms of the possible. Unfortunately, we’ve all become amateur immunologists,” she concludes, wryly.

Our conversation takes place days after the Songs from an Empty Room series of gigs raised more than €400,000 in support of Irish event-industry professionals, and the day after the Government announced new restrictions to the pandemic unemployment payment, which could have a devastating effect on those same professionals. “There can sometimes be a misconception that artists and arts workers are hobbyists,” says McGowan. “But it is an industry. What’s in question is the livelihoods of tens of thousands of highly skilled people who, for safety reasons, are unable to do their work. You can’t just hibernate an entire industry for a year and expect them to be ready to do their work.”

“That,” she adds, “is why the festival is like a pilot light. The arts are a necessity. We need them, to open our eyes to new perspectives. It’s not a luxury item to return to when the world returns to normal. It’s about forging new pathways, it’s about inspiration and discovery. And it’s about asking artists to be the thought leaders they have always been.”

And this is the area of similarity between this year’s slimmed down Fringe and previous versions: this edition is about pushing boundaries (safely), about imagination, about new kinds of performance, and new ways of thinking – the same as every year. “Not everyone is in a place to create at the moment,” says McGowan, “and that’s fine too. But a lot are, and it is a real opportunity for artists who make experimental performance. It’s an opportunity for them to lead, from the Fringe.”

From the Fringes: Ruth McGowan’s festival picks

Before You Say Anything
A world premiere from this brilliant young theatre company is always something to get excited about. Exploring the danger of safety, this show asks how everyone can be safe at the same time. Created for the atmospheric surrounds of the city-centre hidden gem the Chapel Royal.

Destiny: A Constellation of Queer Afrofuturist Visions
Origins Eile
A Fringe commission, this four-part series of events from thought leaders Origins Eile includes a multimedia virtual gallery with an opening DJ set live from Trinidad, a soul-body nourishment dinner at Hen's Teeth, plus a reading list and panel discussion that meditate on the transformative potential of queer Afrofuturism.

Mish Mash and Reckless Ross
This award-winning two-woman punk circus from Belfast put their skills on show at an outdoor stage in Castle Gardens. A celebration of the fierce and wild, expect a spectacle of absurd acrobatics, sequins, dirt and danger.

A Rain Walk
Andy Field and Beckie Darlington
In this inventive weather-specific performance, showtime is whenever it starts to rain. You'll receive a little box with your ticket that has everything you need inside. Guided by the voices of children from across Ireland and the UK, the rainfall becomes your own private theatre.

Matt Bratko and Frank Sweeney
In a year when we miss the dancefloor madly, this live digital performance holds a space for big nights out. Featuring real-time challenges and true consequences for the audience, this is a show that watches back.

Dublin Fringe Festival: Pilot Light Edition runs from September 5th to 20th. fringefest.com

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture