Dublin Theatre Festival: ‘It’s about people assembling and I’m really looking forward to that’

Festival director Willie White emphasises the positives as audiences return to theatres

Dublin Theatre Festival director Willie White: We were cautious with the number of international projects and couldn’t really invite anything large-scale. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Dublin Theatre Festival director Willie White: We were cautious with the number of international projects and couldn’t really invite anything large-scale. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Dublin can be heaven, if you believe the song (or the marketing slogan). But, after 18 months of lockdowns, shutdowns and crackdowns, the capital city – and its urban core in particular – feels more purgatorial than heavenly. As the difficult process of resuscitation begins, the focus yet again is on pubs and restaurants and offices. But three major cultural events next month – Dublin Fringe, Culture Night and the Dublin Theatre Festival – will offer different voices and alternative perspectives. If you really care for Dublin’s future, ignore them at your peril.

Of the three events which make September Dublin’s most culturally vibrant month, the theatre festival is the most venerable. Conceived at a different time and for slightly different purposes, it remains the country’s largest theatrical event, a showcase for Ireland’s best artists and a window on work from around the world. At least, that’s usually the idea.

Festival director Willie White’s focus in 2021 is first and foremost on mounting what is effectively the first Dublin Theatre Festival in two years. DTF suffered a devastating blow 11 months ago, when the cautious optimism of summer 2020 ran into the second Covid wave of autumn. With a couple of exceptions, most shows were cancelled at short notice. Some of them will now be seen in this year’s festival.

Understandably, even though there’s seven weeks to go until the festival begins, White has based all his plans for this year’s event, the programme for which was unveiled this week, on current Covid regulations. That makes for the unusual situation that a sellout is practically guaranteed. The weirdness of the pandemic means that box-office failure is off the agenda. At time of going to press, live performances are restricted to a maximum of 50 people inside a venue at any one time. So it’s fair to say that White is not expecting to have many unused tickets on his hands. But he’s optimistic that all of this is a harbinger of better days to come.

“I do feel that we’re talking now about recovery rather than survival,” White says. “We’re planning for a festival of up to 50 people indoors with social distancing and masking. We hope that it’ll improve from that. But at least it gives the parameters and then within those parameters you can look at what’s possible.”

There was understandably an impulse in the thick of the pandemic to take care of our own community first. But international relationships are extremely important for the festival

Of course, there’s a chance that by the time the festival opens on September 30th the Government will have responded to the rising clamour from the culture and entertainment industries to extend the use of the Covid pass from restaurants and pubs to live performance and other cultural events. But White and his team still have to make their plans on the basis of the current regulations. And they know it could be worse, given their painful experience in September last year, when Covid restrictions were tightened just a few days before the festival started.

This year, he’s keen to accentuate the positive, although while acknowledging the programme bears the imprint of 18 travel-free months in its almost exclusively Irish focus. International imports remain a logistical risk too far.

“What you’ll see is substantially Irish projects,” White agrees. “We were cautious with the number of international projects and couldn’t really invite anything large-scale, partly because of audience numbers, but also because there are more things that could go wrong if people were held up or were close contacts or whatever. That’s fine for a single year in these particular circumstances. And there was understandably an impulse in the thick of the pandemic to take care of our own community first. But international relationships, the opportunity to show international work, is extremely important for the festival. There are so few opportunities in Dublin to see international artists so it’s really important to maintain the international dimension.”

The additional funds which the State has made available during the pandemic do mean that there’s a backlog of productions looking for an audience. “People are really dying to show their work to the public,” says White. “There’s a lot of work out there that’s been funded over the past few years, particularly with the increase in funding last year. That just needs to find a home to meet an audience. So we’ll be part of that.”

As a result, this year’s festival features most of the country’s most significant theatre makers – from Fishamble to Pan Pan,Thisispopbaby to Rough Magic – all presenting new work. It’s an exciting prospect.

Landmark Productions in association with Irish National Opera The First Child A new opera by Donnacha Dennehy & Enda Walsh as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2021 O’Reilly Theatre 2,4,6,8,9 Oct Live stream 9 Oct then available on demand Image credit Jack Phelan
The First Child, a new opera by Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2021. Photograph: Jack Phelan

“There are a bunch of projects that are new and then some that we’d hoped to show last year,” says White. “It’s a mixture of both. But I have to say, the Arts Council has done a great job. One is used to complaining about the them, but they really were rock solid from the very beginning. It’s a fantastic achievement that they managed to secure that really significant increase in funding. I saw /[Arts Council chair/] Kevin Rafter yesterday saying more is required and hopefully they will maintain that level of funding. “

White isn’t keen to proclaim any overall curatorial vision running through the programme he’s put together. “The artists usually decide and we kind of figure out what it is retrospectively,” he says. “It is still emerging, would be fair to say. I don’t follow so much this idea of programming according to a rigid template. But you will see, for example, ecological concerns, which I think is new for Irish artists.”

He points to Rising, a visual installation and audio performance on the Liffey quays from Brokentalkers, looking at climate change from the point of view of young Dubliners living close to the water. Root from Shanna May Breen & Luke Casserly, explores the intersection of ecology and performance, where we are and where we need to go, and how trees may have the answer. “They are starting to grapple with, for want of a better word, the burning issues of the day,” says White. “And then, as always, artists are, inquiring in different ways about things that matter to us now, whether that be identity or gender. And family is always a good one. “

He’s reluctant to pick out highlights, but Phillip McMahon’s Once Before I Go, juxtaposing the early days of the AIDS crisis and today’s LGBTQ+ community, at the Gate, along with First Child, the final instalment of Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh’s opera trilogy, stand out at first glance.

Theatres should be practising the contemporary art form, that the work that we see has to have some of the urgency of a contemporary inquiry

Other intriguing offerings include The Application, Gina Moxley’s documentary about freelance theatre artists’ experiences of endlessly making applications. Caitríona McLaughlin reunting with Marina Carr for iGIRL at the Abbey, and the immersive Emperor 101 from The Performance Corporation, which the audience will experience through VR headsets. Meanwhile, the Abbey and Royal Court theatres have put it up to prurient editors everywhere with their co-production of Sarah Hanly’s debut play, Purple Snowflakes and Titty Wanks.

White himself is keen to point to some of the more leftfield projects: Night Dances at the National Stadium, which he describes as “on the border of contemporary dance and rave and noise”, or Neon a new work from Tim Etchells to be installed at the Crown Alley Telephone Exchange.

If he has any overarching vision of the festival’s role, it’s “that theatres should be practising the contemporary art form, that the work that we see has to have some of the urgency of a contemporary inquiry. Work that’s made now, not that harks back to some kind of distant past.

“And the other thing is very fundamentally, just this idea of gathering and people meeting again. Artists meeting their audiences and people meeting each other. Because, whatever your preferred discipline is, whether it be going to gigs or to the cinema or theatre or all of them, notionally they can be delivered to you on a screen but you miss all of the other stuff. You know, the anticipation, the meeting, the friends hanging around afterwards. The business that we’re in is about people assembling and I’m really looking forward to that.”

The 2021 Dublin Theatre Festival runs from September 30th - October 17th dublintheatrefestival.ie

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