Early in his career, the outgoing director of the Dublin Fringe Festival learned to pack light. In truth, Kris Nelson didn't really have a choice. As the founding director of Antonym, a producing and touring agency based in Montreal, he might travel to Toronto, Vancouver, LA or London in any given week, later initiating the PushOFF festival in Vancouver, with Joyce Rosario, which gave him a commute time of six hours, across three time zones. It paid to have a portable lifestyle.
When he moved his life to Ireland, in 2013, he arrived with just three cases, one of them filled with art. The first piece was a watercolour painted by his grandmother; the second was a colour test photograph from the Canadian video artist Jessica Eaton, bought at a fundraiser before her career took off; and the last was a framed collection of posters from Toronto's contemporary dance company Public Recordings, with which he collaborated.
Personal, artistic and professional, the portfolio seems to mirror the man; in company Nelson is charming, impressive and unfailingly polite. The collection is soon to move again, at the conclusion of Nelson’s successful tenure at the Fringe, when he leaves to become the new director of LIFT, the biennial London festival of contemporary theatre.
Meeting shortly before the launch of this year’s Fringe, Nelson was in two minds about repacking. “I wouldn’t be a nester,” he considered. “But I made a lot of friends here; people who will stay in my life.” Before moving to Dublin, a colleague had told him, “Remember, Kris, local carrots taste better.” At first, he had found the advice teasingly gnomic – “She’s always out to get me,” he sighed comically – and yet that attitude has come to define his influence on the Fringe, the leading event of alternative arts on the calendar. Prioritising domestic produce has resulted in some of the festival’s better harvests.
More and more it feels there are perhaps less opportunities for artists to do that in the country
“I realised it was an Irish festival with an international flavour, as opposed to an international festival with an Irish flavour,” says Nelson. “That’s what the festival had become, certainly what I had inherited following Róise [Goan]’s focus. What was clear was that the sector needs a place for new work, of profile and significance, where artists are supported to make their mark. Because more and more it feels there are perhaps less opportunities for artists to do that in the country.”
In Nelson's time the Fringe has become bigger: last year, buoyed by the popular Spiegeltent venue at Merrion Square and given an added amperage by Thisispopbaby's political cabaret RIOT. It broke box office records, added 6,000 more people to its overall audience, and reported the biggest festival attendance in over a decade. Critically, it also passed the taxi-driver test: if you can learn what's on from a cab ride, an interdisciplinary performing arts festival has reached way beyond the category of the initiated.
To do that, however, the programme has become so expansive, there have been some consequences for its identity. Nelson's first year coincided with a new title sponsorship (since ended), which enabled large-scale public pieces, such as the Samuel Beckett Bridge musical performance, HARP, as well as the return of the Spiegeltent and its good-night-out, beery entertainments of circus performance and cabaret. Nelson ensured a political and artistic worth to those acts – such as the transgendered artist Justin Vivian Bond, the politically woke burlesque of Hot Brown Honey, and the dazzling ascendance of RIOT, since revived at Vicar Street this summer and scheduled to tour to Sydney and New York early next year.
Elsewhere, established contemporary companies and well-regarded artists found an accommodating platform and an effective launch pad in the Fringe, such as Brokentalkers’ This Beach, Sonya Kelly’s How to Keep an Alien, and Emmet Kirwan’s Dublin Oldschool. In more modest spaces came no-frills productions of quite conventional new writing, which might have been seen in a number of small venues at any other time of the year. Where the guiding question of the festival’s aesthetic was once, what is Fringe?, a less discriminating programme begged the question, what isn’t?
The thing that surprised me was how much I fell in love with Irish artists
"Looking back now, I feel that I've emphasised a broad scope within the festival," says Nelson. "The diversity of makers has been very important to me." He points to invited works in his first year as director, from Inuk throat singer Tanya Tegaq, and this year's appearance from Ivan Coyote's storytelling cabaret Tomboy Survival Guide, as well as MDLSX, from celebrated Italian performer Silvia Calderoni, a bracing performance about post-gender identity. "The thing that surprised me was how much I fell in love with Irish artists and the Irish way of doing things. It was a way of discovering the city, and Irish culture through the artists' eyes and where they were taking us."
That involved responding to stand-up comedy, a form of performance in which Nelson was less well versed, and the early discovery of Allison Spittle, who returns to the programme this year with a new show and a TV series in the works. It has also meant welcoming underground entertainments, such as Over The Top Wrestling, a brawny display of make-believe, on both sides of the ropes, rarely recognised as a performance art.
As Nelson describes it, being in Ireland made his tastes more catholic. “Coming from Montréal, I had to defeat an ingrained snobbishness.” Of the Quebecois poseur scene he says, “In French, we say, ‘M’as tu vu?’: Have you seen me? It’s not the same here, which is refreshing. It doesn’t matter where you are – it’s you’re that you’re having the craic with your mates that matters. That extends a bit to the kind of art and the kinds of artists that I’ve been interested in. I’ve been trying to work on some kind of crossroads where the experimental can become popular and vice versa. Few other festivals in the world can do that.”
Of the recent surge in new writing work, he points out that the Fringe’s old successes have been in debuting plays, such as Enda Walsh’s legendary Disco Pigs, and that the pendulum of contemporary performance may be swinging back towards the page. Over the Top Wrestling, meanwhile, gave people “something they had never seen before in an arts context. And it was massive.” One constant of the Fringe, Nelson knows, is that it has to change.
The Fringe has always worn its politics on its sleeve, but so has Ireland
This year, without the Spiegeltent, the Fringe is attempting to reach out wider: last year it had 23 venues; this year it has added 10 more. "It's about attempting a city takeover," Nelson explains. There are new free public spectacles, such as Town Choir, a Canadian-Irish collaboration from Vancouver's Theatre Replacement and Tonnta Music, staged in Stephen's Green Shopping Centre, in which a choir sings the city observations of two authors in real time. Another, Trophy, invites audiences into tents on Barnardo Square to hear life-changing stories from people in direct provision.
The Fringe has always worn its politics on its sleeve, but so has Ireland. In the time Nelson has lived here we have had the Marriage Equality referendum, the Gender Recognition Act, the Waking The Feminists movement, the election of a gay taoiseach, and a groundswell towards a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment banning abortion.
This year a number of productions respond to reproductive rights and body politics, from THEATREclub's installation piece Not At Home to Luke Casserly's efficacy 84, a devised piece examining the Kerry babies case of the 1980s. Elsewhere Lucy McCormick's cabaret Triple Threat, in which the London performer enacts the New Testament as a morality play of female bodily autonomy, is expected to cause some controversy. "For us, that's a shake-the-cage thing," says Nelson. "But not for nothing."
Nelson is preparing to take the reins at LIFT with similar purpose. “It wasn’t just that I wanted that job, there are things I want to do there, which is to help the festival address Brexit, being a world festival that celebrates the city like it does, and commissions UK and international artists. That thing about packing light. . . Just as I brought those things from Vancouver and Montreal, I’ll bring some of Dublin with me, the connections and ideas.”
If Nelson was allowed a fourth suitcase for his onward journey, with keepsakes from his time at the Dublin Fringe Festival, what would he take? "In terms of experiences?" He thinks for a moment. "Sonya Kelly's How to Keep an Alien, the birth of Dublin Oldschool, Emily Aoibeann's Object Piggy, the buzz of RIOT, working with Sarah Jane Scaife, Allison Spittle. . ." He pauses. He has vastly exceeded his baggage allowance. "Yeah," he smiles, "lots."