Should the Dublin Fringe Festival get back in its box?

Culture Shock: The Fringe is getting bigger, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any better

These Lights at the Dublin Fringe Festival

These Lights at the Dublin Fringe Festival

 

One persistent and – on the face of it – rather unfair criticism of the Dublin Fringe Festival is that it has become too big.

In a recent interview with its outgoing director Kris Nelson, I asked if he had any advice for his successor. He recalled some inhibiting responses he had encountered regarding the Fringe’s size: “Shouldn’t you get back in your box?” He felt instead that the momentum of the Fringe was only gathering, as it had done for over two decades: “So my advice is to harness all that momentum, and the goodwill towards the festival, and go for broke.”

It’s a fair retort. Last year, the Fringe reported box-office records and bigger audiences than ever before. Still, during the past two weeks of this year’s festival, I wondered whether enough is enough.

This year, I’ve seen one sparsely attended opening night for a small company with a production that had clearly not received enough attention from its makers. I’ve been at other shows that were amateur in aspect, or simply too pedestrian for an alternative art festival. You could be forgiven for believing that quality control had been lessened to maintain the girth of the programme.

Growth for growth’s sake, after all, is the ideology of capitalism or the cancer cell.

In truth, the Fringe isn’t all that bigger. This year’s programme ran to an impressive 83 productions, of various different scales and runs, which is seven more than last year’s bonanza. But the number of productions hasn’t altered significantly in recent years: 78 in 2015, 84 in 2014. Take 2010, the vintage year that gave us Anu’s game-changing first show World’s End Lane, and other standouts from a galvanised independent scene, such as TheatreClub’s Heroin, The Company’s As You Are Now So Once Were We, or Playgroup’s Berlin Love Tour. That year had 90 productions.

More complicated

If this year’s Dublin Fringe Festival felt bigger, it may have been because it was more complicated to navigate. The event covered more ground than before, including venues spread so widely through the city that the map in the festival brochure seemed to give up. But the shows themselves made it harder to get your bearings.

There were solo shows about family and identity, such as Emma O’Grady’s charming meditation on inheritance, What Good is Looking Well When You’re Rotten on the Inside?; provocative raves and trash cabarets recapitulating biblical yarns for an agnostic age (Triple Threat and Neon Western); new plays that waxed apocalyptic (These Lights, End Of.); physical performances about nothing in particular; and several near-traditional performances that could have been staged anywhere else at any other time of the year.

It wasn’t unusual to meet with a group of Fringe veterans to ask for tips and meet largely with shrugs. Could the programme afford to be more ruthlessly selective?

The Edinburgh Fringe is an interesting comparison: the largest arts festival in the world, it is both entirely democratic and utterly Darwinian. Anyone can participate; survival is not guaranteed. The quality, therefore, runs to extremes. As a friend who has staged a few shows in Edinburgh told me: “You’d have to try very hard to be the worst show on the Fringe.” This year, its 70th, it grew again, to 3,398 productions: an infinite haystack for only so many needles.

This satisfies audiences in the short term, who always say they want bigger. Consumers are responsible for the ever-expanding features of the products they buy. A few years ago a study found that people were most likely to buy the gadgets – the DVD players, computers and phones – that promised them the widest array of functions. But these were also the items they were most likely to return, finding them unfathomable at home.

Gravity field

Similarly, it is a cause for celebration when the Fringe programme is big enough to create its own gravity field: Kris Nelson had a gratifying anecdote about first-time attendees turning up for the Fringe itself, indifferent to what show they might see. But if the Fringe attracts, only to baffle, will those first-timers be so quick to return?

The argument for a smaller and more perfectly formed festival is hard to make and easy to resist. To shrink the scale of Fringe for the sake of manageability, or sustainability, can look like a defeat – getting back in its box – and besides, to go by last year’s box office, expansion hasn’t cost them anything so far.

There are other, perhaps better measures of success, albeit harder ones to quantify: a visiting production whose innovations will influence Irish makers in years to come; the discovery of a strikingly original new voice you want to hear more from; an emerging company that more than delivers on its promise. I haven’t found so many of those this year, wondering more frequently about the wisdom behind inclusions. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong places. Or perhaps they got lost in the crowd.

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