Who is Dublin for? Who do we want to share it with?

Dublin Theatre Festival director Willie White on Arts Council rows and Ireland’s cultural deficits

Willie White, director of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

Willie White, director of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

 

Willie White is moving beyond it.

It isn’t that the artistic director of the Dublin Theatre Festival (DTF) is reluctant to discuss this year’s setback, when the Arts Council reduced its funding to the organisation – against the recommendation of its internal assessors – voicing concerns over its “direction”. It’s that now the decision has been made, clarifications have been sought, and a programme has been delivered that does conspicuously more with notoriously less, he would rather think about the weeks of theatre ahead.

“That’s all in the public domain,” he says evenly of the council’s decision. “We’re moving on from that and thinking about next year’s decision.” The Arts Council’s decision was widely interpreted as a reprimand, though. The reduced grant – from €850,000 in 2017 to €825,000 in 2018, while the festival sought a substantial increase – was accompanied with expressed concerns that the festival had not attracted enough high-calibre international productions in recent years, that it has been without a title sponsor since 2011, and that, aesthetically, it is not distinguished sharply enough from the Dublin Fringe Festival.

The thing that is particularly challenging is to present more international work with less money

If that is the case, the festival’s board responded, it is largely a situation of the Arts Council’s making. “The organisation believes that Arts Council policies actively encouraged us to work with Irish artists in recent years,” the festival’s chairman wrote following the decision. It isn’t hard to see why.

With fewer Irish theatre companies in existence since 2010, following successive waves of funding cuts, and much professional work dependent on ad-hoc project grants, companies in receipt of funding tend to gravitate towards festivals – “a safer harbour”, as White puts it – to secure audiences and further bookings. An outsider might have suspected that the Arts Council was penalising the DTF not for failing its remit, but because it was no longer 2008.

This also ignored the successes of the festival under White, now a regular launchpad for successful Irish productions to tour abroad. Teaċ Daṁsa’s Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, Dead Centre’s Chekhov’s First Play, United Fall’s Girl Song and Iseult Golden and David Horan’s Class all began at the festival and found acclaim across the world. “Sometimes it’s about propelling artists towards opportunities of which there are fewer in Ireland, ” says White. If the DTF is receiving less international work, it seems to be originating more of it.

International focus

“The thing that is particularly challenging is to present more international work with less money, as a matter of fact,” says White. Still, that is what this year’s programme has done. Its 28 productions are evenly split between Irish and international work – from the US, the UK, Poland and Belgium, primarily – and it might have had more but for last-minute complications outside the festival’s control. “I absolutely have an ambition to present much more international work,” White tells me, “but the obstacle is not me, it’s the resources.”

The saga, I suggest, must have brought into keener focus a question that all festival directors ask themselves, whether as a challenge or in exasperation: what do people want from me? “Well, I would put it differently,” White says, slow to make it personal. “I’d say, ‘What is the festival for and what can it do?’”

White’s answer to this is not especially different to those given by any of his predecessors over the festival’s 61-year history: to provide a platform for new Irish work and a conduit for international theatre, in the hope that for two weeks in Dublin they will meet. But any festival director has a complicated equation to balance when it comes to bringing over international work: the grand-scale productions of Berlin’s Schaubühne, Paris’s Comédie-Française or Amsterdam’s Toneelgroep, say, are made for vast European playhouses and performance spaces.

It’s not just that Dublin has few comparable spaces, bar a couple of recent additions, but it has also been losing the venues it had. The Tivoli, the SFX, Andrew’s Lane Theatre, the Crypt, the City Arts Centre, The Mint on Henry Street (“Who knew we’d be lamenting that?” says White) – all spaces formerly used by the festival – have now been sold or closed down.

In the meantime, the industry has experienced a sea change. This year the Dublin Fringe has a section entitled 13 Good Plays, while the DTF counts only one wholly original new Irish play in this year’s programme, Fishamble and the Abbey’s Rathmines Road. “The play is the thing,” says Hamlet, this year gracing the festival in the shape of Ruth Negga at the Gate. But the loss of mid-scale theatres is another problem.

This has become a growing concern for White. Earlier this month, over the course of a few days, we spoke in three different countries – in person in Dublin, then by Skype when he visited Edinburgh and later Groningen for their respective festivals – and his conversation frequently returned to the subject. “I do believe that theatre is fundamentally a civic activity,” he says.

“It’s convening a group of people together at a moment in time to have a conversation at a time when we’re increasingly alienated from each other. Where we mediate the world through a screen.” Just leaving home, he argued, to share an experience with a group of people, and reflect on whether it flattered or challenged your values, is “fundamental, really positive and really social”.

Important moment

To that end, he says, “It’s a really important moment now to think about what kind of Dublin we want to live in. Who is it for? Who do we want to share it with?” More specifically, he asks, what is the role of culture in the Government’s plan for development? “There’s been very little building in the city centre of Dublin since the beginning of the State,” he told me.

Not long after, in Groningen, the disparity between cities was again on his mind. “I experience it as a frustration when I’m trying to offer our audiences in Dublin what is available to an audience in Europe. It kind of amazes me that it’s becoming more difficult over time to try and do that, because we’re very poorly served by our cultural infrastructure. And there’s no ambition, it seems to me, to change that.”

He was not, he said, opposed to development, but argued for “heterogeneous development”, planning for a fairer society. “It amazes me that nobody thinks it’s a problem,” he says. “If you want to think about the future of the city, and you want the city to be successful, culture has to be part of that.”

White projects a stern persona; tall and broad, with a deep baritone voice, and a fondness for rigorous discussions about the artform that can seem implacable. In truth, he is a serial enthusiast, an eager and early adopter of trends to the verge of self-parody, whether it’s music, sea swimming, yoga, cultivating sourdough starter, or maintaining a religious aversion to paper cups (“Since REM’s Green album,” he says of the latter, “when Michael Stipe wore a ring-pull and a disposable razor around his neck.”)

I don’t think that we can presume that we are immune here to the reactionary populist tendencies that are flourishing across Europe and around the world

He is never more animated, though, than when discussing the work. He raves about a recent visit with his young family to see the musical Hamilton, then evaluates the wisdom of another international production staging a downbeat play in a large venue. “In general, large numbers of people don’t like to feel depressed in live performances,” he considers, pragmatically. “Smaller numbers do.”

Similarly, White speaks more persuasively when discussing details than broad strokes. He rarely tries to enforce a governing theme to his programme, but if you ask him for recommendations he labours over assembling a tailor-made shortlist.

This year he points to a number of shows remonstrating with the 1960s, like counterculture discontents. The Corn Exchange are adapting Arthur Miller’s film The Misfits, Gina Moxley takes on another ’60s movie suffused with chauvinism and violence in The Patient Gloria for Pan Pan, Junk Ensemble make dance theatre inspired by a troubling phenomenon from the era in The Bystander Effect, and a much-anticipated return by New York’s Elevator Repair Service – the company behind The Select (The Sun Also Rises) and the legendary Gatz – brings their Edward Albee clapback, Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf, to Dublin.

Consoling response

It isn’t hard to interpret the programme as a consoling response to a frighteningly fractious world. “I don’t think that we can presume that we are immune here to the reactionary populist tendencies that are flourishing across Europe and around the world,” White’s programme note reads, and to some extent the work here seems like an inoculation.

Another American visitor is The Fever, from New York’s 600 Highwaymen, which premiered at the same time as Donald Trump’s inauguration. “In the way he is bombastic, it is minimal,” says White. “It is a plain and simple instance of a community using theatrical materials to try and create a bulwark against divisions. I don’t want to overstate what one piece of theatre can achieve. But as I was saying to you before, I do think theatre is civilising.”

If theatre can perform that function in an intransigent world, that also explains an increased offering for younger spectators, such as a touching coming of age/coming out story The End of Eddy, from acclaimed director Stewart Laing, or the universal appeal of Belgian mavericks CAMPO with Multiverse – “short and funny and something imaginative”.

In a running joke with his patrons, the friends of the festival, White reveals each new programme with caveats borrowed from a restaurant menu, where his “three chilli warning” marks anything particularly profane or wildly experimental. “Our audience is quite adventurous,” White says. “Some people have a taste for the hard stuff, the palate tinglers; some prefer comfort food.”

This programme, he considers, is not quite so confronting in form and subject. “It’s going to rock your world in a very gentle way,” he laughs. You can see his point. Perhaps we have been through enough wars.

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