Ruth McGowan is on a mission. Heading into the 25th edition of the Dublin Fringe, the Donegal native wants to transform our lives and the culture of the city. How will this come to pass? Through the powers of delight, escapism and laughter. Like so many cultural promises of transformation: economic, social, physical, and emotional; we’ve heard it all before but, after time spent in McGowan’s company, I begin to believe, this time, it could be true.
We meet just a month ahead of the 25th anniversary of the two-week festival which includes events in venues from the Abbey Theatre to the Chapel Royal at Dublin Castle, from the Four Courts to a hair salon (where better for a Fringe show?). McGowan has moved our meeting forward by an hour, as she's going to Toronto for two days, for the SummerWorks festival. Doesn't the thought of all that travel for just 48 hours exhaust her? She laughs – in fact she laughs a great deal, in an engaging way, throughout our interview – and suggests that if she stopped to think about getting tired, she might lose her energy, and so she doesn't.
Unlike its behemoth sister, the Edinburgh Fringe, the Dublin Fringe has a carefully considered agenda. "We're one of the few fully curated fringe festivals in the world. Most are by lottery or pay-to-play," says McGowan. At Edinburgh, the programme is made up of those who have found a space to perform in the overcrowded city; you fill in a form, pay a fee and, hey presto, you're at the Fringe. Dublin is different. McGowan and her small team select shows from an open call, and work with actors and directors, as necessary, to bring them to fruition.
This year, of the 77 events, seven are invited international shows, while the rest are Irish, and everything in the Irish selection is a premiere. “We get hundreds of applications,” says McGowan. “We have to say no to more things than yes.” So how do you choose, especially when the work is new and untested? “Some is based on track record,” she says. “We’re out and about seeing work all year, work in pubs, work in rehearsal spaces. Still,” she smiles. “The risk is there. But it’s there whether you’re making new work at the Metropolitan Opera or at Project Cube.”
How, then, do you avoid the cringingly awful? The shows so bad you feel you’re never going to get those precious moments of your finite life back again? McGowan smiles and looks up – as she does when she’s thinking or, as is most likely in this case, remembering just such a show. “We look for artists that defy the mainstream. We look for singularity, the work that makes you feel something you’ve never felt, or think something you hadn’t thought. There’s also the urgency of need, when you can tell the artist was compelled to make the work. If the artist is driven by an idea, and has the ability to get a team around them, it has a strong chance.”
The Dublin Fringe is incredibly supportive of artists. The Fringe Lab, adjacent to the Festival office in Temple Bar, is available, by application, for the development of work. A playwriting mentor is in place: this year it’s the multi-award-winning Mark O’Rowe, and McGowan will also help fill in some of the blanks: “one of my favourite parts of the job is matchmaking… If someone has an application, but is missing a designer or a composer, we can help.”
‘Fringe as a verb’
All of this makes the Dublin Fringe pretty special. What flavour does that curation give to the festival? “We’re definitely future-forward,” she says. “We don’t really do adaptations.” Looking at the programming across some of our major venues, this is more unique than it perhaps ought to be. What does McGowan think of the rash of adaptations, rehashes and reimaginations that seem to make up the bulk of programming elsewhere? “They do have an artistic value, for sure,” she says carefully, adding that “it’s easier to find an audience for what people know they’re going to enjoy.”
The Fringe proposition is different. With most shows running at around the one-hour mark, and with ticket prices an average of €12 to €14, you can dip in and have an adventure. “When you flick through the brochure you won’t know all the names. We want people to treat ‘Fringe’ as a verb: go to lots of things, have a sense of discovery.”
There is a strand of activism to the programme, of questioning norms. A theme of taking power, whether personal or political, runs through. “The shifting sands of global politics has made activists of all of us, out of necessity. Artists are thinking a lot more globally. There was a trend to autobiographical theatre, but there’s more thematic richness now. My preference is works that really have something to say, not just about the self, but the world.” McGowan speaks rapidly, her manner engaging, her green-blue eyes widening as she goes, as if she is falling in love with the possibilities she is shaping in words.
If the Dublin Fringe is her party, she makes you want to take up the invitation. And take the risks she proposes. In practice, this means invitations to a variety of diverse venues, and an extraordinary range of experiences. It’s a festival that gives you a safe place to explore (and yes, in some instances that does mean bodily organs in surprising spots). The diversity is vital, especially when it comes to venues.
“We’re a place that uses the city as a canvas, and the city is changing so much. When there is less and less civic space, and less and less privately owned space, it makes it harder and harder for artists to find places to work. The city exists for people who live here, not just people who visit. You can build all the hotels you want, but if there is no culture, then you can’t have those experiences where you travel and live like a local, because there’s no local culture left. The artists in Dublin are the best thing about Dublin.”
McGowan fell in love with the city when she came as a student, first to train to be a primary school teacher, and then studying for an MA in theatre and performance at Trinity College. "We had to go and see a show a week, and I remember thinking, people must work here, there must be jobs. Growing up in Donegal, I didn't know that jobs like this existed."
For a while, she worked as a dramaturge, a role which involves editing scripts and working out how to get the best out of them. I wonder if she has ever seen a play she couldn’t cut at least ten minutes out of. I tell her about my fantasy of setting up a crack team: a bit like Trinny and Susannah in What Not To Wear, who get sent in to shorten stage work for the good of all. “There are loads of plays where I think you could snip a full half hour,” she agrees after a pause. “And there’s loads where I go and want more: as in wanting to follow a plot or a character… But you’re seeing the play the artist wanted to make. And it takes so much grit, determination and, sometimes years of work, to get a play on, you have to champion that.”
When I counter that, sometimes, the shared support and cheerleading from within the sector leads to more mediocre work being applauded as excellent, McGowan shows her steelier side, albeit tempered with her trademark warmth: “We need to champion each other in times of scarcity. We’re well below the European average in funding. To make theatre, you need support, encouragement, and belief.”
It’s an intoxicating position, despite my more cynical side, and the Fringe’s legacy bears her out. Camille O’Sullivan made her debut here; Zoe Ní Riordáin’s Everything I Do, from last year’s Fringe is one of the hits of Edinburgh this year; and the Lords of Strut, who featured in Thisispopbaby’s brilliant RIOT from 2016’s Fringe, have just signed a six-figure deal with the US comedy studio National Lampoon (catch them this year on the Peacock Stage from September 7th to 14th).
With all that energy and talent, and so few resources, what is McGowan’s solution? “The answer,” she says, “is more.” And it turns out, she means this on every level. “I’m a big fan of the sense of the forbidden. When you see something that takes you somewhere you’ve never been, physically or thematically. Where are my limits? I haven’t hit them yet. When you realise how difficult it is to get work on: to find support, to find funding; when you realise all the pitfalls, it makes me realise it’s all the more miraculous that it continues.”
Dublin Fringe September 7th-22nd, fringefest.com
Ruth recommends: Five Fringe shows to see
Looking For Paradise by Les 3 Points de Suspension: a magical performance-meets-walking tour that's part treasure hunt, part provocation. September 14th and 15th, Meeting Point at Barnardo Square. €16.00
The North Is Next: Launched with a discussion event at Project on September 7th, this free, limited-edition Zine spotlights the drive for queer and reproductive rights in Northern Ireland, in association with GCN and Outburst Queer Arts Festival. Event tickets €10.00
Sorry Gold by Emily Aoibheann: "Emily is an artist at the vanguard – a true innovator who explodes genre and pushes at the boundaries of aerial performance and visual art. Sorry Gold will be a feast, holding fast to an idea that the future is possible, desirable and beautiful." Project Arts Centre, September 18th-21st. Tickets from €11.00
Black Jam by Fried Plantains Collective: "Witches brew of Irish trad-punk, aggressive Afro-punk and spookism, with a killer line-up including UK star Bob Vylan, Blackfish Collective, and post-punk Dublin crew The Deadlians." Abbey Theatre, September 7th, €10.00, free for asylum seekers and refugees.
Young Radicals: The Fringe for Young Audiences, [and a slight cheat from McGowan on her final pick], directing our attention to five extra shows aimed at youngsters, from Rainbow in a Box, to Dreamgun's Lion King, to MOOP. See programme for details.