Limerick steps up - ‘Fringe has shown us that anything is possible’
As the Fringe festival sees new investment, the city is becoming more confident and embracing its unique sense of humour, says Nuala Woulfe
There's a new sense of confidence about Limerick these days in the arts and in business, and the city is finding an outlet for its creativity in Limerick's fledgling fringe festival, popping up for the second year running in venues across the city next week.
Some 30 national and international artists are set to perform but, ironically, the whole notion of Fringe came out of disappointment when Limerick lost the bid for European Cultural Capital 2020.
"After we lost the bid I was sitting down with my partner, Simon Thompson, and after a few glasses of wine we thought, why not do something ourselves?" says photographer and festival co-founder, Eva Birdthistle.
"Out of that came last year's Fringe. We'd no funding but local businesses gave benefit in kind for artists' accommodation and we asked artists to pay a small fee themselves. Bit by bit, people started to become involved, and incredibly, last year we'd 69 performances."
An actor, director and clown, Simon Thompson had been going to Fringe festivals all over the world for two years and was convinced Limerick had the character and the ability to put on something innovative.
"We're trying to emulate the Canadian model of Fringe, keeping costs down, using cosy and unusual venues, mixing well-travelled artists with those starting out and getting people who might not normally go to shows to try an event," Simon explains.
"Last year we'd a huge mix of people coming to shows who said they'd never been to anything like Fringe before but were totally hooked. Some people find traditional theatre and performances a bit 'stuffy' but Fringe is cutting edge and informal."
Following the success of last year's 'shoestring' Fringe, this year the festival has gained funding from the Arts Council, RTÉ and Limerick City and County Council, but Eva says Fringe works best in a city with a certain edginess. "Limerick has gone past any negative labelling but we're gritty and why shouldn't that be part of our personality? Fringe is exciting, new, on the edge and non-conforming and some of it is close to the knuckle - it has a good home in Limerick."
Growing confidence in Limerick is a collaborative process, constantly evolving through artistic and business ventures such as the opening of film production hub Troy Studios and the continual investment in the area by national and multi-national business.
"If a company is relocating it wants to see what kind of quality of life there'll be for employees and the arts and social activity is an important factor. Things like Fringe encourage more people to visit and relocate to Limerick, allowing more money to be spent in the city and surrounding area. It all feeds into one another to create an overall vibrancy," Eva explains.
The role of third-level colleges has been crucial in developing promising artists who are also learning to have a good head for business. Simon has seen this first hand as he is doing a PhD at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick (UL) as well as being a guest lecturer and an administrator at UL. In recent years, the university has added a brand new MA Festival of Arts, a new Bachelor of Arts in Performing Arts and an MA in Songwriting.
"We're already seeing graduates on the ground in local venues in festivals and parades and Fringe creates ways in which we can help young people to stay and use their talents," explains Simon.
The Limerick IT, the Limerick School of Art and Design and the new Irish Aerial Creation Centre (Ireland's first aerial dance centre) are also producing a dynamism which is tapping into the city's life-force.
Since last year's Fringe, Eva Birdthistle says she's noticing this dynamism first hand as more entrepreneurs set up food, music and other festivals. "Fringe gave Limerick people that sense of confidence," she says.
But Limerick had to learn how to be confident and when it won EU Capital of Culture in 2014 there was criticism at the time that after the New Year's Eve celebrations nothing big seemed to happen for months.
"It takes confidence to put on large spectacles and I don't know if Limerick knew in 2014 that we could do it, but when things did kick off that year it was epic. It's only through trying that you learn," Eva says.
Where learning is happening rapidly is in comedy which has really started to take off since last year's Fringe. Limerick may be famous for the sharp humour of the Rubber Bandits, but there's plenty of local talent honing their craft waiting for bigger opportunities. Last year Mother Macs pub in the city started comedy nights just in time for Fringe and according to owner Mike McMahon their comedy slot's been such a hit it's now a regular feature. "Limerick comedy is the earthiest comedy going but it's good natured. We've a lovely intimate room and audience participation is most definitely encouraged. Limerick's thriving; just after Fringe we won the Purple Flag (awarded for a safe and vibrant night-time culture). The city benefits from all these things."
Art café and wine bar Chez le Fab is running a comedy open mic every fortnight, a venture which only began a few months ago. The city venue developed a name for humour running Burlesque cabaret but according to owner, Lesley Anne Liddane, the open mic comedy has brought, "people out of the woodwork, they're even willing to travel to us to perform".
She adds: "Last year's Fringe was pivotal, it created a vibe and opened up so many contacts for everyone; artists, employers, business people and entrepreneurs giving them the courage to do more. One of the things I'm looking at running next is a comedy festival, what Fringe has shown us - this year and last - is that anything is possible."
Limerick Fringe runs from April 4-7. For more, see limerickfringe.com