Saturday 21 April 2018

Stage: 'I want people to feel joy, whatever that is for them'

Stage is set: Dublin Theatre Festival director Willie White with actress Cathy Belton, who's starring in a new Druid production, and comedian PJ Gallagher, who's appearing in Alien Documentary
Stage is set: Dublin Theatre Festival director Willie White with actress Cathy Belton, who's starring in a new Druid production, and comedian PJ Gallagher, who's appearing in Alien Documentary

Maggie Armstrong

You might not know Willie White personally, but you are bound to have sat in the same room as him. As artistic director of Dublin Theatre Festival, he attends over 100 plays a year. 100 plays is average for a critic. For an arts programmer, it's devotional.

With his dark glasses and side parting, he wears a serious disposition at the theatre. "You're trying all the time," he says, "to be a proxy for an imagined audience."

For 2016, 28 shows are packed into a meaty and eclectic 18-day programme. White's carbon footprint dug into half as many cities this year, catching shows in New York, Melbourne, Tokyo, Brussels, London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Oslo, Rakvere, Manchester, Lisbon, Budapest, Cardiff, Glasgow. The festival pays the travel; he stays in "crappy hotels".

"For me, the most exciting part of my job is sitting down before a show starts and thinking, it's going to be brilliant. I love that moment.

"Frequently," he admits, "you're disappointed. Of course there have been times where I've been monumentally bored. Bored and upset and disappointed, for theatre."

When he gets bored, DTF's artistic director counts Beatles songs backwards in his head from Z to A. He "never" leaves a show before the end. "I'm too loyal. If it's not working, the people who are doing it need your help."

He may be an oracle and a godfather to theatre but White, who has three young children, has a weakness for the game Plants Vs Zombies 2. "I uninstalled it from my iPad. It's a time-thief." A technophile, every week he downloads the latest contemporary music. He cycles, and is a keen practitioner of yoga.

White grew up in Co Laois, where theatre didn't feature. He saw his first professional play when he came to study Arts at the "outland" of UCD. A Dramsoc heavy, he won "best director" at the Student Drama Festival in 1994. He performed some of the first lines that Conor McPherson wrote.

Having worked in a pizzeria and a bookshop, he joined RTÉ as a researcher/reporter alongside John Kelly on arts programmes. For nine years he was artistic director of the Project Arts Centre and in 2011 he took over DTF.

The festival, which premièred Philadelphia Here I Come in 1964 and A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing in 2014, has been going since 1957, the most hallowed few weeks on the Irish theatre calendar. At the launch party in City Hall last week, where Minister Heather Humphreys spoke and brie canapés were served with cool beers and wine, White described DTF as a "civic occasion", a celebration of Dublin for Dublin.

The line-up for 2016 reflects this "civic" urge and promises diversity. Ireland Shed a Tear? is by Traveller theatre-maker Michael Collins; ZVIZDAL (Chernobyl - So Far So Close) works with older survivors of the nuclear disaster; A Midsummer Night's Dream is blockbuster contemporary Shakespeare and there is a family season in The Ark.

There are plays of unusual form: performance art Breaking Rainbows, Guerilla, which will "keep you awake, with ear-bleeding techno" and It's Not Over, which announces itself as "not a play. It's a campaign".

"The theatre festival's job is to lead and to push the form forward," says White, with trademark glinting intensity. "We take as much risk as possible, go as far as we think we can bring an audience along with us."

He has a fresh take on the charge against "pretentiousness" in post-dramatic theatre.

"What's wrong with being pretentious? Art is pretentious and presumptuous. The negative connotation of 'pretentious' is somebody who's posing and faking it."

But if you didn't have pretentious art, says White, you wouldn't have David Bowie. "Calling something pretentious is like saying, 'I think art should stop, and freeze.'"

If he was attending the festival as himself, not as director, he would go to "the weird stuff in the small spaces". In September, he expects seasoned habitués of DTF and also people making their first, tentative visit. He recommends newbies see The Seagull for Chekhov's "humanity" and A Midsummer Night's Dream for "laughter and irreverence".

"I want people to feel joy, whatever that is for them," says White. "That feeling, when you're in flow with something. When your imagination is fired and you're feeling more alive. When you just kinda go, cool."

There's always been tension, he says, between old and new guards. Those who treasure our literary tradition and those scrapping it, "between the traditionalists and the thrusting avant-garde, the youngsters who want to topple them".

He knows he can't please all the people and he embraces that.

"Something as archaic and uncool as theatre, we're trying to just do our little bit with that."

Dublin Theatre Festival runs from September 29 to October 16. For a full programme, see

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