Friday 23 March 2018

Theatre: Young things get ready to step from the fringes

Tiger time: Riot by THISISPOPBABY, featuring Panti Bliss (right)
Tiger time: Riot by THISISPOPBABY, featuring Panti Bliss (right)

Maggie Armstrong

It's that time of year again when you can't find a spot to lock your bike in town. Yep, it's time for Tiger Dublin Fringe. The festival is in its 22nd year, and ever the playground for young things who do not, probably won't ever, own cars.

A Fringe patron isn't the sort of arts-goer you would see at the Abbey or the Gate. And yet (there is no way to say this without sounding lofty), the future of theatre is in their hands.

The Great Tradition is in the hands of 20-35 year olds, dressed in flea-market chic, sporting a second-hand bike; people whose nights begin after, not before, a show starts. How is this so?

If you go to one of the above theatres on a Saturday night and survey the heads, you will probably get the sense that audiences are getting older. This is why we have fringe festivals. The Dublin Fringe keeps theatre relevant to the crowd who inherits it; keeps this bodily restrictive, expensive, old-fashioned form of entertainment alive. Everything begins at the Fringe. The hit of 1996, Enda Walsh's Disco Pigs, is still being produced internationally. Corcadorca, Corn Exchange, Pan Pan - these leading companies all cropped up at early Dublin fringes.

The idea of a fringe festival is to give a main stage to local fringe artists - those small companies and new faces who scrape by on the edges - and to international artists we otherwise would never have thought existed.

The world's first fringe, at Edinburgh in 1947, was a spill-over from the Edinburgh International Festival; same as the first Dublin Fringe was to the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1995.

As a launch pad, the Dublin Fringe has grown quite powerful. This is why every theatre programmer comes out talent scouting at Fringe time. Look at some of the shows that were first staged at the Dublin Fringe in the last six years. Lippy, by Dead Centre, which won an OBIE and Souvenir, by the same company, both still touring far. Sonya Kelly's The Wheelchair on my Face and Amy Conroy's I Heart Alice Heart I, both internationally seen and praised. Emmet Kirwan's Dublin Oldschool, still on the road.

Many of us feel more at home in front of the smaller stages of the Fringe than underneath a proscenium arch. Fringe shows feel relevant to people unmoved by naturalistic sets and the imaginary Fourth Wall. They are usually short, punchy and affordable. The custom of any Fringe show is to push the form forward and experiment. For me, it's this awkward tension, when the question 'will this fail?' hangs so queasily in the air, that makes the Fringe exciting.

There is of course a risk, when most of the artists - by no means all - are emerging ones. In this year's programme of 72 pieces, there'll be hits and inevitable dreary misses. Shows you wish you could escape from. But you have to sit through those shows to remember what the good ones feel like.

"What Fringe engenders is a sense of adventure," says Kris Nelson, artistic director of the Dublin Fringe. "The tickets aren't that expensive, you know the artists are going out on the line. You're going on the line with them. There's that sense of - we're going into this together."

"We're hosting experiences," says Nelson, from Canada, who took over the Fringe in 2013. "We want big nights out, we want to be taken to places we've never been before, we want stories that are bigger than ourselves."

Here are a few of the highlights.

Riot by the THISISPOPBABY, at the Spiegeltent on Merrion Square, is the headline. With a cast including Panti Bliss, Megan Riordan and Emmet Kirwan, and music by Alma Kelliher, tickets should evaporate quickly.

Dance is especially strong this year. Aoife McAtamney takes to the Peacock stage with Age of Transition, while Liz Roche Company and Oona Doherty join forces for a double bill. "A lot of people say 'I don't get dance'," says Nelson. "And I think people don't give themselves credit. They do get it. You watch a piece for an hour, you see images, you hear sounds, you wonder about the relationships between the performers. No matter what, there's an experience there."

Look forward to new writing from Belfast's Stacey Gregg (Override), Kerryman Dick Walsh in association with Pan Pan (George Bush and Children), Brokentalkers (This Beach) and a rewriting of The Aeneid by the company Collapsing Horse.

Of those less known, Joanne Ryan will explore her fertile years in Eggsistentialism; Vickey Curtis unveils Finem Respice, a show about grief that manages to be funny.

About that fun, the bedrock of the Dublin Fringe is comedy, provided this year by the likes of Deirdre O'Kane, Jason Byrne, Alison Spittle, Al Porter, Joanne McNally, Lords of Strut and Foil, Arms and Hog.

Seventy two pieces is a smorgasbord to choose from: blow-ins are advised to visit the friendly staff at the box office on Lower Ormonde Quay for direction.

That in-yer-face young, hipster audience might be taking up all the bike spaces. But Nelson insists the festival he has curated is for every age: "The question 'can you bring your mom?' Should be 'can your mom bring you?' I know a lot of moms who are cooler than their kids."

Tiger Dublin Fringe runs from September 10-25,

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