Friday 22 March 2019

'We're a little greyer by the end of it!' - Meet the team behind the Dublin Theatre Festival and get the must-sees

The Dublin Theatre Festival 2018 runs city-wide from September 27-October 14

The Misfits: Emmet Byrne as Perce, Úna Kavanagh as Isabelle, Aoibhínn McGinnity as Roslyn, Patrick Ryan as Guido and Aidan Kelly as Gay PIC: Ros Kavanagh
The Misfits: Emmet Byrne as Perce, Úna Kavanagh as Isabelle, Aoibhínn McGinnity as Roslyn, Patrick Ryan as Guido and Aidan Kelly as Gay PIC: Ros Kavanagh

Chris Wasser

Ahead of its launch next week with the eagerly anticipated Hamlet starring our very own Ruth Negga, Chris Wasser speaks to the team behind the Dublin Theatre Festival and discovers what to see and just what it takes to make the annual event a success

There’s a spot of time travelling happening at Dublin Theatre Festival (DTF) headquarters. We’re in the Festival House, on Essex Street East, right in the heart of Temple Bar. Every floor of this beautifully renovated space is a hive of theatre-based activity.

In one corner, the marketing and development team are sending out invites for opening night, as well as signing off on outdoor and radio advertising. In another, newsletters are being drawn up.

This is all for the 2018 edition. But then, the deadline is also fast approaching for Team DTF to submit their 2019 proposal to The Arts Council. Hence, the time travelling bit.

Fishamble: The New Play Company and Abbey Theatre, present the world premiere of Rathmines Road by Deirdre Kinahan
Civic Theatre, 4-6 Oct (previews) & Abbey Theatre, on the Peacock Stage, 9 - 27 Oct 2018 World premiere 10 October as part of Dublin Theatre Festival
Photo Patrick Redmond
Fishamble: The New Play Company and Abbey Theatre, present the world premiere of Rathmines Road by Deirdre Kinahan Civic Theatre, 4-6 Oct (previews) & Abbey Theatre, on the Peacock Stage, 9 - 27 Oct 2018 World premiere 10 October as part of Dublin Theatre Festival Photo Patrick Redmond

“The planning process starts, in earnest, maybe 14 months out,” says Stephen McManus, director of programme and production. “But, in terms of the programme content, Willie will be thinking about that two years, or more, in advance.”

McManus refers to Mr Willie White (pictured inset), DTF’s long-standing artistic  director and chief executive.

The Fever
The Fever

“It is an interesting thing,” explains White. “Before we even know what the turn out for this year’s festival is, our heads are certainly in, and our budgeting is in, 2019.”

He shrugs, politely. “Sure, we’re used to it.”

Brendan Coyle in St Nicholas by Conor McPherson as part of Dublin Theatre Festival Smock Alley Theatre 9-14 Oct Photo Helen Maybanks
Brendan Coyle in St Nicholas by Conor McPherson as part of Dublin Theatre Festival Smock Alley Theatre 9-14 Oct Photo Helen Maybanks

Indeed. It’s late August, and the kind folks at DTF have invited us into their home away from home to watch the cogs turn and the ideas boil.

This year’s festival, the 61st instalment, commences on September 27, with the Gate Theatre’s hugely-anticipated take on Hamlet, starring the sublime Ruth Negga. It promises to be a spectacular kick-off and is one of 28 major productions setting up shop in the capital over 18 days.

Everyone's Fine with Virginia Woolf by Kate Scelsa for Elevator Repair Service as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2018, O'Reilly Theatre, Belvedere College, directed by John Collins with Lindsay Hockaday, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, April Matthis, Annie McNamara. Photo by Joan Marcus
Everyone's Fine with Virginia Woolf by Kate Scelsa for Elevator Repair Service as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2018, O'Reilly Theatre, Belvedere College, directed by John Collins with Lindsay Hockaday, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, April Matthis, Annie McNamara. Photo by Joan Marcus

Rough Magic’s exciting staging of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is among the mix, as is ANU’s The Lost O’Casey, DruidShakespeare’s Richard III and Conor McPherson’s St Nicholas, performed by Brendan Coyle. It’s a packed programme.

“One of the challenges is trying to stay in the moment of delivering this year’s festival, while being aware that you have to plan for next year’s,” says DTF general manager, Maria Fleming.

There are just six core staff members in Team DTF, and Fleming is one of them. Throughout the summer months, it falls to Fleming and her department to bring in “seasonal staff”, including additional box-office assistance, a volunteer coordinator and, of course, the actual volunteers.

The festival requires between 70 to 100 volunteers, many of whom will work in different roles, from on-site box-office to site-specific ushers. They receive compensation in the form of theatre tickets.

“There’s a lovely sense of a build-up over time,” says Fleming. “One of the markers is, as the seasonal staff come in, the building becomes more populated. There’s a lot more activity going on.

“There are different markers along the way: when the brochure is published; when we go on sale to Festival Friends; when we launch; when we go on sale to the public. And with each of those events, there definitely is a sense of the excitement building.”

With just a couple of weeks to go, Fleming and her colleagues are preparing themselves to be “festival fit”.

Today, on the ground floor of DTF HQ, the box-office staff members — headed by box office manager, Vlatka Jeh — are busy with customers. There’s a weekly team meeting on the cards. The Gala Night at the Westbury — an invaluable and extravagant fundraising event, and this year, a special celebration of the great Cillian Murphy and his extraordinary contribution to world theatre — is another point of focus.

They’re run off their feet, and we’re still the best part of a month out from festival kick-off.

The first floor is where marketing and development manager, Sinead McHugh, works — opposite development executive, Fiona Garvan.

“Once we have a programme together, we spend probably the guts of a month and a half putting together the brochure,” says McHugh, holding aloft her torn, dog-eared copy, decorated in work-related scribbles.

“It may just look like a document, but it actually is the basis of pretty much all the marketing activity.

“Because it’s each show, it’s painstakingly negotiated with companies as to what is the best way to sell this particular show. So, once this goes to print, we feel like we’ve got the programme, and we’ve got a festival, and we can go out there and just tell people about it.”

“The biggest challenge for us as a department, is that most of this work is new,” she continues. “We have amazing international work that comes in, so we have a good sense of what it is, but when a work is new — and it’s new Irish writing, especially — the [theatre company] doesn’t even know how to present what it’s going to be, because it’s constantly changing and evolving, until it gets on to the stage. And that process is so exciting, but it can also be challenging.

“There’s a lot of people working towards getting it right,” says McHugh, “and getting it out there — and everyone is passionate about theatre. So, when we get to the end of the festival, and everybody is wrecked, there is a bond that forms among the whole team, from box-office to production, and that’s something special.”

Fiona Garvan laughs: “We just look a little greyer!”

Again, Willie White is the man who sources the programme contents; the one who must keep his ear close to the ground.

The other person who works to ensure it all comes together, is the aforementioned Stephen McManus.

“Really, just making sure that the festival happens, when it’s meant to happen”, smiles Stephen, when I ask for his job description. “I’m the one in the office every night, waiting for the phone to ring. Troubleshooting is actually a word in my job description!”

McManus has been with the festival for more than a decade. Willie White has been here almost as long.

“This will be my seventh festival”, says White. “I’m very motivated, still. The best bit is when you launch the programme, and in a way, it’s all downhill from there,” he says, laughing, “because you actually have to do it, and people have to see it.”

The 60th anniversary edition of the festival went well, and White hopes this one will follow suit. But he can’t predict the future.

“It would be unrealistic to expect everything to go perfectly,” he nods.

“Hopefully, over time, I’ve built up a little bit of resilience. It’s still kind of gruelling, to have 20 or 30 projects that you’re involved in to various degrees, and putting them out there in front of audiences for the first time — sometimes for the very first time in the world — and hoping that they will all go at least reasonably well, if not excellently, that’s quite emotionally exposing.”

The festival’s principal funder is The Arts Council, from which they’ve enjoyed consistent annual support. But, according to White, we need more people stepping up; we need more philanthropists; we need more public support for Irish culture (not just DTF); and, indeed, its infrastructure.

“The city is doing well,” he explains, “and we actually spend very little beyond public money on culture, and if you look at any other city and any other country in Europe that we admire and might want to be like, or emulate, you’ll see that they’re spending. They’re actually spending more, because they see that people’s leisure time and opportunity to congregate and do something productive, are very important, for cities to be successful into the future.

“London, Paris, Germany — they spend a lot of money on culture. I don’t think we’re well served in that regard. We started from way behind, and we never caught up.”

It is an important conversation — perhaps one for another day. The thing that strikes me most this afternoon is the near-identical answer I receive from every member of the DTF family, when I ask them to reveal the most fulfilling part of their job. Yep, it’s seeing all the hard work paying off on the stage. They love it when a plan comes together, basically.

“As the audience are sitting and enjoying a show, you have the background story,” explains Maria Fleming, “and you know all the pain and heartache that it took to get this production to the stage, all the little backstories, and all the problems that we solved and the hurdles that we overcame so that this audience could be here, on this day, in this theatre, enjoying this live performance.”

“And what’s really special about the Dublin Theatre Festival is the opportunity it gives you to see a show that you otherwise would not see in Dublin. It’s one of the few times of the year where we get to see really unique, quirky European work.”

“Of course, you get nervous,” adds White, “because it’s all about making assumptions — hoping that you’ve chosen well, and people will appreciate the work.

“There are 30-odd shows between the Abbey’s and the Gate’s work, the work in suburban venues, the theatre for children — I mean, very few people go and see everything in the festival, but I do.”

He lets out another chuckle. “But I like theatre. I enjoy going to the theatre.”

That’s good to know.

And here are the must-sees:

St Nicholas by Conor McPherson receives its Irish premiere at the Smock Alley Theatre. Brendan Coyle is the star performer. October 9–20. Tickets: €25-€35

Hamlet at the Gate Theatre, with Ruth Negga and Owen Roe, is officially unmissable. From September 27. Tickets: €25-€55

Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf at the O’Reilly Theatre, promises to be a “loving homage and fierce feminist take-down” of the Edward Albee drama. October 4-7. Tickets: €30-€35

Annie Ryan reimagines Arthur Miller’s The Misfits at the Smock Alley Theatre. Emmet Byrne, Úna Kavanagh and Aoibhinn McGinnity feature. September 27–October 7. Tickets: €20-€30

Deirdre Kinahan’s Rathmines Road at the Civic Theatre and, later, the Abbey Theatre on the Peacock Stage, challenges the “cultural response to accusations of sexual assault”. Expect tension-filled drama. October 4–13. Tickets: €18-€22/€25

The Fever at the Samuel Beckett Theatre is performed “in complete collaboration with the audience”. Should be wild. October 9–14. Tickets: €20-€25.

The Dublin Theatre Festival 2018 runs city-wide from September 27-October 14. For a full programme, visit dublintheatrefestival.com

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