Dublin Fringe Festival 2021 – Interview with Ruth McGowan

The beloved arts fest Dublin Fringe Festival returns for its 27th year next week, bringing a wide range of performances in an array of spaces around Dublin. In anticipation of the festival’s opening I chatted with Ruth McGowan, the festival’s director. We talked about how COVID-19 has changed performing arts and the energy of ‘superflux,’ one of both chaos and change, has inspired this year’s lineup. Fringe Fest was on my list of things to do in September, so I’m really excited. 

COVID-19 has brought unanticipated challenges to performance art, but Dublin Fringe Festival seems like one of the few festivals that has welcomed the challenge rather than being deterred by restrictions. I see an emphasis on embracing change and being part of change. Were you confident that artists could adapt to and surpass the limitations? Were you surprised with what they could do?

Yeah, it was really inspiring to see what these artists came up with. I think we knew at Dublin Fringe Festival that we’re a very forward-looking festival and the work that we programme is always very innovative and inspired by the times that we find ourselves in.

But certainly, reading the applications in spring, it was very moving and inspiring to see the possibilities in the parameters and weren’t deterred. I think that activists and artists who defy the mainstream have always had a home at Fringe. They are actually some of the most adaptable and the most resourceful, and used to having to work outside the norm, and finding new ways of collaborating and meeting new people, so they were really up for the challenge.        

Dublin Fringe Festival 2021
‘Where Sat the Lovers’ by Malaprop

The tone of last year’s festival was one of optimism and of actively encouraging change, rather than acknowledging or dwelling on loss. This year immediately indicates a shift forward with its programme, celebrating a return to beloved spaces while still embracing the lesson that it’s always better to create new spaces and experiences than dwell on lost ones. Has your personal view of performance art as a whole, and more specifically curating a festival of performance art, been changed by the uncertainty, hesitation and limitations of pandemic?

I think that we have all had time to really understand its value, and its role in life. Many of us took for granted going to a gig and have shared experience in a room full of strangers and how beneficial that is to our imagination and our well being. So there’s certainly been a renewed interest on the part of audiences for live performance and plays in their lives, having had to miss it for so long.

And in terms of possibility, absolutely. Our curatorial statement for this year and the theme of this year’s festival is ‘superflux,’  which on the surface seems like a time of chaos and change, which I think everyone can relate to over the last 18 months, but actually there’s a duality in the meaning of that word. It also means overspill, like a surging flow of energy that’s possible in times of change. We’ve had a chance to think about how we can change things, and there’s a momentum for change.

It seems there are more online shows in this year’s lineup than there were last year – this year draws from the experience of doing online classes and online learning with Fetish 101 and Let’s Get Fun-erable!, as well as I Feel You Apart from Me’s WhatsApp voice note format and the theatre/film hybrid of Heave. I wonder if formats that were once seen as experimental and unorthodox may feel more natural and commonplace now because of the pandemic. Can you see a lasting effect on how theatre and performance art is conceptualised and enacted?

Yeah for sure. We were very deliberate in 2020 and 2021 in thinking about form and fidelity to the art form, and we knew quite early on that we weren’t going to ask any artists to a format that it hadn’t originally been conceived in. We wanted things that could exist in their full artistic gesture and as the ultimate version of the work, as the artist had devised them. And that’s protecting the fact that some things just need to be live, some things need to be shared.

What this stance has also done is offer a really interesting provocation to artists to reach audiences where they are, and connect to audiences that may not have felt invited into more traditional performance spaces. Whereas, a lot of people feel comfortable on WhatsApp, on Google, on YouTube. So it’s an opportunity to reach audiences where they are, but also for digital artists, who have a bigger platform and more opportunities than before, and artists that have  tactile, formal innovation as part of their practice, to step into the spotlight.       

Fringe Fest

Dublin Fringe Festival has celebrated music and nightclub culture and has included it in its programme for years. This year there’s Sound Waves by Gxrlcode and Glisten by Isabella Oberländer, as well as many live musical performances, which is great, especially at a time where Dublin’s nightlife continues to be under threat. What is it about the club experience or the concert experience that makes it so akin to performance, and as important to culture as theatre?

We’re very invested in the conversation about art that’s made after dark. If you’re a cabaret artist, a drag artist, a DJ, a club promoter, and even lots of performance art, is art that’s made after dark and needs a nightclub setting in order to thrive. That kind of art is a mainstay of our culture and cultures throughout the world. And unfortunately over the years, those independent, experimental club spaces in Dublin have eroded away. Pre-pandemic we were already at crisis point in terms of the dwindling number of places you could legally make noise after midnight.

Also, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are really great Irish artists making really great cabaret/drag/club work in other countries because they can’t make it at home. We’d love to see a change in that and we’re really supporting the great work done by Give Us The Night, and are really heartened to see more conversation about the entertainment sector and about dance clubs, and nightclubs. The stickers in our programme states our position on protecting cultural spaces and talking about nightlife like we do theatre and galleries.  

The Dublin Fringe Festival begins on 11th September and runs until 26th September. You can see the fabulous programme in all its glory here, and get your tickets here. Hurry – many shows are already sold out!

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Natalie Madden

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