Project Arts Centre programmed the Theatre Tent at this year’s Electric Picnic. Clara Kumagai braved the rain (poor dear) to check it out and meet with Project Artistic Director Willie White.
I sidled up to Willy White in the Theatre Tent, wishing that I was not wearing my extremely festive, but not very journalistic, tiger ears.
“I don’t look like someone that should be called Mr. White, do I?”
He was wearing wellies. Wellies are a great leveler. Formalities – or lack thereof – over and done with, we headed into the bustling Mindfield where I attempted to sit on some cushions that Willie pointed out were art (he was right – they were ceramic) and settled ourselves beneath a tree for a chat.
So, this is the Project’s first year to host the Theatre Tent at the Picnic; how did you go about picking the programme?
Well, you do have to think about practicalities when you’re performing in this kind of environment – that is, in a tent. You need shows that don’t need props, or an elaborate set, that can rely on themselves. Mimic, [Raymond Scannell] for example – that’s just one man and a keyboard. You also need performers that are robust enough to deal with an uncontrolled environment, where audience members can come and go, and there’s noise and music booming in the background. It’s a very different space from a controlled, enclosed theatre… And I also picked the people that said yes!
From one festival to another; you have recently become the new director of the Ulster Bank Theatre Festival. You said once that the UBTF should be “provocative” – what exactly do you mean by that?
Provocative means to make people think, I guess. Sometimes theatre’s just entertainment, just a laugh, but it has a different function: to encourage people to think about things together. It means to make people use their imagination. Sometimes provocative means weeing on stage, but I mean it in the simplest sense, just to stimulate people. Back in the 1920s Sean O’Casey was writing at the birth of a new state; at the moment there is huge turmoil in Irish society, particularly in the past few years, but even before then there was a huge amount of change. Theatre isn’t always the quickest medium by which to comment on it but it is an opportunity to think through things together, in a way that is hopefully not only provocative but also engaging and entertaining too.
Like a communal reflection?
Yeah. It’s society’s dialogue with itself. When you say society you presume that everybody is the same – of course not. There are many different groups that we lump under the heading of Irish society. A theatre festival with many different facets, many different types of shows, is a great opportunity for that conversation to happen.
You’ve come to the UBTF after eight years in the Project Arts Centre; do you see a shift in responsibility? Do you feel you have to take a new slant on theatre coming from an experimental arts centre to a theatre festival such as this one?
Yes, well the experimental arts centre was experimental sometimes, but at other times it was doing pretty recognisable theatre work that anybody could come in and enjoy. In a theatre festival that spectrum is expanded, and that’s what’s tantalising about it; the opportunity to speak to a larger and to a different audience, to respect that audience’s relationship with the festival but also to expand their horizons and invite them to be part of the journey. And also you need to remember that it is a Dublin theatre festival. Dublin as a topic is fascinating, so rich, so deep; you think about the history and the culture of the city – I mean, you could do festivals all your life just on that! And you think about how much the city is changing… We were talking about O’Casey eighty years ago; obviously the city was completely different then. The faces that we see in the street are different, we can no longer presume that the people we see are of the same faith or speak the same language or of the same sexual orientation. And that is very rich material for the festival to discuss, or for the artists to discuss, if they’re interested. And the festival’s job then is to find an audience for them.
On the topic of Dublin then, do you ever see yourself leaving, going to a bigger pond?
No. I’m not from Dublin, I’m from down the road – Abbeyleix – but I’ve lived in Dublin all my adult life. And not having grown up in Dublin I have the endless fascination of a newcomer, even twenty years later. Dublin is where I am, it’s where my family is, its where I want to stay.
And one last question: who do you want to see at the Picnic?
Saw PJ Harvey last night, she was great. Adebisi Shank later today… Arcade Fire tonight, who I’ve never seen before but have heard they can make grown men cry.
Tomorrow Chemical Brothers if I’m not too tired… Who else is playing?
Mmmm… I don’t know. I liked his EP but I thought his album was a bit wet.
It’s more chilled out, isn’t it?
I thought it was a bit wet. Can we just say all the coolest bands? Nobody else is going to make me look cool…
Looking cool is not something Willie is going to have to worry about if his welly style is anything to go by. Weaving through the Picnic, dodging the cartwheeling Lords of Strut and hearing the thumping rhythm of the distant bass, I hope that this Mr. White does spend all his life on festivals in Dublin. Being cool is one thing, being provoked quite another.