Spotlight on… Willie White



In advance to today’s opening of the Dublin Theatre Festival box office, Theatre Editor Gillian Greer had the opportunity to sit down with Festival Director Willie White for a chat about what to expect from DTF 2014.

So, you’re looking forward to the festival?

Very much so – the international work I’ve seen already but it will be nice to see it again, in some cases it’s actually been some time. I like to be an audience member, that’s what I do for a job. As for the Irish work – it’s the root of conversations we’ve been having with people for a long time, so that’s also really exciting – there will be a lot of new Irish work to see. I think the festival needs to do both: what works well is the relationship set up between the Irish work set alongside the international work. Obviously the international work is tried and tested, and then with the Irish work we’re there to accompany the artists as they take risks and show their work to the public for the first time.


In comparison to your last two years, what would you say is different about this year’s festival?

It’s very hard for me to say that – I suppose what is different, looking at it from an outsider’s perspective, is that we’ll be in the Bord Gais Energy theatre for the first time. It’s very, very exciting for me. Since I became aware of the venue, we’ve been trying to find a show of that scale that was available and this is the year that it all worked out, and we have this fantastic production of Hamlet from Germany directed by Thomas Ostermeier. Audiences might have an expectation that Shakespeare can be done a certain way – and this is not that certain way. And Lars Eidinger, who plays Hamlet, he is hilarious: He breaks out of the frame of the action, he lapses into English sometimes, he improvises, he’s just a phenomenon.


How do you hope to represent Irish theatre? I notice there’s a lot of recurring artists from the last couple of years?

I suppose what it’s saying is that Irish theatre can be very good, for a start. There are artists recurring and that reflects, unfortunately, the funding landscape at the moment, there are not as many artists with the capacity or resources to make work year on year. So you will see companies like Pan Pan, Corn Exchange, Fishamble, Brokentalkers – if not every year – recurring regularly. But what people will find if they choose wisely, is that Irish theatre is very diverse: you can have somebody like Tom Murphy, born in 1935, with a new play, and at the other end you have our work in progress section, works from companies that might crop up in future years like Collapsing Horse or Bush Moukarzel, so we’re not at all complacent. I’m always trying to think about how encourage new talent and be an advocate, not just for established artists but for emerging artists aswell.


So you do believe that the Theatre Festival is a beacon for emerging artists?

Absolutely. The festival can’t just cherry pick all the good shows or talk to the artists who are established and obvious candidates, we have to also be involved in, for want of a better word, the pipeline: supporting artists development initiatives, trying to represent the breadth of who’s making Irish theatre. The biggest show in the festival would be Hamlet, for more than 2000 people in the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, the smallest – audience wise but not in terms of ambition, will be ANU’s Vardo, which is guaranteed to sell out. They’re so utterly different on the face of it, but actually I think they’re very distinct in their representation of Irish theatre making.


In your programme note, you mention that there are patterns and unexpected connections that you can make between works in the festival, can you give away any of those? Do you have any shows in particular that you think come together very well?

In a way what I say in the note is that it’s for people to discover them themselves, and maybe it’s because I notice them. For example if you look at Ganesh Vs The Third Reich and Jack Charles Vs The Crown they’re both stories about colonialism, about an ancient culture speaking back to a European empire. And then if you look at Zoo from Chile, a piece about Chile’s relationship with Spain, you can see the same thing cropping up in different countries. We assume that because of globalisation everybody thinks the same, but of course there are different relationships within that.

And then another theme we see with Nicola Gunn’s piece (Hello my name is) she kind of mocks it but in a serious way, this idea of art leading to social transformation. And at the same time, Tim Crouch and Andy Smith’s piece (What happens to hope at the end of the evening) does say that, something along the lines of ‘great things can happen when people gather together in a room’. So maybe it’s naive, or maybe it’s a really positive thing to say that let’s consider, that bringing people together and thinking and talking about things that matter to us could affect change, however small.


So the combination of international and Irish work could be a forum for us to discuss our similarities and our differences?

I do think we are different, I don’t think things are universal, I think things arise in different ways and different places. If I’m putting on a show I have to assume that an Irish audience will find something in it that’s interesting, not necessarily that they will say ‘I know exactly what that’s like, I’ve felt that myself’, but they’ll say ‘I never thought about that before’. You can read a book, you can read a newspaper, you can look at the internet, you can watch a current affairs programme – but there’s something qualitatively different about a live experience of somebody telling their story.


How do you programme work?

I suppose how I programme work is by conducting research. That research takes many forms: I speak to artists, the festival is a platform for Irish artists so we talk to them about the projects that they’re planning and support funding applications. So at this stage, I have a bunch of Irish projects that we’re looking at for 2015 and at the same time I’m looking around, informed by the resources we may have, the venues that are going to be available, the artists that are going to be available during our dates, and then over a period of time, and it’s amazing – even if I look at what I thought the programme would look like at the beginning of the year followed by four months later, a lot has changed. But ultimately, what I’m really trying to achieve is to present a body of work that is complimentary, that offers choice. Not many people see everything, so you have to think of it that the festival is not a big, huge chunk that you have to eat all in one go. You can bite off your own little bit and nibble it and if you like it you can come back for more. It’s like eating an elephant.


As you probably know, the Dublin Theatre Festival is often considered the apex of the Dublin theatrical calendar – do you feel pressured to represent contemporary Ireland in a certain way?

I think even if we were a minor festival in a minor part of the year, that’s the purpose of art. To relate to, to represent – it has to be about something. I also think the festival has a big responsibility to represent theatre. We need to nail it for theatre each year. So people think: yeah, actually, theatre is great. Many people only see one show a year and what I’m trying to is create that one show for people. I think these days, a lot of people don’t say ‘I like theatre’, they say: ‘I like seeing interesting stuff’, and theatre can be some of that. And at the same time, some people have been coming to the festival for more than fifty years, and there’s something there for them.


Do you think it’s a dying art?

No. I think theatre maybe doesn’t have the same status as it did before the advent of television, radio or the internet, but it’s amazing how durable theatre is as an art form. Of course, there’s competition of people’s attention, time and money but I see it – when it works, the thrill of coming out of a new show, particularly Laundry or Ballyturk in Galway. You think: no other medium can do this. And it’s great. It’s not the same as you get on TV or in a YouTube clip – there’s something about that live experience.


Tell me about the International work – there’s quite a lot, why these pieces from these countries?

Yes there is: three Austrailian, three Belgian, three UK, one German, one French, one Chilean. And in the Family Season, another Australian, Spanish and one from the UK. I suppose each one is there because it has something unique and distinctive to offer, and could round out or complete someone’s experience of the festival. And it’s about being faithful to the fact that theatre is practised in quite different ways in different parts of the world, and that itself can be interesting to experience. The Hamlet in particular I think, is exciting like theatre should be.


Do you have a show that you’re most looking forward to?

No I don’t. I cherish all my children equally – I’m looking forward to seeing The Way Back Home, I’m very excited about going along to Hamlet and having 2,000 people at the opening show of the festival, to having that moment at the end, that lull when the room goes quiet and then hopefully… Well who knows? I might be stoned or have rotten vegetables thrown at me – I think that’s unlikely though.


Don’t worry – I think your audiences will be very pleased.

Well if you think Shakespeare’s boring, go and see this. It’s not.


Undoubtedly good advice.

Tickets will be on sale to the public for all shows in the Dublin Theatre Festival from Monday 12 August 2014. 

The festival runs from September 25th to October 12th.



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