ECLECTICISM defines Absolut Fringe, the provocative performing-arts festival. This week, it returns for a fortnight-long assault on the capital. At The Fringe, anything can take place as long as it involves live performance. This year — the festival’s 18th — boasts the usual mix of theatre, dance, music, circus, comedy, pageantry and, y’know, whatever you’re having yourself, missus.
Among the prizes that Absolut Fringe bestows is a much-coveted ‘Spirit of the Fringe’ award, whereby the winning artists are given a commission to present new work at the Project Arts Centre, and awarded €5,000 to get the show off the ground. Recent recipients of the award include ThisIsPopBaby, The Company, and THEATREclub, three of Ireland’s most-touted young theatre companies.
While the Spirit of the Fringe award commends the year’s best work, it also calls attention to one of the festival’s most charming attributes — the vibe, the sensibility, or, indeed, the spirit that informs the whole shebang. But what is this mercurial ‘spirit’ of the Fringe? “It’s the idea of play,” says Sophie Motley, artistic director of WillFredd theatre company, who, last year, won the Spirit of the Fringe award for their lauded show Follow. “The spirit of the Fringe is the idea of doing something which challenges the way people think about theatre and art. It’s something that’s fun. On Follow, we worked with members of the deaf community, using their experiences to create a new piece of theatre. Maybe that was why the show won. It was using Irish sign language, performance, sound design, live music, and lighting to play with what people think theatre is,” Motley says.
Motley and her collaborators in WillFredd return this year with a concept that is quintessentially Fringe. Their new show, Farm, recreates the experience of farming and rural life, inside an empty warehouse in Dublin’s city centre. The show will entertain its audience with everything from live music and dance to real, honest-to-goodness animals.
“We’ve been really careful not to create a petting zoo,” says Motley. “That’s not what Farm is about. It’s about what happens when the urban and the rural mix together. It’s a series of performances that are all taken from people that we’ve met over the last six months, people of a farming background. They include beekeepers, allotment owners, and farmers.”
If this year’s Fringe has room for farmers, it also has room for a class of person who could well be regarded as the natural enemy of the farmer — the hipster. Fringe victors in the past, The Company are debuting Hipsters We Met and Liked, a blend of photo exhibition and live performance that looks like a lot of fun.
For the project, The Company sent out a call to friends for photos from every corner of the world. The only instruction was that the images should address the designated themes of Absolut Fringe 2012 — ‘creative disruption, playful protest, and joyful abandon’ — and that they be accompanied by a little text. To make the photo submissions cohere around a central theme, The Company’s Nyree Yergainharsian and Brian Bennett have developed a show that blends elements of their factual and fictional selves, while also being a study of hipsterism.
“It’s a way of having a bit of fun,” says Yergainharsian. “The core of the show is the selection of photographs. But we’ve also managed to create a story about myself and Brian growing up together, a story of how we became hipsters and the hipster things we like to do, but not in any way to poke fun at hipsters.”
Of course, one could, perhaps, point at the Fringe and say that the festival is a hive for Ireland’s self-styled hipster elite. Yet this would belie the inclusivity that marks the Fringe’s identity — an inclusivity epitomised by many of the most celebrated productions of recent years (among them Heroin, by THEATREclub, and Follow, by WillFredd) and their desire to reactivate the concept of theatre and performance as a space for everyone in our society, while addressing real social concerns.
In fact, it is the Fringe’s desire to give a platform to a wide range of voices that The Company’s Yergainharsian regards as the very spirit of the Fringe. “It’s different to anything else that’s going on, in terms of its diversity,” she says. “It’s a very exciting and young festival that takes risks on people. If it wasn’t for the Fringe and the Project Arts Centre, we wouldn’t have started our own company. You need someone to take a chance on you. The spirit of the Fringe lies in its risk-taking and boundary-pushing.”
Both Yergainharsian and Motley are quick to salute the work of Absolut Fringe’s current director, Róise Goan. Goan says that pinpointing the spirit of the Fringe is not the easiest task, but she is clear about the Fringe’s role in contemporary Irish arts life.
“Our mission is to be the ambassador, the champion, and the guardian of what is new and what is next in the performing arts in Ireland,” says Goan. “That’s about championing the work of fantastically talented artists and about providing them with a platform, and the necessary support, to present their work. It’s about introducing audiences and artists to international influences by programming artists and work that is unlike anything that is being produced here. And a third aspect is to be a conduit between artists who have something to say and an audience who are really keen to hear what that is. That’s our role — to be the conduit for a conversation between artists and audiences about what’s going on in the society that we live in right now.”
* Absolut Fringe runs Sep 8-23 www.fringefest.com
Participatory theatre shows, whereby audience members partake, include As If It Were the Last Time, by visiting company Circumstance.
Alongside Farm and Hipsters We Met and Liked (see main feature), there are other new shows by the bright young things of Irish theatre. ThisIsPopBaby stage Elevator, a “parable of excess and destruction”, while THEATREclub debut Hungry Tender, “a show for anyone who has ever gotten up in the middle of the night to make and devour a mountain of toast.”
A hit worldwide, Australian burlesque show Briefs looks a risqué hoot, while Cork’s Lords of Strut and Limerick’s Rubber Bandits will bring riotous comic energy. Of live music, a highlight will be the ambitious Danish post-rock/pop outfit Efterklang, who appear with the Major Lift Orchestra. Meanwhile, having astounded in recent years, Macnas are running two parades through the city this year.
As always, the real thrill at the Fringe is leafing through the vast and eclectic programme, and taking a chance on something you know nothing about.