THE ‘Show in a Bag’ has become a staple of the Dublin Fringe Festival. Staged in Bewleys Café, on Grafton Street, it is a series of plays, each one featuring a maximum of two performers, and developed by and for the performer(s). The format is inexpensive.
Show in a Bag debuted in 2010. Most of its shows have enjoyed an afterlife. A number, like Fight Night, which featured a tour-de-force turn by Aonghus Óg McAnally, have been critically lauded. The format’s most high-profile success is Sonya Kelly’s The Wheelchair on My Face, which has toured to plaudits. The comic piece snatched a Fringe First gong in Edinburgh last year. It travels to New York this month.
This year, Show in a Bag has four new shows: Counter Culture, by Katie O’Kelly (star of recent hit Joyced), Beowulf: The Blockbuster, by Bryan Burroughs, Swing, by Janet Moran and Steve Blount, and Small Plastic Wars, by Pat McGrath.
The initiative is coordinated by the Fringe, the Irish Theatre Institute, and Fishamble – The New Play Company, and is uniquely performer-led. The show remains the performer’s, an easy-to-stage piece offered to venues directly. “It’s deliberately low-budget, so that they haven’t used up too much cost by the time they get to the stage,” says Fishamble’s literary director, Gavin Kostick. “That’s part of the ethos of it. So, then, once they get going they’re actually earning.”
Kostick is the shepherd of Show in a Bag. The success of Pat Kinevane’s one-man piece, Forgotten — which was produced by Fishamble — influenced the format. “I remember our producer on Forgotten saying that it was a great show, because you could ‘put it in the bag’ and tour it,” says Kostick. “And the phrase stayed with me.”
Kostick’s role varies. He wrote Fight Night, and expected to write more. But it has become the norm for the performers to write and devise the work, with Kostick as dramaturg, before the participants work with a director/mentor.
The shows originate with something personal to the performer, says Kostick. Small Plastic Wars is about a man consumed by his passion for miniature model-making, and McGrath is a model enthusiast in real life.
Similarly, Swing stemmed from Moran’s and Blount’s lives.
“I danced with Stevie at a party years ago,” says Moran “And every time we’d run into each other, we would say, ‘we must do a show some time where we get to dance’.” Swing, set in a beginner’s dance class, is the result. The play will transform the space in Bewleys Theatre into a dance-floor. The pair spent four months taking dance lessons for the show. “A dance class is such a gorgeous thing,” says Moran. “It’s such a microcosm of the world. There are all sorts of people, from every walk of life and from every age group. You’re constantly changing partners to practise new steps and you have these crazy little interactions with people. So it seemed like a very fruitful area to explore.”
It makes sense to foster personal shows, says Kostick. “If you have a show, and you’re going to drive to a venue, set it all up (with the venue’s support), and then drive home the same night, well, that’s a tough enough life,” he says. “So often, the shows that really have legs are ones where the performer is engaging with, and delivering, something that is really meaningful for them.”
For Moran — one of the most charismatic actors in Irish theatre — the experience has affirmed her desire to work off-stage. Earlier this year, she directed Roisin Coyle’s play, Noteworthy. With Kostick and Blount as collaborators, she has written her first play.
“I never thought I’d ever be able to write anything,” says Moran.
“I thought it wasn’t in me at all. But with Show in a Bag, you’re so well-supported and, even more than that, you’ve got a big, hefty deadline in front of you. It’s a brilliant structure. Gavin wrote us a template and worked as a dramaturg on it and Fringe gave us rehearsal space.
“Another key part of the project sees the participants in Show in a Bag meet. We attend the Irish Theatre Institute’s networking event, Information Toolbox, where they will have the opportunity to meet directors of theatre venue and arts festivals around the country, and pitch their show to them.”
Ultimately, it’s the appetite of audiences that decides a show’s fate. Kostick says that the performers are aware of the need to engage and entertain the audience.
“I don’t know quite how to put it,” he says, “But it’s quite a good-hearted set-up. We’re really doing our best to make something that’s meaningful for the performer, and which translates to the audience as well.”
* For further details about the plays in this year’s Show in a Bag, see www.fringefest.com