"I LOVE the idea of Ballydehob, Berlin and Boston being said in the same breath,” remarks Geoff Gould, director of the West Cork Fit-Up Festival, which, for the first time in its seven-year history, has an international element to it.
Gould’s company, Blood in the Alley Theatre Productions, brings professional theatre to villages in West Cork, as well as some islands, every summer and more recently, during the spring.
Berlin-based British actor Jesse Inman stars in the one-man show, NippleJesus, which will be performed at the festival. The play is directed by Gunther Grosser of English Theatre Berlin and has the potential to be controversial.
“Based on a short story by Nick Hornby, it’s about a former bouncer named Dave,” says Inman. “Because his job was becoming increasingly more dangerous, he promises his wife that he’s going to quit and find something else. He gets a job in an art gallery guarding a controversial art work. Audiences will find out later in the performance why the art work is controversial. It’s a large portrait of Jesus on the cross. The closer you get to it, you realise that the portrait is made up of lots of pictures of women’s breasts cut out from a porn magazine.”
The play is about perceptions of art and asks what constitutes art.
“It’s about Dave’s relationship to the art piece and how his experience of it in the gallery changes his opinions about art. He starts off absolutely hating it, thinking it’s disgusting, but the longer he looks at it and thinks about and watches people’s reactions to it, the more he starts to love it. The story takes place a few days after Dave starts his new job. In the meantime, the art work has been destroyed.”
Inman describes the play as “very humorous, philosophical and passionate. It has a whole bag of emotions. I’m interested to see how it will be received in West Cork. I don’t know how religious people are. I kind of assume they are religious, but this is not an anti-religion play. It’s not anti-Jesus. It’s about how we see art.”
As Grosser says, a security guard such as Dave is almost invisible. “People don’t really notice these people. Yet, they’re always there and even though you don’t expect them to have an opinion about art, Dave does. It’s a unique perspective.”
The other international play at the festival is Boston-based TirNa’s production of JimmyTitanic. Written by Bernard McMullen and performed by Colin Hammell, the play is billed as “a unique and hilarious take on the story of the greatest ship ever built”.
Gould, whose ambitious and logistically-challenging West Cork tour receives funding from Cork County Council arts office, says he and his team meet a lot of people on the road who remember the old fit-ups.
“If we had the finance, we would definitely make a documentary on older people’s memories of the fit-ups in the 1940s and 1950s. These stories will disappear, which is very sad.
“Last year, the actor Eamon Morrissey told us a great true story about one of the early fit-up companies. In the early 1960s, television arrived and attracting audiences to fit-ups was proving very difficult.
“There was a fit-up company that had just one actor and a fiddler. The rest of the actors had fallen away, because they weren’t being paid. The company was wondering how it would put on a show. Fossetts Circus, who were also on the road, suggested that the fit-up company use the actor and a ventriloquist’s dummy. They also said that the show could finish up with the dancing duck.”
This involved turning a biscuit tin upside down with a paraffin lamp inside it.
“The idea was to put a real duck on top of the tin and turn the lamp on. The duck would dance on the hot tin with the fiddler playing music. If the duck was required to dance a bit quicker, the paraffin lamp would be turned up. I thought it was one of the funniest stories I ever heard. It happened in West Cork. Imagine if you tried it now. The RSPCA would be on top of you.”
Gould says that with two plays coming to the festival from abroad this year, costs have gone up.
“We have to factor in flights and other costs, but we’re trying to keep providing a better menu for our audiences. If you’re not going forward, you’re going under. We have four new venues this year, including Spike Island. It’s not in West Cork, but is being developed as an arts centre.
“Our budget is around €48,000 compared to €40,000 last year. Box office is vital. To get seven years out of the Fit-Up Festival is extraordinary. In our first year, 350 people saw the plays. Last year, we had audiences of nearly 2,200. Without them, we wouldn’t be around.”