West Cork Fit-Up Theatre Festival go well beyond the pale

It’s a logistical nightmare but the West Cork Fit-Up Theatre Festival plays venues others just don’t reach, writes

THERE is no room for divas performing at the West Cork Fit-Up Theatre Festival, now in its sixth year. The aim of the enterprising festival, produced by Blood in the Alley Theatre Productions, is to bring theatre to far flung places during the summer. It takes in Ballydehob, Kilcrohane, Goleen, Heir Island, Sherkin Island, Bere Island, Lisavaird, Union Hall and Whiddy Island.

Stars such as Glenroe’s Geraldine Plunkett and Rosaleen Linehan have played in community halls at this festival, travelling the highways and byways of West Cork to get to them, as well as taking ferries.

Equally, there is no standing on ceremony for famous audience members such as TV star Graham Norton and balladeer, Christy Moore, who have come to see shows at this popular festival.

“Graham Norton came two years ago,” says Geoff Gould, artistic director of Blood in the Alley Theatre Productions. “He wanted to catch up with an old college friend, the actor Mark O’Regan, who was in Woman and Scarecrow. Graham queued up like everybody else and invited the cast and crew back to dinner after the show in his house in Ahakista. We had a fantastic night.”

The festival, based on the tradition of professional theatre companies touring shows in small rural areas, is always logistically challenging. Gould is honest in calling it a nightmare. “The first problem we have is to try and get accommodation for the cast and crew. But the locals are very supportive of the festival. If we’re stuck for accommodation, a phone call is made and somebody will say they have a house free if we want it.

“This year, we have the use of four houses in Ballydehob where we’re based. We have to travel to all the venues and get back to Ballydehob at night, no matter where we are. Sometimes, we’re putting the actors and crew onto a ferry late at night. It could be raining and the ferries are small. But the actors are always brilliant. Every one of them enters into the spirit and the fun of the festival.

“From my point of view, working with them is very rewarding. It’s rewarding for the locals too. They might be in Rosie’s Bar in Ballydehob and they’re able to meet actors there.”

As well as ferrying actors to venues, the logistics involve moving technical equipment from venue to venue. The festival hires equipment every year from CAV (Cork Audio Visual) and it is transported in a van.

“We were renting staging for a while and it became a bit of a nuisance. Thankfully, IPB Insurance has come in this year sponsoring a brand new stage worth €5,500. We carry the staging in two huge freight cases on wheels. After each show, we have to dismantle everything and neatly squeeze the equipment onto a boat or van. We bring only six to eight lights with us. That’s because you’d blow the systems in most of the venues if you tried to plug in more lighting.”

The cost of the festival is about €40,000. This year, the festival has funding from the Arts Council’s Festival division. “Most of our funding comes from the Cork County Council arts office. We have funding of between €18,000 to €22,000 and we hope to break even through the box office. Last year we were down €7,000. We carry that debt and hope audiences will be better this year. We’re approaching six different companies in the hope that they might come and see the festival with a view to giving us sponsorship if they like it.

“The festival is a huge risk because we have to pay for everything upfront and then, if there’s any reason the audiences won’t come because of say a funeral in a local village, it can hit us big time. We’re always living on the edge until it’s all over. It’s hard to make money out of it.

“Our petrol and diesel bills are enormous as we’re travelling around West Cork for a month.

“We have no way of controlling ticket sales. We have no Ticketmaster or booking office. We’re always terrified at the small venues because there might be only 100 seats but 140 people, having travelled long distances, might want to get in. We’ve had to turn away people for health and safety reasons. We try and do everything in our power to turn people back at the ferries once we know there are lots of people waiting to get in.

“But that’s not always 100% foolproof. We’re always apologetic and there is always an opportunity to see the show again in another venue during the festival. We advise people to come early.”

Gould, who is directing Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood for the festival, is very proud that the Abbey and Rough Magic are staging shows at the West Cork Fit-Up this year. The Abbey one-man show starring Eamon Morrissey is Maeve’s House (based on the Irish writer, Maeve Brennan) and Rough Magic is staging Jezebel.

“The hunger for theatre in West Cork is incredible. A lot of people, prior to coming to this festival, have never been to live theatre. That seems extraordinary if you’re living in Cork city, but if you live all the way out on Sherkin Island or the far off islands, you’ll only come and see a show if it’s in your local hall.”

Future plans for Blood in the Alley include a production of Brian Friel’s The Freedom of the City. Gould and his “logistics expert” Jessica Finken, are looking at the possibility of staging it on Spike Island.

Clearly, Gould is a man not afraid to push the boat out.

FIT-UP TOUR DATES

- Beowulf: The Blockbuster is at the Island Cottage Gallery Heir Island on July 22, Kilcrohane community hall on July 23, Ballydehob community hall on July 24, Sherkin Island community hall on July 25, the Heritage Centre at Bere Island on July 26 and Goleen community centre on July 27.

- Maeve’s House is at Kilcrohane community hall on July 30, Ballydehob community hall on July 31, Lisavaird community centre on August 1, Union Hall community centre on August 2 and Goleen community centre on August 3.

- Jezebel is at Bank House, Whiddy Island on August 5, Kilcrohane community hall on August 6, Ballydehob community hall on August 7, Lisavaird community centre on August 8, Union Hall community centre on August 9 and Goleen community centre on August 10.

- Under Milk Wood is at Whiddy Island on August 12, Kilcrohane on August 13, Ballydehob on August 14, Sherkin Island on August 15, Bere Island on August 16 and Lisavaird on August 17.


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