The State of Theatre: An Interview with Willie White

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Dylan O’Neill sits down and chats with Artistic Director of the Dublin Theatre Festival and UCD Dramsoc alumnus, Willie White. Photo credit: Alex Fagan 

 

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For many, the idea of pursuing a career in theatre, or even the arts, is often dismissed as fanciful and unrealistic. For Artistic Director, Willie White, it’s not only a reality, but a full-time job.

 

He first realised that he had an interest in the arts from a young age, devouring piles of books from his early childhood to late teens, “I was reading books from Sweet Valley High to more precocious things like Lolita in my teens, but it was more like consuming words than being a great producer of words.” However, given that his father was a successful solicitor, White was discouraged from even attempting to study arts at third level education, “I wanted to study English, but my career guidance teacher said I could read books in my spare time. At the time, I wasn’t aware of other options, so I went and I studied Science. I was unhappy and it wasn’t my first choice, I had actually put down to do law.”

 

Despite not receiving the support from his parents, White got involved with Dramsoc in UCD, discovered a love for directing and worked his way up to the position of Auditor in 1993. “That’s one of the great things about UCD, you build these life-long friendships, you have the opportunity to do whatever you want, even though what people do tends to be conservative, and you have these resources available to you.” After graduating from Trinity College with a Master’s degree in Irish Theatre, White initially worked as a reporter/researcher for RTÉ, for the arts review show Later On 2, hosted by John Kelly. “RTÉ were looking for new talent, I went to one of these group auditions to try and somehow distinguish myself. It would have been in autumn of ‘97. I was on the panel, I presented this programme Later on 2. It was an arts/youth review programme.” Following his time with Later On 2, White trained as an assistant producer and returned to work on the new version of the show, The View, for two seasons.

Deciding it was time to branch out from behind the small screen, White applied for a position with Project Arts and was Artistic Director for nine years until September 2011.”

“The first time I went to a professional play was with the father of a girlfriend of mine, he brought us to the Gate Theatre. I was four years in Dublin before I went to the Abbey Theatre. I already didn’t know I could study drama, so I had no idea that these were careers that were open to me, and that they were jobs people did.” Deciding it was time to branch out from behind the small screen, White applied for a position with Project Arts and was Artistic Director for nine years until September 2011. “With Project Arts, I encountered it in the 90s, through a theatre company I founded with friends after graduating from university. That was when I became exposed to, in a real way, other disciplines like dance and contemporary music and visual art and so on.”

 

From his time and experience with Project Arts, White eventually applied for and became the Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Working for the Dublin Theatre Festival has really shown White the level of professionalism of theatre-makers on an international level. “Similarly with the festival, there is much more than the project on an international level. It’s a platform, where possible to show people what’s going on in the rest of the world as well as what’s going on in Ireland.” White admits that the seemingly glamorous artistic career he has is not all fame and holidays abroad. “The festival is made up multiple relationships. There are about 20 performances that we invite the artists, whether they’re Irish or international, pay fees, rent the venue etc. Then there are about another ten between the Theatre for Children programme at the Arc, or working in the suburban venues of Tallaght, Dun Laoghaire, Blanchardstown, Ballymun, or… working in the Abbey or the Gate. So, that all adds up to around 30 productions.”

 

There is a lot of emphasis on maintaining and developing relations both at home and abroad for White, as part of his day-to-day routine. “I’m involved in the theatre community in Dublin and internationally, so I go and see work. Either work just to keep up with what’s going on in the theatre world in Dublin, sometimes younger or newer companies invite me to see their work, with a view to somewhere down the line having a show being involved in the festival.” On top of that, White is also responsible for the business running aspect of the Dublin Theatre Festival. “It’s about asking: ‘Do we have the right venue?,’ ‘How many people in the company?,’ ‘Is this a show that I think an audience in Dublin will appreciate?,’ ‘Does it need to be translated, or is there already a translation?,’ ‘How many people travel with it?,’ ‘How much will hotels cost?.’”

“I’m just saying I’m not really interested in theatre that’s just for entertainment, I think that’s just a waste of time.”

Recently the theatre company THISISPOPBABY hosted the WhereWeLive festival, at which, White hosted talks as part of the events. Looking back White felt that the festival was an overall success, despite not receiving much media attention. “WhereWeLive was an artistic response to the idea of home and living in Dublin, obviously there is a lot of talk about homelessness, which is a very visible social problem in Ireland, in terms of rough sleeping.” Recounting how he first met the co-founders of the group while working in Project Arts, White recalls, “what I really like about THISISPOPBABY is that they have an artistic sensibility but they also have a queer sensibility and a pop culture sensibility, and they manage to bring all together into something that is fun, intelligent, appeals to a different audience.” White also noted that among the regular contributors to THISISPOPBABY, was Panti Bliss. “Look at something like Riot, that was more successful in the Fringe [Festival] than the most successful show in Dublin Theatre Festival and I would say by a fair bit too.”

You have work like Anu Productions, who did an absolutely amazing response to the scandal of the Magdalene Laundries, in a former laundry, with a piece called Laundry in 2011.”

White believes that presenting social issues to a wider audience has always been a function of theatre, going so far as to prioritise it over entertainment. “I’m just saying I’m not really interested in theatre that’s just for entertainment, I think that’s just a waste of time. If you look at Dublin Theatre Festival in recent years, you have work like Anu Productions, who did an absolutely amazing response to the scandal of the Magdalene Laundries, in a former laundry, with a piece called Laundry in 2011.” Theatre offers a way to connect with its audience, providing both emotional and intellectual experience, “that you could not have gotten from reading a newspaper article or watching a documentary on television.”

 

However, White feels that Irish theatre is not exploring all the subject matter that is relevant to a Dublin audience in today’s Irish society. For a city, and for a country, as multicultural as both Dublin and Ireland are, White doesn’t see the stories of, “types of people living in Ireland, that weren’t here 20 years ago.” Instead, theatre still perpetuates the, “long-standing, traditional Irish story of our identity… We’ve cast ourselves as victims, but we have to acknowledge that we are prosperous, and with the prosperity I think comes a demand, as much of me as of the government, to be hospitable.”

That’s the thing I want to see, not an Ireland that’s about the past and about old stories and old identities, but an Ireland that is about the present and about the future.”

Acknowledging that more recently there have been some, small movements to increase the representation of different backgrounds in society, White strongly believes that there are newer stories emerging and it is our responsibility to provide a platform for these identities to be validated. “If you think about Zainab Boladale who is from Clare, but I think Nigerian born. She is a presenter on RTÉ kids television. That’s the thing I want to see. Not an Ireland that’s about the past and about old stories and old identities, but an Ireland that is about the present and about the future, and makes room for, not just ethnic, but also queer identities and people who have always been here.”

 

I ask him, both out of my own curiosity and for the purposes of the interview, what advice he would give to someone considering a career in the arts. He laughs and reassuringly answers, “don’t give up!” No stranger to the reality of the hardships of pursuing a career in the performing arts, he adds, “You’ve made a lifestyle choice that will probably have long standing repercussions, but you’ll probably be happy in the end, if not wealthy.” He admittedly has no deep, philosophical, or new advice to give me, but instead aims to reinforce the passion with which he felt going forward at the early stages of his career. “If you want to be a writer, write and read, if you want to be a director, direct and go and see plays and so on. We need artists. Don’t be discouraged by the logic that commodifies it. It’s not about value, things like Oscar Wilde’s quote: ‘The price of everything, the value of nothing.’”

 

As I gather my notebook and check the bus times back to UCD on my phone, White shows me to the door with a final word of advice,“ if the theatre is to have a future, you need to go to the theatre.”