The search for a new artistic director and CEO of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival may have extended far and wide, a position of influence that tends to attract international attention, but in the end the successful applicant occupies an office two doors down the street from the Festival office. Willie White, director of Project Arts Centre on 39 East Essex Street, will succeed Loughlin Deegan, the outgoing festival director currently based on 44 East Essex Street.
In some respects that proximity is artistic and philosophical too. Under Deegan, the Festival has come to invest more attention and resources into the development of contemporary Irish work, staying alive to the defining trends of international practice and finding shared territory between the two. Similarly, the Project under White, who has been its director since 2002, has nurtured and promoted new Irish artists under its Project Catalyst initiative (which ran as an associate artists scheme before it received the name) while seeking path-breaking international theatre, albeit with more modest means. It’s not accidental, for instance, that Project first brought Germany’s Rimini Protokoll to Dublin in 2007 for the curated We Are Here 2.0 festival, before the UBDTF programmed the same company in 2009, that its relationship with Tim Etchells, of Forced Entertainment dovetails with the Festival’s exhibition of the influential director’s work, or that Irish artists such as Brokentalkers were first supported by Project before benefitting from inclusion in Festival’s Reviewed programme (supported by ITI and Culture Ireland).
Such overlap does not suggest that White, an articulate, intimidatingly knowledgeable and unretiring contributor to any debate, is likely to pursue a similar direction. Even within the words of a contented statement, his emphasis suggested more attention on new work and the generation of frisson. “Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival has been very strong in recent years, investing in and advancing Irish theatre practice and offering its audiences new, exciting and provocative experiences. I look forward to working with the Council and the team to ensure that the Festival continues to grow, extending its reach in the city and its reputation internationally." The Festival caters to a wide audience and range of tastes, balancing niche appeal and commercial considerations: what’s good for Project Cube, for instance, isn’t necessarily good for the Gaiety. White’s track record for challenging international theatre and brave new artists may need to find a mainstream counterbalance at a time of reduced funding and sponsorship. “Once again, Project Arts Centre is the launch pad for another unique creative talent,” said Project’s Chairman, John Collins. “He will be a hard act to follow.” Indeed, you can take the man out of the experimental arts centre, but can you take the experimental arts centre out of the man?
The Festival’s chairperson, Declan Collier, approved of White’s “profound knowledge of Irish and international theatre practice. As Director of Project Arts Centre, one of the Festival’s primary venues, Willie has displayed a particular commitment to work by a new generation of Irish theatre artists; a commitment that we know will continue to bear fruit in his new role at the Festival.”
White’s interests are still broader than that: he was co-founder of Loose Canon Theatre Company in 1996, co-founder (with Karen Fricker and Maura O'Keeffe) of Irish Theatre Magazine in 1998, a researcher, reporter and assistant producer on Later with John Kelly and subsequently The View. In 2008, he was awarded the Jerome Hynes Fellowship on the Clore Leadership Programme. And while director of Project he has also acted and directed on its stages and most recently directed a short film for Rex Levitates dance company, also screened in the space.
The domino effect of another significant appointment in Irish theatre means we may now begin speculation on who will take up the reins of Project Arts Centre, while White makes the short walk to a job with far-reaching potential and responsibility.
Peter Crawley is News Editor of Irish Theatre Magazine