Fringe benefits: Meet Dublin Fringe Festival director Ruth McGowan

 

What would surprise people most about your job?
The festival happens in September, and people always ask, “So what do you do for the rest of the year?” They don’t realise that pulling off a festival as vibrant and adventurous as Dublin Fringe Festival takes a full year, with the time and talents of scores of people.

Running Dublin Fringe Festival is a dream job. Risk and invention are championed at Fringe, so are voices that defy the mainstream – it’s a really energising place to work. Growing up in Donegal, I didn’t know anyone who worked in the arts full time. I was always creative and tenacious with my own projects, but I didn’t know that a job like mine existed until I was in my twenties. I am really proud that I managed to make a change and find my way here, even though I wasn’t originally on this path. I was drawn to Dublin Fringe Festival because it’s the agenda-setting festival of new work in Ireland. Fringe has an innate sense of fun too, which is important to me. Festivals and art-making are about sharing experiences and bringing people together. Having a good time is central to that – going on an adventure in a new part of town, rowing about a show with your friends afterwards, or dancing ’til 3am. It’s all part of the Fringe alchemy.

What have been the greatest challenges in your career to date?
The biggest challenge is ongoing – balancing art and money. We want to continue championing big ideas and making ambitious ideas possible. Current public funding in Ireland for the arts and culture represents just 0.11% of GDP. This puts Ireland at the bottom of the European league table compared to an average of 0.6%. The arts have huge value to society. They require investment in order to thrive. The National Campaign for the Arts work to ensure that the arts are on local and national government agendas and are recognised as a vital part of contemporary Irish life.

What’s an average working day and week for you?
It varies a lot, depending on the time of year. In the spring, we are curating the festival. I get a kick out of all the artistic matchmaking we do – introducing potential collaborators to each other, finding the right venue for a site-specific project, and connecting emerging artists with experienced mentors who I think might make a meaningful impact on their practice. I love working with artists over the summer months developing ideas, offering feedback and championing them as they grow from sketches and drafts into fully realised artworks. In the autumn, we are thinking about funding applications, reports and long-term strategy. And year round, it’s essential that I go and see work in Ireland and abroad, to get to know new artists and follow trends.

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How do you balance your work as director of the Fringe with your other creative projects?
This is my first year as festival director, so it has been all consuming for the last few months. But when I do get to work on other creative projects, I find that the can-do attitude of the festival really helps me feel positive about them. And when you have been away from them for a while, it feels like a treat to have some time to spend on personal projects.

The first thing you do when you get to your desk in the morning?
We work really hard at Fringe. It takes a team effort to make it all happen. We share an open-plan office, so first thing in the morning I like to say hello to the team and just check in with everyone to see how they are. Sometimes it’s about a pressing work issue, sometimes it’s a nice chat about personal stuff like what podcasts we’re listening to or the news.

Last thing you do before switching off?
Write a to-do list for the next day. Once I have everything down on paper, I can leave work with a clear head.

When do plans for next year’s Fringe festival kick off?
Big plans are already afoot. Next year, Fringe turns 25, so I want to make a really special 25th birthday edition and throw a party to remember.

What are your must-have work essentials?
The Notes app on my phone is my exo-brain! It catches everything from sparks of brilliance to boring life-laundry tasks. Outside of that, I love Pocket the “read it later” app – in one click, you can save articles in a readable offline format. It’s really handy for travel and means that you don’t lose interesting things in the churn of your social media feeds.

Do you have a uniform for when you have an important meeting?
My meetings happen in lots of places – in boardrooms, in fields, in warehouses, in nightclubs. No uniform for me – what’s appropriate for each event is very different.

Do you have any secret weapons that give you confidence?
Hard graft. I feel confident when I know I have put in the time.

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The Dublin Fringe Festival runs until September 23. For details on the full programme, visit fringefest.com.

 

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