Centre Stage: An interview with Willie White

Business Ireland, The Irish Times - July 22, 2015

There’s something infectious about the way Willie White sees Dublin. Spend a little bit of time in his company and you’re likely to feel invigorated by the city’s potential, be it through the prism of politics, creativity, business or innovation.

We’re in his Temple Bar office, which feels more like an artist’s apartment: there’s a cosy couch, well-worn floorboards and piles of books. It’s here that the 45-year-old operates as artistic director and CEO of the Dublin Theatre Festival, one of the oldest and most prestigious events of its kind anywhere.

Perhaps it’s the sense of occasion – today the country votes on what will become a landmark referendum – but the atmosphere feels charged. Outside, passers-by sporadically erupt in cheers. White, engaging and articulate, seizes every topic with an upbeat focus. He’s tall, well-built and dressed in a black pullover, white shirt, dark blue jeans, teal socks and suede brogues.

On the wall across from him hangs a canvas emblazoned with multi-coloured letters. It’s a Jay-Z lyric that reads: “I’m on to the next one on to the next.” Given White’s breadth of experience, it feels like an apt reflection of his work ethic.

He is the president of IETM, an international network for contemporary performing arts. He’s also part of a Dublin City Council committee that shapes policy alternatives for culture, leisure and community affairs. He helps run The Next Stage, an artist development programme supported by the Irish Theatre Trust and the Arts Council.

Earlier in his career, White co-founded drama company Loose Canon Theatre in 1996 before establishing Irish Theatre Magazine two years later. He has worked for RTE as a cultural reporter, researcher and assistant producer. In 2008, he was awarded a fellowship on the Clore Leadership Programme. Recently, he joined the steering group for Dublin’s bid to be the 2020 European Capital of Culture and, in February, he was elected to the Dublin Chamber Council. One can’t help wonder if these projects share a common denominator.

“A gregarious personality, I suppose,” says White, laughing. “What motivates me is a sense of possibility, a sense of discovery. That’s not limited to theatre or even putting on a festival. It’s about making things with other people, prototyping ideas in communities, then working towards a goal and sharing that in public. I’m always open to connecting with people and trying to be helpful because we’re all in this together.”

It’s easy to see why someone might turn to White for input. He seems refreshingly plugged-in to every tier of the arts, both at home and abroad. His sentences come streaming out, overflowing with cross-cultural references. Just trying to transcribe it all leads to one tangential internet search after another.

There’s no snobbery or pretension to cut through, however. White is the sort of person who peppers his answers with allusions to writers like Friel, Kavanagh and Chekov yet proudly admits to having Carly Rae Jepsen on his running mix.

“I have an appetite for everything,” he says. “The core of what we do is theatre but ours is a cultural festival. We’re not sniffy about it. Good ideas can come from anywhere. That’s worth remembering when you’re tasked with doing something that’s different, important and yet can still make money. It needs to go beyond just being an artistic proposition.”

Festivals animate a city, White explains. Whether it’s Pride, Bloomsday, Fringe or St Patrick’s Festival, the best ones contribute socially by sparking discourse and making a place desirable not just to visit, but to live in.

Then there’s the economic impact. According to a 2014 report commissioned by Fáilte Ireland, 66 per cent of festival-goers will spend a night in Dublin as part of their attendance. Those visiting Dublin festivals from overseas reportedly spend 10 nights in Ireland, almost all of them based in the capital, with an estimated expenditure of €1,235 for an average party of 2.12 adults.

White just wishes Dublin could be a more available city, a place that people who live locally can better utilise. “It can be hard to get things started here,” he says. “On the one hand we’re championing enterprise in terms of software start-ups, but we have to champion cultural and social enterprise as well. What people need is the knowledge and the space to do stuff that can make the city interesting and allow it to flourish. That space already exists – there are 350 vacant sites in Dublin – but something needs to happen to unlock it. ”

The issue, of course, is money. It’s a topic that inevitably crops up whenever White discusses his work. The Dublin Theatre Festival relies on three pillars in any given year: public funding, private support and earned income. The festival has been without a title sponsor since 2011 and contracted from a peak turnover of €4m, during its 50th anniversary year in 2007, to €1.9m in 2013.

If these sorts of events are to endure, White believes, a significant shift is required to pull Ireland level with the cultural infrastructure of its European neighbours. Philanthropic support for the arts is not something that can be simply turned on, he says. It needs to be developed over time, not just by businesses but by their stakeholders.

 That’s why a change in attitude regarding public funding is imperative. The sooner people stop seeing the arts as a luxury accessed only by the privileged, White explains, the sooner we can dismantle the barriers blocking wider cultural participation.

“We always flattered ourselves into thinking the arts were very important in Ireland but the crash challenged that assumption,” he says. “I’ve had many conversations with civil servants where they go, ‘We understand... but there’s no money.’ And I say, ‘There is money. There’s no value.’ If you value the arts, then you support the arts.

“It’s not an extravagant demand. It is a demonstrable fact that investment in culture usually produces not only a public good but a net gain. The corollary is that if the State invested pubic money in the arts, then the arts have a duty to think about who gets to experience that.”

White knows how intimidating cultural boundaries can sometimes appear. He brings up a moment from 1999, when he was reporting on an exhibition by the artist Sean Scully for RTE’s Later with John Kelly. He recalls stepping into the minimalist design of Dublin’s Kerlin Gallery, with its bare concrete and whitewashed walls, only to find himself daunted by the presence of a genuine “man of art”.

“I still remember the nervousness, the unfamiliarity of the challenge, the barrier of the threshold,” he says, smiling. “These are things I wouldn’t think twice about today. But now that I’m in this ‘space’, if you like, what I want to do is share it with other people.”

White grew up in Abbeyleix, Co Laois, with no real experience of the arts until he studied science at UCD. One day in 1988, en route to lectures, someone mentioned Dramsoc and White grew curious. Gradually, the path before him began to change. He went on to study an MA in English at UCD and an MA in Irish Theatre at Trinity College, where he wrote a thesis on the history of Project Arts Centre.

White would become artistic director there in 2002, spending nine years nurturing a new generation of Irish artists while revitalising its focus on contemporary work. In the process, he learned to act as an advocate for both the artist and the audience – a skill that has made White one of the most influential figures in Irish theatre.

Since taking over the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2011, he has sought to foster a connection between the city and the event so that it takes place for Dublin, rather than just in Dublin. Part of that means facilitating dialogue between international work and local work. It also means finding projects that will resonate with people or at least test their idea of what theatre may be.

“I’ve no interest in putting on something that people ‘ought’ to like,” he says. “Of course, you can be terrified that something won’t work out because it’s not just your reputation at stake, it’s the financial consequence. I’ve gotten a little bit tougher in that regard. A little bit. But you rely on your audience to trust you, to take a risk and come along with you on this journey.”

That rationale first struck White in a moment he describes as his “all-time epiphany”. It came at the 1996 Edinburgh Theatre Festival when he bought a last-minute ticket to Nelken by Pina Bausch, despite never having heard of the German choreographer.

White swivels his chair towards a Macbook and pulls up an image from the show: a scantily clad accordion player stepping through an artificial field of flowers. “You had dancers speaking, Alsatians prowling, men wearing dresses, people jumping off scaffolding towers,” he says. “I never imagined it was possible to do something like that on stage.”

Theatre can’t always inspire such a reaction, White concedes, but he’s determined to try. Last year’s festival, for example, opened with a brash re-interpretation of Hamlet, performed in German with six actors playing 20 characters. Debate over the play’s merits made its way into the Irish Times and RTE’s Morning Ireland.

“It blew people’s minds!” White exclaims. “Yes, some got very aggravated, but that kind of discourse is exactly what you want. When you grab people’s attention for the right reasons, the risk has paid off. I never set out to upset or annoy anyone – maybe to provoke, in an artistic way. At the same time, if you only do things that are guaranteed to work, we’d be talking about a different business.”

White is already looking for pieces to bring the festival alive in 2016 and beyond. By then, the Government aims to initiate a new national cultural policy, Culture 2025, to answer the same questions White feels strongest about. What kind of place do we want to live in from a cultural perspective? What aspects of culture can or should the State have a role in? How will we pay for it?

In the meantime, the artistic director will keep tackling the same task he always does: carving out space, both in terms of financing and the public’s people’s attention, while providing artists with a platform to develop.

“The way I look at it,” he says, leaning forward. “We’re on an Island. We speak English. That makes theatre an important place to encounter different cultures or ideas, whether it’s from China, Chile or India. Rather than focus on the difficulties of bringing that together, it’s worth remembering the outcome: a place you can go to be nourished and stimulated and challenged.”