For the past two weeks I have had the absolute pleasure and honour of being a judge for the Dublin Fringe Festival awards. Having written and performed two previous award-nominated Fringe shows (which I have spoke about on this website previously) and a longstanding fan of Irish theatre, I was super excited to see the festival from this angle.
The experience of engaging with so much great art (and some less than great art) over a two week period, and to truly immerse yourself in a festival and the curatorial vision, was a genuinely humbling, inspiring and inimitable experience. Also got to see the supportive, thoughtful, engaging team at Fringe Festival itself who really cared deeply about every single show, and saw it as their duty to make the experience as good as possible for audience and artists alike.
It was a really interesting group of 14 judges (including me) from really varied backgrounds like journalism, theatre, architecture, opera and more besides. (You can see the list of judges here) I knew a few of them cursorily beforehand but not well. They were a cool bunch of people across the board, and we all were soon neck-deep in a WhatsApp group firing tips about the best shows, horse trading tickets, and generally sharing what shows were clicking with us (and which ones weren’t)
It was a huge programme of 100+ shows, so I couldnt possibly have gone to everything. The way it worked was that every show required a minimum of 3 Fringe judges to see it , so the festival doled out 3 complimentary tickets to each show. My inner child leapt with joy when I learned that the codename for picking up the judge’s ticket at the box office was Marty McFly.
Over the fortnight of the festival I was lucky enough to see over 20 shows, from the genres of dance, comedy, theatre, acrobatics and others that defy categorisation. What I saw was a really varied, vibrant, eclectic mix of artists – a bit hit and miss at times, but overall I saw new ideas, and creative people trying to do something new. I also saw a few chancers who were trying to wedge their semi-finished show into the Fringe, which happens every year, and thats the luck of the draw.
The festival closed on the Sunday, culminating in the awards ceremony, which we were tasked with defining the nominees and winners for. So we gathered late Saturday afternoon upstairs in Fringe Lab in Temple Bar. And we started the process of sifting through the different categories, and starting to blurt out our nominees and nods for various shows that we had seen. Our chair of the judging panel, Meg, calmly and carefully captured these on slips of paper and affixed them to the mirror on the wall behind her. It soon became a collage of posters, flyers, post-its and papers scrawled with names of shows and actors. We then began to go systematically through each category, as we attemoted whittle down our blurted responses into something approaching longlists for each category. Then into shortlists. Then the final nominees. And a winner. Then on to the next category and through the same cycle again.
It was a fascinating process. Afternoon dragged on into evening. Pizzas arrived, and were consumed. On we debated, shuffled, made impassioned pleas for our favourites. I felt I had to make concessions on some categories like design for example, because I didnt know enough about it, and I actually hadn’t seen enough shows with good design to merit a nominations, so I had to blindly trust the other experts in the room and the shows they had put forward.
Evening dragged into night. A few shows were clearly coming up again and again, and it was clear they were going to be awarded something. The big categories like best show and best performer brought out spirited debate but were actually easier to pick than some of the other ones, as they seemed pretty clear to the majority of the group. It was interesting that for some categories it wasnt up to us, like the Writing award, which was judged by Fishamble – which made sense given that the prize of mentorship was awarded by them. Then there was the quirky, fun, catch-all category of Spirit of The Fringe for shows & events that defied categorisation, and it meant that something super out-there and Fringey could get recognised for the sheer brilliance and gumption of what they were setting out to do. All in all we picked nominees and winners of 12 different awards and I can happily say I would stand over all of them, even the ones I didnt get to see (because I trusted the impassioned and thoughtful cases made for these shows by the other judges). And the judging process made you long for Marty McFly capabilities to bend the space-time continuum to go back and see some of the shows that the others raved about, but you simply didnt have time to catch.
For what it’s worth my two favourite shows were very different, but equally brilliant pieces of writing – Oneday by Dick Walsh & James Moran, and For Saoirse by Colm Keegan. Oneday was a unique, inventive show that saw an actor, a drummer and one of the writers enact (and reenact) several news stories and tales from a single day – March 12 2012. There was hypnotic movement, highly comedic wordplay, breaking the 4th wall, and a whole host of other things too difficult to try to describe – but brought such a clever focus on the disposability of news cycles, and the way in which perception and bias come in such different forms depending on who is telling the story. I thought it was an absolute masterpiece of madness ( I know some of the other judges didnt dig it as much) and was unlike anything else I have ever seen. For Saoirse was a poetic one man show by Colm Keegan that had big mad bursts of magic realism, and swept through masculinity and history ( and what James Connolly’s ghost could do for you if you ever got your motorbike clamped). It was a gorgeous piece delivered simply and brilliantly.
Anyway, back to the actual judging itself. We locked down our official nominations and winners late into Saturday night. The Fringe team posted the nominees up on their website, and we went for a celebratory pint, and readied ourselves to reconvene the following evening to hand out the awards.
The awards ceremony was a rowdy, fun affair as you’d expect from the Fringe. Lots of bodies wedged into the back of a pub, craning their heads to hear if their name was called out as a winner. There were oohs and aahs, and the feeling was festive. For many new artists, the mere act of being nominated can be a huge boost to getting the show restaged (I know this to be true of my own shows) and for others it is a chance to share in a celebratory moment with the theatre community. The full list of winners can be found here
I was honoured to be asked to do it. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I loved the experience from end to end. It even sparked an idea for a show of my own. Maybe I’ll submit it to next year’s Fringe.