Working on the Fringe

Martin O’Donnell sits down with Oisin McKenna and Colm Summers to discuss their current show Gays Against the Free State, the challenges of bringing a show to Fringe and the difficulties of students and graduates who pursue careers in the theatre.


“It’s important that people employ both revolution and reform and I think, in fact, the tension between those methods is what brings about change.”

   Throughout history, people have worked consistently to effect political and social changes in societies throughout the world. The means of effecting these changes can widely differ from place to place, but essentially fall into to two broad categories: reform argues for changing and making better what is already there, while revolution calls for dramatic fundamental changes in society in a relatively short space of time. These concepts are explored and the tension between them in Oisin McKenna’s sophomore offering Gays Against the Free State.

Reformation v.s revolution

  The show is set in a TV studio designed to be an homage to various current affair debate shows on Irish television, hosted by a drag queen version of Miriam O’Callaghan. Two activists sit on stage, a reformist and a revolutionary, debating the merits and pitfalls of reform and revolution in order to achieve social change. Interspersed with this are allusions to other television tropes such as The Dating Game’s classic bachelor-behind-a-curtain format. The show’s director Colm Summers explains,

“The show’s form is really eclectic – elements of farce, traditional satirical, political theatre – but also has a central narrative in a Kitsch style.”

It mixes spoken word, with music and live art for a truly immersive experience. These varied approaches are all unified in their exploration of its central theme –  reform versus revolution, in terms of the benefits from either approach and what is more equitable. This theme is explored using specific examples –  queer activism today and Irish republican activism in the past. In writing the show, McKenna wanted to explore how the different methods, different results and “the ways that they include people and not include people.”

    In the context of 1916, the reform/revolution binary is represented by the reforming Home Rule advocates versus the small minority of revolutionaries who instigated the 1916 Easter Rising. While their rebellion had elements of right-wing Catholicism, they were by-and-large very progressive, feminist and socialist even by today’s standards. The Proclamation was a hugely aspirational document which envisioned an equal and fair Ireland; “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority in the past.”

     As McKenna points out, however, these ideals did not come to be: “The product of that revolution, the Free State was incredibly conservative and oppressive and that happens in a lot of movements starting from a more radical standpoint and gradually forming themselves into something more centrist and oppressive”. In order to become accepted, the revolutionaries had to compromise and become acceptable to an Irish conservative Catholic society of the time.


Joe Caslin’s now well-recognised mural for the Yes campaign

     Queer activism, in McKenna’s opinion, has also encountered obstacles in its campaign for social change. In the context of the Marriage Equality referendum, Yes Equality were ultimately successful, but McKenna feels as though in wanting to appeal to ‘middle Ireland’, exclusion did result:

“There was only talk about very specific kinds of LGBT rights and the heteronormative image of what that could be. Maybe that was more effective [in the Marriage Referendum], as evidenced by the fact the vote came through and that benefits a lot of people but also at the expense of representing other LGBT viewpoints.”

In drawing comparisons between the 1916 revolutionaries and queer activism, he gives audiences unfamiliar with the idea of queer activism a frame of reference, making the show accessible without diluting its core principles.

Rallies in the city centre following the arrest of the Jobstown protesters.

Rallies in the city centre following the arrest of the Jobstown protesters.


   McKenna continues to offer me examples in which reformation versus revolution play out before our eyes. Right2Water is a prime example in his opinion – a group who have given up on reformation and now fight their struggle through protest hoping for revolution. The Jobstown protest, in particular, captured his imagination:

“[What happened in Jobstown] was very legitimate method of protest, blocking a politician’s car or blocking Gardaí. Lots of movements have done that type of stuff in the past, and in the annals of history are now really well respected, but at the time people complained about it too.”

He notes the campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment is attempting reforming tactics in the same manner as the Yes Equality movement: “The lessons people have learned from Yes Equality are thought of as Gospel now in terms of how to approach a social change campaign, but they are being applied to the pro-choice campaign in a negative censoring kind of way that I don’t really like.”

    Revolution and reformation are, as McKenna makes clear, complementing means to a desired end: “It’s important that people employ both revolution and reform and I think in fact the tension between those methods is what brings about change.”

Coming to Fringe

   The show runs as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival, which has been running in Dublin since 1995 and this year runs for sixteen days during September. The experimental and radical shows Fringe host clearly benefit from the exposure, structure and support gained from the organisation. “[There is a] really great team working behind [Dublin Fringe Festival] …. and they have been very supportive of me this year in particular.” McKenna explains, “By doing a show as part of the festival and not as an independent production, you are automatically getting access to avenues otherwise not available otherwise”.

    In spite of this unique and useful platform offered by Fringe, funding is still an issue and putting a show together can be a difficult task. McKenna laments a dearth of funding avenues available to performers:

“It’s pretty limited – the main public funding available in Dublin would be from the Arts Council or Dublin City Council. It’s very difficult for new companies to professionalise and these companies often have to work unfunded for a very long period of time, if that’s possible – which is rarely the case unless the members have other sources of income or are independently wealthy.”

Invariably, the only option available to performers is to work jobs during the day in unrelated fields, which can impinge on their ability to develop their art due to time limitations. “You are talking about a company doing four hours of rehearsals a day as opposed to nine,” Summers explains with regard to this issue, “It has to make a difference.”

    In the absence of State or corporate sponsorship, this show was financed primarily through crowdfunding – the only option really open to the show. The crowdfunding campaign offered a mix of rewards to entice funders from a mention in the show programme to a private spoken word gig from McKenna, but ultimately, Summers credits McKenna’s reputation and hard work as being the key in securing funding: “It would be wrong to assume that it was luck – it has to do with his previous work – Oisín has established himself as a hustler with a work ethic and that support is there for him as a result.”

Student experience

    This is not McKenna’s first work as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival. McKenna’s previous work Grindr / A Love Story was a much smaller show as part of the 2013 festival, with two actors on stage. The show dealt with the unrequited love and the need for social interaction in our technological age. It was a much more personal project for McKenna:

“I don’t think I realised it at the time while doing it how emotionally difficult it was. In [Grindr], I just slagged myself off about really embarrassing aspects of myself for an hour on stage… I was quite vulnerable.”

He encountered different challenges in writing Gays Against the Free State: “[It was] more challenging to write from a technical and intellectual perspective and it took a lot longer and required a lot more research. In terms of the kind of writing, it was really out of my comfort zone but generally emotionally less draining.”

    Gays Against the Free State in comparison to Grindr is a much larger production, with a cast of five. The move up from a small cast of two to a larger cast of five and bigger supporting team has been a positive experience: “Having more people in the room is very nice just from a social perspective. There are so many really great ideas and voices in the room.” Summers, a graduate of the Theatre Studies programme in Trinity, tells me that with the exception of two members of the cast and crew, all are Trinity graduates or students. He offers high praise for the drama programmes offered in Trinity: “The programme really afforded me the opportunity to explore the different parts of theatre – directing, acting and producing. Without the freedom and support of the programme I doubt I would have been able to get as much exposure as I have got.”

The Arts Going Forward

    We end our conversation by discussing why theatre pieces such as this are so difficult to fund, stage and get exposure for. Summers believes that a lot of the problems with arts begins with our first experiences of theatre: “People grow up with an idea of accessible theatre – if panto is your first experience of theatre, that is how you are always going to view it.” McKenna concurs:

“I don’t know what the solution to the problem is. It feels like increasing arts funding is a band aid rather than a solution – there are massive structural problems in the access to arts in Ireland. This starts with the education system and access to the arts.”

Access to the arts in Ireland is clearly lamentable – primary and secondary schools across the country have little opportunity to stage shows other than Christmas shows and even fewer get the opportunity to see or participate in anything other than two-act easily accessible theatre. Those that do get the kind of exposure required must have means and this excludes large swathes of the population. This problem is not likely to be solved any time soon – it will require time, money and political will – something the current government does not seem keen on, as evidenced by their near demotion of the arts as a government ministry.

    The show is a sure to be a prime example of how experimental theatre can challenge and enlighten us and should be encouraged going forward. The show’s central struggle, while explored through the prism of queer activism and Republican activism, clearly has widespread implications for other areas of life, not merely publicly contentious ones such as the 8th Amendment or water charges. McKenna has clearly touched on a fundamental question in the show – about how best one goes about changing the course of history – and one thinks that his show could have the potential to elicit a seismic response.

Gays Against the Free State, written by Oisin McKenna and directed by Colm Summers, runs from the 21st-24th September as part of the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival. Tickets are available online.