The artist Will St Leger was buying spray paint recently when he overheard a couple of young graffiti upstarts talking about Electric Picnic. "No, man, the gay tent is where it's at, that 'pop baby' tent, that's where you need to be at the end of the night," said one, as they argued about what the most happening part of the Stradbally event was. They were talking about thisispopbaby, a tent at the festival, and a theatre and events production company that somehow manages to straddle queer with popular, high art with clubbing, and several other things in between. In just three years, the company is not so much 'cutting edge' as the creator of a new 'edge' in itself.
Philip McMahon and Jennifer Jennings are the twosome behind what has been a chaotic joyride through theatre, performance and clubbing. They've produced three of the drag artist Panti's sold-out autobiographical shows, acclaimed plays written by McMahon – Danny & Chantelle (Still Here), All Over Town and a collaboration with Belinda McKeon in Love 2.0 – and a festival of queer ideas and performance, Queer Notions. Earlier this year, for three Saturday nights over three months, they transformed the basement bar of Dublin's Peacock Theatre into a heady space of performance, art installations and clubbing called WERK. Next month will be their third year at Electric Picnic, manning the thisispopbaby tent, a den of outrageous performance from acclaimed international acts, music, partying, surrealism, and the place where everyone wants to be as the night rolls on, from troublemaking graffiti kids, to the very musicians playing the festival.
"We saw there was a gap for a comfortable, gay-friendly, design-led theatrical space," says Jennings. "We whipped up a proposal for PoD in a flurry of end-of-season enthusiasm, and didn't think much of it afterwards." McMahon re-enacts the correspondence with PoD: "'Hi Philip, this is Claire from PoD, can you take a phone call from John Reynolds?' Yeah, sure. 'Can I put you through to him right now?'" He puts on a stern voice, 'Philip, this is John, meet me tomorrow'." They laugh a little. "Then we got down to the office and walked in... he just took out the site map 'right, where should we put you'. We were like, now we have to do it. Shit."
McMahon and Jennings have a large pool of artists, performers and musicians to draw from, many of whom are friends, or have become friends through being involved in their projects. They met Niall Sweeney – the graphic artist and one half of the London studio Pony – through Panti, and asked him to be involved with the thisispopbaby tent, a project which saw the birth of a giant inflatable baby hanging from the ceiling. The baby makes a return this year ("the first baby was sold on," McMahon says, "we commissioned another baby, so if you know anyone who wants a six-metre baby after this, we're right here"). WERK will be the tent's late-night programme. Neil Watkins, the host of WERK, will also host a Chat Roulette party under his alter ego of Heidi Konnt. "We wanted to have a meaty, condensed, rollercoaster programme," Jennings says of this year's tent, which will open at 6pm, instead of all day. Thisispopbaby works at Electric Picnic because apart from providing an alternative space, the standard of performers is very high – this year features New York gospel diva Our Lady J, extreme London performance artist Jonny Woo and an intimate set from platinum-selling Swedish superpopstar Robyn, as well as established Irish acts like Shirley Temple Bar's Turbo Minty Madouvit Bingo and upcoming electropop act Bitches With Wolves.
"Art is important," says McMahon when discussing the core of thisispopbaby. "The things we do are really exacting in how we do them. The work has to always be having a conversation with the city and the country."
"It's about engaging more with the popular culture of the day," says Jennings. "Our mission statement talks about the space between popular culture and counter-culture and high art – it's not just for a couple of hundred people in Dublin at a particular time. The Electric Picnic was always an exciting place, and a place where that happened very naturally."