Maybe it’s a crazy no­tion, but couldn’t the­atre be both good and com­mer­cial?

The Abbey The­atre row has led to an in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion about the place of the­atre and art in so­ci­ety, says Bren­dan O’Con­nor

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Comment -

ON one hand last week’s Abbey The­atre spat was seen as a bit of Jan­uary fun. Some­thing to keep the pot bub­bling on a quiet week. In case you missed it, the nub of it was that hun­dreds of ac­tors, di­rec­tors, de­sign­ers, agents and play­wrights signed a let­ter to Arts Min­is­ter Josepha Madi­gan com­plain­ing that the Abbey was do­ing fewer in-house pro­duc­tions, and that this was dev­as­tat­ing to their liveli­hoods.

For some, it was a case of, “There go the pre­cious luvvies again. They hounded out the last boss of the Abbey with their mil­i­tant fem­i­nist dra­mat­ics. And now they’re af­ter the cur­rent guys. Drama queens the lot of them. And they think the world owes them a liv­ing. Shure we’d all love to be play-act­ing for a liv­ing and fol­low­ing our dreams. But the rest of us had to grow up and get real jobs. That’s life. If you de­cide you want to be an ac­tor you know the score”.

For oth­ers, like Bobby Bal­lagh on The Ir­ish Times let­ters’ page, it was a les­son in what you get if you al­low for­eign­ers, who don’t un­der­stand how we do things here, to run our cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions.

For most peo­ple, it was a re­minder of the pre­car­i­ous life of cre­ative peo­ple, a re­minder that most of them do not make a good liv­ing from their craft, and that even the lead­ing lights on the Ir­ish stage earn a max­i­mum of just €950 a week when star­ring in a play in our na­tional the­atre. And they’re the lucky ones.

The truth is that most ac­tors, or cre­ative peo­ple in gen­eral, do not get into it for the money. While the most vis­i­ble co­hort of the act­ing pro­fes­sion can seem to have it all, fame and riches, those peo­ple are the 1pc, or a frac­tion of the 1pc. In gen­eral, you’d want to have some kind of pas­sion or drive, some com­mit­ment to truth, some need in you, to be a the­atre per­son.

And while many the­atre peo­ple may seem to have healthy egos on the out­side, it’s an in­se­cure ex­is­tence at heart.

There is that free­lance men­tal­ity of won­der­ing where the next job is com­ing from, won­der­ing will you get a good run in some­thing in the Abbey this year, won­der­ing will you get a TV role, or even a voiceover gig or an ad that might keep you go­ing for a while.

And then there is that des­per­ate in­se­cu­rity of putting on a show for peo­ple, and won­der­ing des­per­ately if they liked it, if they still like you, if you’re get­ting old, if you got in the zone tonight, if this is the last part you will play.

Add to that the con­stant re­jec­tion of au­di­tion­ing and go­ing for roles, and it does make for a pre­car­i­ous ex­is­tence, fi­nan­cially and emo­tion­ally.

Which brings us to the real ques­tion that emerged out of the lat­est erup­tion in the world of Ir­ish the­atre. The real con­ver­sa­tion that arose out of the Abbey spat was not re­ally about the specifics of this story, but was about the place of the­atre, and art in gen­eral, in so­ci­ety, and about how much we should sub­sidise art and how much art should have to stand on its own two feet by at­tract­ing an au­di­ence.

A sim­plis­tic di­chotomy seemed to emerge last week, which is that there are two types of the­atre.

There is the­atre that lots of peo­ple go to see, which is of­ten mu­si­cal, or funny or gen­er­ally ob­vi­ous and low-rent, the­atre that is rather sniffily re­ferred to as com­mer­cial.

And then there is proper the­atre, that is risky, and pos­si­bly more chal­leng­ing, the­atre that not enough peo­ple will go to see but that is in some way in­trin­si­cally more im­por­tant than com­mer­cial the­atre. And the idea seems to be that the State needs to sub­sidise the lat­ter be­cause it’s good for us.

Aonghus McAnally prob­a­bly summed up the di­chotomy best when he pre­sented the rather nifty no­tion that the Abbey when be­ing re­de­vel­oped should have been split in two, and that one the­atre should have run some­thing like River­dance all the time, to get the ‘cruise ship’ crowd in — while the other the­atre would run real the­atre, which would be sub­sidised by the more com­mer­cial side of the house.

In truth, many artists, ac­tors, the­atre peo­ple and movie mak­ers in­for­mally op­er­ate such a sys­tem — “one for them, one for me” — where they will take on com­mer­cial work in or­der to sub­sidise their more artis­tic and less pop­ulist oeu­vre.

The at­ti­tude of the­atre peo­ple to­wards the Abbey for putting on as its Christ­mas show a mu­si­cal that was bound for the West End seemed to be that there is a place for this kind of thing, and it’s called the BGE The­atre — which is packed out most nights with pop­u­lar mu­si­cals and tour­ing shows.

To lis­ten to peo­ple talk last week, the BGE is, depend­ing on your view­point, ei­ther a the­atre for peo­ple who don’t like proper, im­por­tant the­atre, or it is an op­por­tu­nity for Ir­ish au­di­ences to see big pop­u­lar shows and large-scale pro­duc­tions, with­out hav­ing to travel to Lon­don.

What ev­ery­one agrees is that the­atre is a hugely im­por­tant part of Ire­land’s foot­print around the world, of our in­ter­na­tional brand. And there’s no doubt ei­ther that much of the the­atre that has be­come part of the Ir­ish canon was not al­ways what you would call pop­ulist.

In­deed, we found out last week that even the chair­man of the No­bel Prize com­mit­tee in 1968 re­jected the idea of Beck­ett win­ning it as Beck­et­tian ab­sur­dity, and said that while the work had artis­tic ef­fect, it lacked heart. So Beck­ett was too aus­tere even for the peo­ple who brought us Strind­berg.

We all agree, too, that the­atre that might not wash its face on its ini­tial run, that might not be com­mer­cially vi­able in the short term, that might be risky both ar­tis­ti­cally and com­mer­cially, can turn out to be im­por­tant the­atre, that jus­ti­fies its value in the long term. And we agree that the arts are a hugely im­por­tant as­pect of a bal­anced life and a bal­anced so­ci­ety, and that if all art had to jus­tify it­self com­mer­cially, a lot of good art would not get made.

But you couldn’t help com­ing away from the week won­der­ing if there is an­other way, too.

Yes, we should sub­sidise art, and it is un­der­stand­able, too, that places like the Abbey are tempted to put on bankers like Come From Away to fill the seats. (By the way, a reg­u­lar goer to “real” the­atre told me Come From Away was a great show, full of en­ergy, that res­onated with the au­di­ence and was even mov­ing in parts. So it’s not as sim­ple as be­ing ei­ther ob­scure and dif­fi­cult, or else be­ing Mrs Brown’s Boys.)

You’d won­der if all of us — the­atre peo­ple, au­di­ences, and the ma­jor­ity of us who are not reg­u­lar the­atre go­ers — are com­plicit in this false di­chotomy. Why doesn’t more the­atre res­onate with wider au­di­ences? Peo­ple are not all philistines. When a piece of chal­leng­ing, real the­atre gets a buzz around it, like Louise O’Neill’s Ask­ing For It, peo­ple will flock to it.

When it is mar­keted prop­erly and res­onates and when all those peo­ple who don’t go to the the­atre aren’t scared off by it, they will come.

We now know, for ex­am­ple, that TV pro­duc­ers were pos­si­bly un­der­es­ti­mat­ing au­di­ences for years and that you can make in­ter­est­ing, chal­leng­ing, com­plex TV and peo­ple will watch — as ev­i­denced by this so-called golden age of TV.

Peo­ple flock to see edgy, tricky, ap­par­ently un­com­mer­cial bands all the time. Even the Taoiseach made it out to see the dancey but still spiky sounds of LCD Soundsys­tem.

A new gen­er­a­tion of the­atre pro­duc­ers seems to be bring­ing the les­sons of pop­u­lar cul­ture to mak­ing in­ter­est­ing shows that res­onate, and that still feel in­clu­sive for gen­eral au­di­ences. And Ir­ish the­atre prac­ti­tion­ers have had huge suc­cess in re­cent years with in­ter­est­ing but ac­ces­si­ble films.

There’s no doubt Ir­ish the­atre has the tal­ent within it to make real the­atre that speaks the truth about our world but also brings in the punters. And there’s no doubt that au­di­ences have a hunger for work of sub­stance.

So who knows? Maybe with the right mar­ket­ing, and if we all get over our prej­u­dices a bit, the­atre can con­nect these two el­e­ments. And maybe then the Abbey could elec­trify au­di­ences as it did in the past. And maybe then the bosses could feel more con­fi­dent about fill­ing seats over Christ­mas with fan­tas­tic new work from Ire­land’s fan­tas­tic the­atre peo­ple.

‘Ev­ery­one agrees that the­atre is a hugely im­por­tant part of Ire­land’s foot­print around the world’

ICONIC: The Abbey The­atre. Photo: Ros Ka­vanagh

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