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
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