Why does the Abbey only re­ceive at­ten­tion in the eye of a cri­sis?

Ir­ish na­tional the­atre should be much more than it cur­rently is — and the rea­son for that is plain, writes Emer O’Kelly

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Comment -

WHEN the let­ter of ex­plo­sive protest against cur­rent pol­icy at the Abbey The­atre, signed by more than 300 the­atre prac­ti­tion­ers, ap­peared last Tues­day, the re­ac­tion from the joint di­rec­tors of the na­tional the­atre was im­me­di­ate, not to say knee jerk and de­fen­sive. But they would, they said, en­gage with the the­atre com­mu­nity to dis­cuss the is­sues raised.

Gra­ham McLaren and Neil Mur­ray have been run­ning the Abbey The­atre for two years; and only now, with the pro­fes­sion com­ing to­gether in de­spair to protest at their method­ol­ogy, are they mak­ing an ef­fort to en­gage. Why?

Gra­ham McLaren has said he doesn’t en­gage with or pay at­ten­tion to, pro­fes­sional crit­i­cism. All ac­tors and di­rec­tors say that, of course, but it ap­pears that McLaren means it.

So, if he doesn’t en­gage with pro­fes­sional crit­i­cism, and doesn’t en­gage with the the­atre com­mu­nity, who ex­actly does he en­gage with?

Therein lies the prob­lem: there is no ev­i­dence that McLaren and Mur­ray, for­mer di­rec­tors of the Na­tional The­atre of Scot­land, have en­gaged with any­one since their ar­rival in Ire­land.

It ap­pears they do not re­alise the sta­tus of the Ir­ish na­tional the­atre world­wide, do not know its his­tory as a lit­er­ary the­atre, nor in­deed the du­ties of a na­tional the­atre as set out in statute.

The Abbey re­ceives €6.8m an­nu­ally from the Ir­ish tax­payer via the Arts Coun­cil. In the UK, its Na­tional will re­ceive £66.8m (€74m) over the next three years.

Both com­pa­nies have sim­i­lar du­ties — the de­vel­op­ment and sup­port of new tal­ent in act­ing, di­rect­ing, and play­writ­ing; the preser­va­tion and per­for­mance of the na­tional reper­toire; the ar­chiv­ing of the na­tional the­atre her­itage; and the open­ing up to their na­tional au­di­ences of the best in in­ter­na­tional the­atre. Both com­pa­nies have a his­tory, and a clearly de­fined artis­tic rather than po­lit­i­cal duty.

In con­trast, the Na­tional The­atre of Scot­land was founded in 2005 as an artis­tic re­sponse to de­vo­lu­tion — it had a de­lib­er­ate base of na­tion­al­ism rather than in­ter­na­tion­al­ism. It called it­self a “the­atre with­out walls”.

Neil Mur­ray, its ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer from day one, had worked with the Marx­ist-in­spired po­lit­i­cal com­pany 7:84, and more re­cently ran Glas­gow’s Tron the­atre, also ide­o­log­i­cally po­lit­i­cal and left­wing.

McLaren, an ac­tor turned di­rec­tor, came on board in 2013, al­ready on record as say­ing that pro­duc­ing plays wasn’t an end in it­self, merely a means of “chang­ing the f ***ing planet”. Ef­fec­tively, niche the­atre.

Also, whether the NTS ac­cepted it or not, it was, in UK terms, a provin­cial the­atre.

It wasn’t a great back­ground or record to run a renowned na­tional the­atre whose re­mit is to pro­duce its own plays, rather than act­ing as a re­ceiv­ing house.

The let­ter was con­cerned chiefly with the fi­nan­cial prob­lems the two men’s pol­icy of “co-pro­duc­tion” (ef­fec­tively hand­ing over the Abbey’s two stages to com­pa­nies which used their own bud­gets, and did not eat into the Abbey’s fi­nances).

This pol­icy, al­lied to a de­ci­sion to en­gage in lim­ited runs, re­duced em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties for prac­ti­tion­ers. It also led to the em­i­nent ac­tor Jane Bren­nan re­veal­ing she was paid Druid’s top salary of €850 weekly when that com­pany’s Richard III trans­ferred to the Abbey for the Dublin The­atre Fes­ti­val. The Abbey rate is €950.

The re­ac­tive state­ment from the Abbey claimed that their pol­icy was based in part on re­duc­ing a deficit of €1.4m in­her­ited over 11 years pre­vi­ously. This claim was quoted widely on ra­dio and TV last week. It was in­ac­cu­rate and a clar­i­fi­ca­tion fol­lowed: “In fact there was no over­all deficit.”

The 2016 ac­counts show an un­re­stricted sur­plus of €500,000 and losses in the pre­vi­ous two years were cov­ered by the re­serve, and were pre-ap­proved by the board and by the Arts Coun­cil.

The McLaren/Mur­ray state­ment in re­ply to the let­ter claimed that “these losses were in­curred by the pro­gram­ming model that the sig­na­to­ries’ let­ter ap­pears to ad­vo­cate — a pre­dom­i­nance of large scale Abbey self-pro­duced shows with lit­tle ac­cess for smaller in­de­pen­dent com­pa­nies and artists”. Ex­cept, as said, there was no deficit to be wiped out.

It is star­tling to the point al­most of in­credulity that such an er­ror should have been made: €1.4m is al­most 26pc of the an­nual grant to the Abbey of €6.8m — a huge per­cent­age.

And the let­ter from the prac­ti­tion­ers pointed out that not a sin­gle Ir­ish-based artist was em­ployed by the Abbey since last Septem­ber, and will not be un­til the end of Fe­bru­ary this year.

It’s also worth not­ing that the pol­icy of short runs and “co-pro­duc­tions” seems not to have been fol­lowed with pro­duc­tions which are per­son­ally di­rected by Gra­ham McLaren. The 2017 The­atre Fes­ti­val pro­duc­tion of Der­mot Bol­ger’s ver­sion of Ulysses, was re­vived for a long sum­mer run in 2018, and was also claimed as a “world pre­miere” which it was not. It was staged un­der Mur­ray’s aegis at the Tron The­atre in 2012, and that com­pany toured with it to Dublin’s Project.

And the com­mit­ment to tour­ing Abbey pro­duc­tions was filled coun­try­wide last sum­mer with Jimmy’s Hall, again a mu­si­cal piece, and di­rected by McLaren.

It could be ar­gued that the Abbey Board has only it­self to blame for the huge dis­con­tent by the ap­point­ment of a di­rec­tor­ship so un­aware and with­out any ex­pe­ri­ence of na­tional-level build­ing-based the­atre, or lit­er­ary the­atre, or in­deed the Abbey’s re­mit.

That re­mit was made clear and re­in­forced in 2002 when the com­pany faced bank­ruptcy, was bailed out, re­struc­tured, and handed over in good or­der to Fi­ach Mac Cong­hail, the first pro­ducer rather than di­rec­tor to con­trol it the since that days of Ernest Blythe, and also the first to have sin­gle au­thor­ity since Blythe’s days.

In the in­ter­ven­ing pe­riod, au­thor­ity and re­spon­si­bil­ity had been di­vided be­tween a manag­ing di­rec­tor and an artis­tic di­rec­tor. That alone might have sounded warn­ing bells. It had been widely held that a divi­sion of re­spon­si­bil­ity was part of the cause of the dis­as­trous fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion which the Abbey found it­self fac­ing into in the new cen­tury.

Yet, the board made it specif­i­cally clear that ap­pli­ca­tions from a duo would be wel­come.

Nor can the Arts Coun­cil es­cape blame for the cur­rent cri­sis. It has a dif­fi­cult role in that it is the pay­mas­ter on be­half of the tax­payer, but it must also not in­ter­fere with the artis­tic au­ton­omy of the com­pany. But cer­tainly, there should be no prob­lem in ex­er­cis­ing rigid fi­nan­cial con­trol and en­sur­ing fi­nan­cial pro­bity.

Yet it was only with the Abbey caught with its pants down over not pay­ing ac­tors its own rate that the coun­cil stepped in last week to with­hold €300,000 of 2019 fund­ing pend­ing “as­sur­ances” about the “qual­ity of em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties for Ir­ish-based artists”.

Has no­body from the Arts Coun­cil been ex­er­cis­ing a fi­nan­cial watch­ing brief, or in­deed lis­ten­ing to the artists un­til now?

The let­ter from the artists was ad­dressed to the Min­is­ter for Cul­ture, Josepha Madi­gan.

Her re­ac­tion was pre­dictably lame: that she ex­pected the sides to en­gage, and she “looked for­ward to a mu­tu­ally sat­is­fac­tory out­come”. Yet to be fair, there was, and is, lit­tle she could do. The Arts Coun­cil is au­tonomous and has a duty to re­main at arms length from the de­part­ment.

One so­lu­tion, which would be highly un­wel­come to the Arts Coun­cil, would be for the Abbey, as a mem­ber of the Coun­cil of Na­tional Cul­tural In­sti­tu­tions, to be di­rectly funded from the De­part­ment of Fi­nance as are the other in­sti­tu­tions. This was mooted a num­ber of years ago, with the Abbey keenly in favour and the Arts Coun­cil re­sist­ing a re­duc­tion in its ter­ri­tory.

But as things stand, it be­gins to seem that our na­tional the­atre only re­ceives the at­ten­tion it de­serves when a cri­sis strikes. Emer O’Kelly is the drama critic of the Sun­day In­de­pen­dent

‘Has no­body from the Arts Coun­cil been ex­er­cis­ing a fi­nan­cial watch­ing brief — or in­deed even been lis­ten­ing to the artists un­til now?’

IT’S SUP­POSED TO BE ABOUT THE ART, NOT THE POL­I­TICS: Neil Mur­ray and Gra­ham McLaren, joint artis­tic di­rec­tors at the Abbey

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