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The Abbey Theatre

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS | REVIEW - Deirdre Falvey See also: Opin­ion & Anal­y­sis, main pa­per

What’s all the drama at the Abbey Theatre?

On Mon­day a let­ter landed on the desk of Min­is­ter for Cul­ture Josepha Madi­gan and was copied to the Abbey board and the Arts Coun­cil. In it, more than 300 ac­tors, directors, designers, agents and play­wrights ex­pressed “deep con­cern and dis­sat­is­fac­tion” with the di­rec­tion of the theatre since its cur­rent directors, Neil Mur­ray and Gra­ham McLaren, took over in Jan­uary 2017. The let­ter claimed the Abbey’s switch to merely co-pro­duc­ing a greater pro­por­tion of the plays it stages (rather than mak­ing them in-house) has sig­nif­i­cantly eroded their in­come and job chances.

If the co-pro­duc­tions fea­ture Ir­ish theatre pros, what’s the prob­lem?

In many co-pro­duc­tions the in­de­pen­dent pro­ducer takes the lead, which can mean earn­ings of up to 25 per cent less than is paid by the na­tional theatre – even though the ac­tors are on the Abbey stage. The runs are shorter now too, fur­ther re­duc­ing in­come. Theatre is a pre­car­i­ous pro­fes­sion; even some top-flight ac­tors re­lied on in­come from work in an Abbey pro­duc­tion, to an­chor their year. The same goes for directors and designers. The Abbey coun­ters that it still stages a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of in-house pro­duc­tions and says its new ap­proach has opened up the theatre to a wider range of com­pa­nies and artists.

Why is this im­por­tant?

As Ire­land’s na­tional theatre the Abbey gets the lion’s share – ¤7 mil­lion this year – of State drama fund­ing. In part this is to al­low it to stage sig­nif­i­cant but less com­mer­cial plays. This is one ar­gu­ment against the Abbey’s very en­joy­able cur­rent co-pro­duc­tion, Come from

Away, a Cana­dian mu­si­cal with an over­seas-based cast, direc­tor and designers, en route to Lon­don’s West End. Crit­ics say a try-out like this should be in a com­mer­cial venue; the Abbey says it chose the play for its artis­tic in­tegrity, and it should re­turn a profit to in­vest in fu­ture shows.

An­other rea­son for its sub­sidy is that the Abbey has tra­di­tion­ally been a big em­ployer. But many top pro­fes­sion­als are frus­trated be­cause the na­tional theatre now di­rectly em­ploys fewer ac­tors, directors, designers and oth­ers, de­spite stag­ing more shows. The Abbey has a long es­tab­lished role in nur­tur­ing fu­ture tal­ent but crit­ics say this has been eroded. The co-pro­duc­tion pol­icy change ap­pears to have had alarm­ing un­in­tended con­se­quences for the theatre ecosys­tem

Any other ef­fects of this strat­egy?

Be­cause some shows from big­ger in­de­pen­dent com­pa­nies, such as Druid, Land­mark, Fisham­ble, are now on the Abbey stage, “re­ceiv­ing” houses (as op­posed to the­atres that pro­duce work) say fewer shows are avail­able for other venues.

What else has the Abbey said?

It came out fight­ing and pre­sented fig­ures to counter the let­ter-writ­ers’ stark stats about those di­rectly em­ployed. But their fig­ures in­cluded those in­di­rectly em­ployed, miss­ing the point that was made, and was like com­par­ing ap­ples and or­anges.

Isn’t there an­other row about fig­ures?

Part of the Abbey’s state­ment ap­pears not to stand up, about the “fi­nan­cial po­si­tion in­her­ited by the cur­rent directors” at the end of 2016, “an ac­cu­mu­lated deficit of ¤1.4 mil­lion” from its pre­vi­ous pro­duc­tion model. The ac­counts and re­port of the board from 2016 show a sur­plus. Far from be­ing prof­li­gate, for­mer direc­tor Fi­ach MacCong­hail had put the Abbey on an even fi­nan­cial keel. The Abbey was forced to row back, ac­knowl­edg­ing “there was no over­all deficit” and apol­o­gis­ing to MacCong­hail.

What hap­pens next?

The Arts Coun­cil had al­ready held ¤300,000 of the Abbey’s 2019 grant, pend­ing ev­i­dence about the qual­ity of its em­ploy­ment. The Abbey directors have in­vited the let­ter writ­ers in to dis­cuss the is­sues, but the fo­cus has to turn to the chair and board, who are ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for strat­egy, and who over­saw the changes in pol­icy.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: CYRIL BYRNE

Gra­ham McLaren and Neil Mur­ray, directors of The Abbey.

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