Give Me a Crash Course In . . .
The Abbey Theatre
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.
Graham McLaren and Neil Murray, directors of The Abbey.