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Ireland National theatre's future in jeopardy

07:30  30 december  2019
07:30  30 december  2019 Source:   independent.ie

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The Abbey Theatre's accounts for the past year report a 28pc rise in box office receipts and audience growth - of which more anon.

Our National Theatre definitely needs some good news: the atmosphere among theatre professionals - the men and women who contribute their myriad skills of acting, directing, designing (with its concomitant craft skills) and above all, writing - is a cross between despair and something close to contempt as they watch what is seen as the dismantling of a history and tradition regarded with awe worldwide for more than a century.

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There are three theatres , a learning centre, theatre tours, restaurants, a riverside bar and a bookshop. Our productions also play in the West End and on tour. We broadcast to cinemas worldwide through National Theatre Live, stream plays free to UK schools, and produce a wealth of digital content about

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Almost a year ago, more than 300 theatre professionals wrote a letter of complaint concerning the Abbey's policy of increased co-productions and a reduction in self-produced plays under the current artistic directorship.

The result had been reduced opportunities in the profession, reduced pay and damage across the theatrical board. The artistic directorate of the Abbey appeared to come to heel, and undertook to "engage" with the profession, although the directors denied the accusations.

There were two meetings (in June and July) between the signatories of the original letter (written to the Minister for Arts) and the Abbey. The latter had reported to Minister Josepha Madigan in May with 17 planned "actions". She seemed satisfied.

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There were to be more in-house productions, and rates of pay to actors working in co-productions were to be at the Abbey rate (which exceeds considerably rates paid by other Irish production companies).

They recently reinstated the position of casting director. (There is still no sign of a reinstatement of the literary manager... in what was founded as, and still is statutorily, a literary theatre.)

Roll on the recently published programme for 2020, which at the height of the controversy had been promised would contain nine self-produced shows, two co-productions and two other "shows". The programme was also to reflect "a lot of the positive developments over the past few months".

This information is taken from the notes of the two meetings, seen by The Irish Times.

Except the Abbey does not accept that the note is accurate.

It was compiled by the independent facilitator of the meetings, Aibhlin McCrann of Communique International.

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Which brings us back to the Abbey annual report and that 28pc rise in box office receipts and audience growth. The figures in the report have been shown to a financial auditor by a senior producer in the independent theatre sector. The claimed increase in revenue is €704,000, according to the report. But €418,000 of that relates to touring income.

When touring costs of €791,000 are set against total touring income, there's a loss of €373,000 rather than an increase.

The number of production staff has risen only by four. This includes freelance artists, despite the artistic directors' stated determination to increase involvement.

So on the one side there is the Abbey refusing to accept the facilitator's record of the two meetings in June and July as "sufficiently accurate or of an acceptable standard"; on the other the professional artists' representatives at the meetings have contacted Minister Madigan to say that the 2020 programme as published does not live up to the commitments made by the Abbey, nor does it address their original concerns.

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Theater , an institution at the heart of world cultures for millennia, now confronts unprecedented Nonprofit theater enjoyed a second golden age from the 1960 s through the 1990 s , with the National “Cooperation among theaters is part of the future . In the past, theaters have been very proprietary

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And in between lies the financial balance sheet.

When Graham McLaren and Neil Murray were announced as the co-artistic directors of our National Theatre, my heart sank. Not because they weren't Irish (one Scottish, one Welsh), but for other reasons. A division of responsibility had been proved to be disastrous, artistically and financially, in very recent history.

Also, as co-directors of the National Theatre of Scotland, they were coming from a political rather than an artistic construct. It was set up in a nationalist rush in the wake of Scottish devolution and was essentially provincial in UK terms. It was not building-based, and its forte was site-specific 'events'.

And notably, Murray was a former director of Glasgow's Tron theatre, specifically political and left-wing propagandist, the natural successor to the hard-left 7:84 company of the 1980s. It wasn't an artistic provenance to inspire hope: no directorial experience of literary theatre or of building-based theatre - and, it seemed, no knowledge of this country either.

We waited for engagement, for some show of passion for the Irish canon, for an awareness of Irish writing. But there was none; rather an impression that there was a political mission to save Irish theatre from itself, and to hell with Irish professionals.

Finally, as the simmering year-long row re-erupted, the Abbey was publicly castigated by the chair of the Writers Guild of Ireland, Thomas McLaughlin, who wrote to the Abbey chair Dr Frances Ruane stating that the whole process has "merely amplified the gulf between the artistic directors of the Abbey and the theatre community represented by the signatories of the original letter to Minister Madigan".

Damningly, McLaughlin concluded "the WGI no longer has confidence in the board of the Abbey Theatre".

And my critical reaction?

I believe our national theatre is in danger of being systematically destroyed in artistic achievement and artistic remit by a policy (if there is one) that seems juvenile, naïve, propagandist, provincial and extraordinarily old-fashioned. And that's not a National Theatre.

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