Culture Shock: Damning Abbey report reveals clear creative deficit

Few of the Abbey staff, and none of the senior staff, are theatre artists or writers, directors or designers. This ‘contrasts clearly’ with comparable theatres internationally


It would be easy, if you read only the conclusions of the independent review of the Abbey Theatre commissioned by the Arts Council and published this week, to see it is a Shakespeare comedy: Much ado about Nothing. That the Abbey should concentrate on Irish writing, that it should restore the Peacock to the heart of its operations, and that it needs to tour more – these are recommendations that any regular theatregoer could have offered for free. But the report, by the Scottish consultancy Bonnar Keenlyside, is much more searching, radical and critical than the headline conclusions would suggest.

In effect, the report is arguing for nothing less than a return by the Abbey to the point at which it started 110 years ago – as a gathering of creative artists rather than a “national cultural institution”. If it is to be taken seriously, this return to founding principles requires a profound change, not just of emphasis, but of the Abbey’s entire mindset.

There’s a lot of important detail in the report but the most striking statement is quite simple: “Few of the Abbey staff, and none of the senior staff, are theatre artists or writers, directors or designers.” This “contrasts clearly” with comparable theatres internationally.

The comparisons are with four building-based producing theatres of broadly similar scale: the Royal Court in London, the Sydney Theatre Company, the Glasgow Citizens’ and the Bristol Old Vic. This seems a fair set of benchmarks – if anything it is kind to the Abbey, which has a significantly higher level of public funding than any of the others. What it shows most dramatically is the extent to which the Abbey has drifted away from its original nature as a creative collective driven by people who actually make theatre.

The Abbey has become less of a cultural powerhouse and more of a managerial institution. And it is, to be fair, a pretty well-managed institution. Viewed purely as a business, it operates in a deeply problematic market. The report notes “a doubling of theatre seats in the last four years at the same time as the demand for plays has fallen sharply”. It is a significant achievement in that context to have at least partly offset the sharp decline in State funding by increasing earnings from its own sources: Arts Council funding has fallen by 26 per cent since 2009 but overall revenue has declined by just 17 per cent. Given the Abbey’s history of financial crises, it is understandable that managerial priorities have tended to crowd out artistic imperatives.

Yet, in the long term, a theatre is a theatre – it can’t be a success if its artistic energy is muted. Even in narrow box-office terms, the Abbey’s performance does not justify its disproportionate level of State funding. By my calculations, using raw figures from the report, the Abbey put 522,250 bums on the seats of its two theatres in the past five years. The Gate, over the same period, has been attended by 509,823 customers. The difference is alarmingly slight, given that the Abbey receives over six times more Arts Council funding than the Gate. The only way to justify that vast gap is through the artistic policy: is it doing more difficult and radical things that need more public support? The Abbey’s problem is that it is hard to give a clearly positive answer to that question.

The report is quietly devastating about the Abbey’s claim in its mission statement that “we place the writer and the theatre artist at the heart of Ireland’s national theatre”. No, say the authors, you don’t: “while theatre artists and writers are regularly engaged by the Abbey, and actors and writers feel valued by the Abbey, this is not equivalent to being ‘at the heart’ of the Abbey”.

There’s a very obvious reason for this. The other comparable theatres “are led by artistic directors and all have several artists/directors/designers among their senior team”.

By contrast, “The Abbey’s senior team are managers, setting it apart from other creative producing theatres of national significance”. And in case anyone still believes that artists are less productive than managers, the Abbey’s productivity is deeply unimpressive when compared to those artist-led theatres, none of which enjoys as much state funding: in 2012, while the Abbey presented 13 productions, the Royal Court presented 21 and Sydney Theatre Company presented 22.

The implications of the report are profound. The Abbey’s box-office performance does not in itself justify its lion’s share of public funding for theatre – and attendances have been falling consistently since 2010. Its productivity is poor by the standards of comparable international theatres. In a survey of touring venues, the report finds that their managers rated Abbey productions, when they do tour, as of broadly similar standards to other work – which is to say not significantly better. The only thing that can be argued for the Abbey retaining its position as by far the best-funded artistic enterprise in Ireland is artistic vision – creative energy, imaginative boldness, exceptional standards of technical achievement, the troubling brilliance of artists pushing formal and social boundaries. And the only thing that can produce that is the reshaping of the Abbey as a creative collective.

It needs nothing less than a revolutionary restoration, with managers and technocrats making way for artists. If that seems improbable, it was of course the same improbability that was embraced by Yeats, Gregory and Synge.

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