Fixing the Abbey: where next for the National Theatre?

The continuing hegemony of the Abbey is hurting Irish theatre as a whole, and it is hurting the Abbey even more. First and foremost, artistic leadership must be restored to the organisation

Thu, Jan 23, 2014, 01:00

Last Saturday, this newspaper published one of the more extraordinary articles about the Abbey Theatre, or indeed any theatre, that I have ever read.

Obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, it was an assessors’ report of Abbey productions, which was commissioned jointly by the Arts Council and the theatre itself, and offers an assessment of the artistic standard of 12 productions since May 2012. It grades productions over that time on a level that seems at best simplistic, and the accompanying critiques offer very little further insight.

Apparently, the reports were commissioned in “an attempt to resolve continuing tensions between the Abbey and the Arts Council”. It is not a reflection on the assessors’ good faith or indeed their ability to offer interesting artistic feedback to question how the relationship between the National Theatre and the Arts Council should have reached the point where they considered such an assessment necessary or appropriate.

And yet, in some ways, this bizarre process may have been the inevitable outcome of the policy vacuum that exists at the heart of Ireland’s cultural life. Starting with the apparent inability and/or unwillingness of the current and successive previous governments to make policy – or even to think in policy terms – and reinforced by the reluctance of the Arts Council, other similar bodies and the broader artistic community to hold Government rigorously to account, the assessors’ reports make a weird kind of sense.

In the skewed world created by this policy vacuum, commitment to the arts is replaced by commitment to individual organisations. Thus the Abbey, as the oldest and most venerable performing arts institution, gets the most money, with other organisations lining up – more or less in the chronological order of their founding – to share the rest.

This is what substitutes for policy, with the purse strings staying in central departmental control, being distributed without planning or reference to the larger cultural context. Witness the recent debacle in Limerick.

A new departure
The appointment in 2005 of Fiach Mac Conghail as director of the Abbey was envisaged as a new departure, with the then chair Eithne Healy announcing: “We are convinced that Fiach has the artistic vision, experience, skills, personal qualities and commitment to lead the theatre through a period of fundamental restructuring and renewal.

“This appointment signals change in a number of ways. In creating the position of director, the board has decided to establish a new senior management structure with clear lines of decision-making, authority and accountability.”

“It is also the first time in many years that a producer rather than a theatre director has been appointed to lead the Abbey. We believe that Fiach’s blend of artistic and management experience is exactly what the Abbey needs at this time.”

During his time as director, Mac Conghail has undoubtedly steadied the theatre, bringing both a measure of financial stability and a fundamental restructuring to an organisation that desperately needed both. He negotiated bailout funding of €4 million with the government, and, before the downturn, managed to bring the Abbey to all-time high levels of grant aid from the Arts Council. That this in 2014 results in an annual grant amounting to almost 50 per cent of the total received by all performing arts organisations in Ireland indicates how successful he has been in one of the key jobs of any artistic leader – securing funding.

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