If Ireland has changed so much, why hasn't theatre kept pace?
CULTURE SHOCK:LAST WEEK I took part in a symposium at the Peacock on the “futures” of Irish theatre. As one of the other panellists, Willie White of Dublin Theatre Festival, brought along a collection of my reviews, containing umpteen predictions about the future that turned out to be wrong, my confidence in my prophetic abilities is not what it once was. But I do think it possible to say one thing about the next decade with some degree of confidence. It is that there will be a fierce tension between the form of theatre and the institutions that are supposed to contain it.
Irish theatre is deeply conservative. I don’t mean in terms of content or even of formal experiment, though both could be argued. I mean simply that the primary institutions in which most of it happens are astonishingly static. Twenty years ago, in 1992, the top four theatre companies, ranked in order of Arts Council funding, were the Abbey, the Gate, Druid and Rough Magic. Two full decades on and what’s the ranking? The Abbey, the Gate, Druid and Rough Magic.
It’s not just that we have the same four companies but that their places in the official hierarchy are unchanged.
Ireland has gone from bust to boom to bust, the Catholic Church has imploded, Fianna Fáil has shrunk to a rump, a black man is president of the US and Martin McGuinness has shaken the hand of the queen. But the basic institutional order of Irish theatre is unchanged.
In fact, this comparison of 1992 and 2012 seriously understates the degree of continuity. For one thing, if we go back to 1985, we find that the top three is exactly as it is now: the Abbey, the Gate, Druid. For another, the dominance of the Abbey within this ranking has actually increased. In 1995, the Abbey’s funding was about five times that of its nearest rival, the Gate. By 2010, the Abbey got more than seven times what the Gate did.
Perhaps even more striking is the continuity within these institutions. Druid is still led by Garry Hynes, who cofounded it in 1975. Lynne Parker is still artistic director of Rough Magic, which she, too, cofounded. And Michael Colgan has been at the head of the Gate since 1983. Apart from Fiach Mac Conghail, who has been at the Abbey a mere seven years, the leadership of the major Irish theatre companies is the same as it was in the mid-1980s.
I’m not suggesting that this is itself a bad thing: continuity can be a great strength, and Parker, Colgan and Hynes have been excellent leaders of their companies. But it is remarkable, especially when you consider that the institutional environment for Irish theatre was transformed over the boom years. The stasis at the top is part of a broader phenomenon: a huge increase in funding did not lead to a huge increase in the number of professional theatre companies. In the decade between 1995 and 2005, there was a fourfold increase in Arts Council funding for theatre companies, rising from €3.9 million to €15 million. The average grant to a company rose from €195,000 to €536,000. But the actual number of funded companies increased by just eight, from 20 to 28.