Fall of the small after unkindest cuts of all

 

The Arts:Three well-established, but smaller, theatre companies have had their Arts Council funds entirely withdrawn, a decision resulting in the demise of at least two of them. In a crisis that is likely to lead to more cuts, does a new council strategy mean the end of the theatre company as we know it, asks Peter Crawley

LAST FRIDAY, Storytellers Theatre Company closed its doors forever. Throughout the previous week, the Dublin-based company, founded 22 years ago to stage classic texts and create new work from diverse literary sources, had been conducting the grim business of winding down operations. The phone line was disconnected. The old computers were taken away to be recycled. The posters and programmes of the company’s considerable body of work were donated to the Irish Theatre Archive.

“So, it’s a big one,” the company’s artistic director, Liam Halligan, said softly.

Storytellers is one of three well-established Irish theatre companies that did not receive funding this year from the Arts Council. Like Clonmel’s Galloglass, which for almost 20 years has been committed to touring various plays of the Irish and European repertoire, the company has seen its State subsidy withdrawn for 2009. Galloglass, which reacted to the decision with “shock and disbelief”, has cancelled its production plans for 2009, but is determined to pursue other avenues of funding to stay active.

The third company to disappear from the Irish theatre landscape is Calypso, for 16 years a powerhouse of politically and socially engaged theatre and outreach programmes. Its prospects collapsed late last year due to an operating deficit of €90,000 from which it could not recover.

In part, these losses are the inevitable consequences of a recession. When the Arts Council learned of its own budget cut in October, deputy chairman Maurice Foley made a dire forecast. “The public can expect fewer festivals, fewer exhibitions, less theatre and less music,” ran his statement. “There are also likely to be job losses . . . For now, we recognise that the arts are in a new funding environment and that we must all plan accordingly and face up to very difficult decisions.”

For some non-theatrical companies, including the Irish Writers’ Centre and Cork’s Opera 2005, those decisions have resulted in the unkindest cut of all, the complete withdrawal of funding. But following the Arts Council’s budget reduction, from €82 million in 2008 to €75.7 million in 2009, it was always the theatre that was likely to take the hardest hit. Theatre receives more State funding than any other art form, and the sector’s allocation duly dropped from €18,688,184 to €16,310,600.

Distributing that near 15 per cent cut equally among every theatre company would have been an indecisive measure, according to the Arts Council’s head of theatre, David Parnell. Although it “might have seemed fair on the surface”, its ultimate result, he claims, would have been to “undermine all the companies equally, rather than trying to support some at the cost of others”. The selective strategy is the one the council has decided to pursue. In these cash-strapped times, larger successful companies such as Druid, Rough Magic and the Gate have seen their grants increased slightly, while smaller organisations have absorbed the impact of cuts as high as 20 per cent.

Parnell describes this strategy as trying “to protect as much as possible the larger organisations because they would provide the best opportunity for freelance artists and audiences to engage in large-scale work. The downstream consequence of that was that the smaller companies had to be cut disproportionately.”

Johnny Hanrahan, chairman of support organisation Theatre Forum, had a pithier interpretation: “The rich got richer and the poor got poorer.”

There is more sense in the strategy than some would care to admit though. A couple of years ago, during Theatre Forum’s annual conference, one of the best attended and breathlessly titled discussions was: How do we Approach the Issue of Encouraging the Arts Council to Cut Companies Who are ‘Past It’ to Enable New Talent to Breathe?

With the economy then going strong, but arts funding forever in short supply, theatre companies themselves harboured the suspicion that there were simply too many of them to sustain, and that the council was notoriously slow to cull the panjandrums. Now the problem is deciding who’s ‘past it’.

ONE REASONStorytellers is particularly galled by its cut is that, just two years ago, it was invited into the Arts Councils Regularly Funded Organisation (RFO)scheme, a system designed to identify and support “key arts organisations”. Last July, the company learned that its funding was to be severed completely. It appealed the decision on the procedural grounds that the Arts Council and Storytellers had never agreed the terms of their assessment (a necessary step, according to published RFO guidelines), but it could not appeal its artistic evaluation, by David Parnell, which Halligan recalls as stating “that we weren’t innovative enough, that we weren’t dynamic”. The appeal was upheld by the council’s impartial appeals board and Storytellers was re-evaluated as an annually funded client. Despite two successful productions in the meantime (Halligan’s adaptation of The Turn of the Screwand a co-production with the Irish Chamber Orchestra of A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Storytellers was deemed not to be innovative and its funding was not restored.

Artistic assessment is a thorny issue and the Arts Council has rarely supplied companies with voluminous rationales behind either an increase or decrease in funding. Often the grant decision itself has been taken as the message: an increase is an endorsement, a standstill a formal rebuke, a decrease a horrible misunderstanding. The decision to withdraw funding must be seen as the most severe form of censure.

But Galloglass appears no clearer than Storytellers about the reasoning behind its cut.

“Their concern was twofold,” company chairwoman Ethel Reynolds says. “One was that we didn’t have an artistic director.” (Galloglass has enlisted freelance directors such as Jason Byrne and David Horan to stage recent productions Top Girlsand Danti-Dan.) “The second point was that our productions were good, but they weren’t excellent.” Reynolds cannot recall any warning signs. “Nobody sent a signal at any stage to say: ‘Look, folks, you’re in trouble here.‘”

Nor does she feel there is sufficient clarity around the decision now taken to cut the company’s fuding. “I don’t think anyone knows how these decisions are made. If the criteria of funding is excellence of productions, then how many companies are getting money next year?”

“Everybody knew the cuts were inevitable. We’re not living in a bubble,” says Johnny Hanrahan, whose own company, Meridian, received a 20 per cent cut this year. “Inevitably, the arts were going to get cut. But in theatre the rationale for the various cuts is unclear. I think that we are in an economic regime which is probably going to demand further cuts. In that context, very clear policy directives need to inform specific decisions. To a certain extent, these decisions seemed quite random.”

The Arts Council will not discuss individual cases with the media, but David Parnell admits that artistic quality is the ultimate measure. In the case of de-funded companies, he says, “ultimately the work is not as good as the work being offered by other organisations, and in the context of shrinking budgets we have to take these difficult decisions . . . Fundamentally, it comes down to the quality of the work offered and the ambition of the work.”

The letters which went out to Storytellers and Galloglass identified new priorities for the Arts Council, stating that it “now intends to support theatre production via a renewed focus on the individual artist as theatre-maker. As a result, producer-led companies will become less of a priority for funding. Implementation of this new shift in policy focus is now being accelerated.”

This signals a potentially radical agenda for theatre-making in this country, one that may see an end to the traditional company model. Almost everyone interviewed for this article pointed to the idea of a production hub, in which freelance theatre artists share administrative resources to produce work. “That is the thinking that we are currently developing,” concedes Parnell.

He agrees with one of Johnny Hanrahan’s points, that the company model is still the most effective way of establishing a brand, building audiences and developing new work.

“The question is: how many of those companies can we afford?” he says. “At the moment we’re looking at European models where the state offers those kinds of support which allow the artists to get on with making the work. That’s the thinking, but obviously it’s early days . . . I’m not an economist, and I believe the level of funding for the arts should be at least maintained, but we have to be realistic about the possibility it’s not going to happen . . . this is a good opportunity to at least re-imagine the model by which we make theatre.”

THAT MAY COMEas cold comfort to Storytellers and Galloglass, and Liam Halligan feels that if anything constructive can come from the experience of Storytellers, it should be in the form of a reformed appeals process and clarity in communication between companies and the Arts Council.

Such issues will become ever more important in a failing economy. Few companies are appealing their cuts, but they are hungry for justification. The loss of Storytellers will be felt significantly, and the demise of Calypso, which might have recovered its debts in any other year, could leave behind a vacuum in socially engaged work.

“I think it’s absolutely dreadful,” says Bairbre Ní Chaoimh, who last year received an Irish Timestheatre award for her work directing the company. “Then I look around and I see people working in Dell have had this experience. At least in our business you’re used to things being finite.”

Calypso’s agenda has always held that the theatre is not isolated from the world around it, but its collapse now feels like a cruel irony. If the best strategy for theatre to weather this recession is to invest in the art at the expense of the organisation, this moment may not just herald the end of Storytellers or Calypso, but the end of the theatre company as we know it.

Three well-established, but smaller, theatre companies have had their Arts Council funds entirely withdrawn, a decision resulting in the demise of at least two of them. In a crisis that is likely to lead to more cuts, does a new council strategy mean the end of the theatre company as we know it, asks Peter Crawley