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

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.

In a bold and imaginative move, Mac Conghail reconfigured the main Abbey auditorium, creating a much more hospitable environment for theatre makers and audiences, and reduced the capacity of the theatre from more than 600 seats to a more manageable 492 seats.

At the time of his appointment, and with the Abbey facing bankruptcy, there was widespread agreement that the theatre must be saved. But aside from its historical importance and status as a National Theatre, could anyone say clearly what it was exactly that was being saved?

Twenty-first century stage
What should a National Theatre look like in the 21st century? This question was never properly addressed at the time. Unfortunately, a lot of the work the theatre has produced in the intervening years has failed to make the case for the appropriately lofty ideal expressed in its mission statement: "to create a world class theatre that actively engages with and reflects Irish society, We place the writer and the theatre artist at the heart of the Abbey Theatre. "

I believe that all of us who work in the artistic sector like to think we are producing work that means something to our audience as part of a national community. So what of other obvious definitions, indeed commitments, of our National Theatre? Has the Abbey toured nationally on a regular basis? Does it regularly perform at prestigious houses and festivals internationally?

Peacock without a strut
And then there is the issue of the Peacock. How could it be part of any well-thought-out strategy or understanding of the responsibilities of the National Theatre to commit significant funding to it over a three-year period while tolerating the effective closure of what is, to all intents and purposes, the engine room of the Irish theatre? The future of the Abbey comes through the Peacock. And if a National Theatre is not about the future, then it is increasingly forced to fall back on institutional rhetoric rather than excellence of performance, to justify its existence.

It also has to be asked: where does the chair and board of the Abbey stand on this? The Peacock going dark for such long periods of time is something that surely, as a strategic issue, had to have board approval?

Fiach Mac Conghail has indicated that he will retire from the position of director of the Abbey in 2016, so now is the opportune time to have an honest debate on what we want from our National Theatre and from the theatre sector in general – and how that can be achieved with proper and transparent funding.

Most importantly, if both the Abbey and the rest of the theatre sector is to thrive, there has to be a policy for it in its entirety. The ecology of Irish theatre has to be preserved in all its diversity; both audiences and makers have to be “national” in the most fundamental sense.

I believe that the alternative is that the Arts Council will be left dependent on reports, assessments and consultancies, and the sector will be doomed, with the current funding paradigm being replicated.

When Mac Conghail was appointed, it was at a time of crisis, with a mission effectively to “save” the Abbey – and I, like many others, welcomed his appointment. It was understandable that he would have wide-ranging and significant power in the theatre. But it is a pity that in the intervening years he has not broadened this executive leadership to include others; most worryingly, there have been few theatre makers admitted formally to the leadership of the Abbey.

I believe that if the Abbey is to have a meaningful future, of whatever form, it will first have to restore artistic leadership to the organisation: whatever the titles or reporting lines, most theatres benefit from having artists directly engaged in the process at or near the top of their theatres. And since such people rarely have the skills or time to run a working theatre, then an artistic director (be they a writer, actor, designer or director) should be appointed with an executive director/ producer, both of whom work together as a team.

This is the norm in working theatres today. For example, Nicholas Hytner retires next year after an enormously successful directorship of England's National Theatre. But also retiring is its executive director, Nick Starr, who was appointed with him. Recently the Stage newspaper declared them jointly the two most powerful people in British theatre. When Michael Boyd retired recently from the Royal Shakespeare Company, so too did the executive director, Vikki Heywood.

This is not an application
The reality is that, however talented one individual may be, it takes a team to run the complex working environment that is a theatre. And just in case anyone might think for a moment that this is some longwinded application for the position, let me be very clear that it is not. I have done my "national" service, and my focus now is my work as a director and ensuring that Druid continues to flourish after I leave.

But the bigger point in all of this is that the continuing hegemony of the Abbey is hurting not only Irish theatre as a whole, but it is hurting the Abbey even more. Just as all the theatres and organisations that have come into being since the Abbey was founded should be allowed to evolve – and indeed over time, to succeed and fail – so too should the Abbey. Holding on to some of the laudable aspirations and achievements of the past will not ensure a vital future for any of us.