Abbey controversy: theatre to review lower pay on coproductions

Directors apologise to Fiach Mac Conghail for ‘distress’ caused by €1.4m deficit claim

Abbey Theatre: Graham McLaren and Neil Murray took over in January 2017. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Abbey Theatre: Graham McLaren and Neil Murray took over in January 2017. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The Abbey Theatre has said it will ensure the actors employed by its co-producers are paid at the appropriate Abbey rate of pay.

It also says it will review other types of shows, that are “presentation” or “in-association” arrangements, where the producing companies set pay rates that are typically lower than the Abbey rate.

The practice caused controversy this week when more than 300 prominent actors, directors, designers, agents and playwrights wrote to Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan to express their “deep concern and dissatisfaction” with the impact of the national theatre’s production strategy on their income and employment.

The theatre reiterated its commitment to working with other theatre companies on coproductions and copresentations, and said it was “listening attentively and with respect to all viewpoints” and “carefully considering the complex issues raised in the letter, particularly around rates of pay”.

It added that Neil Murray and Graham McLaren, who have been running the theatre since January 2017, had apologised to their predecessor Fiach Mac Conghail, who is now chief executive of the Digital Hub, for any distress caused when the Abbey said they had inherited an accumulated deficit of €1.4 million because of the theatre’s previous model of predominantly staging its own, large-scale shows.

The reference to a deficit, which the theatre made in a statement on Monday night, was widely seen as misleading, given Mr Mac Conghail’s record in getting the theatre onto a healthy financial footing. The Abbey was forced to row back on Tuesday, acknowledging “there was no overall deficit”.

Second clarification

On Friday the Abbey clarified the figures again. Over 2015 and 2016 it lost €1,414,900, which, “while planned, reduced the theatre’s reserves to €488,949”. It also said it valued the contributions of freelance colleagues – a “creative and collaborative force” among the best in the world – was arranging to meet representatives of the letter’s 312 signatories, and looked forward to “coming to a deeper understanding that will, hopefully, lead to a better and more resilient theatre community for all”.

It added that the Abbey had been addressing pay on this year’s coproductions. The theatre had been discussing this issue in recent months with the Arts Council, which had already held back €300,000 of the Abbey’s 2019 grant pending evidence of the quality of the employment it offered.

The Abbey board is understood to believe there is no basis for the protest letter’s assertion that pay on coproductions can be as much as 25 per cent less than on in-house shows. But in its latest statement the theatre proposed to review “as part of the dialogue” whether pay on coproductions should continue to be set by the outside theatre company or, as happens when the Abbey employs actors directly, on in-house productions, be set on terms agreed with Irish Equity, the actors’ union.

“Precarious” employment

The Abbey was “acutely aware of the precarious nature” of freelance theatre work, and said the “significant concerns raised may well need a sector-wide dialogue that goes beyond the Abbey Theatre and the signatories”.

Its statement asserted the Abbey’s “fundamental role as a producing theatre”, pointing out that it would this year self-produce seven shows, including five world premieres. Increasing the proportion of coproductions and copresentations, it added, had allowed the theatre “to work with major independent Irish companies”, allowed audiences to “experience extraordinary productions” and helped shows to develop and to go on tour. “Coproductions and presentations ensure the Abbey Theatre is learning from its colleagues, and those colleagues also benefit from the skills and knowledge of the Abbey Theatre staff.”

Responding to wider criticisms of the national theatre’s direction, it said that, as recipient of the largest Arts Council theatre grant, “we have a responsibility to all of Ireland’s theatre makers. The Abbey Theatre must be a home for theatre makers at all stages of their career,” and the terms and conditions they work under “should reflect the status of a national theatre”.