Abbey director ‘regrets exclusions’ in programme

Fiach Mac Conghail says reaction sparked ‘a professional and personal crisis’

Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, director of the Abbey Theatre, during the launch of the theatre’s controversial 2016 programme. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, director of the Abbey Theatre, during the launch of the theatre’s controversial 2016 programme. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

The director of the Abbey Theatre, Fiach Mac Conghail spoke for the first time this morning about the controversy surrounding the theatre’s programme for 2016.

Titled Waking the Nation, the programme was created to “interrogate rather than celebrate the past”. The Abbey Theatre has been widely criticised for the disparity in gender representation in the programme, which credits 18 men and just two women in the line-up of writers and directors. Commenting on the programme on Twitter last week, Mac Conghail said: “I don’t and haven’t programmed plays on a gender basis. I took decisions based on who I admired and wanted to work with. Sometimes plays we have commissioned by and about women just don’t work out. That has happened. Them the breaks.”

Speaking to The Irish Times this morning, he said: “I deeply regret my intemperate reaction on Twitter. I said some incendiary things. This is the first opportunity since then that I have had to respond again. I regret my exclusions [in the programme] but I am eager to support and be part of the conversation.”

In the period between the theatre’s foundation in 1904 and its centenary anniversary in 2014, 14 per cent of plays produced at the Abbey Theatre were written by women. When Mac Conghail took up tenure at the Abbey Theatre in 2004, he instituted an “affirmative action policy” at the theatre to support women writers and theatre artists: fostering the work of writers such as Stacey Gregg and Nancy Harris and providing opportunities for directors including Annabelle Comyn and Selina Cartmell to direct on the main stage. Still, between 1995 to 2014, that representation fell to 11 per cent.

Acknowledging his oversight for the Waking the Nation programme, he says, has sparked “a professional and personal crisis for me.” Mac Conghail stated that he was aware that the programme would cause some disquiet in the arts community, and “the reaction has made me question my own filters and the factors that influence my decisions” when he is programming a play. “Is it time for gender blind reading? Is it time for quotas to be introduced, like in the political system?”

“We did look at plays by women from the canon, but my personal prejudice is in favour of contemporary writing: to do something new.

“I am proud of the programme regardless and I hope that doesn’t get lost. Yes I could have done things differently and I regret the exclusions/omissions but I think it is a strong programme.”

Waking the Nation is so far programmed to run until September 2016. Mac Conghail hopes to produce two new plays by Irish women playwrights at the end of the year “if I can get the funding”.

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