Abbey directors to meet actors today in response to letter of protest

First meeting to address concerns about national theatre to be held without mediator

Abbey Theatre: the letter of protest now has the support of 425 theatre workers. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Abbey Theatre: the letter of protest now has the support of 425 theatre workers. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

 

The first substantial meeting between Abbey Theatre management and theatre professionals is set to take place this afternoon, following January’s unprecedented letter protesting about the national theatre.

This afternoon’s bilateral meeting, expected to involve 15 people, will negotiate on the Abbey’s relationship with actors, agents and casting directors. Members of Abbey management, including the theatre’s codirectors, Neil Murray and Graham McLaren, are due to meet actors’ and agents’ representatives.

The meeting comes just over two months after the letter to Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan, the Abbey board and the Arts Council on January 7th, in which 312 theatre professionals expressed concern about the impact of the Abbey’s new strategy and production model on employment, pay rates, the nurturing of talent and knock-on implications for Irish theatre. The letter now has the support of 425 theatre workers, and growing.

The Abbey and signatories’ representatives started a process to deal with myriad inter-related issues at the theatre, and a series of bilateral meetings with actors, designers, directors, writers, producers and technicians starts this week; it is understood the meetings will run until the end of April.

The signatories sent the Abbey a series of detailed questions, some of which the theatre says are commercially sensitive. Some questions relate to the coproduction structure and financing of the West End show Come from Away, which premiered at the Abbey in December 2018.

There was disagreement about the accuracy of summary notes of the first, exploratory meeting, on February 1st, and about who will represent the theatre at meetings to discuss strategy, policy and procedures. The Abbey proposed an actor, writer and director under contract would attend; signatories wanted to speak to staff who can sign off on issues and decisions. The signatories’ voluntary panel of representatives asked the Arts Council to supply an external mediator, but no mediator has been appointed. The Minister and the Arts Council have been kept up to date.

In the meantime, recent documents released under the Freedom of Information Act shed light on the relationship between the Abbey Theatre and the Arts Council at least three months before the theatre professionals’ protest letter pushed the issue into the public eye.

At that point the Arts Council, which allocated €7million of public funding to the theatre this year, was already looking at a “rebalancing” of the Abbey’s model. On October 26th, 2018, the council’s director, Orlaith McBride, wrote to Murray and McLaren about funding, of which it withheld €300,000 subject to “an articulation by the executive and board of the Abbey’s overall vision and strategy”. It sought “provision of quality employment opportunities”, saying, “This may involve a rebalancing of the model which has emerged following two years of programming by the current leadership team.”

It was also concerned about the impact on the wider theatre sector, asking the Abbey to do “an impact analysis of its new model both internally and externally with a particular focus on the broader theatre sector”.

On November 20th the chairwoman of the Abbey Theatre, Frances Ruane, wrote to her counterpart at the Arts Council, Sheila Pratschke, saying there was “merit in designing a report” to deal with some of the issues of concern to the council, and detailing what the theatre planned to do in response to council concerns.

The council’s November 29th response reiterated the concerns and reasons for holding back funding, again suggesting a “rebalancing” and proposing that “what is required is an articulation of the model adopted by the Abbey”.