Abbey Theatre co-directors: ‘We want our artists to have a hand on the steering wheel’

Caitríona McLaughlin and Mark O’Brien on the way forward for the national theatre

Abbey Theatre’s artistic director Caitríona McLaughlin and executive director Mark O’Brien are getting the organisation ready for an extended building, creating a cultural hub in Dublin 1. Photograph: Rich Gilligan

Abbey Theatre’s artistic director Caitríona McLaughlin and executive director Mark O’Brien are getting the organisation ready for an extended building, creating a cultural hub in Dublin 1. Photograph: Rich Gilligan

 

January 2022. The streets outside are temporarily quietened by pandemic, and most staff are working from home rather than in the national theatre’s building. Still, two productions are running, rehearsals are in full flow for Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan (from February 11th), and inside the new directors’ third-floor office, the chat and energy (and hoots of laughter) are mighty.

They’re now over six months into the job. Artistic director Caitríona McLaughlin (from Donegal, previously Abbey associate director, with an international career) and executive director Mark O’Brien (director of Ballymun’s Axis arts centre, experienced in cultural and community engagement) may have been surprise appointments, but are comfortable in what are still relatively new skins.

Their shared office has a couch and large table they work at together, looking onto a roof with tables for meetings.

We have such a rich history of theatre and playwriting and extraordinary actors and designers and directors. I just want to see more of them more often

It’s intriguing that they didn’t know each other well before starting the jobs together, mid-pandemic. They’ve made a point of working together in this room, forging their alliance and style. “Because we didn’t know each other particularly well we felt it was really important we learn by being together,” says McLaughlin. “We share a lot of the decision-making across the board at the moment. We’ve different areas of responsibility, but we discuss everything and make decisions based on information.” They’re “both taken aback by how well we work together, how aligned we are in our thinking”.

They took over after outgoing Abbey co-directors Graham McLaren and Neil Murray’s five-year contract ended. McLaughlin says, “We have such a rich history of theatre and playwriting and extraordinary actors and designers and directors. I just want to see more of them more often.” Also, “it’s really important when we make a piece of work, that we’re tapping into some political moment or societal moment, or speaking to something that’s important to us all now. But at the same time, it’s reflecting on the experiences of the past and looking forward to what we want to achieve, or even the possibility of change.” They both want to “embrace the state of flux the world is in”. She talks about how “the world is changing, Ireland is changing in the context of Brexit, our new relationship with Europe, the anniversary of partition. It feels we are in an amazing soup of possibility.”

‘Rebellious, revolutionary’

O’Brien is “fascinated that the national theatre existed before the State. The tensions when it was being formed were rebellious, revolutionary, aspirational, trying to dream up what could be. We both believe that hasn’t gone. When it became the first publicly funded English-speaking national theatre, it was part of the imagining of a state, of a society.”

They’re interested both in the voices of new people moving to Ireland, and in connecting with the diaspora of those who left; O’Brien says “We’re at a moment when those two paradigms meet. It’s no longer a monolithic society.”

Transition informs their first year, as a lens exploring class, gender, ethnicity, justice and honest discourse around change. Later in 2022, they’ll look at new voices in Ireland, but spring’s shows, just announced, unapologetically reflect this moment for the North, bringing fresh perspective on consequences of partition, amid a rising Sinn Féin, the lived reality of Brexit and the Civil War anniversary, says McLaughlin. “It’s the North and the bog,” laughs O’Brien.

A rehearsed reading of the electric verbatim theatre piece Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Inquiry, directed by Lynne Parker and Eleanor Methven, will be live in the Peacock (and broadcast) around its 50th anniversary on January 30th. Then Denise Gough is in the title role of Carr’s haunting Portia Coughlan. Also in February, three monologues by Jennifer Johnson explore the consequences of partition through compelling interlinked personal stories.

In March, they present Prime Cut/MAC’s X’ntigone, Darren Murphy’s thrilling meditation on Sophocles’ tragedy, directed by Emma Jordan, where political expediency meets a generation wanting to tear down power structures.

Later, imagine DUP comments on gay rights, trans lives . . . in song; Abomination: a DUP Opera, by Conor Mitchell and the Belfast Ensemble, fuses opera with drag, cabaret and political satire.

Rehearsals are under way for Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan, opening at the Abbey on February 11th.
Rehearsals are under way for Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan, opening at the Abbey on February 11th

McLaughlin envisages plays as a provocation for conversation, with the audience as part of it. “I like to come at things at a slant.”

That conversation also uses “the best possible theatre and theatre artists, and creating opportunities for other people to become the best possible theatre artists”.

‘Intricate infrastructure’

The previous directors refreshingly opened the Abbey up to other voices, and many co-productions; but this had unintended consequences for the Irish theatre ecosystem, leading to an unprecedented letter of protest signed by over 400 theatre professionals.

Without commenting on the previous dynamic, McLaughlin says “We’re very conscious of the responsibility and the joy of helping artists develop their careers.” O’Brien talks about how the Abbey is “part of an intricate infrastructure on the island, of theatre and the wider arts and culture sector, and then internationally. So there’s responsibility not just to one’s own existence, but to the development of the lifeblood of us all.

I think the public are realising art is not something separate to people’s lives, that it’s a core part of what we’re about

“The last couple of years have shown what the wider arts community can achieve together in a crisis. The Abbey has a huge responsibility to make sure doors that are open and conversations that are live, don’t become siloed again. It’s not just us fighting for our own turf. We are a national organisation.”

Also, “how the government, the department, the Arts Council, NCFA [National Campaign for the Arts], many others, have responded through this crisis is extraordinary. The real push in the independent sector for artists and arts workers to validate their lived existence. I think the public are realising art is not something separate to people’s lives, that it’s a core part of what we’re about.”

Part of fostering talent is appointing Conor McPherson and Marina Carr senior associate writers, working as mentors and artists, developing long-term relationships with writers at all career stages, and “setting a tone of ambition”. O’Brien says, “We want our artists at the heart of the organisation, to have a hand on the steering wheel.”

As well as associate director Caroline Byrne, they’ve announced four resident directors (Claire O’Reilly, Colm Summers, Gea Gojak and Laura Sheeran) this year. “When a director goes into an organisation or a play, they bring diversity with them, by virtue of taste,” says McLaughlin. “The best way to bring diversity into a theatre is to have different directors. You open the ecosystem.”

They envisage six or seven in-house productions a year on the main stage, with longer runs, and the same on the smaller Peacock stage, as well as hosting, for example during festivals, and shows they’re supporting (like X’ntigone).

They’re looking at co-productions internationally and in the North, says McLaughlin, “seeking to create opportunities for Irish theatre artists and raise their profile”. She instances plans for an international co-production in London in a few months, creating opportunities for Irish artists there, and also offering a way to explore diversity meaningfully. (“I’m not interested in diversity for diversity’s sake. I’m interested in it in an Irish context.”)

Futures and pasts

The Abbey’s responsibility to the independent theatre sector, says O’Brien, “is not by taking it, but by actually facilitating development of artists that can leave here and work in that sector”.

“This conversation is about the future. The future involves the past in everything that it does,” observes O’Brien, saying they can’t comment on the Arts Council engaging Mazars to undertake a governance and financial review of the Abbey. For McLaughlin, “Our relationship with the Arts Council is really important to us. We want to have an ongoing, two-way conversation, to make sure they can help us create the national theatre we want to create. They are an equal partner in that. We can do nothing without them. Any conversation we can have with the Arts Council, we invite it, we want it and we are open to it, delighted by it. And we look forward to many years of many more conversations. And whatever they want to know, we’ll tell them. And we’ll have plenty to ask them too, like to help us make the case to the department for a new theatre that is ambitious and inspiring, not just for people who want to go to the theatre, but for a major European city with a new Irish people.”

Which brings us to plans for the new Abbey building, on the same site, but with a larger footprint, stretching to the river. An Abbey project team will present a detailed business appraisal to Government within weeks. “It feels real, it’s going to happen” says O’Brien. But there’s still funding, design, planning, tendering, moving out for the build. “You could be looking at coming to new plays in a new national theatre within a decade. But it could be before that.”

This building is a serious act of cultural confidence in Ireland, and where the Abbey Theatre sits in the Irish and international cultural psyche

All the while, McLaughlin points out, the building is becoming less fit for purpose: “Parts of the stage don’t function and are out of commission. Something has to happen. For the building in five years to be safe, it would need restructuring.”

They talk about getting the organisation ready for that ambitious new building, with artists at the heart of it, creating a cultural hub in Dublin 1, “with tendrils reaching out to Donegal, Cork, Kerry, Mayo”.

O’Brien says “There is a moment in time here. The Government are really behind it. This building is a serious act of cultural confidence in Ireland, and where the Abbey Theatre sits in the Irish and international cultural psyche.”

McLaughlin: “This place is an idea before it’s anything else, and we want it to become a reality in a proper way. We can’t promise to be all things to all people, but we can try, when we do engage with somebody, that it is meaningful and grows beyond the four walls of the theatre.”

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