Abbey Theatre says letter signatories will not be blacklisted

Abbey’s chairwoman tells Oireachtas committee the theatre will ‘address concerns’

Neil Murray, director of the Abbey Theatre: ‘Many of the people who signed that letter are friends. I see all of them as colleagues.’ Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Neil Murray, director of the Abbey Theatre: ‘Many of the people who signed that letter are friends. I see all of them as colleagues.’ Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

The Abbey Theatre regrets “some within our artistic community” feel its change in production model “has contributed to their hardship”, an Oireachtas committee was told on Wednesday.

One of the co-directors at the theatre, Neil Murray, also “categorically” denied that any theatre workers who signed a letter of concern about the theatre would be blacklisted.

He was speaking yesterday at the Joint Committee on Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht, which met to consider the Abbey Theatre’s model of production. The meeting was held in the wake of a letter, signed by 312 – and now supported by 409 – theatre professionals, expressing concern about the theatre’s direction.

The committee was attended by representatives of the Abbey, the signatories and the Arts Council.

Abbey chairwoman Frances Ruane committed to engaging more with those concerned “to address their concerns and show leadership”.

A meeting on Friday between the Abbey and signatories will start that process.

Mr Murray, whose co-director, Graham McLaren, was not at the committee, said the impact of their opening of the Abbey to other companies and artists led to fewer self-produced shows in 2017 and 2018.

“I acknowledge some have been disadvantaged by that decision, while recognising others, who had previously struggled to find a home at the Abbey, have benefited.”

Unintended consequences

Arts Council director Orlaith McBride said the Abbey’s current production model “two years into its realisation, is impacting on the broader theatre ecology with unintended consequences”. She said a review of the impact of the model and a “rebalancing” was needed.

Committee chairman Aengus Ó Snodaigh sought “an assurance, publicly” that none of the signatories would be “blacklisted or sidelined for having signed the letter”, after some signatories contacted him directly.

“This has been overheard by some of the cast in one of the plays: that the signatories would be ‘got’.”

Responding, Mr Murray said he wanted to categorically put “a stamp” on “any hint of blacklisting”.

“Many of the people who signed that letter are friends. I see all of them as colleagues. I would absolutely refute, in the strongest terms, that will not be the case.”

Mr Ó Snodaigh also raised concern about prominent Abbey staff who had left, “up to 30 in the past two years”. Mr Murray said they were “disappointed when brilliant people left”, which he regretted, but said “there’s rhythm to everything” , and “we’ve also replaced them with some brilliant people. So we have a good solid team at the Abbey at the moment.”

Actors feel ‘excluded’

Actor Declan Conlon, on behalf of the signatories, described how actors, directors, writers and designers felt excluded.

“Coming into the third year of their directorship, there is no evidence of this new vision, or any understanding of the history, remit and responsibilities of our national theatre,” he said. “Communication is the problem. Historical and institutional memory has been lost. Phone calls are not returned, emails are not answered.”

He cited a writer’s submission in May 2017 that was acknowledged by email nine months later, by which time it had been programmed in a UK theatre. “What opportunities are we missing with this current system in place?”

Dropping the Abbey’s casting department had also cut a fundamental communication chord between artists and the theatre.

Ms Ruane welcomed Friday’s meeting, and acknowledged that during change management “not everything is as clearly communicated as it should” be.

“On behalf of the board, we are absolutely committed to having stronger communication with the whole sector.”

Mr Murray said “in future we will absolutely communicate clearly”. He was optimistic about the theatre’s New Works department and the appointment of a dramaturg.

The Arts Council said the Abbey, which was on three-year funding since 2006, had since 2017 been on year-to-year funding (of €7 million this year), as the council looked for “a more comprehensive and detailed application” from the theatre. It also placed conditions on the yearly funding, looking for clarity about “the nature of the production and presenting models”, the impact on quality employment opportunities for actors and creatives, and pay levels.

The council has withheld €300,000 of its 2019 funding until these areas are addressed, Ms McBride said.