Abbey Theatre uproar: 300 actors and directors complain to Minister
National theatre’s new policy sees pay ‘fall 25%’ and overall employment ‘dry up’
“Deep concern and dissatisfaction”: the Abbey Theatre’s directors, Graham McLaren and Neil Murray. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
More than 300 actors, directors, designers, agents and playwrights have complained to the Minister for Culture about the Abbey Theatre’s recently adopted practice of coproducing shows, which they say is damaging Irish theatre by leading to fewer in-house productions. The change in model at the national theatre “has caused devastation amongst our ranks”, they write in their letter to Josepha Madigan.
There will have been no Ireland-based actor in an Abbey Theatre production on an Abbey stage for the 5½ months between the final performance of Jimmy’s Hall, on September 8th, 2018, and the opening of The Country Girls, on February 23rd this year, the letter says.
In 2016 the Abbey directly employed 123 actors in Abbey productions. In 2017 only 56 actors were directly employed in Abbey shows, a reduction of 54%
The 312 signatories are a roll-call of top-ranking theatre professionals, including Aidan Gillen, Aisling O’Sullivan, Annabelle Comyn, Arthur Riordan, Cathy Belton, Declan Conlon, Denis Conway, Derbhle Crotty, Eileen Walsh, Eleanor Methven, Fiona Bell, Frank McCusker, Garrett Lombard, Geraldine Plunkett, Gerry Stembridge, Hilda Fay, Ingrid Craigie, Jane Brennan, Joe Vanek, John Kavanagh, Marie Mullen, Mark Huberman, Monica Frawley, Nick Dunning, Owen Roe, Peter Sheridan, Phelim Drew, Risteard Cooper, Rory Nolan, Rosaleen Linehan, Ruth Negga, Sean McGinley, Stanley Townsend, Stephen Brennan and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor.
The letter, which is reproduced below, expresses “deep concern and dissatisfaction” with the direction of the Abbey Theatre since Neil Murray and Graham McLaren took over, as codirectors, in January 2017. It claims that the Irish theatre community is “in a critical situation” and that, although the Abbey may be financially buoyant, “the freelance theatre community, in particular, has been cast adrift”.
In 2016 the Abbey directly employed 123 actors in Abbey productions; in 2017 only 56 actors were directly employed in Abbey shows, a reduction of 54 per cent. The number of actors directly employed by the Abbey in 2018 is estimated to be 65. Casting and employment statistics have been removed from the Abbey’s website.
The letter comes on foot of growing concern among theatre professionals about the impact of the Abbey Theatre’s current production model, which has included presenting a large number of coproductions, usually with other Irish theatre companies, on the Abbey and Peacock stages. The letter says that, although the strategy of offering diversity to audiences is “admirable in theory, it offers up several problems in practice” and that the national theatre “reducing its own production output means less diversity, and reduced employment, not more”.
Concern about a dramatic reduction in work for Irish theatre professionals at the Abbey, and the lack of diversity and new work on Irish stages, has been growing among directors, designers and others. The letter was initiated by some high-profile actors but is also signed by a large cross-section of other theatre professionals.
The issue came to a head – described in the letter as “the final straw” – with the Abbey’s seven-week Christmas production, Come from Away, the European premiere of a successful Broadway musical, which transfers to London’s West End at the end of this month.
The Abbey Theatre receives by far the largest State subsidy in the theatre sector: €7 million in 2018, or about half the Arts Council’s theatre budget.
The letter says that although Irish theatre workers have been at the front line of ‘Brand Ireland’, they ‘return home to live on the poverty line’
The letter says that although Irish theatre workers have been at the front line of “Brand Ireland”, they “return home to live on the poverty line”, and the reduction in the proportion of the Abbey budget going to Ireland-based performers, directors and designers rubs “further salt in the wound”.
The theatre professionals “respectfully ask” that the Abbey stages a bigger percentage of in-house productions, rather than coproductions or buy-ins. “It is the proportion which is so damaging, so heedless.” They also demand that performers, directors and designers whose work is used by the national theatre get Abbey terms and conditions.
Today’s letter points out that the Abbey, which receives 10.25 per cent of the Arts Council’s overall budget, also now coproduces with major independent theatre companies, and benefits from their independent budgets, but that actors, directors and designers are paid up to 25 per cent less, and for shorter runs, as they are contracted by the coproducing company.
Other consequences include freelance technicians losing work; other venues having gaps in their calendars because shows they would otherwise have hosted are now staged at the Abbey; no Irish-based set designer having had an Abbey contract for a show on the main stage in 2017 or 2018; and the abolition of the Abbey’s casting department, creating a significant disconnect with actors.
The letter points to the international reputation of Irish culture, and says “our talents and expertise have been at the heart of promoting tourism”. But it says “to believe that our national theatre needs to engage with audiences in Ireland, but not its theatre professionals is a fallacy. The current working practices in the Abbey Theatre – the national theatre of Ireland – are in direct opposition to the priorities as set out in the Government’s Culture 2025 document, the Arts Council’s Making Great Art Work policy, as well as their own mission statement.”
The Abbey and the Minister respond
The Abbey Theatre said in response on Monday night that it had huge respect for the artists who signed the letter, took their concerns very seriously, and would meet representatives to discuss the issues they had raised.
Josepha Madigan, the Minister for Culture, welcomed the national theatre’s commitment to dialogue and engagement, and looked forward to a “mutually satisfactory outcome”. She acknowledged “the wealth of talent among Irish theatre practitioners and the concerns they have raised, while at the same time recognising the need for the Abbey to strike a balance in terms of its programming”.
The Abbey said it continues to stage a significant number of in-house productions and has opened up the national theatre to greater collaboration “and significantly increased the number of shows which we are coproducing and presenting, with Abbey funding going directly to companies and artists”.
The Abbey added that between September 8th last year and February 23rd this year 78 Irish actors will have been employed either directly or by its coproducing partners, on the Abbey stages, on tour and in rehearsal.
The Abbey Theatre aim to ensure our programmes are driven by big ideas by theatre-makers of all disciplines, relevant to our times and reflective of our role as a national theatre
“The Abbey Theatre is artist-led and audience-focused: we aim to ensure our programmes are driven by ambitious, big ideas by theatre-makers of all disciplines, relevant to our times and reflective of our role as a national theatre. In this approach to theatre making, we are following patterns found in many countries with strong traditions in the theatre, and we are seeking to address with urgency some of the key social, cultural and political issues of our time.”
The theatre says that over the past two years it has “opened its doors to many companies and artists who had not previously gained access to their national theatre”, and that it has led on gender equality in the theatre sector.
It also pointed out that the current directors took over with an accumulated deficit of €1.4 million. “These losses were incurred by the programming model that the signatories’ letter appears to advocate – a predominance of large-scale Abbey Theatre self-produced shows with little access for smaller independent companies and artists.”
Programming in 2017 and 2018 has led to modest surpluses and financial stability, it added. “It is our stated wish to make self-produced shows without losing the sense of collaboration and openness that has been welcomed by so many in the Irish and international theatre community. However, we do acknowledge the concerns of the signatories around the issue of ‘in house’ productions and look forward to discussing this with them.”
“All of the above said, we understand entirely how artists and practitioners will feel strongly about all of these issues and, as stated, we are very willing to engage directly with representatives of the signatories to discuss their concerns... We very much look forward to meeting with our colleagues.”
Monday, January 7th, 2019
Letter of concern regarding the Abbey Theatre
It is with regret that we, the undersigned theatre practitioners, write to apprise you of our deep concern and dissatisfaction with the direction that the Abbey Theatre has taken since the appointment of its directors, Neil Murray and Graham McLaren. The grace period since their arrival is well and truly over and the situation in which the Irish theatre community finds itself is now critical. While the institution may be financially buoyant – and due congratulations for this – the freelance theatre community, in particular, has been cast adrift.
The changing artistic model of producing fewer in-house productions and presenting or copresenting more has caused devastation amongst our ranks. Although the management’s strategy of offering diversity to their own audiences is admirable in theory, it offers up several problems in practice. The national theatre reducing its own production output means less diversity, and reduced employment, not more. There will not have been an Ireland-based actor in an Abbey Theatre production on an Abbey stage since Jimmy’s Hall ended on 8 September 2018 until The Country Girls opens on 23 February 2019. That is five and a half months without an Ireland-based actor directly employed by the Abbey.
The numbers are stark and are worth stating. In 2016 the Abbey directly employed 123 actors in Abbey productions and 90 actors in readings and workshops. Then, in 2017, the Abbey directly employed only 56 actors. No figures are available for readings or workshops that year. Fifty-six. That is a reduction of 54% of actors appearing on stage directly employed by our national theatre. We would surmise that this reduction will be substantially higher when workshop figures are made available for 2017. Though the casting and employment statistics have been removed from the Abbey website, an approximate calculation for 2018 is 65 actors employed directly by the Abbey. In a theatre founded by writers and actors it is profoundly worrying that there is no commitment to sustaining that community.
There are a number of other factors that would appear to contribute to the shrinking employment opportunities and we have endeavoured to clarify these below.
- The Abbey receives the lion’s share of available funding – €6.8m in 2018, with an additional €200,000 touring grant. With the Abbey now coproducing with the major independents, whilst receiving 10.25% of the overall Arts Council budget, it now also benefits from the production budgets of some of the better-funded independent companies. A clear case of double funding.
- Despite the Abbey being in receipt of 50% of the Arts Council’s entire drama budget, and now extra resources from other companies, our actors, directors and designers are being paid less when working at the Abbey than before and for shorter runs. They are being contracted in the Abbey by the coproducer – an independent company that offers lesser rates. This reduction in pay can be as much as 25%.
- Independent productions, which would previously have found a home elsewhere, are now being housed at the Abbey. Thus venues which were developed to host Ireland’s independent companies now have gaps in their calendars. This has the knock-on effect of reducing employment in these venues.
- Contracts for working weeks that would have previously been on offer from independent companies to freelance technicians have been reduced, covered as they are in these coproductions/copresentations by Abbey permanent staff.
- Not a single national-theatre contract has been given to an Irish-based set designer on the main stage in either 2017 or 2018.
- The abolition of the casting department has created a significant disconnect with actors. The tradition of open auditions for graduate and young actors is no longer available. There is no single person with experience and responsibility for casting with whom actors and their agents can build a relationship or who can mentor up and coming talent.
- This year’s Christmas offering on the national-theatre main stage has for so many become the final straw. Any critical questioning of the wisdom of the Irish national theatre using its resources to facilitate a Canadian commercial management’s seven-week stopover, before going into the West End, has been cynically framed as xenophobic and little-islander. This disingenuous accusation is beneath contempt, and we dismiss it with as much alacrity as the Abbey management dismisses the employment of its local workers over Christmas. Irish audiences deserve to have access to shows of this international reputation coming from and going to Broadway and the West End, but of course they already have, in our various No 1 receiving venues.
- To believe that our national theatre needs to engage with audiences in Ireland, but not its theatre professionals, is a fallacy. The current working practices in the Abbey Theatre – the national theatre of Ireland – are in direct opposition to the priorities as set out in the Government’s Culture 2025 document, the Arts Council’s Making Great Art Work policy, as well as their own mission statement.
Irish art and culture are internationally held in high regard. Consequently, our artists have over many years done the State sterling service. At home and abroad our talents and expertise have been at the heart of promoting tourism, and in developing international relationships for trade and negotiation. Our theatre workers have been at the frontline of “Brand Ireland”, only time and again to return home to live on the poverty line. The reduction in the proportion of Abbey Theatre budget going to Ireland-based performers, directors and designers serves to rub further salt in the wound.
We respectfully ask that the national theatre engages in a greater percentage of in-house productions, as opposed to coproductions or buy-ins. It is the proportion which is so damaging, so heedless.
We demand that performers, directors and designers whose work is used by the national theatre are given national-theatre terms and conditions, along with every other employee in the building.
Is muidne le meas,
ÁINE NÍ LAOGHAIRE
AOIFE MORONEY WARD
AONGHUS ÓG MCANALLY
BAIRBRE NÍ CHAOIMH
BRÍD NÍ CHUMHAILL
CILLIAN Ó GAIRBHÍ
EMILY GILLMOR MURPHY
EVA JANE GAFFNEY
IAN LLOYD ANDERSON
JEMMA NIC LOCHLAINN
JESSICA ÍDE LEEN
JOSE MIGUEL JIMENEZ
KATE STANLEY BRENNAN
KATHY ROSE O’BRIEN
LISA M BARRY
LISA DWYER HOGG
MICHAEL BARKER CAVEN
MICHAEL JAMES FORD
PAULA GREEVY LEE
PHILIP ST JOHN
RORY FLECK BYRNE
SARAH JANE SCAIFE
SHANE G CASEY
SOPHIE JO WASSON
SUSANNAH DE WRIXON
TARA EGAN LANGLEY
Copied to the director, chair and council members of the Arts Council and to the chair and board members of the Abbey Theatre