Abbey theatre: Why I did not sign the ‘letter of concern’

Opinion: Neil Murray and Graham McLaren have got a lot right, writes Declan Gorman

Graham McLaren and Neil Murray may have tipped the balance too suddenly and too far. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Graham McLaren and Neil Murray may have tipped the balance too suddenly and too far. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

A little over a week ago, I was invited to sign the “Letter of Concern” about the Abbey Theatre. I declined to do so. While some of the statistics in the letter were startling, and many practitioners I know and respect had already signed it, I felt insufficiently informed of the full context to put my name at short notice to an open letter to a government minister and the chair of the Arts Council, condemning the Abbey’s directors, Neil Murray and Graham McLaren.

I have no affiliation with the Abbey and no personal bias in favour of the current directors. Neither have I any axe to grind with the theatre. I last auditioned for a part in 1986. I have never sent them a script nor sought an opportunity to direct there, other than one recent request (turned down), to co-present a well-established independent work on the Peacock stage.

The only position I applied for there was that of artistic director. To my surprise, I was shortlisted for that post in 1999; I suspect the main reason was that I had been associated with calls for reforms at the Abbey: a gender shift that would see more work by women playwrights; greater cultural diversity; and greater investment in community and educational initiatives.

When the Murray McLaren team was appointed in 2016, I welcomed their manifesto and was amused that it had taken 17 years and a pair of likeable men from Scotland and Wales to persuade the Abbey board to experiment with some of the so-called radical ideas that many on the outside were proposing in the 1990s and indeed as far back as the 1980s.

So I had some immediate qualms about this open letter. The current directors have begun a journey of opening up the Abbey to a wider constituency. This is a good thing.

But in bringing in fresh faces and ideas, they may too suddenly and clumsily have moved away from certain valued traditions, working methods, past contributors and above all remuneration systems honed over decades.

The primary concern appears to be that fewer actors and designers are being employed directly by the Abbey than in previous years. The Abbey counters that this decline is counterbalanced by the numbers employed by their co-producing partners.

The complainants in turn note that independent co-producing companies, excused from the kind of legal and regulatory conventions that govern national institutions, pay lower wages, and that livelihoods are therefore affected. One commentator to RTÉ’s Arena described this as a form of outsourcing. This seems to me an inappropriate label for a collaborative artistic strategy.

Opening the stage to independent artistic companies remains a bold transparent artistic statement by the new directors, and not, I believe, a financial con trick. I do not believe that McLaren and Murray set out like grubby capitalists to buy in cheap labour via independent companies.

I know nothing of their personal management ethos, but their public personae and their radical statements leave me likewise doubting that they deliberately set out to exclude or disrespect established actors.

The Abbey has always had to exclude many artists, as there is only one of it and many hundreds of us. However, if a consequence of the new policy is a default lower wage rate or disimproved contracts, then this needs to be noted and corrected forthwith.

In all of this, nobody seems to have asked why independent producers pay lower rates. It is not because they are managed by mean-spirited commercial moguls. As was stated by the letter writers, in a rather problematic usage of the term “double funding”, most of the companies who have been invited to co-produce at the Abbey are part-financed by the Arts Council, but inadequately so.

With hindsight, it was improper and short-sighted that the co-production contracts of the past two years did not address the wage differential and ensure that the deficit was made up from a specific Abbey fund. But the problem runs deeper than this.

The Arts Council’s “Moving On” policy of 1997 de facto acknowledged that many theatre artists in modern Ireland prefer to conceive and create their work in settings that are independent of the great solid institutions.

Post-2009, however, the same Arts Council set about dismantling the fragile “soft” infrastructure of independent companies it had hitherto supported, through disinvestment. Although the Council argued that this represented new thinking about how theatre should be made, most observers saw it simply as a disastrous and ill-judged response to the banking crisis.

Even those companies that survived had their funding greatly reduced, causing knock-on employment and livelihood crises for many freelance practitioners, including actors.

This setback has never been corrected. Is it possible that one solution to the unfolding problem in the new Abbey is not to kick the independents out again and revert to older direct employment methods, but to increase funding to independent companies so that they can pay better wages generally. I would have preferred to see the Arts Council restore an extra €300,000 to the independent sector than do what it did before Christmas – put a hold on €300,000 of the Abbey’s €7 million grant for 2019, pending evidence about the quality of employment at the theatre.

It is good that Neil Murray and Graham McLaren have so swiftly agreed to engage with the questions being posed and with those posing them. It is certainly a bruising thing to be publicly criticised in this fashion. Equally, the complainants need to engage in a dialogue now.

The 318 signatories have raised some valid concerns. Clearly, aspects of the new model are not working and this needs to be negotiated. But equally, people need to step forward and speak about what has been gained in the past two years.

It cannot be a bad thing that independent artists, including those from regions outside Dublin, get to share the Abbey platform. The swing towards work being generated by women has been a necessary and welcome response to years of inexplicable neglect, and the reality is that the independent theatre, while it has not excelled in this regard either, was always going to respond more quickly to change than the big institution.

It cannot be wrong that Asking For It, a play coming from the cultural ferment that is the Everyman in Cork, written by a woman, directed by a woman, based on another woman’s acclaimed book, produced by a woman, with a strong mixed-gender cast, gets a run on the national stage. It is a scandal that it has taken this long for such things to happen. Let us not lose sight of that.

McLaren and Murray have got a lot of things right. If anything, they have tipped the balance too suddenly and too far. They have opened up the stage to different artists and new audiences and brought the Abbey part of the way forward into an Ireland that has become more equality-conscious, more feminist and – in some ways but not others – more tolerant.

They may need now to pause, listen anew and seek over time to restore the balance somewhat.

The rest of us need to engage boldly but constructively with this evolving Abbey or else be seen as clamouring for a return to an exclusive, closed-shop approach.

The Arts Council and the Minister, meanwhile, need to reflect on their own collective responsibility in reducing the capacity of independent companies and regional venues. They are neither innocent bystanders nor neutral brokers in all of this.

A range of initiatives outside as well as within the Abbey needs to proceed to restore dignity and livelihoods to a generation of disaffected and shamefully underpaid actors and artists who are, by tradition, hardworking and who have brought nothing but honour and vital intellectual stimulation to this country.

Declan Gorman is currently theatre artist in residence for Co Monaghan and recipient of a 2018 Arts Council bursary. His latest solo work, Epiphany, was presented in December at Draíocht in Blanchardstown

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