The Abbey: 15 things we learned this week about disgruntled theatre workers

Here’s what the theatre and creative talent will talk about when they meet tonight

It was a hell of a January for theatre people, with widespread recognition of low pay and often lousy conditions, as well as the lancing of the boil that has been swelling with disquiet about the Abbey Theatre.

After an unprecedented letter, on January 7th, in which 312 theatre professionals expressed concern to Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan about the impact of the national theatre's new strategy of staging more lower-paid coproductions, the first meeting between the theatre and representatives of the letter's signatories takes place tonight.

A marathon session of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht this week considered the Abbey's production model, with presentations from the theatre, the signatories and the Arts Council. The first time the main players had sat together since the controversy erupted, it gave an airing to many issues likely to come up during deliberations.

Here are some of the points, telling or trivial, that emerged from the hearing (which you can watch here).

1. Unintended consequences

All three presentations referred to the unintended consequences of the Abbey's new approach. The Abbey's chairwoman, Frances Ruane, recognised that the "significant changes" under the theatre's new directors, Neil Murray and Graham McLaren, "have had some unintended consequences. In the past four months these unintended consequences have been under very active discussion by the Arts Council and the Abbey".

The actor Declan Conlon, speaking for the signatories, said that, "while a desire to bring in change is welcome, the unintended consequences of this changed model need to be addressed".

And the director of the Arts Council, Orlaith McBride, concluded her presentation by observing that the Abbey’s current model, “as well as the Arts Council’s articulated concerns”, is, “two years into its realisation, impacting on the broader theatre ecology with unintended consequences”. She called for a review of the impact of the strategy, and for a rebalancing. So “unintended consequences” are one thing everybody agrees on.

2. An absent director

Graham McLaren was not at the committee hearing; nor will he be at the first meeting with signatories, as he will be abroad on Friday night (though both directors were available for the originally proposed time on Friday morning), the committee was told. The Joint Committee's invitation was for two Abbey representatives, and the chair and one director presented, but other Abbey members attended in the gallery.

3. From 312 to 409

The original letter was signed by 312 theatre actors, directors, writers, designers and others; that number has now reached 409, and continues to grow.

4. No accumulated deficit

Frances Ruane, who as well as chairing the Abbey is an economist, clarified the contested issue of the Abbey’s “deficit” when the new directors took over. “At the end of 2016 there was indeed no accumulated deficit. That was wrongly put out in a statement” and was corrected. “Accumulated losses were expressed as accumulated deficit, which is an entirely different thing. We regret the distress caused by that and apologise.” But, she said, Abbey reserves were less than €500,000, “which for a theatre with a budget of around €10 million is a very low level” – unsustainably low, in fact.

5. Three directly employed actors

On the subject of clarifications, the Abbey 312’s letter said no Ireland-based actor would have been directly employed on an Abbey stage for the 5½ months between September 8th, 2018, and February 23rd, 2019. Conlon called the Abbey’s response “obfuscation”, without offering comparable numbers, but acknowledged that a Lyric-Abbey coproduction was contracted by the Abbey during its Dublin run, so there would in fact have been three directly employed Ireland-based actors. “Three directly employed actors on the Abbey stages in 5½ months is unprecedented.”

6. Communication difficulties

Everyone agreed there were communication difficulties. These seem to be both in understanding the Abbey’s mission and operation and in seeking to move forward since the letter.

“Communication is the problem. Historical and institutional memory has been lost. Phone calls are not returned, emails are not answered,” Conlon said; he and the theatre producer Cliona Dukes cited a writer’s submission acknowledged by email only nine months later (by when the submitted play had already been programmed at a UK theatre) and a lack of clarity about the way the Abbey’s new-work department operates. Dropping the Abbey’s casting department also cut a fundamental communication cord between artists and the theatre. Dukes said attempts to meet the Abbey were frustrated; the Irish Society of Stage and Screen Designers’ formal request for a meeting didn’t get a response for five months, she said. The Abbey 312 letter came about because “we just felt some urgent action” was needed; “it was a cry for help at that stage”.

Ruane welcomed tonight’s meeting and acknowledged that, at times of change, “not everything is as clearly communicated as it should. On behalf of the board we are absolutely committed to having stronger communication with the whole sector.”

Murray said “in future we will absolutely communicate clearly”. He was optimistic about the theatre’s new-work department and the appointment of a dramaturge, to liaise with authors and edit scripts.

7. Unusual auditions

The Irish auditions for Come from Away, the Abbey's Christmas show, a coproduction en route to the West End, with a London-based cast, sounded intriguing: Irish agents saying they got no response after putting clients forward for consideration, and a late scheduling of Irish auditions, which went ahead without a director or Abbey representative, and from which no one was cast. The "timescale lends substance to the perception that these brief and hurried auditions were nothing but a cynical exercise", Conlon said, adding that such excellent shows should be seen by Irish audiences at commercial venues.

8. Blacklisting threats

Intriguing too was the discussion of threats of blacklisting. Aengus Ó Snodaigh, the Sinn Féin TD who chairs the Oireachtas committee, sought “an assurance, publicly”, that none of the signatories would be “blacklisted or sidelined” for having put their names to the letter. “This has been overheard by some of the cast in one of the plays, that the signatories would be ‘got’.”

In response, Murray 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.”

9. Abbey departures

Ó Snodaigh also raised concerns about large numbers of staff leaving the Abbey – “up to 30 in the past two years”. Murray said that they were “disappointed when brilliant people left” but that “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.”

10. Abbey funding

The Arts Council said the Abbey, which had been on three-year funding since 2006, has had year-to-year funding since 2017, as the council looked for “a more comprehensive and detailed application” from the theatre. It also placed conditions on its funding – €7 million this year – looking for clarity about the Abbey’s production and presenting models, the impact on employment opportunities for actors and creatives, and pay levels. The council has withheld €300,000 of the Abbey’s 2019 funding until these issues are addressed, McBride said. It continues to meet the Abbey.

11. An “unbalanced” approach to directing

Although he was not in the room, Neil Murray’s fellow joint director Graham McLaren came up when the actors raised a question about the proportion of the theatre’s self-produced shows that he directs, which “amounts to the majority of the Abbey’s production output”. A “single artistic vision or voice dominating” was “unprecedented and unbalanced”, according to Conlon.

12. “Rebalancing has begun”

Murray promised more self-produced work this year “while retaining the principle of an open, collaborative programme”. There will be seven self-produced shows on stage (three of them touring) for 31 weeks, directly employing 85 predominantly Ireland-based actors for 775 weeks; there will be 14 weeks of coproductions, with 66 Ireland-based actors working for 342 weeks; and there will be five weeks of “presented” work.

The Abbey plans to mount a full programme for the smaller Peacock stage, including the development of new shows. “We believe we can help unearth the new voices of Ireland” and welcome new, diverse audiences. “Could the next Synge, O’Casey or Carr be currently living in direct provision?”

Murray said the Abbey will stage three new plays this year, by Dermot Bolger and by the younger Irish writers Dylan Coburn Grey and Lisa Tierney-Keogh. "We hope you will see the results of changes, and new work coming through."

Ruane said the number of self-produced shows on the main stage would be back to six or seven this year, up from “two low years of four”. “We put our hands up and say directly we did not do the usual” quantity. “So there’s a sense in which this problem is already in train to be resolved.”

Murray takes “very seriously the concerns raised by some in the theatre community, particularly around opportunities for Irish and Irish-based artists being directly employed by the Abbey”. All future coproductions will be at Abbey rates or higher, he said. But pay rates for outside companies presenting work there was legally complex, and they planned to discuss this with the sector. “We believe the Abbey Theatre should always be a fair-minded employer and collaborator, whilst providing a good return for substantial public investment.”

13. The board’s role in all this

Declan Conlon stressed that the signatories’ concerns are “not about the current directors” but about “current policy, strategy, pay scales and employment opportunities”, “communication and engagement with the entire sector”, the role of the national theatre, “the passion and respect we have for it, and the vital direction we hope for in the future in order to evolve, sustain and enhance the ecology of theatre”.

Frances Ruane praised Murray and McLaren’s achievements, including increasing gender balance; doing more in the Peacock; presenting new and overlooked voices on stage; increasing and changing the profile of audiences; bringing challenging social issues onstage; and not overspending.

14. Jaw-dropping pay cuts

The Abbey 312 letter quoted a jaw-dropping instance of a professional being paid 25 per cent less than the Abbey’s standard rate while working on an Abbey coproduction, a figure the theatre has queried. Conlon and Dukes said in another instance the cast of an Abbey coproduction were paid acceptable rates in Dublin but then had a 36 per cent cut when performing in London, plus a 67 per cent cut in their subsistence payments. They questioned the Abbey’s data collection and offered to provide the details “to complete their records”.

15. Long-term underfunding

Many years of underfunding of the arts – 0.1 per cent of GDP, compared with a European average of 0.6 per cent – is at the root of this, all the participants, and committee members, agreed. As she ended her term as head of the Arts Council, McBride’s predecessor Sheila Pratschke said: “We desperately need you politicians to support us, to speak up for us, to unite in Dáil and Seanad. And not just to do it once a year, at budget time, but continuously. Don’t leave us isolated. Join with us.”