Theatre workers write to Minister again, frustrated by slow Abbey progress

‘We have no confidence that our concerns are a priority for the current management’

Abbey Theatre: A large meeting of the letter’s signatories was held at the weekend where frustration was  expressed at the slow progress of talks. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

Abbey Theatre: A large meeting of the letter’s signatories was held at the weekend where frustration was expressed at the slow progress of talks. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

 

Theatre professionals who wrote an open letter of concern about the Abbey Theatre to Minister for Arts Josepha Madigan last January have contacted her again to express disappointment about the theatre’s response.

In a letter to the Minister, the group says: “We have no confidence that our concerns and issues are a priority for the current management of the Abbey Theatre”.

The group says that, despite a “positive and promising start” to discussions, it fears “the current executive and board do not understand the responsibilities of a National Theatre to theatre ecology, the theatre community and the public”.

A large meeting of the letter’s signatories was held at the weekend where frustration was also expressed at the slow progress of talks, and the lack of clarity about their request for the reinstatement of casting and literary departments at the national theatre.

The latest letter to Ms Madigan is in response to the Abbey’s detailed May 2nd report to the Minister of changes and timetabled commitments arising from discussions since 311 theatre workers – now 425 in support – wrote a protest letter on January 7th. Actors, directors, designers, technicians and producers were concerned about the effects of a large increase in co-productions, and a reduction in self-produced plays, at the national theatre, leading to reduced job opportunities and pay rates.

‘Facts disappoint’

The letter welcomes the Abbey’s promise to produce more in-house plays. The Abbey’s report says its “commitment to being primarily a producing theatre was reflected in the 2019 programme” but the signatories write “unfortunately, the facts disappoint and question the accuracy of this contention”.

A series of bilateral meetings between the theatre management and freelance theatre professionals since January led to Abbey commitments to improve communications, reviewing pay rates and other actions. But workers are concerned about outstanding issues, including the casting and literary departments.

The theatre had agreed to reinstate a “permanent casting presence” and an email contact point, which were not regarded by actors and agents as adequate. Last week a “frank and honest discussion” between the signatories and the Arts Council was followed by a meeting between the Abbey and the council.

‘Inaccuracies’

The following day the theatre said it proposed to recruit a casting director, as it would be producing more in-house shows. It also agreed to meeting with a mediator, which the signatories had pushed for, crowdfunding towards its cost. The theatre said it would share the cost.

In their latest letter to the Minister, sent just before the weekend, the workers say they are “dismayed at some of the inaccuracies” in the Abbey’s report. They say the theatre’s current strategy was “harvesting talent with no consideration or thought to sowing the seeds for future talent”.

Writers are “very concerned and unhappy with the dismantling of the literary department”, saying “commissioning [new plays] was essentially inactive” under the new directors.

The private meeting of signatories on Saturday was the first gathering since January’s open letter to the Minister. Attendees were estimated at about 100, including many high-profile actors, at the O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin for an update on discussions and plans.