Let the speculation begin. The Abbey Theatre board has officially begun recruiting a new director today to succeed Fiach MacConghail at the end of 2016.
Even the title of the most high-profile, influential, widely admired, endlessly criticised, lonely and potentially rewarding job in Irish theatre is a point open to ceaseless discussion. The role of director originated at the same time as MacConghail’s appointment, in 2005, when the renowned theatre producer and former artistic adviser was named the Abbey’s first Director/CEO after a long line of Artistic Directors. MacConghail took over sooner than expected, steered the theatre through a financial and organisational crisis caused by 2004’s disastrous centenary celebrations and towards a new, fleeter corporate structure, rescued from debt by a €4m government bailout.
MacConghail’s tenure, although hardly without event, has been remarkably stable compared to the 110-year-old theatre’s brisk history of changing artistic advisers and artistic directors. When he steps down at the end of his contract in December, 2016, MacConghail will have served 12 years as the head of the Abbey, making him one of its longest-serving chiefs.
The role may yet be redefined again, as signalled today by Abbey Chairperson Dr Bryan McMahon. Calling, expectedly, for someone “enterprising and visionary” (fundraising and programming are core components of the job) as well as “Irish and international candidates” (the Abbey is yet to have a director from outside Ireland), McMahon added: “We are also open to hearing from all interested parties and to receiving joint applications from more than one candidate.”
The board, which is understood to have consulted widely with the Irish theatre sector before advertising the role, are now in a position to consider new directions. Instead of a single director, the theatre could be run by a group, or, more likely, a partnership. This would bring the Abbey more in line with international examples, such as the National Theatre in London, the National Theatre of Scotland, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, which have balanced the role of artistic director with an executive director/producer. The recruitment process, which is by submission, will be overseen by KPMG Executive Search.
“It has been an honour and a privilege,” MacConghail said of his time at the Abbey, which, at 12 years, will have experienced more cycles than most. “I have loved every minute of it, working side by side with an inspirational community of artists, creative people and my brilliant colleagues at the Abbey Theatre”.
The board expect to make an appointment this summer, with a new Director Designate working alongside MacConghail during his final year at the helm to ensure a smooth transition. Significantly, that year will encompass the Abbey’s commemoration of the 1916 Rising, around which there is much public and political expectation.
The Abbey Theatre tonight premieres a new version of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, written by Mark O'Rowe and directed by Annabelle Comyn.