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I was a writer on Toy Show the Musical. It has been a weird time

Lisa Tierney-Keogh: I can’t tell you what I earned for my work on this show, but I can tell you I hope it becomes public knowledge. It should be. It’s your money

With shots firing from Merrion Square towards Montrose last week, I raised my head up and peeked out. I was a writer on Toy Show the Musical and it had been a weird year.

RTÉ executives released some numbers from the musical venture that had previously been “commercially sensitive”. And those numbers did not look good. With every line item, it got worse. At the time of writing, the cost of the production was €2.7 million, of which €2.2 million was lost.

Every time I see that number, my stomach churns. For that much money, this should not be the result: Oireachtas investigations, Government audits, resignations, heartbreak. It didn’t need to be like this. But, unfortunately, RTÉ have always had to have it their way and, evidently, Toy Show the Musical wasn’t any different.

My first experience with RTÉ was a television show development deal in my 20s. I was brand new, fresh out of the pack, as green as they come. RTÉ's reputation within the creative community wasn’t (and still isn’t) good, but I was young and hopeful. My show was “developed” into oblivion by RTÉ executives until my own words became unrecognisable to me. It knocked me down, for sure, but also taught me some hard lessons about standing up for what you believe in. After this experience, I swore to myself I’d never work with our national broadcaster again. And I didn’t, for a long, long time.

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The graph released to the media last week, displaying broad budget costs and forecasts and event costs of their debut musical theatre venture, was a stark reminder to everyone working in the arts in Ireland that RTÉ can do what they want while the rest of us beg for scraps. Creative costs were budgeted at €243,190. Management costs were budgeted for €278,800. If you plan to spend more on managing a project than creating it, you’re setting yourself up for disaster.

It takes years of experience to get bums on seats in a theatre, not a mind-bending blitz of media ads

Then there’s the matter of ticket sales. At an Oireachtas committee meeting on June 29th, Rory Coveney, RTE’s director of strategy, who resigned on Sunday evening, told the committee that Toy Show the Musical wasn’t a commercial success. For €2.2 million, this simply isn’t good enough. Audiences are always there. But you have to know how to get them in. It takes years of experience to get bums on seats in a theatre, not a mind-bending blitz of media ads.

An RTÉ producer of the musical stated in early November 2022: “We now can proudly stand up and say there is no better creative team in theatre on these islands at the moment. It’s absolutely the best. And that’s our privilege to be able to bring those people together.” RTÉ hired theatre professionals who collectively have decades and decades of experience. People who know how to make a show work because they’ve done it before, hundreds of times. People who regularly create incredible magic and spectacle on budgets with five figures, because that’s all we can get access to.

So, is it likely that an experienced crew of arts workers are responsible for a show that needed 70 per cent occupancy to break even, with out-of-control costs, in a giant venue that isn’t a theatre?

Or, is it more likely that the organisation with all the purse strings drove Toy Show the Musical over a fiscal cliff?

RTÉ has always had the power to decide what they pay writers and creatives and actors. And that’s a big problem

Good people who earn a fraction of RTÉ executives’ salaries, without the pensions or health benefits, who can’t afford legal representation, now face the prospect of protecting and rebuilding their reputations and careers. We will be quietly blacklisted for the €2.2 million bill, as we carry the tarnish of this use of public funds by association.

I can’t tell you what I earned for my work on this show, but I can tell you I hope it becomes public knowledge. It should be. It’s your money. And if it does, people who work in the arts will say “high five, big playa” and everyone else’s jaw might drop, given the enormous costs that have been released. In the past week alone, I’ve heard of three people leaving the arts sector because they can no longer afford to work their job, so low is the pay.

But here’s a question: why do we pay artists and arts workers so little? Is it because we don’t like art?

Hardly. I think Irish people love telly and books and film and music and theatre and visual arts. But we just expect it to come for free, because artists and arts workers are not valued. Crucially, there is no collective bargaining in Ireland for artists and arts workers, no agreed minimum pay. So, RTÉ, the only game in town really, has always had the power to decide what they pay writers and creatives and actors – from Fair City to indie dramas to comedy series to reality shows and, well, large-scale commercial musicals. And that’s a big problem.

When a few people have all the power and a lot of money, bad decisions happen. Toy Show the Musical wasn’t a bad idea. It was, in my opinion – for what it’s worth – a brilliant and inspired idea that had the potential to be something really special and magical. But something very powerful got in the way: hubris. Arrogance. The belief that things must be a certain way. The RTÉ way.

What we see before us is a hot mess. It is, as the new director general Kevin Bakhurst put it in his statement yesterday, a “shameful period” in RTÉ’s history. Again, it didn’t need to be like this. The secret payments, the slush funds, the flip-flops, the commercial musical that wasn’t commercially successful. Weirdly, they all come from the same place: self-importance and availability of funds.

The set for Toy Show the Musical has been stored. An internal Grant Thornton investigation has been ordered. The plot has yet to thicken. And this show must go on. And on. It ain’t over ‘til the lady sings.

Lisa Tierney-Keogh is a playwright and writer