Saturday 22 October 2016

Pen-pushers in line to win turf war for Abbey Theatre

The implications of this report will damage the national theatre's reputation, writes Emer O'Kelly

Emer O'Kelly

Published 06/07/2014 | 02:30

Fiach Mac Conghail, Director of the Abbey Theatre
Fiach Mac Conghail, Director of the Abbey Theatre

The Arts Council has published the 63-page report it commissioned from the Scottish consultancy Bonnar Keenlyside. Its purpose was stated as being to examine the "current business model of the Abbey Theatre with the aim of identifying how available public funding might secure the best outcomes in the current environment." 
A bland enough statement; it would certainly seem not to clash with the purpose of the national theatre: producing theatre for the theatre-going public.

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Unfortunately, the report makes suggestions for a way forward which would effectively see the end of the Abbey, reducing it to a civil service module of politically correct socially-engineered culture controlled by the Arts Council, from which, after implementation, it would be difficult - if not impossible - to recover. Its suggestions would ensure that the Abbey is no longer a national theatre with a broad remit which reflects not only national, but international theatre (the role of any national theatre worthy of the name) but it would become a narrowly focused, nationalist house without any artistic autonomy, reflecting Arts Council "priorities" which in turn reflect government (civil service) priorities. A good PR exercise for Ireland Inc, in other words.

"The process should be punctuated, with agreement reached as to the framework, objectives and timescale before committing to action." This preliminary statement ignores the perennial "tensions" (more realistically, a cold war) between the two organisations, with the Arts Council, holder of the purse strings, demanding constant monitoring of the Abbey (quarterly monitoring reports, a total of 10 from July 2011 to December 2013, including programming reports). The Arts Council has also insisted on its members reviewing all Abbey board papers. Even the commissioning of Bonnar Keenlyside proves a determination on the part of the Arts Council not to accept the Abbey's autonomy as the national theatre.

The council, not surprisingly, has welcomed the report's findings. The Abbey director, Fiach Mac Conghail, is also quoted as welcoming the report and expressing willingness to co-operate with the subsequent "joint working group".

I take leave to doubt his welcome: no company director in his or her right mind would welcome a finding that their theatre should be run by "a system that is led and managed by the Arts Council"; with an Arts Council officer to "manage the process and system and be responsible
for ensuring clear understanding, clear communication, and an annual cycle." In other words, the Abbey Theatre director would no longer have managerial or artistic autonomy, and would report to a pen-pusher in the Arts Council.

Indeed, if the recommendations of the report are put into practice after the newest (another!) working group process, it is highly likely that nobody of flair or creative status would apply to be director of the Abbey Theatre, further damaging its future and reputation.

It was that very lack of creative autonomy and the absence of a clear definition of managerial responsibility which put the company into near bankruptcy in 2004, and Mac Conghail has been responsible for turning the situation around under increasingly difficult conditions since the economic crash. And the figures, acknowledged by Bonnar Keenlyside, prove it: grant aid to the Abbey has declined by 25pc, theatre audiences in Dublin have declined by 10pc while the number of theatre seats has doubled due to the opening of new venues; and while the Abbey has lost 17pc of audience over the five years of the recession, it has succeeded in reducing its costs by more than a third.

Bonnar Keenlyside comments on the fact that the Abbey has singular status within the National Council of Cultural Institutions, of which it is a member: it is not bound, as others are, in the area of staffing and salaries, setting its own levels.

The report makes some comparisons with other companies, for instance with the Gate Theatre (not a member of the council) as the other continuously producing theatre in Dublin. But it does not note the fact that public service salary norms operate in the Abbey, where the director's remuneration is in line 
with Haddington Road, although it comments that "only" two of the Abbey's board members are ministerial appointments. And though the report notes that the Abbey is the only building-based national cultural institution that is not the financial responsibility of the OPW, it does not congratulate the Abbey on managing its additional responsibility.

The constant level of dissatisfaction with the Abbey within the Arts Council seems to differ from its approach to the Gate, where the director appoints his own board, and his directorial salary is almost twice that of the Abbey's director, amounting to almost 25pc of the Gate's Arts Council grant. (Such figures are redacted from the report, due to "commercial sensitivities.")

Bonnar Keenlyside also recommends that there should be much wider use of the Peacock (this reflects opinion within the theatre sector at large), but it suggests that low-budget productions should be prioritised. There are plenty of low-budget productions to be found in Dublin and elsewhere: the audience at a national theatre has a right to expect production values to be high.

There is also a suggestion that rehearsal times should be reduced, comparing them unfavourably with similar theatres elsewhere, which some contributors to the report's research apparently believed gave a creative edginess. I remain to be convinced.
But perhaps the most alarming suggestion of all is that programming should concentrate on Irish writing and plays about Ireland, and not only those commissioned and produced by the Abbey.

Older theatre-goers will remember the days when that was an accepted policy in the Abbey Theatre: it did not produce an inspiring or even an adequate theatrical experience, with our cultural walls built high against alien influences.

It also recommends a greater level of touring, always desirable, but makes no suggestion other than a vague reference to "re-prioritising funding" as to how it can be achieved with drastically reduced budgets.

The reality, of course, is that all of the Arts Council's dealings with the Abbey 
Theatre, including the commissioning of this report, are part of the long-standing turf war in which the council is determined not to yield what it sees as part of its power base. That will not change without ministerial intervention.

Sunday Independent

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