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Theatre: A silver platter or a poisoned chalice for the new Abbey directors?

The incoming team at the helm of the Abbey Theatre have both put in the hard yards, writes Katy Hayes

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Caitríona McLaughlin, the new artistic director at the Abbey

Caitríona McLaughlin, the new artistic director at the Abbey

Caitríona McLaughlin, the new artistic director at the Abbey

Last week, the Abbey Theatre announced the appointment of its new leadership team: Caitríona McLaughlin from Donegal is the new artistic director and Mark O’Brien, a Bray native, the new executive director.

McLaughlin, longtime a notable freelance director, has been associate director at the Abbey since 2017. But the Abbey role has only represented a fraction of her recent directing output with work also appearing under the banner of Irish National Opera, Landmark Productions and elsewhere.

O’Brien, as artistic director/CEO at the Axis arts centre in Ballymun, has nurtured a vibrant creative hub in the north Dublin suburb; a visit makes it obvious the venue is hopping with local energy. His recent strenuous online engagement during the pandemic generated a sense of community when many felt adrift.

The appointment process took a lengthy three-and-a-half months from application deadline to result announcement. The theatre was filling two separate roles with distinct responsibilities. The jobs were open to joint applications, but McLaughlin and O’Brien applied separately. So this is a marriage made in a boardroom and the success of their tenures will be absolutely dependent on their ability to roll together. The artistic director is to provide “leadership and realisation of the artistic vision of the Abbey Theatre”. The executive director is responsible for “delivery of the Abbey Theatre’s organisational strategy, its operation and its governance”.

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Mark O’Brien, the new executive director at the Abbey

Mark O’Brien, the new executive director at the Abbey

Mark O’Brien, the new executive director at the Abbey

Given that the theatre’s strategic plan includes a major expanding and rebuilding project, with new frontage on to the Liffey, the executive director will be busy.

The two-headed leadership structure has removed some of the headaches from previous solo artistic directors who found themselves occasionally swamped with the detail of directing shows when governance matters required urgent attention. The appointment of Fiach Mac Conghail in 2005, who had a producer (rather than a director) background was a move to get the Abbey’s leadership out of the rehearsal room and into the governance room. The job shape has continued to shift. For Mac Conghail’s replacement in 2016, the board signalled it was open to a team application and the (now outgoing) directors Graham McLaren and Neil Murray, a director and a producer, were appointed as joint-directors.

The new split co-director model mimics the informal relationship between founders William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory, with the genders switched. Yeats was the mouthy visionary; Gregory the canny strategist. The new appointments take command at a time of national and global turmoil which has much in common with the revolutionary period during which the theatre was founded. In 2021 we are witnessing similar geopolitical shifts. A global pandemic has retooled and expanded the function of the state. Elements of the UK have once again started to drift apart and Scottish independence looks possible. The European Union continues to evolve. There is major global population movement.

The tools of theatre are changing: technology is profoundly affecting both artistic creation and distribution. Language is undergoing a rebirth in the furnace of the internet, a change as profound as that experienced during the Elizabethan era; that change produced Shakespeare. We are living in the new renaissance, the renaissance of tech and theatre must fight aggressively to keep relevant.

Leadership of the Abbey has always been a tough gig; almost every occupant of the role in the past four decades has been badly burned by at least one big controversy. Somehow, the icebergs are invisible until you’ve crashed right into them. McLaughlin and O’Brien have both toiled long in the theatre mines, putting in the hard yards. McLaughlin has been a hustling freelancer for almost 20 years. O’Brien’s position at Axis would never have been seen as a plum job. Neither has had much handed to them on a silver platter in their careers.

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