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Wanted: new plays for our national theatre, without the risk


Mark O'Rowe

Mark O'Rowe

Mark O'Rowe

The Abbey Theatre is now producing fewer new plays than at any time since 1970, according to statistics compiled by the Abbey (for 1970-2014).

In the 10 years that Fiach Mac Conghail has been in charge, the Abbey has produced an average of three new plays per year.

The average under Mac Conghail's predecessor, Ben Barnes, was six. The yearly average since 1970 (including Mac Conghail's tenure) is seven.

Ironically, new writing at the Abbey at this precise moment appears in relatively good health. The Waste Ground Party, a play by one of the 24 graduates of their "new playwrights programme", Shaun Dunne, finishes tonight at the Peacock.

On Tuesday this week, the Abbey held its second "scratch night" of readings from new plays. This autumn, it held a series of "pop up" playwriting workshops around the country.

Recently finished on the main stage is Mark O'Rowe's Our Few and Evil Days, which sold out. O'Rowe will bring another new play to the main stage next April, a version of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler.

Mac Conghail has commissioned 76 plays since 2006: 25 have been produced, seven are due for production and a further 12 are still in development. Roughly one in two make it to the stage, he says; it commonly takes four years to get there.

The Abbey has up to 20 writers under commission at any one time. (He won't release the precise number or names.) A full commission is worth €13,600 to the writer.

Perhaps the least glamorous of the Abbey's literary activities is the "slush pile" (not his words) - the 200-or-so unsolicited plays that people send in to the theatre every year. Every writer gets feedback on their play.

"Everybody has the right to have their play read by the national theatre," says Mac Conghail. At a very rough estimate, this must cost the Abbey the equivalent of one full-time staff member.

Mac Conghail considers this a "vital bloodline" of new writers, and uses it to identify candidates for the new playwrights programme. "If one or two of those end up on the Abbey stage, it's worth it."

More commonly thought of as the bloodline of new writers for the Irish theatre is the Peacock, which has often been dark since the recession hit. It is now programmed through to next summer; Mac Conghail says it will be occupied all next year.

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Belfast writer Owen McCafferty, whose "peace process" play Quietly has won international awards since its debut in the Peacock, will premiere a new play there in March, Death of a Comedian. The other Peacock productions are revivals of recent hits on the fringe circuit.

The problem with the Peacock is that it doesn't wash its face: even when full, it loses money. A report on the Abbey earlier this year (by the UK consultants Bonnar Keenlyside) recommended a cheaper production model for the Peacock, based on having a single technician and using in-house creative staff.

Other theatre companies have developed stripped-down production models to suit straightened times: Fishamble's "Show in a Bag" series is designed to help theatre artists make small-scale shows designed for economic touring.

Mac Conghail is resistant to narrowing the Peacock's ambitions, however. His job is to "empower playwrights to write the plays they want to write," he says. "I would hate to think a writer would submit a play with two actors hoping it was more likely to go on."

The Peacock being open is due to the simple fact that the Abbey is making money this year: audiences are up 20pc.

The Abbey runs on what Mac Conghail calls a "mixed economy" of subsidy and box office. To keep the theatres open and "protect taxpayers' money," the box office has to make €2 million a year.

If he wants to take a risk with new work, he has to "hedge that bet" with something more bankable - often, that means something from the Irish repertoire. (John B Keane's Sive provided that this year, with the bonus success of Mark O'Rowe's new play.) "Some people call that cautious. I call that smart."

He inherited a theatre where the model was broken, he says: it was producing six new plays a year, but it ended up on the verge of bankruptcy. Now he has found a viable model, but at the expense of a flow of new plays.

So I would ditch the niceties: scrap the slush pile and the mentoring; rush plays to the stage. Make it quick and dirty, and most of all cheap. Oddly, he might find his writers are more comfortable with that.

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