Tuesday 19 February 2019

Culture Minister 'acknowledges' concerns in Abbey Theatre letter sent by 300 actors, directors and playwrights

Josepha Madigan (Niall Carson/PA)
Josepha Madigan (Niall Carson/PA)
Jane Last

Jane Last

Minister for Culture and Heritage Josepha Madigan said she "acknowledges" the concerns outlined in a letter sent to her by some 300 actors, directors and playwrights about the Abbey Theatre.

Ms Madigan issued a response to the letter, which was addressed to her and published earlier today.

She said she understood the Abbey will "engage directly" with the matters raised in the letter, with representatives of the signatories.

Well-known actors Aidan Gillen, Mark Huberman, Peter Coonan and Sarah Greene were among those who signed the letter.

The letter stated they wished to "apprise" the minister of the "deep concern and dissatisfaction with the direction that the Abbey Theatre has taken since the appointment of its directors, Neil Murray and Graham McLaren".

"The grace period since their arrival is well and truly over and the situation in which the Irish theatre community finds itself is now critical. While the institution may be financially buoyant – and due congratulations for this – the freelance theatre community, in particular, has been cast adrift.

"The changing artistic model of producing fewer in-house productions and presenting or copresenting more has caused devastation amongst our ranks.

"Although the management’s strategy of offering diversity to their own audiences is admirable in theory, it offers up several problems in practice. The national theatre reducing its own production output means less diversity, and reduced employment, not more.

"There will not have been an Ireland-based actor in an Abbey Theatre production on an Abbey stage since Jimmy’s Hall ended on 8 September 2018 until The Country Girls opens on 23 February 2019. That is five and a half months without an Ireland-based actor directly employed by the Abbey."

The letter stated that in 2016, the Abbey directly employed 123 actors in productions, and 90 actors in readings and workshops.

In 2017, the Abbey directly employed 56 actors.

They believe the figure for 2018 is 65, but stated this figure is only approximate as the casting and employment statistics have been removed from the Abbey's website.

The minister acknowledged she had received the letter, adding she welcome the commitment to dialogue and was looking ahead to a "satisfactory outcome".

"I acknowledge the wealth of talent available among Irish theatre practitioners and the concerns they have raised, while at the same time recognising the need for The Abbey to strike a balance in terms of its programming.

"I understand that The Abbey will engage directly on the matters raised in the letter with representatives of the signatories. I welcome that commitment to dialogue and engagement and look forward to a mutually satisfactory outcome."

A statement issued by the Abbey Theatre confirmed they would be seeking a meeting with representatives to discuss the concerns raised in the letter to the minister.

However, the statement defended some of the changes made in recent year.

"It should be noted that the Abbey Theatre continues to produce a significant number of in house productions....

"On a specific point raised, it is important to note that between the 8th September and the 23rd February there are 78 Irish actors in employment either directly or with our co-producing partners during those dates both on the Abbey stages and on touring. There are 51 Irish/Irish based actors on the Abbey and Peacock Stages. We also had an additional seventeen Irish actors on tour with Mise, Micheal , Jimmy’s Hall and Two Pints and ten actors begin employment for rehearsal of The Country Girls on the 14th of January."

"Prior to the appointment of Graham McLaren and Neil Murray there was a perception, real or otherwise, that the Abbey’s programme was lacking diversity and urgency in its productions and that it was not an institution open to many of Ireland’s theatre practitioners.

"Over the past two years, the Abbey has opened its doors to many companies and artists who had not previously gained access to their national theatre and we have led on gender equality in the theatre sector...

"The work that has been made at the Abbey and welcomed in from Irish companies and artists has been of the highest quality. This appears to be borne out by audience figures..."

The statement also referenced the theatre's improved financial position.

"The financial position inherited by the current directors is also worth noting. In the two years prior to their inaugural 2017 programme, the Abbey Theatre had incurred an accumulated deficit of €1.4m.

"Programming in 2017 and 2018, in which both Abbey and Peacock stages have been in full operation, often simultaneously, has delivered modest surpluses and re-introduced the financial stability essential for the continued operation of the theatre. It has also allowed us to engage with a much bigger pool of artists.

"All of the above said, we understand entirely how artists and practitioners will feel strongly about all of these issues and, as stated, we are very willing to engage directly with representatives of the signatories to discuss their concerns."

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