Wednesday 25 April 2018

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

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

Emer O'Kelly

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.

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.

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