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Artists who wrote letter criticising Abbey Theatre direction 'won't be blacklisted'

That was among the sentiments expressed at an Oireachtas committee meeting today during which the current issues with the Abbey Theatre were discussed.

Image: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

THE ARTISTS WHO wrote the letter criticising the Abbey Theatre’s recent direction – who include high-profile actors, writers and directors – will not be blacklisted.

That’s according to one of the theatre’s co-directors, Neil Murray, who along with Graham McLaren is charged with the direction of the national theatre. The pair moved from Scotland to Dublin to take over the roles in 2016. 

However, the direction that the theatre has taken since then was criticised in a letter sent to the Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan and which has been signed by over 400 people in the industry.

Committee meeting

Today, Neil Murray and Dr Frances Ruane of the Abbey Theatre Board attended a meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, along with representatives of the Arts Council, director Orlaith McBride and chair Sheila Pratschke, and creatives who signed the letter, actor Declan Conlon and producer Cliona Dukes.

Asked about any possible knock-on effect for the hundreds who signed the letter, Neil Murray said: “Any hint of blacklisting – let’s just categorically stamp on that phrase.” He said that many of the people who signed the letter are friends, and he sees all of them as colleagues. “In the strongest of terms that will not be the case,” he said of blacklisting.

The meeting was called in the wake of the letter, which was heavily critical of the Abbey direction and knock-on effects it has had for freelance theatre workers in particular. 

The letter stated: “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.”

This was among the issues brought up at today’s Oireachtas committee session. In bringing those involved together, the committee was able to get an up-to-date view of what has been happening – but given that a meeting between the Abbey and the letter’s signatories is to take place on Friday, there is still more to come.

Conlon told the group that at a meeting of concerned artists last week, some young actors were vocal about “having no connection to the national theatre”. In addition, he said:

I think it is difficult to be working in the arts and to be aware [of the positive] reputation it has initially and yet be living on the breadline at home, and that is a situation that has existed for a long time.

He said that there needs to be more united lobbying of the Government for funding. 

In-house productions

The topics discussed today included the level of in-house productions at the theatre versus those brought in or co-produced. The Abbey informed those present that there will be seven self-produced shows in the coming year.

Concerns were also raised about salaries paid to crew and actors in productions that toured abroad. Neil Murray said that this is a legally complex issue, but that they have been in discussions with the Arts Council and agreed to ensure that those in Abbey co-productions will be paid the Abbey rate or higher when performing at the Abbey or outside it. 

The question of the lack of a casting department was also brought up. Declan Conlon said that in the absence of a casting department, “relationships are not formed and there is no continuity”. He described its cutting as “a remarkably naive action” and said it should be reinstated with immediate effect. 

The audition process for the Abbey Christmas show, Come From Away, was also criticised as being “brief and hurried”. 

The signatories’ opening statement said that the dispute is about “communication and engagement with the entire sector”, and about how they can evolve, sustain and enhance the ecology of theatre across the board in Ireland. It said that the voices of the 409 artists who signed the letter of concern “need to be heard”.

Dr Frances Ruane, in the Abbey’s opening statement, said that the Abbey has managed to change its audience makeup dramatically, attracting new people into the theatre. It has also increased the gender balance on and backstage. The audience numbers are at their highest since 2010.

But she said that changes do have “unintended consequences”. Ruane said that the Arts Council has been in active discussion with the Abbey for the past four months – even withholding €300k of its funding while the situation is worked out.  

Regret

Ruane also said that the Abbey “regrets that some within our artistic community in large numbers feel our journey towards a more collaborative national theatre has contributed to their personal hardship”. The theatre is committed to engaging with them, she said.

The question of ‘bums on seats’ was mentioned, with Neil Murray saying that is not the Abbey’s major concern – instead the “work has to be brilliant, from our point of view”.

He said in 2019 there will be self-produced work on the Abbey stage for 31 weeks of the year, with co-productions occupying 14 weeks.

Murray also said that when he and McLaren started at the Abbey, there was a “hunger for change and for a more open philosophy… in terms of its relationships with artists and companies”. He said that smaller companies working with the Abbey are able to take advantage of the Abbey’s ability to fund them and pay them the Abbey rate. The aim is to step up the amount of self-produced work at the theatre, he said.

The Arts Council, meanwhile, detailed the contact it has been having with the theatre, pointing out that it has been having discussions on a three-year funding plan. Because it didn’t get the full information it needed, that plan was delayed and one year of funding supplied while discussions continue.

The council wants a “rebalancing” of the Abbey’s output and direction, said Orlaith McBride.

Overall, the meeting showed that all sides do want to keep talking – and talk they will at the meeting on Friday. However, the issues that were being brought up will need more than one meeting before they are solved.  

“We are listening, we want to talk, we want to engage,” said Murray.

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