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Actors and directors write to Minister over 'deep concern and dissatisfaction' with Abbey Theatre's direction

The letter is signed by more than 300 names, including many high-profile ones.

Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

A LARGE NUMBER of actors and theatremakers have written a ‘letter of concern’ to Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan about the direction the Abbey Theatre has taken.

The letter, seen by TheJournal.ie, specifically refers to the direction taken by the national theatre since the appointment of its Directors Neil Murray and Graham McLaren. Both took over from the previous Director, Fiach MacConghail. Under their remit, the theatre has had a particular focus on diversity, and also on offering events such as free preview shows to make the theatre more accessible.

The letter criticises the number of international productions and co-productions put on in the theatre since 2016 when McLaren and Murray took over. It says that in particular, freelance theatre professionals have been affected.

People that signed the letter include Aidan Gillen, Ciarán Hinds, Cliona Dukes, Catherine Walker, Eleanor Methven, Sarah Greene, Sinéad Cusack and Ingrid Craigie.

Those who signed the letter write of their “deep concern and dissatisfaction” with the theatre’s direction since Murray and McLaren took up their roles:

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 letter claims that the the theatre is now producing fewer in-house productions, which is causing “devastation among our ranks”. It says that the management’s strategy of offering diversity to audiences is “admirable in theory, it offers up several problems in practice”.

It goes on:

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 numbers are stark and are worth stating. In 2016 the Abbey directly employed 123 actors in Abbey productions and 90 actors in readings and workshops. Then, in 2017 the Abbey directly employed only 56 actors. No figures are available for readings or workshops that year. Fifty six. That is a reduction of 54% of actors appearing on stage
directly employed by our National Theatre. 

The letter also criticises the decision to put on the Canadian-British production of Come From Away at the theatre over the Christmas period.

It concludes by asking that the National Theatre “engages in a greater percentage of inhouse productions, as opposed to co-productions or buy-ins”.

It also demands that performers, directors and designers whose work is used by the National Theatre “are given National Theatre terms and conditions, along with every other employee in the building”.

Neil Murray moved to the Abbey from his role of executive producer at the National Theatre of Scotland, while Graham McLaren worked at the National Theatre of Scotland as its associate director before moving to the Abbey Theatre.

In a statement, The Abbey Theatre said it had “huge respect” for the artists who signed the letter and said it would take their concerns “very seriously”, adding that it would seek to meet the signatories at the earliest opportunity to discuss their points.

“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 statement added.

“The latest annual review for 2017 shows that for Abbey Theatre productions, there was a 53% male/47% female breakdown across the artists working on its shows. The theatre aims for 50/50 Gender Parity for the period 2017-2022.”

The theatre said that high-quality work had been welcomed from Irish companies and artists in recent years, which was borne out by audience figures, indicating that the range and diversity of the programme has had a proven appeal.

Speaking, today Minister Madigan said:

“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.”

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