How do you solve a problem like The Abbey?

After an interesting month for the national theatre, Heather Reynolds explores the impact of the Abbey’s recent choices.

On 7th January, a letter was published, signed by over 300 individuals who work in theatre in Ireland. This letter, dubbed a letter of concern, was a public criticism of how the Abbey has been run since its leadership changed hands, and the direction the Abbey has taken since. As it is the national theatre, many feel that it has a duty to the Irish theatrical community to produce new and independent content, hire creators directly and add to the artistic economy in Dublin, as well as the rest of Ireland, through small tours of popular productions. While some commend the new directors for their passion for bringing in new audiences and establishing proper tours to the rest of Ireland, the signatories feel let down by the new way things are being run, and not without due cause.

The Abbey has long been considered a vital stage for nurturing great Irish talent, with big names like Ruth Negga and Liam Neeson taking roles in the Abbey early on in their careers. However, as the new directors, Neil Murray and Graham McLaren, both have a fondness of co-productions, the roles the Abbey now offer are limited, with many co-producers bringing actors from their own theatre companies, or with the independent collaborator taking the lead on the casting, leading to lower pay.

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The Abbey currently is holding more shows than ever, but is employing fewer actors than ever before.

The Abbey currently is holding more shows than ever, but is employing fewer actors than ever before. It is in no way easy to be an actor in Ireland, with a large pool of people looking for work, and a limited amount of productions on stage and screen. A traditionally major employer drastically cutting the amount of actors they directly hire only increases the pressure Irish actors already face, pushing even more overseas, and losing more incredibly talented people who would be nothing but a benefit to the theatre scene at home. The letter in question states that no actors will have been directly employed by the Abbey for 5½ months between September 8th 2018 and February 23rd of this year, an assertion that Murray and McLaren did not directly refute, instead stating that through both the Abbey and their co-producers, 78 actors will be employed during that time period without giving a breakdown of that figure.

Murray and McLaren originally addressed the claims made in the letter by alleging that they inherited a large deficit from the previous directors, totalling around €1.4 million. They immediately rowed back on this claim as it was proven to be false within 24 hours of them coming forward with it. They, in fact, inherited a surplus from the previous directors.

They are one of the few places that can afford to pay talent directly, and yet, in a time where the industry in Ireland is narrowing, they are hiring and paying fewer people.

At its essence, there is nothing wrong with the Abbey staging a few co-productions. They can bring new life to a historic stage, bring new ideas and techniques, and also help independent and fledgling theatre companies find their wings. The issue the signatories take with the Abbey is the volume of co-productions in comparison to the amount of original work brought to the stage, and the impact that has had on the Abbey’s direct involvement, with not only cultivating talent but paying it as well. The Abbey receives €7 million in government funding per annuum, as well as having a membership scheme and ticketing at only slightly below the going rate in Dublin. They are one of the few places that can afford to pay talent directly, and yet, in a time where the industry in Ireland is narrowing, they are hiring and paying fewer people.

As the national theatre, a government funded body which exists to foster, nurture and pay Irish talent, the Abbey is not doing its job. It is outsourcing, it is finding other companies to do that work for them, and that is not okay. The Abbey should be taking a lead on casting its productions, whether they be independent or a co-production. It should be taking a lead on making sure Irish talent and Irish stories are being told and represented, and not feeling shut out due to smaller companies making smaller casting calls. The Abbey desperately needs to cut down on co-productions and start directly hiring creators, or else it is going to lose out not only on a vast number of talented independent artists, but the trust of the Irish theatrical community.