MUCH ADO ABOUT THE WRONG THING? an essay on the state of debate in Irish theatre

Debating at the Abbey. Photo courtesy of Mike Finn

The theatre world is understandably exercised by the recent Irish Times decision to print documents from an ongoing Arts Council evaluation of Abbey Theatre productions. The materials were published under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. This essay acknowledges that this affair has been a source of embarrassment, clumsily handled by all the parties concerned, but that more important questions about theatre and cultural provision in Ireland are not being addressed.

Front page headlines. Dramatic revelations from a redacted State document. A full page expose in the Weekend Supplement. Who died? Who was kidnapped? Who swindled the State? Nobody. Let us therefore retain some perspective.

Three men were selected from our neighbouring island in an opaque process, to fly in and out of Dublin, keep an eye on our national theatre and tell the Arts Council if it is or is not ‘world class’ as it likes to claim. They pronounced that sometimes it isn’t, although sometimes it is. In the course of excavating and publishing this story, the Irish Times has managed to do little more than highlight certain things that are well known in arts circles and in so doing hurt and offend a number of hard-working freelance theatre professionals whose only crime was to get up in the morning and go to work – the odd time such work was available.

What is known in arts circles is roughly as follows. The Abbey struggles still, as it has done for most of its one hundred and ten years, to live up to the ‘high ambition’ of its idealistic founders. In this, it very accurately reflects the Irish nation. Every now and again it does something quite outstanding, such as Annabel Comyn’s production of Tom Murphy’s ‘The House’, Owen McCafferty’s gripping drama ‘Quietly’ directed by Jimmy Fay or last weekend’s stimulating ‘Theatre and Memory’ symposium. Mostly, it produces good quality Irish theatre on its main stage, provides paid contract opportunities to freelance practitioners in a sector ravaged by cutbacks and unemployment, and gets on with the business of competing for audiences, publicity and funding. It is advantaged over most theatre organisations in its large share of the meagre national subisdy, but we generally understand that this is how it must be, as it is the national theatre, it does pay proper wages and so on, and it is poorly funded in comparison with – say – German state theatres.

We also know that its relationship with the Arts Council, like that of many of the Council’s clients, is characterised by occasional tensions and misunderstandings.

Another widely held wisdom is that the Arts Council has become a less than effective body, albeit not entirely through its own failures. It has lost much of the logic and idealism it held in the 1990s when the first arts ministry was established, research and consultation with artists were central to its evolving ethos and genuine efforts were made to establish a national infrastructure of regional arts centres, funded companies and community-centred practice. The current failings are explained, in part at least, by the fact that it has seen its budgets slashed by over 40% in recent years at the same time as its constituency has continued to expand. There are more theatre artists and initiatives now but proportionately less money to sustain their work.

Youth drama, improved third level arts formation, the growth of the Dublin Fringe and other street level cultural phenomena have created a new atmosphere where entering an arts career is no longer as exotic or outrageous as it once was. Ironically, this is partly the outcome of progressive Arts Council policies of the past. It must be galling to be a good public servant in the arts arena, see this growth and know that post-bailout it is impossible to support the infrastucture or invest in youth. Quite the contrary, the Arts Council has systematically dismantled the infrastructure for theatre, seeking instead to consolidate a reduced core of favoured organisations while meantime running various prize-giving schemes to provide some comfort to those outside the citadel. Occasionally its spokespersons will acknowledge that the Arts Council was compelled into this mindset by the economic realities of the 2008 – 2011 period. Too often, however, in keeping with political and public sector pursekeepers elsewhere, they have invented absurd rationales to excuse the inexcusable. Most organisations who have had sight of Arts Council assessments of their work have been baffled by at least some of the commentary.

Into this absurd drama fly our three wise men. It appears the Abbey and the Arts Council had a difference of opinion – in this instance over the definition of that reductive marketing label, ‘world class’ – and that both parties agreed to gamble on the views of outside adjudicators to prove them right or wrong. Many will decry the opacity of this process. Others may query the costs involved; others the ignominy of such an X-Factor approach, wherein the ancient art of theatre and the legacy of Yeats, Gregory and Synge are reduced to receiving marks out of five from three judges. Yet others have commented on the demographic make-up of the all male, Anglocentric delegation. To me it is no more than a further dereliction of common sense which has been evident in arts provision for a number of years; in simple terms, a focussing on the wrong questions and the application of a questionable evaluation methodology. And inevitably when you ask the wrong questions, you get the wrong answers and sometimes people get hurt.

Did it occur to the Arts Council to warn the eminent assessors that we have a Freedom of Information culture in this country and that their critiques might one day become as public as those of Simon Cowell? Did the men who accepted positions on this dubious inspectorate pause to consider the impact of some of their comment on the non-combatant freelance workers caught in the crossfire of the Arts Council / Abbey standoff? Feelings and professional pride, not egoes, have been hurt in this debacle, as excellent, giving artists have woken up to see their endeavours publicy disrespected in the newspapers in subjective and often opposing responses from critics they did not even know were at work. But grown-up theatre professionals are accustomed to taking the hits – from critics, casting processes, under-funding and official ignorance of the arts. They will recover.

Shame nonetheless on the Irish Times for the manner of its coverage of this affair, not for igniting debate about the Abbey and its work (hardly a new phenomenon); not for revealing the inadequate methodologies and language applied by the Arts Council in the matter of evaluating our main public theatre; but for making such a big deal out of it when it is in fact a comparatively minor matter, playing out in the dreary context of a strained Arts Council / client relationship. No misdemeanour is under review here other than that some people don’t think the plays are as good as they could be sometimes.

While the wrong questions are being posed real scandals in the theatre remain outside the scope of any review. These are the recurring crises of neglect and exclusion; of failed governance; of opaque decision-making and absence of long-term policy. The sense has emerged that there is no vision and scant accountability where the arts at national level are concerned. And this leads to a regrettable culture of powerlessness punctuated by episodes of outcry and even witch-hunt wherein every crisis is conflated. Yesterday it was the Abbey evaluation, today the banning of a play by Newtownabbey Council, before that Limerick City of Culture. Social media ignites daily with some new indignation but nobody talks to anybody that matters and nothing really changes.

Exactly twenty years ago in 1994 I wrote an article in the Irish Times in response to a public call from the then Abbey Artistic Director Patrick Mason for increased subsidy. I critiqued the national theatre severely on that occasion, not for its artistic work which was generally of a high standard then as it is now, but over ethical and structural matters. Echoing discussions in the public realm at the time, I noted that women playwrights were exluded from its repertoire; it had closed down its education department; it declined to tour nationally, it excluded people with disabilities and had no apparent interest in connecting with the wider independent theatre sector. Shorty afterwards Patrick Mason commenced what became known as ‘The Abbey Debate’ a generous invitation to its critics and supporters to engage with the Abbey in its identity development. The Arts Council subsequently established its ‘Review of Theatre in Ireland 1995-1996’, a nationwide research and consultation process (on which I worked). Thereafter the Abbey moved to set up an Outreach Education Programme, was instrumental in establishing Theatre Forum as a national inclusive organisation for the sector and began a process of internal reforms.

By five years ago, however, women were still hopelessly under-represented among the Abbey writers; the building remained inaccessible and the Outreach Education Department had been discontinued. The Arts Council in the meantime followed the logic of its Review by investing in the already burgeoning infrastructure of independent companies nationwide and providing modest funding towards inclusive particpatory arts initiatives in theatre as in other forms. But then they turned around five years ago without meaningful consultaton and began unilaterally to decimate what it had taken decades to build.

Ironically, now that the Abbey under Fiach MacConghail has begun to re-address some fundamental issues by reinvigorating its education department, making its building at least partially accessible and placing new writing by women higher on its agenda, it is suddenly subjected to a Rate-my-National-Theatre humiliation in the matter of its production values. Yes, it appears to have walked itself naively into this mess, but now that the matter has come to light it is time for all of us to drop it, move on and focus on some residual real issues.

Theatre of the Nation? Young people in Dundalk explore contested histories as they create a new play about The Battle of the Boyne: Project managed by Creative Spark: Facilitated by Kwasie Boyce and Declan Gorman

A new debate is needed on theatre and on the wider question of arts and culture in Ireland. Young ensembles in Dublin, Cork and elsewhere are once again snapping at the heels of the sedate older theatres, connecting directly with marginalised communities and staging visceral events in failed housing projects, abandoned tenements and back alley venues. But the idea of longevity or staged development from this exciting point is more elusive now than ever. The network of regional arts centres remains open for business but the strain of finding and funding quality programing with half the theatre companies gone by the wayside is too great. Many established artists: actors, directors and writers are fighting battles with frustration, anxiety and – let us name it – poverty, unable in mid-life with families to feed simply to go back to the 1980s way of doing it for free while campaiging for change. While women are more established in theatre than twenty years ago, including as writers, they remain inexplicably excluded from certain key platforms. The disability activist Rosaleen McDonagh in a series of Facebook postings this week, reminds us that efforts to make the national theatre accessible are still too little and too late. In recent weeks, regional organisations engaged in long-term, sustainable participatory arts and intercultural programmes have had their Arts Council grant aid severely cut in order to shore up ephemeral and short-term project schemes. Standing over all of this is a ministry and various cabals with apparently limited understanding of how the arts function in a contemporary society – witness in particular the Limerick City of Culture debacle. And bracketing all of this is the failure of politics, the broken economy and the imploding society about which official Ireland is either in deep denial or active blackout.

There have been some rumbles in the online jungle and talk of public meetings at which these questions may be aired. Ironically the recent Abbey symposium on Theatre and Memory, which concluded just as the embarrassing Irish Times story was breaking, was a helpful beginning in a new kind of mature dialogue, albeit somewhat hiberno-centric. Shortly before that, a half-day Theatre Forum meeting at Smock Alley in September heard a powerful critique by playwright Deirdre Kinehan about the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ system of bestowing, now cemented into theatre policy in Ireland. It was stirring stuff in the presence of Arts Council representatives.

A new phase is about to commence at the Arts Council with the appointment of the next Chairperson and the replacement of some retiring members. If they are to have any credibility coming out of this most recent folly, they might now move to listen and re-engage creatively with their constituency. Just as in 1995, the best hope may be to open up a new consultation among artists and the public. As in 1995, this can include contributions from overseas commentators, but commentators given a sensible not a foolish brief. The Abbey is just one, albeit significant part of this. By legacy it is our national theatre. Most intelligent observers, including the Abbey’s own personnel, have long since abandoned the view that its historical designation isolates it or elevates it above other theatres in the nation. It is not the centre of the universe but a critical part of our ecology and a vital national cultural institution. The quality of its work is of public interest and would be a legitimate subject in a new 21st century “Review of Theatre in Ireland”.

But such a review must look holistically at theatre in Ireland, referencing international practice but foremost looking at the local cultural context; the question of excellence of production standards yes, but also questions of regional balance; the equal inclusion of minority voices and bodies; the unspoken issue of career prospects for artists; the breaking of silence on a matter courageously raised by actor Will O’Connell at the aforementioned September Theatre Forum, namely the isolation and fear of mid-career actors for whom the phone has stopped ringing.

The quality of any nation’s theatre including that of its national flagship is hard to evaluate and even harder to underwrite when politics, economic models and understandings of social and cultural rights are all askew as is currently the case in Ireland. It is certainly an infinitely more complex conundrum than can be measured by grading main stage productions or mischievous journalism. Last weekend’s Theatre and Memory Symposium reminded us that artists have something vital to say to Irish society and are ready and equipped to engage in debate. Society, through its parliament, its cultural provision mechanisms and its arts media needs to respond, not in the failed practices and patronising attitudes that have been so nakedly exposed this bizarre January of 2014, but through new and respectful efforts once and for all to understand what art in a society actually means.

11 thoughts on “MUCH ADO ABOUT THE WRONG THING? an essay on the state of debate in Irish theatre

  1. Fearless writing as always, Declan. Interesting points which need to be debated at the highest level, but will Jimmy Deenihan’s slumbers be disturbed for one minute by any of this? And how do we bridge the enormous gap between working playwrights, directors and actors and the cold stone pillars of state theatre? The death of Team Theatre was not mourned by any official announcement by anyone from the Abbey, even though they shared office and rehearsal space. Lack of communication, lack of interest, at the highest level, of what is happening at the grass roots, means dull, stale, tired theatre. And anyone, whether from the UK or Ireland, or anywhere, would be shocked at the waste of the Peacock as a space that could be used imaginatively and excitingly by so many.

  2. Declan, it is seldom I would ever agree with every single statement made by anybody in any context. But yes, and double yes! I had the privilege of being part of the abbey during Patrick Mason’s tenure, and while Mac Conghail has brought a very different sensibility to the post I think he’s been largely successful. Anyway, no need to say much more, I think you’ve covered it pretty much, but am going to share this on my page because as many people as possible should read this.

  3. Very well put Declan – clumsy & reductive are really the only two words to describe the AbbeyLeaks nonsense and the subsequent media frenzy. While all of the furore was happening in Limerick, I couldn’t help feeling that had everything run to plan it would not have generated even a fraction of the media attention. Culture is perhaps only newsworthy when there is a sniff of a scandal or the unpleasantness of a fight? I think you are spot on when you say that there needs to be a greater focus on theatre on a national level rather than the rather narrowly focused debate on a national theatre. But I wonder if anyone in the media would be interested in that?

  4. the “open and inclusive” abbey. The Arts Council ” representational of the arts community”. both statements are lies. also the fringe has been an elitist festival for some time. hopefully the new artistic director wont program a whole pile of trinity graduates shows. thank god for 10 days and collaborations. there are so many theatre makers who aren’t part of the arts council/abbey/gate/rough magic, etc clique. that are making brave and exciting work without any help from large bodies, who generally make pretty poor work with massive budgets, on no money. wheres the support and encouragement for them? wheres the direction for them? the future of the arts in ireland is a dull grey place cos we are stuck in the past. and thems that had the jobs are holding on to the jobs and are never challenged and a re filled with their own self importance. and thems without the jobs are making great things happen with nothing and dont get the opportunity to challenge and are beaten down.. thats why everyone fucks off to england. plus irish society has little or no respect for the arts, its nothing more than an interesting hobby for the unemployable. sad sad sad. all this national debate is irrelevant. scorched earth is what we need. burn them out and start again. put them all in a retirement home and get the right people in the jobs. have a sense of positivity and optimism for the future.

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