Abbey Theatre: Discussion

Taimíd ar ais i seisiún poiblí. Gabhaim fáilte roimh gach duine. Today we will discuss the current model of production, presenting and co-presenting in the Abbey Theatre. Recently a large number of actors and others working in the Irish theatre wrote to the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, taking issue with the current approach of the Abbey Theatre to the production, presenting and co-presenting of work. The letter stated that this approach has led to fewer in-house productions and has adversely affected the earnings of those working in the theatre. It raised issues relating to the role of the Abbey Theatre as Ireland's national theatre, the consistency of the Abbey's approach with Government's national vision and framework for culture and also the funding of the theatre by the Arts Council. Given the importance of these issues, the committee is keen to develop a deeper understanding of what is involved here. To assist the committee in considering this matter, I am pleased to welcome, on behalf of the actors and others working in Irish theatre, Mr. Declan Conlon and Ms Clíona Dukes. I welcome from the Abbey Theatre, Dr. Frances Ruane, chairperson, and Mr. Niall Murray, co-director. I also welcome Ms Orlaith McBride, director of the Arts Council, and Ms Sheila Pratschke, chairperson.

Before we begin, I advise witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Opening statements and other documents submitted to the committee may be published on the committee website following this meeting.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I ask witnesses, members and those in the Public Gallery to turn off their phones as they interfere with the recording equipment. We want what everyone has to say to be heard clearly. Má tá sé sin déanta ag gach éinne cuirfimid tús leis an gcomhrá. Iarrfaidh mé ar dhuine amháin ó gach aon cheann de na trí ghrúpa méid áirithe a rá. Ansin tabharfaidh mé deis do bhaill an choiste ceisteanna a chur.

I will ask one representative from each of the groups to make an opening statement. We have been given advance copies of the statements, some of which are quite long. If the witnesses want to summarise their opening statements, that is fine because they will be published in full on our website. Our aim today is to elaborate on what is in those documents and to make space to address issues concerning the future of the Abbey Theatre as Ireland's national theatre. Members will pose questions when the witnesses have finished making their statements.

I now invite Mr. Declan Conlon to make his opening statement.

Mr. Declan Conlon

Go raibh maith agat. If it is okay with the committee, I will read the statement in full.

A Chathaoirligh agus a dhaoine uaisle, I have worked as a professional actor for almost 30 years. I appreciate the opportunity to represent the signatories of the letter of concern sent to the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan. That letter, with 312 signatories, was sent to the Minister, the Arts Council and the board of the Abbey Theatre on 7 January 2019. Since then further signatories have signed to these concerns and now total 409. I would like to speak to the concerns raised in the letter and clarify some responses that have been received in relation to it.

When the change in directorship in the Abbey Theatre occurred in late 2016 the theatre community excitedly welcomed the new directors. Their first short programme introduced several independent companies to the stage of our national theatre by remounting very successful shows – a veritable best of - and the thought at the time was that this was a good initiative as it would give the new directors time to settle into their roles and engage with the theatre community before revealing a new vision and model to the stakeholders. Now, coming into the third year of their directorship, there is no evidence of this new vision or an understanding of the history, remit and responsibilities of our national theatre. The programme continues to host a disproportionate level of revivals or remounts from the previous years' programme, co-productions or buy-in shows for presentation. The level of in-house productions has continued to decrease. In a city with only two major producing houses, a substantial reduction of in-house productions in one impacts greatly on the ecosystem of theatre employment overall. While a desire to bring in change is welcome, the unintended consequences of this changed model need to be addressed.

In 2013 and 2014 the Abbey created a €1.6 million profit which then covered planned and approved losses in the following two years for the lead up to and presentation of the 2016 centenary programme. Although the new directorships’ plan was endorsed for its financial viability and we are told it has "delivered modest surpluses and re-introduced the financial stability essential for the continued operation of the theatre” the Abbey Theatre closed 2017 with an operating loss of nearly €47,000. We are not suggesting a return to the previous programming policies. However, these current strategies have had a detrimental effect on practitioners. To evolve, the Abbey and the industry need to forge a mutually beneficial way forward.

The Abbey Theatre released a statement on 7 January in response to our letter. In it the theatre claimed an inherited €1.4 million deficit whereas at the beginning of the new directors’ term, the Abbey had a surplus of €488,949. On 24 May 2017, in the "Village" magazine the directors were quoted as saying: “There’s no deficit at the moment – there may have been a small operating deficit last year but the Abbey’s not ‘in deficit’ and they’re not expecting one this year”. The reckless dissemination of incorrect information regarding a €1.4 million deficit caused reputational damage to the sector by reaffirming clichéd notions that theatre is always loss making. Four days later the Abbey issued an updated statement, clarifying there was no deficit. However, the incorrect information is still perpetuated in some media although it has been retracted, with an apology by the directors to their predecessor.

In our letter we outlined that during the five and a half months between the closing of "Jimmy’s Hall" on 8 September 2018 and the opening of "The Country Girls" on 23 February 2019, there would be no Ireland-based actor on the stages of the Abbey Theatre directly contracted by the theatre. In response, the Abbey's obfuscation continued. It did not offer comparable numbers. It has recently come to our attention that the co-production of Tom Kilroy's between the Lyric Theatre, Belfast and the Abbey was contracted by the Lyric for the Belfast run and the Abbey for the Dublin run, so we are happy to clarify that instead of no actor in five and a half months, there were three actors directly employed who featured on an Abbey stage in that time period. Three directly employed actors on the Abbey stages in five and a half months is unprecedented.

The national theatre has a responsibility toward the creative financial health of the sector. In order to achieve financial sustainability for artists, the national theatre must assist the independent co-producer to achieve Abbey agreed salaries, terms and conditions alongside artistic excellence. It must do this by investing in the salary structure. The Abbey is bound by house rates and subject to certain pay scales and employment rights but independent companies are not. When the latter are the lead producer on a co-production, this can result in less pay and fewer entitlements for the artists involved.

Regarding a pay rate differential up to 25%, the Abbey states that there is no basis over the last year in their employment data and budgets for this figure. At the time of writing the letter, the highest pay differential that had been brought to our attention was 25%. We have now been further informed. The cast of an Abbey co-production, while being paid acceptable rates in Dublin, suffered up to a 36% reduction on the Abbey rate when the show played in London and a 67% reduction in subsistence. We would question the Abbey's data collection and are happy to provide these details to complete its records.

We are told by the Abbey, in its statement of 7 January, that on average over the past six years, it has self-produced 14 shows per annum on the Abbey and Peacock stages and on tour. However, the Abbey once again clarified itself in an updated statement on 11 January that, in 2019, it will self-produce seven shows on the Abbey stages, thereby confirming a 50% decrease from their own claim.

Communication is the problem. Historical and institutional memory has been lost. Phone calls are not returned, e-mails are not answered. A submission made in May 2017 to the new work department from an artist received an email acknowledging receipt of this submission in February 2018 - nine months later - by which time the artist's idea had already been selected and programmed in a theatre in the UK. What opportunities are we missing with this current system in place?

The current administration has cut out a fundamental communication cord between artists and the theatre - the casting department. Previously, this has been the sole point of contact with the Abbey for the theatre community. The open auditions, which used to take place annually or biannually, have ceased. It is the remit of the National Theatre to build relationships with actors, to build a bank of talent and to nurture that talent. In the absence of a casting department, relationships are not formed. There is no continuity. Equally, the agents have no point of contact to discuss pay scales, terms and conditions and any and all other issues. The cutting of this department was a remarkably naive action. This is the major part of the communication problem. This is the department that understands and mentors peoples' careers. The casting department should be reinstated with immediate effect.

It is not only performers who have been affected. The number of freelance directors contracted by the Abbey has radically reduced. Under the current model, contracts for freelance directors are significantly down on previous years. In 2015, 11 freelance directors were contracted for productions on the Abbey and Peacock stages, as opposed to a projected four in 2019. That is nearly three times fewer employment opportunities at present for freelance directors.

Writers are similarly cast adrift - an article in The Irish Times by the playwright Jimmy Murphy on 15 January outlined that "confusion now abounds as to whether the national theatre has a functioning literary department that engages with playwrights to discuss commissioning new works." The Writers' Guild of Ireland requested numbers on new commissioned works from the Abbey on 16 January to inform this presentation but has yet to receive a response.

Currently, the productions directed by Graham McLaren, including revivals, amount to the majority of the Abbey's production output. A single artistic vision or voice is dominating self-produced Abbey shows. This is unprecedented and unbalanced. Previous artistic directors who themselves were professional directors did not direct such a large proportion of in-house shows. Combined with the policy to increase co-production, present buy-ins and re-present extant work, freelance opportunities become increasingly meagre. The request made in our letter of concern was not to end these long-established practices of co-production or presentation but simply to increase the proportion of self-produced shows, thereby generating further employment.

We have to speak to the issue of double funding. The Abbey receives 50% of the entire Arts Council drama budget. It has recently co-produced with several of the largest Arts Council-funded companies in the country, thereby benefitting not only from its own funding but from the funding brought in by that independent company. Many of these productions would most likely have been produced anyway but at a different venue. For example, the Druid Theatre Company has a show every year as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival, usually hosted at the Gaiety. The Abbey has always historically produced a Dublin Theatre Festival show. Last year, for the first time, the Abbey did not produce a show for the festival but instead hosted Druid's show. This not only houses our audience in one venue but ultimately reduces choice for audiences by having one show on where there could be two in separate venues. It also effectively cuts employment for artists in half, ultimately, double the money, half the shows. This detracts from the theatre ecology as a whole.

Regarding the The Abbey Theatre's presentation of the musical "Come From Away" for the Christmas period, the theatre stated that "Come From Away" did not impinge on the Abbey's grant from the Arts Council and it is expected to return a financial contribution that will be invested in the Abbey Theatre's programme for 2019 and beyond. Contrast this with Neil Murray's interview in The Irish Times on 1 December where he maintained "'with a good following wind', if it runs for two years on the West End, 'we would definitely recoup our initial costs'". Questions abound. Was this show cost neutral? How was this show funded, if not by the Arts Council grant? Were the ticket prices for a bought-in commercial show subsidised by Arts Council funding? Ireland-based agents put their clients forward at the beginning of March for consideration for this show but received no response. The UK-based casting director informed us on 5 April that they would be going into final auditions as of the following day and their process was nearly over. After pressure and questioning from actors and agents on Monday, 9 April, the UK casting director contacted Ireland-based agents requesting to meet with their clients. No director attended these auditions, no Abbey representative was present and no one was cast from the Dublin auditions. This timescale lends substance to the perception that these brief and hurried auditions were nothing but a cynical exercise. Was this production predominately cast prior to the Dublin auditions? This show garnered excellent reviews from media and audiences alike and we stand by our statement in our letter that these excellent shows should be seen by Irish audiences in the correct venues, which are plentiful. In terms of the national theatre, why are these franchises being bought in instead of investing in making new work? Where's our chance to make shows such as "Come From Away" or "Room"?

We acknowledge the increase in The Abbey Theatre audiences and are delighted that more people are attending the national theatre. The introduction of the free first previews is an excellent initiative and has clearly demonstrated that the country has an appetite for theatre and wants it subsidised. However, it would be prudent to note that in comparison with other theatres such as, for example, the Project Arts Centre, which receives a subsidy of €718,000 and attracts an audience of 50,000, or Smock Alley Theatre, which receives a subsidy of €80,000 and attracts an audience of 59,000, it can bee seen that with far less subsidy, these venues are attracting excellent audiences and in comparable terms of bang for buck, much higher returns. Therefore, is it about bums on seats? These other venues need to create a somewhat commercially viable programme to sustain themselves. There is less onus on the national theatre to do this and but more on it to nurture new playwrights, to challenge audiences with works that are complex and contradictory, like the audiences themselves and like the world we all find ourselves living in, and to nurture and mentor all of our artists at all stages of their careers.

We welcome new initiatives, such as the new works department, but we need transparency in regards to how it works. How many, if indeed any, commissions are progressed through it and what are the criteria for selection? This initiative seems to be the only avenue for established playwrights, as well as those emerging voices. Is it taking the place of the literary department? Is this the best method to deal with those writers who have built up bodies of work and already have a relationship with the national theatre? We note with interest the appointment of a new dramaturg but urge clarification on the job roles within the organisation and the installation of a clear method of communication and feedback for artists.

We also urge clarity on the chosen co-productions. How are project selected? What are the criteria for selecting and funding? How can a company apply to be considered? Must the company have a financial input or can it be artistic only?

Let us be very clear. This is not about the current directors of the Abbey Theatre. This is about the current policy, strategy, pay scales and employment opportunities. This is about communication and engagement with the entire sector. This is about the role of our national theatre, the passion and respect we have for it, and the vital direction we hope for in the future in order to evolve, sustain and enhance the ecology of theatre across the board.

Our letter was written in order to call on the Abbey board to define its strategy and to present a model which is cognisant of the many issues raised by the signatories. The Abbey Theatre's five-year plan for 2019-23 states that the Abbey Theatre is "artist-led and audience-focused". If that is true, the voices of the 409 artists who signed the letter of concern need to be heard.

Go raibh maith agat, Mr. Conlon. I think those voices have now been heard but I hope they will be listened to. Now we have an opportunity to hear the other voices. With that in mind, I ask Professor Ruane agus an tUasal Murray to make their opening statements. Níl a fhios agam cé acu atá ag labhairt ar dtús. Who is going to speak first?

Professor Frances Ruane

I will start.

Ceart go leor. Go raibh maith agat.

Professor Frances Ruane

We welcome this opportunity to discuss with the committee the current model of production and presenting and co-presenting in the Abbey Theatre. This is an evolving model whose content and roll-out are also evolving. What triggered this meeting, as we have just heard, was the letter written by the 312 signatories in January. We immediately put in train arrangements to try to meet with the signatories' representatives. We believe a dialogue is required. That planned dialogue has, I think, been very much welcomed by everyone as the appropriate way forward. We are sitting down with many technical details of the matter in hand. For this reason we will concentrate our engagement with the committee today on the specific areas it has identified because we do not wish to pre-empt or create preconditions for what we hope will be a constructive and direct conversation on Friday and beyond. That is our current position.

I wish to brief members on the Abbey's history, our current governance and our strategy. Mr. Neil Murray will then talk about the more specific details of our approach to production. In 1904 W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory established the Abbey Theatre, and their stated manifesto was "to bring upon the stage the deeper emotions of Ireland". I think many members who have seen theatre in the Abbey in recent years will have seen some very deep emotions of Ireland brought forward to the audiences. In 1925 the Abbey became the first State-subsidised theatre in the English-speaking world, which is something we are all very proud of. This State support has fostered great playwriting and theatre-making, with the production of many memorable plays over 90 years. I think I was at the Abbey for the first time in 1965. I have every programme from the Abbey Theatre back to 1968, when I started as a college student.

In 2008 a new governance was put in place following discussions up to that period, establishing the Abbey as a company limited by guarantee. The recurrent funding comes from the Arts Council, which acts at arm's length from the Department. It was very much part of the decision at the time that there should be that space. Given the scale of the funding, and the Abbey's role as a national cultural institution, the theatre operates in full compliance with all the legislation overseeing those in receipt of significant financial aid from Government. We see this as extremely important. That is our second hat, which is as a national cultural institution, and the scale of funding requires that we be compliant. The memorandum of association establishes the key elements of our responsibilities, which include promoting the performance of dramatic arts to the highest standards, producing and co-producing plays, commissioning plays and promoting appreciation of drama.

In 2014 an independent review of the Abbey Theatre was commissioned by the Arts Council and conducted by international experts Bonnar Keenlyside. It recommended a reprioritisation of the Abbey's activities to address a lack of touring and of community and education work, the under-involvement of visiting companies and the underutilisation of the Peacock Theatre as a space for artistic experimentation. In the period since, the Abbey has implemented the review's recommendations. In 2015 the board appointed Mr. Neil Murray and Mr. Graham McLaren as its co-directors with effect from July 2016, and with ownership of the programme from January 2017. They were given a clear mandate to increase the activity levels of the Abbey while maintaining financial sustainability. Slides 5 and 6 in the pack refer to these figures.

In November 2015 the publication of the Waking The Feminists report, showing the lack of gender balance in the 2016 programme, led the directors to prioritise the improvement of gender balance as soon as possible as a key objective. Following my appointment in May 2017, we began the process of undertaking a strategic review, culminating in our five-year strategy, which has been circulated to the committee. It was very much informed by the Bonnar Keenlyside report and feedback from the Arts Council as well as developments in theatre internationally. If one visits the website of the National Theatre in London, one will find its discussion of what a new works department is. This is a new way of creating theatre that the national theatre and others are following. It also reflects the Government's strong ambition for and commitment to the creative arts, which has been a fantastic development in recent years; a desire to build a young, diverse audience, which is crucial and which the Abbey did not have as it tended to have an older audience, which has now changed dramatically; and the requirement to be financially sustainable.

I wish to refer to that for a moment, because it was mentioned in passing. At the end of 2016, there was indeed no accumulated deficit. This was wrongly put out in the statement from the Abbey. It was corrected as soon as it was brought to the Abbey's attention. Accumulated losses were expressed as an accumulated deficit, which, as an economist, I know is an entirely different thing. We absolutely regret and apologise for the distress caused by this. What it did mean was that when the Abbey came in, our reserves were under €500,000, which for a theatre with a budget of approximately €10 million is a very low level of reserves, and accountants could not recommend this as a sustainable way to continue. It is absolutely the case that there was no deficit but it is the case that the level of reserves was not and remains not at a level to support what we need to do.

Our new strategy, which is highlighted on slides 2 and 3 in the pack, compels us to move forward in a spirit of collaboration. This is what we have sought to do and that is why the interaction with small and large companies throughout the country was seen as a positive thing. It was felt that it would be beneficial to have more involvement with smaller and larger companies throughout the country, and this will develop in different ways. At heart is our robust commitment to the arts, the art form and audiences throughout the country and internationally when the Abbey tours as an important part of Government policy. The strategy is driven by our core values, which are excellence, inclusivity, diversity and equality. As I mentioned earlier, gender equality continues to be prioritised.

From my perspective as chair of the board, I have observed some very important achievements over the past two years. These include the exceptional progress in increasing gender balance, which members will see is recorded in the statistics on slide 8; the greater activity levels in the Peacock Theatre, which everyone openly welcomes and is delighted to see; the presentation of new and overlooked voices, different kinds of companies getting their opportunity on the Abbey stage, which then allows them to travel internationally with the reputation of having been in their national theatre; increased numbers, which we detail on slide 9; and the changing profile of the audiences. I think everyone who has been to the Abbey will have noticed just how different the audience mix has become and how much more socially and demographically wide-ranging it is than it has been in the past. It has brought to the stage some very challenging social issues, and we can talk to a whole range of these that have come up in the past year which are extremely relevant. Again, it is important to maintain annual expenditure in line with annual income.

In celebrating these achievements, which have definitely been what the board set out to achieve, there have been significant changes. In any organisation significant changes have some unintended consequences, and I am delighted to see that there is recognition that these are unintended consequences. In the past four months, these unintended consequences have been under very active discussion between the Abbey Theatre and the Arts Council. They have been on the agenda and have been widely discussed to see how we might deal with them. As the recent Theatre Forum research illustrates, the working lives of artists are precarious and making a decent living as a freelancer is very hard. To make theatre, an openness to criticism as well as creativity is required. The Abbey regrets that large numbers within our artistic community feel that our journey towards a more collaborative national theatre has contributed to their personal hardship. We commit to engaging with them and to do what we can as the national theatre to address their concerns and show leadership in strengthening and enriching Ireland's theatre sector. I hope we can use the opportunity of Friday's meeting to commence a constructive dialogue towards this end.

Mr. Neil Murray

Chairman, Deputies, Senators, colleagues, the approach adopted by the Abbey from 2017 onwards, in line with a strategy agreed with the Abbey board, has been to develop a national theatre that, as Mr. Conlon said, is artist-led and audience-focused. We believe our national theatre should be a people's theatre at the heart of Ireland's civic and social life, a theatre for all, regardless of where in the country one lives or the amount of money in one's pocket. Central to the history and legacy of the Abbey Theatre is its role as a producing theatre. This continues to be at the heart of our activity. For example, 2018 featured acclaimed productions of Marina Carr's "On Raftery's Hill", and "Come On Home" by Phillip McMahon, featuring a performance by my colleague here, Mr. Conlon.

The run of "Jimmy’s Hall" in 2018 features among the best-attended shows in the Abbey’s history.

Alongside producing its own work, the Abbey Theatre has always co-produced and co-presented work. For example, in 2016 David Ireland’s incendiary "Cyprus Avenue", starring Stephen Rea, was co-produced with the Royal Court Theatre, London, and in the same year Frank McGuinness’s "Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme" was co-produced with Headlong Theatre and the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse theatres in England and the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, Scotland.

We believe in a national theatre that could also be a resource for the nation's theatre companies and makers. This has led to an increase in the number of co-productions and presentations while retaining the Abbey’s identity as a major producing theatre. The impact of opening the Abbey up to other companies and artists, while welcomed by many, and which was an important part of the transition process, did have the consequence of reducing the number of self-produced shows across 2017 and 2018, which we clearly acknowledge. We acknowledge that some have been disadvantaged by that decision while recognising that others who had previously struggled to find a home at the Abbey have benefitted. The 2019 programme includes more self-produced work, while retaining the principle of an open collaborative programme. There will be seven Abbey Theatre self-produced shows on the Abbey stage, of which three will tour in Ireland, the US and the UK. Our self-produced work will be on the Abbey stage for 31 weeks in 2019, with co-produced work occupying 14 weeks and presented work occupying five weeks. A further two weeks are reserved for essential maintenance.

In 2019 the smaller Peacock stage, which for financial reasons was dark for long periods in the past, will have a full programme of work. This includes development periods for new shows by the Abbey and other artists, and initiatives such as the Abbey’s 5x5 programme, where under-represented communities are given the funding and space to work on the Peacock stage for a week. The pilot in the first year of that programme included the Pavee Point and Traveller health care project, and Shadowbox, a group for people with intellectual disabilities. It also includes the Young Curators programme, a season of work for young people selected by young people, as well as small-scale presentations by innovative, independent Irish companies and artists. Through these initiatives, we believe we will help to unearth the new voices of Ireland and, in turn, welcome a new and diverse audience. Could the next Synge or O’Casey currently be living in direct provision? We will never know if we do not open our doors to these companies and organisations.

This approach allows both the Abbey and Peacock stages to operate all year round. The three-year average of 49 productions in 2017-19 compares with the corresponding average of 36 shows across the stages for 2014-16. As noted, audiences are responding positively to this approach. Our attendances are continuing to grow and reached 127,500 at the Abbey Theatre in 2018, the highest since 2010. Crucially, for 56% of that audience it was their first time attending the Abbey.

We believe in a national theatre where our artists are allowed to fail but must be celebrated when they succeed. The programme adjustment has lead to a significant improvement in gender equality on the Abbey’s stages, which, like the other main Irish stages, have had a pronounced gender imbalance in the past. As well as the Abbey's self-produced programme investing directly in female talent, our invitation to small, independent companies, in whose works we have also invested, to present on the Abbey stages has contributed to the speed at which we have been able to improve gender balance and bring greater variety to our audiences.

Against this positive outlook for the theatre, we take very seriously the concerns raised by some in the theatre community, particularly around employment opportunities for Irish and Irish-based artists being directly employed by the Abbey. Let me give the committee a picture for 2019. Our self-produced programme will directly employ 85 actors over a total of 775 actor weeks. Of those 85 actors, the vast majority will be Irish and predominantly Irish-based. A further 66 Irish or Irish-based actors will be employed through co-production and paid directly at Abbey rates over a total of a further 342 actor weeks. Through in-association, presentation, readings and workshop agreements, which are outlined on the slide, we estimate a further 120 actors will engage in paid employment with the Abbey in 2019.

I want to address the concerns expressed in regard to potential underpayment for artists working at the Abbey, which we take incredibly seriously, under the co-production, in-association and presentation contracts issued potentially by a partner theatre company. In regard to co-production, we have been in discussion with the Arts Council on this matter in recent months and we have agreed to ensure that all future contracts will include a condition that any artist engaged in a co-production with the Abbey will be paid at the appropriate Abbey rate or higher, whether at the Abbey or outside it. The issue of the Abbey determining pay rates for other companies presenting work at the Abbey is legally complex and we would like to see this issue form part of the planned dialogue with our theatre colleagues over the coming weeks.

We believe the Abbey Theatre should always be a fair-minded employer and collaborator while providing a good return for substantial public investment. We believe our programmes balance artistic ambition with financial prudence, and support artistic development and diversity, while encouraging ever-larger audiences to visit the Abbey Theatre. We welcome this opportunity to engage in positive dialogue with our colleagues from the Irish theatre sector and the Arts Council to ensure that our collective focus on making and presenting great theatre, in ways that are fair to artists and attractive to audiences, is at the heart of all we do.

Go raibh maith agat. Is é an dream déireanach chun cur i láthair a dhéanamh ná an Chomhairle Ealaíon. I invite Ms Orlaith McBride to present on behalf of the Arts Council.

Ms Orlaith McBride

I am the director of the Arts Council and I am accompanied by the chair of the Arts Council, Sheila Pratschke. I want to thank the committee for inviting us here today to discuss the current model of production, presenting and co-presenting at the Abbey Theatre. I will outline the work of the Arts Council, our relationship with the Abbey Theatre and how we work to develop theatre and all of the arts in Ireland.

The Arts Council’s role is to support the development of the arts. We do this through a range of grants and awards towards the production and creation of artistic work by supporting organisations, supporting individual artists and working in partnership with other agencies to develop the arts. The Arts Council has committed in its strategy "Making Great Art Work" to ensuring that artists are supported to make excellent work, which is enjoyed and valued. We work across all of our funding relationships and programmes to achieve this goal. In 2019 the Arts Council's overall budget is €75 million across a range of art forms, areas of arts practice and supports for individual artists, as well as partnerships and development initiatives.

The Arts Council directly funds the Abbey Theatre, recognising its national cultural institution status, as well as the Abbey's distinctive position as a building-based national theatre. Under the 2005 memorandum and articles of association of the Abbey Theatre, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht directly appoints the chair and three directors of the Abbey Theatre. This process is now managed via the Public Appointments Service process, albeit the Abbey is not a State body. The Arts Council also has appointing authority by participating in a selection committee that appoints three further directors. This selection committee comprises the chair of the Arts Council, the chair of the Abbey Theatre and an independent theatre practitioner. Additionally, there are staff appointees to the board of directors. The board of the Abbey Theatre is responsible for the governance and management of the organisation, including the artistic, strategic and financial aspects of the company. The Arts Council provides public funding to enable the organisation to carry out its work. The Abbey is audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

In 2013 the Arts Council commissioned Bonnar Keenlyside to undertake an independent evaluation and analysis of the Abbey Theatre. The purpose of the review was to examine the business model of the Abbey Theatre in 2013 with the aim of identifying how available public funding might secure the best outcomes for the Abbey, the theatre community and the public. The review also considered how the Abbey Theatre could deliver its mission in a way that was more efficient and effective, and whether resources might be deployed to deliver more in terms of artistic and programming outputs. Following receipt of the report in April 2014, the Arts Council and the Abbey formed a working group which met from May 2014 to work through many of the proposals within that report. Specifically, there was a focus on the following: the operating model and the use of the Peacock Theatre as the development engine of the Abbey Theatre; increased production of new work prioritising Irish writing and Irish plays about Ireland, both commissioned and those by visiting companies; increased engagement and touring; legacy and leadership with talks and discourse being led by the Abbey; restructuring of the budgeting of the company’s finances; restructuring of the staffing models for productions to increase in-house capacity; and a new system for monitoring and evaluation.

The working group comprised the following make-up: from the Arts Council, the chair and members of the council, the director and other senior staff; and from the Abbey, the chair and two board members, the director and other senior staff.

Although the working group was established to oversee and review implementation of the findings and proposals made in the Bonnar Keenlyside report which were largely addressed under the direction of the previous director, it continued to meet on an ad hoc basis on the engagement of the current artistic team, particularly in the context of the most recent bid for three-year funding.

The Arts Council has provided three-year funding for the Abbey Theatre on three occasions: for the periods 2006 to 2008, 2011 to 2013 and 2014 to 2016. Funding over a three-year period affords the Abbey Theatre and many other organisations a realistic timeframe within which to plan and implement changes and has proved successful on a number of levels. It provides security of income which assists in forward planning, both artistically and financially. As the periods 2011 to 2013 and 2014 to 2016, in particular, were marked by reduced support from the Arts Council due to the economic downturn and its impact on Government funding, this forward funding facility became ever more important. In 2015 a three-year funding agreement was extended by one year to include 2017. It had been sought to assist in the smooth transition to the current leadership team within the Abbey Theatre.

In 2017 the Arts Council entered into discussions with the Abbey Theatre on a new three-year funding agreement. At the time the Abbey Theatre was also developing a new artistic vision, mission and programme. In February 2017 the Arts Council delayed agreeing to a three-year funding envelope as it required a more comprehensive and detailed application from the Abbey Theatre. As a result, the council only made a one-year funding commitment of €7 million to the Abbey Theatre for the period September 2017 to September 2018, including €200,000 towards the cost of touring, and sought further information and details of its artistic vision and strategy, overall programme and models of production and presentation before it would make an offer for subsequent years.

In October 2018 the Arts Council made a further offer of funding to the Abbey Theatre for 2019 and 2020, with a series of conditions attached. The conditions focused specifically on the Abbey Theatre providing clarity on the nature of the production and presenting models being programmed, the impact on quality employment opportunities for actors and creatives, in particular, through an increased output of Abbey Theatre own productions, and the level of remuneration across all models of production at the theatre. The council agreed to withhold €300,000 of the funding proposed for 2019 until these areas were addressed. It met the board and executive of the Abbey Theatre in November and December 2018, with a further meeting to take place following the plenary meeting of the council in February 2019.

The previous model at the Abbey Theatre saw six equally budgeted productions and one international visiting production, coupled with a fluctuating number of Peacock shows. Increased programming at the Peacock occurred latterly and was dependent on funds being generated from a box office surplus in the Abbey Theatre. The new model of production structure is varied. There are fewer of the Abbey Theatre's own productions, but a high number of national and international co-productions and presentations afford the programme a much increased output. Presentations and co-productions aim to foster genuine and ongoing relationships between individual theatre artists, independent theatre companies, festivals and the national theatre. They provide audiences with the opportunity to see a greater variety of work on the Abbey Theatre stages.

The role of the national theatre is to be a leader in presenting and producing work that inspires and engages, as well as supporting the theatre community and sustaining the sector with exemplary employment opportunities. The responsibility for the artistic and strategic direction of the Abbey Theatre rests with its board. The Arts Council cannot and does not wish to dictate the artistic programme of the Abbey Theatre. However, it does, through its funding relationship and art form policies, attend to overarching concerns such as the fair remuneration of artists, quality employment opportunities for actors and creatives, as well as the balance between the Abbey Theatre's own productions and other independent productions, regardless of whether they are funded by the Arts Council. The current model, as evidenced by the recent letter from theatre practitioners to the Minister, as well as the Arts Council's articulated concerns, two years into its realisation, is impacting on the broader theatre ecology, with unintended consequences. A review of the impact of this model, as well as a re-balancing, is now required. The Arts Council continues to work with the Abbey Theatre and the theatre sector to ensure the very best outcomes can be achieved for practitioners and audiences.

Sin deireadh leis na léirithe. Tabharfaidh mé deis anois do bhaill an coiste agus siúd atá I láthair ceisteanna a chur. Glaoim ar an Seanadóir Warfield. If everyone can be as brief as possible, I will allow members to come back in, if we have time at the end. As there are three groups of delegates with three distinct presentations, we can bounce back and forth, if we have time.

The long-term systematic under-funding of the arts is at the core of where we find ourselves, following the publication of the open letter to the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht from more than 300 artists, which number has since increased to more than 400. We cannot ignore the impact of prolonged under-investment as we assess why that model has been chosen at the Abbey Theatre and pursued by the board and directors. I also acknowledge the positive work undertaken by the directors in the areas of public engagement and audience development. However, a direction that leads to wage depression of up to 25%, accidentally or otherwise, is unacceptable. Every person in the national theatre should be afforded the highest industry pay scales to reflect the stature and importance of the national theatre which should set the bar for the wider industry. I am alarmed by the 54% reduction in the number of actors directly employed by the Abbey Theatre and the move away from original works as it leads to a smaller pool of theatre work for everyone. We should not forget that artists who are not salaried continue to be left devastated by austerity. According to CSO data, artists are now earning 3.5% less than in 2013. Even those on salaries took a hit, but the work for self-employed persons disappeared, with the Arts Council budget which from 2008 reduced from €82 million to €56 million in 2014.

At this point, in gradually improving funding circumstances, the Abbey Theatre and other well funded organisations have to lead the way on pay and conditions for those who are not on a salary. The Arts Council funds theatre more than any other art form and more than half of that budget goes to the Abbey Theatre. I have three initial questions for the Abbey Theatre. Will it commit to trying harder? Will it guarantee that it will lead by example before the year is out? I understand the Abbey Theatre programme is set from now until the end of the summer. What measures can the theatre take immediately and what will have to be put on the long finger, given the commitments that have been made in the programme this year?

Professor Frances Ruane

Will the Senator go through the three separate issues again, please?

Will the Abbey Theatre try harder? Will it guarantee that it will lead by example on pay and conditions before the year is out? What actions can be taken immediately and what will have to be put on the long finger, given commitments that have been made in the programme this year?

Professor Frances Ruane

Before I hand over to Mr. Murray, we agreed with the Arts Council some time back that, starting in January, the pay and conditions of those involved in co-produced shows with the Abbey Theatre would be exactly the same as Abbey Theatre rates. How soon can that be done? It will be done immediately and is already in train. The other issues are more complicated because of legal requirements under competition and labour law.

Mr. Neil Murray

I thank Senator Warfield for his questions. It is great to have the opportunity to engage in this discussion. When Mr. Graham McLaren and I came to the Abbey Theatre, there was absolutely a hunger for change and a more open philosophy in its relationship with artists and companies which had previously not been given opportunities there. It was never our intention to make the Abbey Theatre an organisation that did not produce its own works. As we said, in 2019 that number is up to seven shows again, which is pretty much in line with what the Abbey Theatre has been doing in the past seven or eight years, prior to Mr. McLaren and I taking over.

The co-productions come from an artistic and creative impulse and from meetings with organisations who approach us with ideas to tell important stories on the national stage. We are, for example, about to do the first co-production in 2019 with THEATREclub. What people might see as double funding, we see as enhancement. An organisation can come to the Abbey with a relatively small amount of money for a show. We then sit down with them and ask how much they need to make the show the way they really want to make it. That includes absolutely paying them at the rate they should be paid, as if they are working for the Abbey Theatre. We add a sum of money, which enhances their budget and it means THEATREclub gets to make a show on the main stage of the Abbey theatre, in a way they could not have done elsewhere. They could have made the show but with less resources and potentially not pay at the rate they are able to because of what the Abbey is giving them. Our aim is to absolutely step up the level of self-produced work. That is in our bones and is what we as theatre makers want to do. We want to keep the positive sense of collaboration and openness at the Abbey coming in. The 2019 programme is effectively in place with the seven self-produced shows, a couple of co-productions, and some still to be determined through discussions with the Arts Council.

As we start to look forward to 2020, in the longer term as the Senator has put it, starting this week we will be in discussion with our colleagues to hopefully take advantage of the extraordinary talent in Ireland and the extraordinary potential opportunity here. The Abbey wants to be part of that and wants to make positive engagement with the community. We have been doing that with a lot of people who have had access to the Abbey and who previously did not. Clearly we have to make redress with people who are dissatisfied with that model. We are listening, we want to talk and we want to engage.

I want to talk about casting. The national theatre is expected to punch way above its weight in original works that receive international critical and commercial success. I am very aware of the new playwright programme and its importance to develop the writer and not just the play. The Peacock has been described as the engine room of Irish theatre. I have seen plays in the Peacock recently that could and should be on the main Abbey stage. Does Mr. Murray accept that Irish theatre will not survive, or that we will not have another Brian Friel, with the policy of old revivals and recent reruns, and the buying in of international productions?

Mr. Neil Murray

That is not what we are doing. The 2019 programme has three new plays on the Abbey stage. There is room for revivals and other presentations, but we are also making new theatre. This also happened in 2018; there were new productions in the Peacock such as "Porcelain" and "Come on Home", as well as new productions on the Abbey stage. In 2019 there will be three new plays, commissioned by the Abbey and all by Irish writers, on the Abbey stage.

Ms Pratschke and Ms Orlaith McBride are very welcome back to the Joint Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. What do the witnesses think it means to the Abbey Theatre when the Arts Council withholds €300,000? Does the Abbey Theatre immediately feel the impact of that or would the Abbey Theatre feel the impact as part of a lump sum of a couple of million euro at some point in the year?

Ms Sheila Pratschke

The reason we chose that figure was because at that point in the planning for 2019 we did not want to unbalance or disturb the viability of the Abbey Theatre to programme, make commitments or sign contracts. We wanted to chose a figure that was large enough to indicate our concern.

At this point it might be no harm to emphasise the fact that the increased payment - the proper payment - to artists and all of the people who work in the Abbey will come out of the Abbey Theatre budget. Independent production companies will not be topping up the payment. The independent production companies and the Abbey Theatre will also have a much more stringent reporting relationship with the Arts Council so we can ensure there is not undue double funding.

As well as guaranteeing the rates for artists, whether directly or indirectly employed by the Abbey, what other conditions did the Arts Council place on the Abbey Theatre?

Ms Sheila Pratschke

I will ask Ms McBride to read it out for the Senator.

Ms Orlaith McBride

It looks at the employment opportunities available to actors and creatives, especially at the increased output of the Abbey's own productions. It particularly looks at the remuneration of artists through the other models of production, be they presentation or co-production. There were other conditions with regard to public engagement and audience development.

If I was not elected to public office with a very good wage I would still be playing music full time. I would certainly not be living in Ireland. I look with admiration and respect at my friends who are making a living in the arts. Playwright Shaun Dunne asked a group of politicians in Leinster House recently, if artists cannot afford to live here in this country does Ireland still get to claim their legacy? It is my instinct that the Arts Council cannot set rates, but if something is funded by the Arts Council can we ensure that the people are well paid and that the rates set by Irish Equity, by Visual Artists Ireland, or the Musicians Union of Ireland - if and when it sets rates - are imposed by the Arts Council with an iron fist?

Ms Orlaith McBride

We do. In the past when we have assessed applications and felt that the artists were not getting paid enough we have withheld money and we have conditioned funding, especially in the visual arts area. We are currently developing a stated policy. The Senator is absolutely right that we cannot set pay rates for artists, but we can work with resource organisations such as Theatre Forum, Visual Artists Ireland and Dance Ireland to ensure they are very clear around the optimum pay rates for artists. The theatre sector is much more heavily unionised than other sectors and Irish Equity is there to service that purpose. It is not so easy, however, in other art forms and particularly in areas such as visual arts where an individual artist is trying to get his or her work seen in an exhibition or in group shows. We work very closely with Visual Artists Ireland to ensure those artists are paid properly for exhibition fees and when it is brought to our attention that artists are not being paid properly we would often condition funding to different organisations or galleries to ensure that it happens.

Can I ask one other question?

One more.

One of the problems I have experienced when proposing budget alternatives is that economic impact reports on heritage, audiovisual sectors and the arts come from different years and, with the exception of the audiovisual sector, these reports are out of date. Under Part 9 of the Arts Act 2003, the Arts Council has a general function to "furnish advice or information to a Minister of the Government [...] whenever the Council considers it appropriate". Does the witness accept that the Arts Council has fallen short in the last eight or nine years in developing upon the living and working conditions report or the economic impact report? Can we expect more research that would enable the Minister to approach the Department of Finance in budget 2020?

Ms Orlaith McBride

The last Living and Working Conditions of Artists report we did was back before 2008. That report cost €100,000 at the time. During the years when our funding was reducing we had to make decisions, and it was decided that we could not possibly invest that kind of public money in commissioning of reports when actually we know what we know, which is that artists are not well paid and that they struggle to make a living. We did not think it was appropriate at the time to spend €100,000 to be told what we knew and what we know. The last economic impact study was in 2012. We did not feel it appropriate to use our reducing resources on impact studies, again for financial reasons. With regard to the theatre sector and the theatre community, at an Arts Council meeting last week we discussed looking at the impact of the current model of production at the Abbey Theatre on the full arts and theatre ecology, and how we will work with the sector to ensure we can address the concerns being raised

If I do not get a chance to get back in I wish the witnesses all the very best on Friday. We all expect that a lot is riding on the outcome.

I thank the witnesses for their varied presentations but I am a little confused and I have a number of questions.

At the Joint Committee on Health yesterday, of which I am not a member but which I attended, they were arguing about the fact that we are spending €1.7 billion on a hole in the ground. I was delighted to be able to tell them, like a pantomime villain, that we were all aghast at this because nobody could find out how the money was being spent. We would never see that kind of money in arts, culture, the islands and the Gaeltacht. I want to point out that 75% of actors have no health insurance. That is at the core of what we are talking about here, which is a livable wage. I would also say the same about nurses. Nurses cannot afford to live in this country, nor can radiographers or occupational therapists. I believe that this place has gone half mad.

I turn to points about which I want to ask each of the witnesses. I thought Mr. Conlon's paper was excellent. He caught it in one what really needs to be discussed on Friday, outside of this committee. I refer to the breakdown of communication, the no-casting department, which is ridiculous, the no-open auditions or the settled before the outcome situation, the freelance directors and the decrease in the number of writers and directors. I ask Mr. Murray if these matters will be sorted. It was like a very good soliloquy in that it was from the heart, was extremely factual and he was on the money as to what is going on and as to why would 407 actors have signed this. They would not do that easily. The point made about the difference between audience growth, bums on seats, and artistic excellence. These were brilliant points throughout Mr. Conlon's paper.

Mr. Murray said that he has agreed to ensure that all future contracts will include a condition any artists engaged in a co-production with the Abbey Theatre will be paid at the appropriate Abbey Theatre rate or higher, which is answered there. What about the other areas? I will go on to my second question and then he can come back to that.

I ask Ms McBride, the director of the Arts Council, if she thinks the Abbey Theatre is doing its job. What would she recommend? Does she agree with the new strategies because she said there are unintended consequences and that a rebalancing is now required. Can she explain to me what she means by that required rebalancing?

Can I ask Dr. Ruane how much did the Bonnar Keenlyside report cost? Did this report tell her anything she did not know already? She said something, which was extraordinary. She said:

To make theatre, an openness to criticism as much as creativity is required. The Abbey regrets that some of our artistic community feel our journey [it is more than some] towards a more collaborative national theatre has contributed to their hardship.

Could she explain that and how she intends to ensure that never happens again?

I would like to ask for a general opinion from Mr. Murray, who is new. I have attended the Abbey Theatre as a member of the audience since I was five years of age. Is there something wrong that we do not have an Abbey Theatre training school and that we lost that? Sometimes I go to plays - this is me on a rant - and somebody comes on stage who I know should not be there-----

Mr. Neil Murray

Should not be there?

------because the training has not been there. I am not talking about the training where people have trained since they were a child. A young actor has to get a chance so I am not talking about that. There is something wrong about a national theatre that subscribes to everything to which Yeats subscribed, that has produced international world-class actors, some of whom are sitting opposite me, world-class directors and world-class playwrights and yet has no training school. I do not know if that is what the Abbey Theatre has in mind or if that is thought about. That would be the 300,000 or 400,000 nurturing. Perhaps I have asked too many questions because they are all really intertwined.

The actors in the Visitors Gallery, the practitioners sitting across from me and the Arts Council know more about this than I do. If I was to ask where I would find out the truth, I would not go to the media or to politicians. I sit in the Senate, so we are legislators. I would go to the theatre because Mark Patrick Hederman was in here last week and he said that we have forgotten that artists are the greatest cardiograph of the present and the prognosis of the future. The writer, the artist, the practitioner, the musician or visual artist will track where a country is far faster than any politician. He was talking about this philosophically but if we lose that, the great young talent and the passion to go into that work and into these areas of artistry, because, as we know we do not treat them properly, internally and externally, and we do not give them enough money, we are then in trouble.

Perhaps the witnesses might answer the questions on training and on the Bonnar Keenlyside report. Mr. Conlon might like to mention what he felt about writing this document and if he believes any of these matters will be answered because he co-ordinated this very well. Perhaps the Arts Council might say why it says things like "the unintended consequences". Ms McBride sounded like a politician when she said rebalancing was now required.

I dtús baire glaoim ar an Uasal Murray.

Mr. Neil Murray

I will address the training question first. It would be unusual for theatre companies anywhere in the world to have their own training facility. What we have in Dublin is the Lir Academy, and we are incredibly lucky to have it. The Lir Academy is a training school in Dublin which is churning out really brilliant actors, particularly young actors but also actors-----

The Abbey Theatre is the national theatre. I am not talking about the Lir Academy, which I know about. I am asking what your opinion is about having a training school in the national theatre called the Abbey Theatre.

Mr. Neil Murray

It would be inappropriate. It should happen outside of the national theatre. It is happening brilliantly in Dublin at the Lir Academy and the national theatre and other theatres are benefitting from that. The production that was just on our stage had eight recent graduates from that school. It has the expertise, time, and funding to properly train young people in a brilliant way. I take my hat off to Lir as well as the Gaiety School of Acting. The Lir Academy, in particular, is at the top of its game and is producing really wonderful young actors, which the Abbey Theatre is benefitting from, as indeed are other companies in Ireland.

I disagree with that but that is my own opinion. I do not disagree about the Lir Academy but I disagree that the national theatre, about which we are all making great philosophical statements, has no training aspect to it. Where is its ethos then?

This is a private conversation for another day.

Mr. Neil Murray

While we-----

What is its ethos if it starts coming in from the carnivals from afar?

Can we ask Ms Pratschke?

That is my rant. I became an old age pensioner. I am 66 years of age, so I will say what I like now.

Mr. Neil Murray

I would be delighted to further converse on this as well.

Ms Orlaith McBride

I will take the question on rebalancing and unintended consequences. The Bonnar Keenlyside report was about looking at and diversifying the production model. It was about opening up the Abbey Theatre and, in particular, looking at animating the Peacock stage and that has happened. We believe now, particularly with the effect on the artist and other venues around the city and around the country, that in reshaping the production model in the Abbey, there has been a very radical shift in a very short period of time. It has affected the lives of individual artists and the theatre sector. I do not believe it was never intended. I think we need to stand back and that together, as a sector, we need to work together, collaborate and look at how we can rebalance it in a way. That is what I mean by rebalancing and unintended consequences.

To rebalance it where?

Ms Orlaith McBride

The concern is that there are fewer Abbey-owned productions. Mr. Murray spoke about that. The Arts Council had concerns that there were fewer Abbey-owned productions and that it was employing fewer actors and creatives itself because more work was being brought into the Abbey Theatre.

Does Ms McBride see any link to what I am saying about the Abbey having its own training house?

Ms Orlaith McBride

I think Mr. Conlon might be better equipped to answer that question but the Abbey has not had its own training house for many years. What we are talking about now is something that has emerged in the past two years as the new model is bedding down. I do not think it is necessarily because there is no training house.

I am not saying that. I am asking whether Ms McBride sees any link to what she is saying-----

Ms Orlaith McBride

Not really - not with the training house.

Does Mr. Conlon or Ms Dukes wish to respond?

Ms McBride is effectively saying that the Abbey has just become a receiving house.

Ms Orlaith McBride

Yes, it needs to-----

Is Ms McBride saying that the Abbey has forgotten what its entire ethos or point is?

Ms Orlaith McBride

I am not saying that it has effectively become just a receiving house. It is producing fewer of its own productions than it did in the past.

That is just another way of saying what I have said.

We can come back to that if there is time at the end.

Mr. Declan Conlon

The notion of a training school might be served by what we were discussing. This letter was written by Maureen McGlynn and Ms Clíóna Dukes with very little input from me so I cannot take credit for it. I simply delivered it. Regarding the relationship we mentioned in the letter involving the casting department and the nurturing of young talent, regardless of where it is trained such as in the Lir Academy or the Gaiety School of Acting, there is a significant problem because there is no connection between people coming out of drama schools and the national theatre. It seems that the only way one can get access to the national theatre is by forming a company. This notion is very odd. The Abbey's own company began a very long time ago. Under the change model, everybody would be a freelancer and nobody would have any security of tenure in the arts. The community adapted to that over the years. What we have now is a situation where the system has recently changed with the new direction for the Abbey. As far as I am aware, no artist was consulted about this new direction. It was obviously discussed by the board of the Abbey and the Arts Council without any consultation with any of the 409 people who have written this letter. The outcome of this is that freelancers are now being deprived in work in the Abbey because they are freelancers. If someone does not set up or is not a member of a small company, he or she will not have access to the Abbey Theatre. The way we used to have access was when a variety of independent freelance directors were employed by the Abbey Theatre, who then employed a wide variety of individual freelance actors because that is how the net was spread. A wide, or wider, variety of people was employed. This has shut down completely. Another side effect is that we have a very limited creative vision as a result. We said this in the letter. One man is directing the major funded productions on the main stage of the national theatre - one vision. As for two of the plays that were mentioned,"Come On Home", which I was very pleased to be a part of, and "On Raftery's Hill", "the latter had ten performances. This was less than two weeks.

Mr. Neil Murray

"On Raftery's Hill" ran for over three weeks. "Come On Home" ran for four weeks

Mr. Declan Conlon

Perhaps Mr. Murray is right and "Come On Home" ran for four weeks but the point is that the productions directed by Graham McLaren have all come back for extended runs of three or four months. That is a particular type of work as well. That is a separate question. There is a lack of a spread of artistic vision because too few freelance independent voices are being employed in the theatre. I do not understand why people who have been spending 20, 30 or 40 years in this business are not consulted by the people who run the Abbey Theatre about potential shows. As I have said, if somebody is not in a company, he or she does not hear about it. When somebody is in a company, the cast for that company consists of the members of that company. Those are the people who get cast so there are no open auditions for those productions. That company has its own core members who are cast in that production so there are no open auditions for it. Will the casting department be reinstated?

I was asking Mr. Conlon that question. Through the Chair, is he confident that this might happen?

Mr. Conlon cannot tell the Senator whether the casting department will be reinstated.

He cannot answer that question because the people who can answer it are in front of the Senator.

Is Mr. Conlon confident that it will be reinstated? He will be at this meeting on Friday to discuss all the things he spoke about such as communication, open auditions, freelance directors, writers-----

Perhaps Mr. Conlon will get the answer on Friday.

I am trying to move on because another member has arrived and there are three more-----

This other person is not a member of the committee and has a tendency to arrive late in the evening as another pantomime villain.

Senator Hopkins has sat through all of-----

Politics does not have to be dull.

Senator Hopkins has sat through all the proceedings thus far.

Nobody answered my question.

We might not get all of the answers because of Friday. I will take Senator Hopkins and we can come back because some of the issues-----

Professor Frances Ruane

Some of the questions do need to be answered during the course of this afternoon, so I would be very happy to-----

I am not shutting Professor Ruane down because I have some down myself. I will repeat some of what others have said, which will give everybody the opportunity to put their answers on the record before we close. We will leave the witnesses to follow up on the debate and the conversations on Friday. I am not closing down any debate. I will move things along and come back again if we have time.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations. In her presentation, Ms McBride mentioned a report commissioned in 2013 that contained specific recommendations. She then said that the group has continued on an ad hoc basis. If these recommendations on the operating model, increased production of new work - both commissioned work and work by visiting companies - and a system for monitoring and evaluation were made, why then are we at this point? Why are we at a place where €300,000 has been withheld because there appear to be issues in terms of what Ms McBride has outlined with regard to the nature of the productions, presenting models being programmed and the impact on quality employment opportunities for actors and creatives? Why have we reached this place if this working group produced its recommendations and if, as Ms McBride said at the outset, the recommendations were largely addressed?

Regarding the key points emerging from the presentations, from media coverage, we aware of the fair remuneration of artists, quality employment opportunities and production runs being shorter. They are the three key points. It has been stated that one of them is, or is in the process of, being addressed. It has been agreed that all future contracts will include a condition that any artist engaged in a co-production with the Abbey will be paid the appropriate rate or higher. The previous discussion concerned the fact that artists are not being paid enough to be able to manage on a long-term basis.

How does the Abbey Theatre propose to address the three issues that have been raised, namely, fair remuneration, quality employment opportunities and the shorter production runs to which Mr. Conlon referred.

My third question, on structures and communications, has been raised by other members and relates to my first point. A meeting will be held on Friday. What structures, including in communications, are planned to ensure this problem does not arise again and issues do not escalate to the point at which 409 people raise concerns?

On funding, there have been challenges around budgets in recent years. It is important to note, however, that the budget for arts and culture has increased by 14% or €22 million since 2018 to almost €190 million. We must ensure there is accountability for that Exchequer funding and proper structures are in place.

Ms Orlaith McBride

I will answer the question on why we are at this point given that the Bonnar Keenlyside review was published in 2014. A different director was in place at that time. Many of the Bonnar Keenlyside were being attended to at the time. The reason we are at the point where the Arts Council has withheld €300,000 is that we have been in negotiations with the Abbey Theatre on a new three year funding deal. We should have made a funding offer to the Abbey back in 2017 for 2018, 2019 and 2020. In 2017, the Abbey was not ready to provide us with the type of strategy and vision that would have allowed us to make a three year funding agreement with it. For this reason, we made a one year funding agreement and revisited it when the Abbey provided further information to us. When that information to allow us to make a decision for 2019 and 2020 was provided late last year, issues and areas of concern arose for the Arts Council and I have clearly articulated these. It was at that point that we withheld €300,000 to allow us to enter into discussions with the Abbey Theatre. We have been engaged in discussions since the autumn of last year to address these areas of concern, namely, the remuneration of artists, employment opportunities and the number of Abbey-owned productions versus co-productions. We reached this point in the context of the concerns we had when we started to engage in a process of agreeing a new three year funding envelope with the Abbey Theatre. We met the Abbey Theatre's board and its executive twice before Christmas. We are to be provided with further information prior to a plenary meeting in two weeks. After that, the group will meet again to see what progress has been achieved in the areas we raised.

Mr. Neil Murray

I will speak on the length of the runs and casting issues, which are important. The length of the runs does not depend on who is directing but on the show and how long of a run it is thought a particular show can sustain. "On Raftery's Hill" by Marina Carr was a brilliant piece of work but it was not the best-attended show of the year by any means. We ran it for three weeks and it did really well and was critically acclaimed. If one wants bums on seats, one would not necessarily programme that play or many of the other plays that we programme. We want people to come to the theatre but we programme the theatre from an artistic imperative. The works must be brilliant, in our view. A play such as "On Raftery's Hill", which is fantastic and achieved everything we wanted it to achieve, is a hard sell, if I am honest. To run that show for six weeks would not make sense economically or for the performers. They would be paid, which would be fantastic, but they would not play to big houses over a six week run of that show. Other shows are different and I do not want to focus on just one artistic director.

To pick up briefly on casting, a head of casting left in 2017. In discussion with that person at that time, we decided we would trial not having an in-house casting director. We ceded that role to the head of producing, which was a new post, and we also worked with freelance casting directors who are of the highest standard. I will be specific because this was raised by Mr. Conlon. The show, "Come on Home", was directed by the freelance director, Rachel O'Riordan, who worked with a casting director to cast the show. There is a process, and a route through a casting director and a director to be cast. When Graham McLaren casts his shows, he tends to hold very large open workshops of up to 100 people and then narrows it down from there. There is a process in place. I accept that it is certainly something we need to address. If the actors, casting directors and agents feel it is not working, we need to look at it and we will do so.

Mr. Declan Conlon

When I speak of a casting problem, I am not necessarily speaking about it for myself. I have been working for 30 years and I do not need a casting department as much in the theatre in Ireland. I raise it because at our meeting last week, a number of young actors who were just out of drama school were very vocal about how they have no connection to the national theatre. They have no access. In a permanent casting department, there would be a person whose job it is to go to small fringe shows in the city to see people starting out, whether in pub theatres or wherever else they are doing the shows, build relationships with them, bring them into audition, recognise them and nurture their talent over time. An independent casting director cannot do that. He or she will have lots of gigs on at the same time and may be working on a television show and a film simultaneously. This means knocking out the job because he or she has various other jobs on at the same time. It is not the same thing and it does not nurture young talent. When I heard those young actors discuss this at that meeting I was genuinely heartbroken for them because they felt they had no opportunity.

Ms Clíona Dukes

One said that they have two options, either to give up or leave. It was really stark and upsetting.

Mr. Declan Conlon

They can leave the country or leave the profession.

Professor Frances Ruane

I mentioned earlier that the Abbey is open to listening about the various issues that have arisen. I am very aware of the issues for freelancers. Among my children and their in-laws, I have five freelancers and one person in paid employment so I know exactly how difficult this is. However, I have also met young actors who told me that they were out of favour with the person in Abbey and so they never got the gig. There is a blend or solution to be found that makes sense in having the point of contact and ensuring that what we put in place is fair across the board. At the moment we are drawing on casting directors and a problem is being identified and I accept that is something we need to address. However, I would caution that this is something that could limit actors in future. It does not all go in one direction, just as where some of the shows have been shows have been shorter and longer means that some actors have gained and some have lost in that process. These are all things that we are happy to discuss in a very open dialogue with the signatories of the letters and their representatives. I think that the members of the committee will recognise what I feel is the key point. The Senator mentioned some points at the beginning that relate to the industry or sector relating to payment and the difficulty of surviving as a freelancer in Ireland doing anything.

Some of them are wider issues which we would need to take up on a sectoral level. What we are committed to doing is dealing with those which are Abbey Theatre specific, but the background is very difficult for freelancers who came out during the recession and who either had to emigrate or stay here to find limited work. When we have the discussion, I urge that we have this open dialogue to map the different issues, where they sit and who might have a role to play in progressing in a positive direction.

To what extent does what happens in the Abbey Theatre have a ripple effect in the industry as a whole?

Professor Frances Ruane

Absolutely and we have had that exact discussion with the Arts Council. How is the ripple effect measured? There is a positive ripple effect and potentially a negative ripple effect. As I am an economist by background, I know just how difficult it is. The Arts Council has been working very hard to build its evidence base to try to make its decisions. I respect this entirely and in the past year we have been finding ways to find out what is needed to allow the Arts Council to make good decisions in our interactions with it. To me, there is a big issue in the wider sector, but we will start by looking at those issues which are Abbey Theatre-specific and which have a bearing on everything else.

A question was also asked about the cost of the Bonnar Keenlyside report.

Ms Orlaith McBride

I do not have that information to hand.

Ms McBride can forward it to us.

Ms Orlaith McBride

Yes, we can send it on.

I have a number of questions, but I will ask Deputy Boyd Barrett to come in first. I will then finish off.

I apologise for not being here earlier as Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell was kind enough to point out. I am also not a member of the joint committee, although I do attend as often as I can. I thank the Chairman for accommodating me. I was on the picket line all morning for the nurses' strike. That is why I was late. If I go over ground that has been covered, I apologise.

When I read the letter from the signatories, I was delighted that the Abbey Theatre was being discussed at a national level and that everything about it was open for discussion. To me, that is a good start, whatever one may think about the different sides and angles of the debate. I was also delighted that the precarious position of theatre actors, theatre performers and theatre makers was being highlighted because, to me, we should all be able to unite on it as a matter of serious concern because it is a big problem. At the same time, I was sad because I thought different parts of the theatre community were having a crack at each other. I would like to see them unite in addressing these serious concerns for those who make theatre if they cannot survive and need work coming up Christmas and do not have it because presented productions have been brought here.

I see this as the result of a drift over decades towards a neoliberal model for the arts. We have moved from a situation where there were theatre companies, some security and training in-house to one where it is completely precarious. I would like everybody to comment on what they think about this. We have had a similar debate about the film industry. One side of the debate says that is just the way it is, that it is nonsense and pie in the sky to think we can go back to a time when there was security of employment for those involved in the arts, film or theatre. I do not agree with that view, but many seem to think that is just the way it is now. I would like the delegates to comment on the issue.

I would particularly like the delegates to comment on the issue in the light of a conversation I had with a friend, who is an opera singer, who found a job in a theatre in Germany last year. She was amazed at her experience there and I was amazed to hear about it because it contrasts starkly with the sentiments expressed by the signatories about their situation, theatre performers and so on who had a meeting before Christmas in Capel Street and came here last week. They said they were in a totally precarious situation, that they were at the top of the game and that they could not pay the rent, that they did not know if they would have work the following week and that they needed to get out of the country or drop out of what they were doing. I then talked to my friend who had just found a job as an opera singer in a theatre. She said it was amazing, that she got 6 weeks holidays, sick pay and holiday pay, that she would have security of employment if she was there for longer than a year or two, that she basically would have a job for life if she wanted it and would receive a pension. I wondered if we could have that here and if we should not have it. Is the battle between the different sides taking place because we have accepted that it is impossible? Will we end up fighting over the crumbs, the crumbs being who will get to be on the Abbey Theatre stage?

Some of the actors and performers at the event on Capel Street said to me that the smaller companies had effectively been dismantled because of the cuts. That is the way they put it. Where the smaller theatre companies had some security in the past, it is now gone. There is no security and we are left with a scramble for who will be on the Abbey Theatre stage. Should we not all unite to say this is not good and that the levels of public support for the arts in this country are pathetic, by which I mean the levels of public funding because the percentage of GDP that goes to the arts is pathetic? Unless we address that issue, we will end up with a scramble over the crumbs.

Ms Sheila Pratschke

I am coming to the end of my period as chairperson of the Abbey Theatre. I am sorry, not the Abbey Theatre but-----

It is a very good promotion.

Ms Sheila Pratschke

I am not taking that job. As I am coming to the end of my period as chairperson of the Arts Council, I would like to make a valedictory statement that we desperately need the politicians present to support us, speak up for us, unite in the Dáil, the Seanad and everywhere else. They should not just do so once a year at budget time but on a continuous basis because when one speaks up for the arts in Ireland, one ends up being isolated. Please do not leave us isolated but join us in making these arguments.

Sign the letter.

What Ms Pratschke has said is so true. As they were walking down the corridor somebody told me not to go to the Joint Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht because there were no votes in it. It is important because it is the ruin-----

I am not saying it is not important but-----

What Ms Pratschke has said is completely correct.

It is important and we might prove her wrong. I want to let everybody answer.

Professor Frances Ruane

The key is the funding levels. What was in place before the crash, like in many other sectors, apart from this one, in terms of some of the structures in place, gave people more certainty, if not security. The reduced certainty has obviously exacerbated the situation. It is crucial, therefore, to have funding lines that are more solid and sustained. Perhaps I am an optimist, but the Government has very publicly committed to increasing the money for the arts over a period of ten years.

Even doing that was very positive. We must watch, and it is important that committee members watch, that the money keeps coming through. It then needs to be spent judiciously throughout the arts system. This debate has provided a focus and its background is about giving a greater level of certainly of opportunities in the system.

The Abbey is one stage. Approximately 200 people were on the main Abbey stage last year in different shapes and forms. Of these, just the small number - 45 - were involved in direct productions but more than another 100 people were involved in other ways and activities on the main Abbey stage. As a proportion of the total country this is very small and I agree with Senator Warfield that it has a big ripple effect. There are also ripple effects from some of the other theatres. Funding in a systematic increasing way is the absolute key. There is much to be said for small companies coming together but I am an economist and we believe in small and medium enterprises as the engines of innovation. I am very strong on this. I would like to see funding coming in such a way that people could begin to think about the next two to three years in their lives as a period during which they can plan to be creative. This will only come from greater security of funding in the system.

Mr. Neil Murray

The genuine wish of Mr. McLaren and I when we came to the Abbey Theatre was to make it a home for artists from throughout Ireland, whether they are individual freelance artists and performers or smaller companies. This is still our aim and we still believe it is achievable. What we feel we can do because of the funding we receive is to add value to what the Abbey has and enhance what is a real struggle. We absolutely accept that struggle and we want to be part of the solution. We really believe this is a time for unity and clarity and the Abbey has a significant part to play in this. We are really open to this discussion.

Ms Dukes and Mr. Conlon are eager to get in.

Mr. Declan Conlon

I completely agree with Deputy Boyd Barrett that it is not the Abbey's fault the arts are underfunded. It has a specific budget and we cannot expect the Abbey to solve all the problems in the theatre community. It is important for politicians to remember the soft power and reputational power the arts have in this country. Ireland is known throughout the world for its theatre and its arts. People often specifically come to the country to see something in the theatre. It is difficult to be working in the arts aware this is the reputation they have internationally and yet be living on the breadline at home. This situation has existed for a very long time and it needs co-ordinated increases in Arts Council funding so we will not be having disagreements among ourselves in the artistic community but will be getting together to lobby Governments for more funding and more respect for the arts.

With regard to the Abbey, we need to mention playwrights briefly. Historically the Abbey has had a canon of work produced by some of the greatest playwrights in the world, including Seán O'Casey and, more recently, Tom Murphy, Brian Friel and Thomas Kilroy. We have some really excellent-----

Professor Frances Ruane

And Marina Carr.

Mr. Declan Conlon

Of course, Marina Carr.

Professor Frances Ruane

To get the gender balance.

Mr. Declan Conlon

This has to continue. There is also Mark O'Rowe. There are also younger playwrights. Something is happening on that front. However, there is a lack of opportunity for them. We need more cognisance of the fact the Abbey has been a writer's theatre and the spoken word has been very important historically in the Abbey Theatre.

For a separate discussion for a separate time, I would like to see more plays produced because what we have at present are adaptations of other works of art. We have adaptations of films and novels. Playwriting is a very specific skill. Being a dramatist is a very specific skill. It is a skill we have to nurture if we are going to have great works of theatre in our canon for the future.

Ms Clíona Dukes

There are two separate arguments. We have sent a draft agenda to the Abbey and we are waiting for it to get back to us. Let us all be on the same side. Let us all get together and increase the funding. Funding in Ireland is 0.1% of GDP but it is 0.6% in Europe and we absolutely punch above our weight internationally. Imagine what we could do if we were on 0.6% of GDP. It would be remarkable.

We have only one national theatre and it is special. It needs to have a remit that takes this into consideration and represents the entire island of Ireland. It is not the remit of all the other theatres. They have their own specific remits and are there to produce and provide for audiences throughout the country. A very important part of the conversation is the national theatre remit, how special it is to us and how historic it is as well as being able to show us where we are going.

I apologise for not being here earlier. There are always meetings on at the same time. I have a few questions and I hope I will not duplicate what has already been asked but if I do, forgive me. I completely agree with Ms Dukes; I see the Abbey as something extremely special and hugely important to Irish artists and talent coming through, including playwrights, actors and designers. It is the one place where people can use their artistic license and do not have to worry so much about bums on seats, as we all do as artists. It cannot be all about this and it is unique to the Abbey Theatre. It should not become a commercial entity. From the letter written, and what I have heard over recent weeks and months, this has been a huge concern. Perhaps it has been addressed today.

My next point is with regard to Mr. Conlon's presentation. Perhaps it has already been answered by the Abbey Theatre. If so, well and good, but if not, I would like Mr. Murray's thoughts on it. The casting department-----

Mr. Neil Murray

That has been answered.

The dismantling of the literary department-----

Mr. Neil Murray

I am very happy to answer that.

What was the number of in-house productions last year as opposed to buy-ins or co-productions?

Mr. Neil Murray

The literary department has not been dismantled. We have a new work department, with a full-time dramaturg, Louise Stephens, who was appointed at the end of 2018. She was at the Royal Court Theatre in London and trained at Trinity College in Dublin. There is a literary department in full action.

To pick up on the point Mr. Conlon made on new plays at the Abbey, in 2019 there will be two new plays by new Irish writers on the Abbey stage. There is a literary department that is functioning. Dylan Coburn Gray's "Citysong" and Lisa Tierney-Keogh's "The Beautiful Village" are new plays. They are not film or book adaptations or musicals. We are commissioning and developing new plays. In addition to Ms Stephens, we have for associate playwrights from Ireland. If anything, there is an increased function in our literary department. I hope people will start to see the results of this coming through. They are coming through already with three new plays. I did not include Dermot Bolger's new play because he is more of a veteran. The other two will be Abbey debutantes on the main stage of the Abbey. There is new work coming through, of which we are really proud, and we are really excited to put it forward.

The Deputy also asked how many self-produced shows-----


Mr. Neil Murray

We have acknowledged there were fewer in 2017 and 2018. It reduced to four on the main stage-----

As opposed to-----

Mr. Neil Murray

It was six the year before. It was six in 2016.

How many were buy-ins?

Mr. Neil Murray

I do not use the phrase buy-in. It is not a phrase we use. They are invited and curated. It is part of the programme.

They are not in-house productions.

Mr. Neil Murray

Not strictly in-house, no. There is a range of productions. There are in-house plays that are co-produced but there are very few.

This year only five weeks is given over to what we call “invited productions”.

What figures are involved? What is the difference in costs between in-house productions and invited productions?

Professor Frances Ruane

The pack distributed to the committee has data and information on productions.

Traditionally, it has been six or seven shows a year on the main Abbey stage. It is back up to that this year having had two low years of four. We have put our hands up and admitted we did not do the usual traditional number.

That is what caused frustration among actors and others involved.

Professor Frances Ruane

Yes, there is a sense that this problem was already in train to be solved. Our discussions with the Arts Council had reflected some of the discussions on that.

If the letter had come to the Abbey as opposed to the Minister, we would have many clarifications to what is going on. Then we would be down to the issues that are still outstanding and more complex.

It will be seven shows for this year on the main Abbey stage.

Mr. Neil Murray

They will be self-produced.

Professor Frances Ruane

We are going to have four co-produced shows. There will be two ones done in association. The details of that are in the glossary. We will all know very much more about how theatrical shows are produced. There are two presented. The majority, both in terms of time and resources, are self-produced and some co-produced. This concern-----

Is it the case that there was a problem, it was acknowledged and rectified?

Professor Frances Ruane

There was an adjustment pattern which the board decided in line with the directors. It was decided that we would do a mixed production model in any case. In 2015, the Abbey had four presented shows and two co-produced shows. This is not anything new. I accept the balance over those two years of adjustment was greater than what we would have wanted. We are not changing. The model of mixing, we believe, is the right one. The "balance" – a word used by the Arts Council - within that mixing is what we are talking about. We are not talking about something that is significantly differently. It was already the case that seven main stage Abbey shows were patterned in for 2019. It was early in September 2018 when that position was made.

Mr. Conlon presented factual evidence about playwrights submitting work but not getting responsive communications.

Mr. Declan Conlon

There are two issues. There is a distinct lack of responsive communication. We have heard this from a number of people at the meetings we have had. The second issue, which I find strange, concerns the new works department. Established writers, who have a relationship with the Abbey Theatre, have to send in work anonymously. They are treated the same as anyone else. There are no names on the submitted scripts. How does one build a relationship with a writer who has a history with the theatre if everybody is just sending in work to this new works department anonymously? That does not sound like nurturing to me. One needs a literary department which works with the young playwright over the course of the development of the play.

Will Mr. Murray respond to that? There are two sides to these matters. We would hope that, if they are all sorted on Friday, the committee would be presented with a wish list which, hopefully, it can follow up on. We would hope the same if they are not sorted too.

I have just one further question. I have heard much debate around this issue. It is an area about which I feel passionate because that is where it is all coming from.

What was the experience for playwrights using the literary department as opposed to what it is now?

Mr. Declan Conlon

I am not the best person to answer that because I am not a writer. One would have to listen to a playwright for the specifics on this.

Has Mr. Conlon heard any of the experiences of playwrights?

Mr. Declan Conlon

There was meeting last week at the Writers Guild of Ireland. That is where we are getting this information. As I stated in my submission, the Writers Guild of Ireland requested information about how many plays were commissioned by the Abbey Theatre for 2019. We still have not received that information. We did not get an answer. Everything sounds good and well but the reality is not quite the same.

Mr. Neil Murray

On Mr. Conlon’s point about established writers, there is a clear channel both directly to the dramaturg or the directors of the Abbey. We have regular meetings with experienced playwrights about their work. They do not have to submit anonymously. There is that process but there is a direct line. We meet regularly with those writers and work on shows with them.

On the issue around the Writers Guild of Ireland, what we have said consistently since 7 January is that we want to talk to the signatories. This has come ahead of this and we welcome it. There will be a whole raft of information to go to the Writers Guild of Ireland but we wanted to have one line of communication. Otherwise, there was a real sense of fragmentation.

The reality is that the literary department is commissioning more work. There will be three new plays on the Abbey stage this year, two by new Irish writers making their debuts. That is a manifestation of what we are doing. We accept it took some time for the structures to be put in place for the appointment of a full-time dramaturg. They are now in place with significant supports for the appointment. We are optimistic moving forward. Not only will we be working with the great established playwrights of Ireland, with whom we want to work, but we will open up channels for emerging writers to have a real career path in Irish theatre.

Ms Clíona Dukes

On the communications issues, I genuinely believe that highlights it. Up to 409 people signed this letter as individuals and not organisations.

Organisations should be able to ask the national theatre for the numbers and get them quickly for whatever presentation or reason they want them. It should be covered by freedom of information. Two days ago I asked the UK’s Royal Court Theatre and the National Theatre, as well as a French company, for their figures which they gave me in 24 hours. There needs to be further work done by the Abbey on communications.

Mr. Neil Murray

I accept that. In normal circumstances, we would simply provide that information. However, given the heat around the whole upcoming meeting, we felt it was better to focus everything on our process with the signatories. There have been various side issues to that. However, we want to wrap them altogether. In future, we will communicate clearly.

Ms Clíona Dukes

I just think it is unusual to withhold numbers in order to get them to another group.

Professor Frances Ruane

What is really important now is to get into a space with a good dialogue where we see exactly what is happening. There has been much change going on. Anybody who has had the experience of being through change management knows that things do not always get communicated as clearly as they should and not everybody is affected equally positively by the change. This has been a significant change.

On behalf of the board, I must say we are absolutely committed to having stronger communication with the whole of the sector. There have been parts of the sector with which we have had strong communication but it has not been even. It is the board’s view that this communications system must be in place. When one is making changes, setting up new departments and hiring people, there is a time before somebody can be put in place. We are very much in place with the people whom Mr. Murray and Mr. McLaren have hired for the new works department, the dramaturg and other people who have come into the theatre in the past 18 months.

I would like to hope that, if we were having this conversation in six months’ time, we would all be in a much better place with a much wider understanding of the issues and a shared information base that will mean we are speaking to exactly the same numbers, as well as understanding them in the same kind of way. It will take a little bit of time. There is a whole range of questions. The Abbey’s approach is correct to bring them together as a system rather than deal with one issue here and another issue there. The danger with a single set of issues is that one ends up with other unintended consequences. Nobody ever intended the consequences which have arisen with the change in the model. It is important if we take the whole system together, we work with the sector. Subsequently, we can work in a wider way on those issues which go well beyond the Abbey. That is what we should be planning to do.

How is the Abbey Theatre communicating with all of the signatories to the letter?

Professor Frances Ruane

The signatories have now nominated a contact point. Our first meeting is set up for this Friday.

It will have to be a scoping meeting because the scale of this is very significant and it will become wider as the debate progresses. Deputy Boyd Barrett noted that one of the very positive things here is that it has widened the debate on theatre. It seems to me that we want to scope that together. They have looked for representatives from across the sector so they are not under-representing any group. We want to have this preliminary meeting to see how to take this forward. It is a schedule of meetings to see how we should do those different things. What pieces of information do we need to gather? What do we have already? What do we not have? We will be developing it from that perspective.

A schedule of meetings has been planned out to communicate-----

Professor Frances Ruane

We will have the first meeting. The usual way with processes of this kind is that those concerned get together in a room, there is an initial discussion and presentation to share ideas and views and then a scheduled meeting is agreed upon. It is like the planning of any implementation process. We are all committed to implementing it.

We will not know the plan until Friday, when that scoping meeting has been held.

Ms Clíona Dukes

It is very difficult to schedule further meetings because unfortunately Mr. McLaren and a lot of the board are not available for the Friday meeting. The Friday meeting will just outline the scope and plan further meetings for a time when everyone is available.

Professor Frances Ruane

I have to address a misunderstanding. On Friday we are hoping to get a succinct view from the Abbey's perspective. Mr. Conlon's paper today provides some of that. We will hear presentations from the different groups and in that context we will see where the bits fit together. There is a preliminary set of pieces of work to be done before we can get into detailed discussions. One of the things that came up earlier was the contracts for people who were in presentations in the Abbey. There are legal issues that need to be teased out and worked through. There are many things at issue. By the end of Friday's meeting we will have a very good plan of action to see how to take each of those in turn and move forward on them.

Just to clarify, who is going to the meeting on Friday on behalf of the Abbey Theatre?

Professor Frances Ruane

As chair of the Abbey I will attend on Friday, as will Ms Sarah Durcan, who is one of the directors, and Mr. Neil Murray. We have arranged that because the most productive step is to get that first meeting going. We have a relatively small board, many members of which do not live in Dublin and cannot attend on a Friday evening for this discussion. With respect to everybody we felt it best to give those directors time to see at what point they would engage and which parts of this discussion it would be most appropriate for them to engage with. Maybe this impression has incorrectly been created, but no disrespect at all is intended to the group by our sending the chair, Ms Sarah Durcan and a director. Mr. McLaren is out of Ireland on Friday and cannot be there.

Mr. Neil Murray

The original intention was to meet on Friday morning when Mr. McLaren would have been available, but he has a special commitment on Friday evening. That is why there will be a smaller group from the Abbey on Friday.

Did Mr. Conlon get a good response from the public? Did he feel the public was behind him? We read the letters. We might have been informed in a different way here through The Irish Times and the media. Did he feel the public was behind his group? Did he get the sense of a wave?

Mr. Declan Conlon

It is complicated. The nature of radio is that broadcasters try to create drama. Whenever I heard actors referred to in a radio interview they were called "luvvies". It is an extraordinary thing. It is hard to gauge what the public's view is when the presenter is asking people what they make of these luvvies. If one asked the presenter to live on the kind of money we are living on, with no tenure of employment or health insurance, never knowing where his next job is coming from having to do another job interview every time he wanted to work, I think he would be calling us something else. I do not think he would be able for it. The perception of the acting community is like something from England in the 1950s, the era of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. It is nonsense. To answer the point, it is very hard to gauge the public's reaction.

I will finish on this-----

This is the Senator's second question.

It is not a question, but an observation. I wanted to congratulate Mr. Murray in another way. Some philistines I hang out with, who have never crossed the Abbey door, have been to the Abbey because of the productions that have been staged and they loved it. It is very important to say that we are not here to judge. That is the positive nature of it.

Also I note the forces the theatre is up against. A series like "Breaking Bad" is theatre on television. The forces ranged against live theatre are so enormous, from Netflix to smartphones. Some films are so theatrical and clever the viewer can feel he or she is in the room or at the theatre. It is a huge challenge. The Taoiseach has promised to double arts funding. He said that six months ago. It was a promise to double or to treble funding.


It was a star turn on "Double Your Money".

Whatever it was, it was not overnight, I can assure the committee of that.

I am kidding, but he did say it. I used to meet him quite a lot at the theatre before he became Taoiseach. He is very genuinely interested in the arts. The arts are our heartbeat and without them we are lesser human beings, educationally, performance-wise and observationally. There must be a huge surge against these forces to actually make the arts central. Funding is extraordinarily important to ensuring this does not happen to theatre professionals, so that they have ways and routes-----

We will discuss that as another topic.

Yes, that is another speech.

Another topic for the committee is how to get rid of the iPhones.

I am sorry, Chair. It is very important.

I have several questions and points. First, the arts matter. That is an issue we were debating last week. There are votes in this issue. The most intense lobbying I got when I was first elected in 2004 concerned section 481 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997. Everyone in the film industry and their brothers, sisters, uncles and neighbours wrote individual letters to me and, I presume, to every other Deputy appealing for the protection of section 481, which is a tax incentive for the film industry. That was one experience I had of the potential votes in this issue. The other one was in the 2011 election. Some 400 artists in my own constituency wrote to me and asked me to sign up to a pledge. They invited me to a meeting attended by 300 or 400 people in the Project Arts Centre. Sometimes we forget that there is a vote out there. The people we are talking about are in front of us. They are normal people, they live with us. They go to school with our brothers and sisters. They have the same needs as us. They have to eat, clothe themselves and pay a mortgage. We need to remember that.

There are a number of salient issues. If it is not appropriate to address them here, I urge the witnesses to bring them to the debate on Friday. One question is for the Arts Council to look at. There was a mention of double funding, whereby theatres would receive funding twice over because they have a production in the Abbey. I would not like to take funding away from any theatre. God forbid. I raise this to ensure we do not end up with a situation which is detrimental to the national theatre at the very least.

As for the participants and practitioners, what does one call a group of actors, playwrights and so on? There are so many different skills.

They are very courageous people. I presume the issues in the letter emerged from frustration. Had they been raised before? Was there consultation in the 2014 report that was mentioned earlier? Was that the reason it was triggered? Was there a lack of dialogue or miscommunication? One issue concerns the Abbey and the Arts Council. In the presentation it was mentioned that funding of late has been on a year-to-year basis whereas it was previously on a three-year basis. Is that a source of frustration or difficulty in planning for the Abbey? Multiannual funding usually makes planning a lot easier, especially if an organisation is planning for three or four years down the road.

If some of the changes that have been made are to be rowed back upon, it would require some certainty in funding. I agree with those who mentioned the minuscule funding the arts receive.

There are two issues. I will not name names but quite a number of staff have left the Abbey Theatre in recent times. Some of these people, who held prominent positions in Irish theatre, have left at a time when they probably are most needed. Is there a concern among board members over the level of departures? My figures show there have been up to 30 in the past two years, including HR staff and heads of different sections.

The other issue is of even more concern. I will read out the end part of the letter first and I will try to get an assurance, publicly, that none of its signatories will be blacklisted or sidelined. Some of them are concerned about this and some of the cast of one of the plays have overheard suggestions that they will be pursued for signing the letter. Some people say things in the heat of the moment and come to regret it. I want to make sure that nobody in the industry feels under pressure. There is work to be done and I wish the witnesses well in what they are undertaking to do on Friday. Since the letter was published there has been a huge amount of interest from other actors who have never had anything to do with the Abbey but are looking for guidance and for something that gives them hope. All the people who have come before this committee since I became Chair a few weeks ago have a genuine interest in the arts and do not want the sector to be fractured in any way. They understand and value the arts and if the witnesses present feel we can be of help in any way, they should drop us a line or pick up the phone. We will try to help and to facilitate them.

Perhaps the representatives of the Arts Council can answer the first question.

Ms Orlaith McBride

We have been in discussions with the Abbey Theatre over the past number of months. We have agreed a template to a memorandum of understanding for each of the co-productions being staged at the Abbey, or in association with it, in order that there is no duplication of funding for activities that may have been supported by the Arts Council in other ways.

Back in 2017, we would have liked to have offered the Abbey a three-year funding commitment for 2018, 2019 and 2020 but we did not feel we had the information we needed on the artistic vision and the overall strategy for the coming years, so we only offered one-year funding. The information in question has now been provided so we have offered a two-year funding envelope and, as the issues are resolved, we hope that we can go back to the normal rhythm of three-year funding agreements to allow the Abbey Theatre to plan in the most effective way.

I asked the Abbey how the absence of three-year funding affected it, and for a commitment in respect of the signatories.

Professor Frances Ruane

We all know in our hearts that three-year funding is always better than one-year funding, for planning purposes, for booking people and for developing a programme. We are delighted that the Arts Council is moving back to three-year funding. We were not ready a couple of years ago but we are hoping to complete the two-year arrangement in the next number of weeks. We would very much value getting back to a three-year arrangement because the sector needs certainty.

Mr. Neil Murray

On the turnover of staff, it is always disappointing when brilliant people leave. In my experience of working in theatre, which I have done for a long time, there is a rhythm and people often work with certain directors and regimes for a couple of years before things start to change and the wind blows in a different direction. We have lost some brilliant people, which I regret, but we have replaced them with brilliant people and I feel we have a really good, solid team at the Abbey at the moment.

I would want to stamp on any hint of blacklisting people. Many of the signatories are my friends and they are all colleagues. Blacklisting will not happen.

My final question was about communications and I assumed the problem was down to frustration.

Ms Clíona Dukes

Since the letter came out, we have all been asked why we did not write to the Abbey or why it went to the Minister. There had been formal requests to meet the Abbey from the Irish Society of Stage and Screen Designers, ISSSD, as well as from the Writers Guild of Ireland, but there was very little in response. The ISSSD did not get a response for five months and no meeting had been planned so we felt urgent action needed to be taken. As the Abbey Theatre is our national theatre, it comes under the remit of the Minister and the Department, as well as the Arts Council, and that is the reason we informed those bodies. It was a cry for help.

Hopefully the cry will be heeded and we will be in a much healthier place. I thank everybody and sincerely wish them well on Friday. The transcript and full presentation, including the slides, will be sent to the Minister in order that she is kept abreast of our discussion. When she comes before the committee to discuss the Estimates in March, we hope to persuade her that they are wrong and that she should look at them again or, at the very least, give a commitment to increased funding and, as the Taoiseach has said, front-load it rather than promise it for two or three years' time. Some of the issues are specific to funding, especially for the practitioners who are living on the breadline or barely surviving. Without them, we would not have the joys of theatre in Ireland.

The joint committee went into private session at 5 p.m. and adjourned at 5.10 p.m. until 1.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 6 February 2019.