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.