Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Ceisteanna (34, 35, 37)

Niamh Smyth

Ceist:

34. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht her plans to address concerns raised by more than 300 Irish artists about the Abbey Theatre; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [1719/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Ceist:

35. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht her views on the letter written by 300 artists about the future of the Abbey Theatre. [1696/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

37. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if her attention has been drawn to the major difficulties in the theatre, film and arts sectors in terms of insecure employment income and career possibilities in view of the controversy in a theatre (details supplied) and a recently launched campaign by actors and performers with regard to precarious work and ongoing disputes related to insecure employment in the film industry; the actions she plans to take to address these concerns; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [2004/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (14 contributions) (Ceist ar Culture)

What plans does the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht have to address concerns raised by more than 300 Irish artists about the Abbey Theatre?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 34, 35 and 37 together.

On 7 January I received a letter signed by over 300 theatre practitioners. It raised the concerns of the practitioners about the direction taken by the Abbey Theatre in the past two years. I have huge respect for the theatre practitioners who wrote to me and celebrate the extent and depth of the talent encompassed by the totality of the signatories. While the correspondence from the theatre practitioners raises concerns about the changing artistic model at the Abbey Theatre, I understand more positive outcomes from the changes have also been recognised. I acknowledge the concerns raised by the practitioners, while at the same time recognising the Abbey Theatre's need for artistic freedom to strike a balance in its programming. I also recognise the necessity for a strong working relationship between theatres and theatre practitioners which is vital for the continued success of theatre in this country. The Abbey Theatre and all theatre practitioners are a central part of our national culture. Therefore, I take the concerns of the practitioners very seriously.

I have been informed that the Abbey Theatre had already been aware of some of the concerns raised by the practitioners and is actively working with stakeholder companies to address them. I am pleased to report that it is already making arrangements to meet representatives of the signatories to discuss their concerns. In the meantime, I have written both to the theatre practitioners and the Abbey theatre on the issues raised last week.

I note also that the Abbey Theatre’s statement makes it clear that it pays the actors it employs on terms and conditions agreed to with Irish Equity, the actors' union. In presentation or in-association arrangements the Abbey Theatre does not set the rate of pay, which has been the prerogative of the producing companies. It has stated this is to be reviewed as part of the dialogue with the theatre practitioners.

On Friday the Abbey Theatre issued a press release acknowledging the discussion in the media and stating it was listening attentively and with respect to all viewpoints. The statement went on to indicate that it was acutely aware of the precarious nature of work of those working in theatre as freelancers. I am confident, given these sentiments and the commitment of all parties to dialogue and engagement, that we can look forward to a mutually satisfactory outcome that will deliver the vision for a national theatre at the heart of Irish society that is artist-led and audience-focused.

The Arts Council has informed me that it had been engaging with the Abbey Theatre in recent months on the quality of employment opportunities and remuneration rates that it provides for Irish-based artists. That is the role of the council as the main funder of the Abbey Theatre and other State supported theatres and arts organisations. I am reassured by the fact that the council was already aware of the issues and taking action on this issue with the Abbey Theatre. As with all Arts Council funding, support for the theatre in 2019 will be based on a funding agreement. As has been documented in the media, €300,000 has been withheld pending confirmation that these conditions have been met.

The Abbey Theatre recently launched its five-year strategy, which sets out the key priorities of its vision between 2019 and 2023. It reflects the theatre's core responsibilities to Irish theatre-making, audiences, staff, funders and the community of stakeholders. The strategy has three interconnected strands: art and audience, internationalisation and investment and people and processes. In each strand the theatre identifies and outlines its goals for the five-year period. They include a consistent focus on new work and providing space and time to support artistic exploration and experimentation, alongside the theatre's relationship with established Irish playwrights and artists, as well as a pledge to ensure equality, specifically gender equality, and diversity remain at the heart of its plans and all of its activities.

The Government understands the importance of culture and is committed to supporting it. The Taoiseach has committed to doubling funding levels for culture, heritage and the Gaeltacht by 2025. The announcement of €1.2 billion in capital funding for these areas last year in Project Ireland 2040 and the significant increase in current funding for the arts in budget 2019 are proof of this.

I was pleased to be able to deliver additional supports to the sector in line with these Government commitments. In budget 2019, funding for the arts and culture sector in general was increased by €22.6 million to almost €190 million. That is an increase of 14% on 2018. This funding comprises €148.2 million in current expenditure and €41.7 million in capital investment. It includes an increase in funding to the Arts Council of almost €6.8 million, or 10%, to a total of €75 million. That is made up of €6 million in current expenditure, more than double the increase in 2018. The vast majority of this money goes directly to artists and those working in the arts in Ireland.

In 2017, the Government launched a pilot initiative allowing visual artists and writers to apply for jobseeker's benefit if and when they become unemployed. My Department is currently reviewing that pilot scheme with officials of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection with the possibility of extending it to other artists, including actors. These initiatives, as well as the increased funding for the arts and cultural sector, in addition to the almost €1.2 billion in capital funding, clearly show that the Government is acting on our commitment to double funding by 2025. I have also asked the Abbey Theatre to give me an update and to keep me informed of progress.

It was not only brave but also inspirational for 312 artists to be prepared to put their heads above the parapet and add their names to this letter. Many of those signatories are young and there is always a concern for an artist that if he or she speaks up too soon or too loudly on pay and conditions that it will have a detrimental impact on his or her career. It is, in no small way, a very brave thing that these artists have done. Some of them are cultural ambassadors appointed by the Minister, so I am sure they will have her ear in expressing the importance and significance of this issue.

We had members of Theatre Forum in here yesterday. Although this question is focused on the Abbey Theatre and the artists who have signed this letter, there is also a broader issue with the precarious situation that actors, playwrights, film artists and visual artists find themselves in during their working career. The Government's approach and response to this issue has been hands off and the silence on this issue has been deafening. The Minister has responsibility for this national cultural institution and she appointed the board. The ethos and objectives of the Abbey Theatre are greatly important and have to be influenced in some way by the Minister. The major issue with the Abbey Theatre centres on doing in-house productions to give opportunities to artists, actors, designers and playwrights.

I accept it was very brave of the some 300 signatories to put their names to a letter to the Abbey Theatre of this nature and seriousness. There is no doubt about that and it is important their views are heard. They represent the acting profession throughout Ireland and the Abbey Theatre is the national theatre. I laud them for that. It is important there is a proper channel of communication between the Abbey Theatre and the actors. If this letter has precipitated that conversation about better communication in the future, then that is a good thing.

I see what the Deputy is saying about the precarious nature of the profession in general for actors and that is why, in my earlier statement, I mentioned the social welfare pilot scheme we have in place for actors. We that will be rolled out once we look at the pilot in more depth. It is under review at the moment and it may be something that is feasible. It would be acceptable to assist artists in the future. On my own role, I have responsibility for setting the overall vision and the strategic direction for Ireland's cultural sector. In the first instance, these issues should be resolved by dialogue between the Abbey Theatre chair, board, directors and the theatre practitioners. I am already encouraged that the dialogue is taking place and that there will be progress.

I thank the Minister for raising some of the issues she mentioned but it is a pity it took more than 300 artists, actors and directors having to take to the national newspapers to raise these issues. They have raised them over the years but they have not been addressed fully. The Minister has urged dialogue but we need to go further than dialogue between those who signed the letter and the directors of the Abbey Theatre. It says something that things have got to this stage. Will the Minister agree that the national theatre itself has a role in setting an example in respect of terms and conditions of employment for actors and those within the theatre profession? Will she also agree there is a need for an ongoing conversation on the role of the national theatre now and in the future? I refer in particular to the commissioning of Irish works which directly employ Irish actors, etc., as well as ensuring there is an employment regime which encourages those who are self-employed in the industry.

The Abbey Theatre certainly has a responsibility to examine the issues raised by the signatories in their letter. I wrote a letter to the Abbey Theatre on 11 January 2019. I stated that I was pleased to note that the Abbey Theatre had taken the concerns raised very seriously and had extended an invitation to representatives of the signatories to meet and discuss those concerns. I also welcomed the commitment by the Abbey Theatre to engage in dialogue and engagement and stated that I was supportive of their collective endeavours to resolve the matters raised. I asked that a report be submitted to me in a month with an update. I also stated that I looked forward to a mutually satisfactory outcome that will deliver the vision for a national theatre at the heart of Irish society that is artist-led and audience-focused.

I also wrote to the theatre practitioners and told them that I publicly lauded the wealth of talent among them. I continued by stating that while I acknowledged the necessity for the Abbey Theatre, as with all theatres, to have a level of artistic freedom with its programming, I also recognised the necessity for a strong working relationship with theatre practitioners and that is vital for the continued success of theatre in this country.

I talked to people who signed the letter as well as to people who were asked to sign it and made the decision not to sign it. As we can see, there is quite a polarised debate on both sides of this question. To some extent, it is up to the theatre and arts community to sort this out themselves. There has to be a balance between making the national theatre a space for all the people, all the theatre community and all the different theatre companies while at the same time guaranteeing decent terms and conditions of employment and some sort of security for actors and theatre workers generally.

That is what I want to focus on in my question. Will the Minister accept that what is really at the bottom of this situation is that workers in the arts, whether actors, performers or film workers, whose concerns I have raised with the Minister incessantly for the last year, have no security at all? They have no security of employment, no security of income and no security of career path. That is the problem. We take them for granted. We wheel out these workers in the arts for the celebrations of the centenary of the Dáil but we do not care that they are living in poverty and have no security of employment.

It is possible to work in the film industry or the arts sector for 20 or 30 years and not know whether there will be a job next week and an income or if it will be possible to pay the rent or get a mortgage. That is the problem.

I thank Deputy Boyd Barrett for his question and for acknowledging that this is a polarised debate, or perhaps we might say discussion. It is already clear from media reports that there are very different viewpoints to the debate and it has to be said that the direction taken by the current Abbey Theatre directors has been positive in many respects.

Developments that have been lauded include increased audiences, greater diversity of productions, gender balance and financial performance.

I note what the Deputy said about artists and actors in general and the struggle they have. It is not an easy profession. By its nature it is precarious and there is an onus on the Government to try to support their livelihood in any way it can. We are trying to do that through a social welfare scheme. There are currently 46 writers and artists participating in the pilot scheme and over 80 have participated in it since its commencement. As I said, it is under review currently and we are considering, hopefully, trying to extend it. There has also been greater funding for the arts, as I mentioned in my earlier reply.

The letter requests that the Abbey Theatre stages a larger percentage of in-house productions rather than co-productions or buy-ins. It also requests that the performers, directors and designers whose work is used by the National Theatre of Ireland get Abbey Theatre terms and conditions. Does the Minister believe that the balance between co-productions or buy-ins and in-house productions since 2016 is correct? Does she believe that the artists who are performing in the National Theatre of Ireland should be remunerated in line with Abbey Theatre rates? Does the Minister agree with the dismantling of the literary department in the Abbey Theatre?

Does the Minister have a responsibility to examine the concerns and the issues rather than hope that the directors of the Abbey Theatre and the 300 signatories will resolve them? Has she read the playwright Jimmy Murphy's further criticism of the Abbey Theatre which appeared in The Irish Times yesterday? Given the large State funding of the Abbey Theatre I believe it has a number of roles and needs a vision. That vision should lie with the funder, and the funder should ensure it is implemented. Some of that vision is ensuring that people are directly employed, engaging with freelancers in the country, experimenting and encouraging, looking at our history and our future and all the issues that have been raised in recent weeks. However, the responsibility in many ways lies with the Minister, not only to get over this hurdle but also to ensure that these issues continue to be addressed over time rather than just finding a quick answer now.

Many of these issues are complex and nuanced, but one issue that is beyond question is that people involved in co-productions from other theatre companies who work on the Abbey Theatre stage should be paid Abbey Theatre rates. There is a two-tier pay structure. The other point, which the theatre forum people made, is that the smaller theatre companies have been effectively dismantled over recent years because of cuts in funding. We end up with the theatre community taking lumps out of each other in a desperate scramble to get the small amount of work that is available in the Abbey Theatre or in the places where there is funding. The bottom line is we are not valuing arts and culture. I repeat the point made about film as well. There are people working in the film industry, a publicly funded industry, for 20 years yet they have no jobs. It is similar in the arts. Some 80% of our artists are earning approximately one third of the average industrial wage. It is totally precarious and there is no security. Our spending on arts is at one of the lowest levels in Europe. I was talking to somebody who worked in a theatre in Germany.

A question, please.

Theatre workers in Germany, artists, performers and dancers, have permanent jobs. They get six weeks holidays, sick pay and pension contributions. They have real jobs. Workers in the arts in this country have no rights or security.

Deputy Smyth asked about co-productions and the balance in the programming. Under the five year strategy the Abbey Theatre considers many different types of shows and programmes. There are co-produced shows, in association productions, presented shows and other types of shows. The balance has to be right. There must be a correct balance to support Irish artists in a meaningful way. The Deputy also mentioned the literary department. I am not aware of that but I can check it out and refer back to the Deputy.

To respond to Deputy Ó Snodaigh, it is important to point out that the arts community places a very high value on my legal position of having an arm's length relationship with the Arts Council. I provide significant funding to the Arts Council - this year it is €75 million - and it administers this independently. The Arts Council also must be mindful of the integrity of artistic freedom, which is important. In terms of the Deputy's comment that I will just let them have a dialogue about this and not interfere, I am overseeing what is happening. There was a further development yesterday. I received a copy of a letter the Abbey Theatre has sent to the signatories. It is seeking to have a meeting on 1 February and I hope the theatre petitioners will be in a position to do that.