Like many people I’ve been reading yesterday’s Irish Times report about how a panel of experts has declared that the Abbey is not meeting its stated aim of producing ‘world class’ theatre. My views on this shifted during the day – starting with the original article, then looking at excerpts from the reports, before reading the reports themselves on the Irish Times website.
My opinion is that any suggestion that there is some sort of crisis at the Abbey is massively wide of the mark. Yesterday I read several Facebook comments from non-theatre people who appeared to be forming the impression that the Abbey is one more Irish institution that has Let Us Down – like the HSE, the Central Remedial Clinic, Fianna Fail, The Catholic Church, and so on. I don’t think that’s at all true and wanted to explain why.
And I also just thought it would be good to try to address some of this off Facebook.
First of all, I have to declare some interests. Since last year I have been working closely with the Abbey on digitising their archive. For a number of years I wrote reviews of shows in the west of Ireland for the Irish Times, mostly when Deirdre Falvey was Arts Editor. And for a short period 3-4 years ago, I also wrote assessments for the Arts Council’s theatre advisor – reports very similar to those published yesterday (I never wrote about the Abbey though). This is what happens when you live in a small country… But I mention it to show that, since I can be accused of bias in favour of all three of those organisations, I would hope this might create the impression that instead I’m biased in favour of none of them. And I also just want to make clear that in attempting to defend the Abbey I am not attacking anyone else.
When I first read the report yesterday I formed the impression that a panel of international experts had thoroughly reviewed the Abbey, systematically and rigorously, looking at all aspects of the organisation – and had found problems there. That impression – my misinterpretation – soon gave way to the realisation that what we were looking at instead were assessment reports from some of the Abbey’s shows over the last two years. These were compiled by three people, named in the Irish Times.
Upon reading the reports, a few things struck me.
Immediately obvious is the fact that the assessors’ opinions often differ from each other. One might say a show is terrible and give it 1 out of 5; another will say it’s great and give it a score of 4 (see the reports on Shibari for a good example of this). That to me shows that the process has been thought through: there’s a recognition that people will differ in respect of taste and background, so if you have three of them, you’ll hope that things will average out in a fair way. The judging for the Irish Times Theatre Awards operates according to a similar principle.
Also obvious is the range of categories against which shows are being evaluated. Again this is only right. Some shows will be ambitious, taking risks – but that can in turn mean that those shows will not be well received by audiences or might have problems in terms of form. I’d remember, for instance, that plays like The Gigli Concert and even Observe the Sons of Ulster were not universally well liked when they premiered but now are seen as classics. So the range of categories allows the assessors to praise a production for being innovative even if audiences don’t much like it. Similarly, the assessors pointed out that, despite their criticisms of, say, Alice in Funderland, it connected very well with the audience. Or, to use a different example, Quietly was very highly praised, even though one of the assessors thought it was quite traditional (which in some ways it is).
This seems like good practice to me: the assessment is based on an awareness that theatre can be valued and appreciated for doing many different things. And there is an attempt to capture those different things.
Here’s the problem though: it’s almost impossible for a production to score highly in every category. If you want to be innovative (like Alice in Funderland) you risk losing marks for execution; if you want to engage with an audience, you lose marks for innovation.
And it seems to me that the assertion that the Abbey is not ‘world class’ is based on the fact that when you add all the scores together, shows are not reaching 5 or even higher than 4. But when you look at the evaluations you can see that it’s nearly impossible for this to happen – not with three different evaluators, and not with so many different categories. I would guess that if you read all of the Arts Council reports for the period in question you would find that no-one is doing ‘world class’ work.
In fairness, the world class label appears to be the Abbey’s, and reports seem to suggest they have had some opportunity to have input into who the assessors were and how the evaluations were to be done. But the overall point I’m making is that I don’t think the evaluations suggest that the Abbey is in any real sense failing.
Also notable is the extent to which personal taste plays a role. The three assessors are all men, all living in England (though one is Irish), and all of a particular age. But one of the noticeable things about the Abbey in recent years is that they are trying to appeal to many different audiences – the audience for Shush is not the same as the audience for Alice in Funderland and is not the same as the audience for Quietly or The Dead. It’s very clear that in some cases the assessors actually just didn’t like a particular show – that it wasn’t to their taste. And the scores reflect that.
Having read all the reports, then, it seems to me that most of the shows that the Abbey staged in the last two years were appreciated by at least one and often two of the assessors. They scored well in many of the categories most of the time. Individual assessors have negative comments to make (and a lot of the negativity seems to come from one assessor), but I was surprised when I read the reports to find so many positive comments. The headlines and report didn’t prepare me for that at all.
And who is to say what “world class” is anyway? Too often in Ireland, world class means “as good as what they have in London”, but I don’t think that’s a reasonable criterion to judge the Abbey against. For instance, the comment about how one show would be fine for an English regional theatre really bothered me - it shows a different sense of cultural context from what we have here in Ireland.
Also, much was made about one aspect of one production being judged by one assessor as below the standard acceptable in professional theatre – but when you read the other reports, that just seems like, well, one opinion (which is what it is). Again when I first read this remark I thought this view had been formed after long and careful examination of large portions of the Abbey’s work. Obviously I wasn’t reading things very cleverly yesterday…
I suppose what I’m really saying is that I don’t think there’s a story here at all. I gather that some kind of longer report may be in the offing, so perhaps we’ll find out more then.
I’ve also read some criticism of the reports themselves – the they are harsh or ungenerous or perfunctory or whatever. I have some sympathy with the assessors here, to be honest. They didn’t write these reports to have them read by a wide public, nor to be read by the people whose work they are assessing. Their frankness about some things – the bald declarations that an actor is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or words to that effect – will make very hard reading for some people. But if the assessors were writing for publication they would have done what we all (should try to) do, which is to support criticisms with specific examples, and to try to frame criticisms constructively (“how can we make this better” rather than “this is why you failed”). When you are writing for assessment, you tend to take all of this as read. I know this myself from grading academic work – a comment on a student’s paper will be written one way if for the student, and another way if written for an external assessor.
Nevertheless, I also am very bothered about the information posted about actors. Some names have been redacted but identities are obvious from context. And some names have not been redacted. Directors’ and designers’ names have not been redacted at all (fair enough: we’d know who they are anyway). Some people have said that there is no difference between these reports and published reviews, but I disagree. Reading these reports is like overhearing a conversation about you – something you’re not supposed to hear, something that will perhaps seem to confirm the insecurities that everyone sometimes feels: that perhaps what people say to our face is not what they say when we aren’t around. As I read those reports, I felt like I was invading the privacy of some of those actors and artists (and the assessors too). That made me very uncomfortable, and I’m not sure that the importance of the story merited the embarrassment that will have been felt by actors and other artists.
Then there’s the timing. As a friend of mine said, the Abbey has been getting loads of love over its (brilliant and inspiring) Theatre of Memory Symposium. It’s a terrible shame that this report had to appear on the last day of that symposium, overshadowing what should have been a moment of triumph for the theatre. The Times accessed these documents under Freedom of Information, and some are very recent, so it’s apparent that they have not been sitting on them for a long time. And they would probably argue that there was no reason for them to delay running the story (and I’m not saying they should have). But I find it very sad that at a time when everyone I spoke to was coming away feeling positive about the Abbey, we are now back to this tired old story of how much money it gets and how it’s in a permanent state of crisis, etc.
I know people have their problems with the Abbey. Yes it should tour more, and yes it would be great if the Peacock was open more often, and yes it occasionally produces work that is not universally loved, and yes it gets more money than everyone else. Looking at the assessment reports, I find myself agreeing with some of the criticisms and sharing some of the pleasures. I also totally disagree with some of the statements . And that is all normal.
For my part, I have liked a lot of what I’ve seen at the Abbey in recent years (loved Arturo Ui, Quietly, Terminus, Christ Deliver Us, No Romance, and many others). And I have been occasionally frustrated and bored and surprised too (that’s what happens when you go to the theatre). What I do know, though, is that for the first time since the end of Patrick Mason’s tenure, I would not want to miss any show produced by the Abbey. This is because I know that even if I don’t personally like it – or even if I think it has some flaws that could have been avoided – I can still be assured that it will be interesting and that the people involved are trying to create work that will connect with an audience (or with several audiences). It always feels energetic and committed.
So I don’t think the Abbey is consistently producing “world class” work – but I don’t know of any theatre that is. I do think it’s doing a good job though, and deserves credit for that.
Incidentally, on Friday at the symposium I was speaking about how there have been very few plays by women on the Abbey’s main stage. I have had a few queries about that from people wondering why I left out the Peacock, if I’m including the Queen’s years, etc so I am going to post something about that in a few days just to explain the methodology, and also to mention some women writers who should be more widely known.
BUT one thing I do want to make clear is that the Abbey under Fiach Mac Conghail is producing proportionately more new plays by women than at any stage since the period 1904-1913 (when Lady Greogory wrote 20+ works for the stage). This again shows how difficult it is to evaluate a national theatre: it’s not just putting on plays, it’s also trying to break down a decades-long pattern of neglect and oversight.
I’m supporting the Abbey because of what’s happened with Limerick, and Panti, and Margaretta D’Arcy (not that I am comparing all of those directly). This story about the Abbey hurts everyone who is trying to make, teach or enjoy art in this country. It undermines people like me who are trying to persuade parents that if their children study Arts subjects like Drama and English, they will get good jobs afterwards. It undermines the young student who proposes to a friend that maybe they should try going to the theatre rather than the cinema. And it undermines artists who need to make a case about issues of genuine importance – funding, succession, international touring, and so on.
So, after a brilliant Theatre of Memory symposium, and because of the consistency of the work it’s been doing since about 2009 – and because I think it matters – and because it drives me crazy as much as it makes me happy – and because of all of the reasons above, I want to express support for the Abbey. And I hope others will too.