After the Abbey Debates – Where Do We Go Now?

It’s now a week since the Irish Times published documents about the Abbey’s artistic output since 2012. It’s been an interesting time. First we had Fiach Mac Conghail and Fintan O’Toole being interviewed (separately) on RTE’s Arena programme. The Abbey then released a statement about the matter, and Fintan O’Toole defended the newspaper’s actions in his column yesterday.

The Abbey statement and the O’Toole column largely repeat the position both outlined earlier in the week. The Abbey argues that the reports are only a partial diagnosis of the theatre, and that it was ‘cruel’ to publish them. The Irish Times states that there was no sign of the process being brought to a close, and has also pointed out that if it’s cruel to expose Irish actors and other artists to embarrassing public scrutiny, it was the Abbey that set up the assessment in the first place. O’Toole has also made the point that these reports would ultimately have resulted in the publication of a final report – and that the assessors were hardly going to change their mind about what they’d seen. How is it acceptable to publish that information when the report is finished, but cruel to publish it now, he asks?

So what’s interesting is that the debate has shifted from what the Abbey is doing to whether the Irish Times should have published the reports.  This effectively means that the debate has reached an impasse. A theatre company will always protect its artists from public criticism, and a newspaper will always protect its responsibility to query how taxpayers’ money is being spent. I can’t see either “side” moving from either of those positions until or unless there is another development in the story.

What’s also interesting is that, aside from contributions by Garry Hynes and Declan Gorman (about which more below) and a few others, the broader public debate has largely been based around opinions rather than analysis. And many of the common themes are slightly irrational as a result. I’d pick out three irrationalities in particular as being quite interesting.

What Kind of National Theatre Do We Want? One of the features of the debate is that lots of people think that the Abbey gets too much money, yet they also think that the Abbey should be doing much more – that it should keep the Peacock open, that it should tour, that it should produce more plays by women or in Irish or by recent immigrants to the country, etc.  It’s difficult to understand how the Abbey can both expand its activities and be given less money. A full review of the Abbey’s expenditure might help to focus some minds on this topic.

The Irish Times. I’ve also heard a lot of people saying that the Irish Times should never have published the reports. I think we should take a step back and think about that.

Let’s imagine we weren’t talking about a theatre, but about a medical unit – let’s imagine a national centre for pediatric medicine (NCPM). This unit aims to be world class, but there are tensions with the HSE about how it does its business  – leading to the appointment of an international review panel. The panel produces several interim reports, many of which raise doubts about whether this centre is meeting world class standards for the treatment of sick children. Those reports feature brief discussion of the output of people employed by directly by the Centre, and also of several sub-contractors and consultants – freelancers, in other words. The NCPM is due to meet with the panel in September 2013 but, for whatever reason, the meeting doesn’t happen. The HSE is now in doubt that the review process will conclude and there are ongoing tensions about the Centre’s 7 million p.a. funding.

What I’m attempting to do here is to create an analogy with the situation as it’s been described by the Irish Times (noting of course that the Abbey haven’t given their side of that story). But I would imagine that most people  would state in relation to the example above that any newspaper aware of such a story would rush it into print. And if you find the sick children analogy too manipulative, imagine we’re talking instead about about a National Centre for Fertiliser Analysis, run out of the Department of Agriculture, and costing enough money to keep 100 hospital beds open for a year. You’d get the usual uproar about unaccountable quangos straightaway.

I am not trying to minimise the sense of embarrassment or anger that some artists may have felt (though would note too that many artists have said in relation to the furore that they are well able to handle some negative public commentary). Here I would be inclined mainly to criticise the redaction, which was very inconsistently carried out. If I was redacting a report on, say Juno and the Paycock, and I wrote “the role of Juno, as played by XXXXXXX XXXXXXXX was not well done”, then that does nothing to disguise the identity of the actor. And there’s lots of that sort of thing in the reports. Likewise, some names that ought to have been redacted have not been. While i am reluctant to draw attention to this, I do need to support that assertion, so I would direct interested readers to the report on The Hanging Gardens to see an example of an actor’s name not being redacted.

I’d also say that the Times’s publication of those reports has allowed people to make up their own minds, and it’s notable that what this has done is actually to reveal more about the problems with the process than it does any problems with the Abbey.

Strategically, I also think there’s a need for the debate to move away from the Freedom of Information issues. In post-bailout Ireland, public bodies are under massive levels of scrutiny, and huge problems have been discovered with the management and budgeting of many of them – generating a great deal of public scrutiny and anger. And justifiably so. If you get taxpayers’ money you just can’t be seen to question how and when FOI is applicable to you – this will automatically generate huge levels of cynicism (or worse) from a public that thinks that publicly-funded bodies get too much money without being properly accountable. I think any attempt to advance this part of the debate will backfire very badly.  And indeed the comments about this issue on websites from ordinary members of the public are massively negative already. Best to move on from it.

Defending the Abbey. A final irrationality is that you can’t defend the Abbey  because it’s their ‘fault’ that the assessment was created. This view has been quite widely expressed – that the Abbey called for an international assessment, that it was they who used the world class term, and so on. So as someone said, the Abbey has “created a monster”. And as Fintan O’Toole said in his column yesterday, you can’t defend the Abbey by criticising the assessment, since it was the Abbey’s assessment in the first place.

I would disagree with that. The overall impression created by this story is that an international panel has declared the Abbey to be failing in some way. As I said in my own blog post last week, we need to defend the Abbey against that accusation, since it has a knock-on impact on everyone involved in theatre and the wider arts community – and also because it’s actually not true that the Abbey is failing artistically. You can defend the Abbey and still think that their work could be better, or that the Peacock should be open, or that the assessment procedure was still inappropriate. And i think we should be looking to shift the story to a consideration of the fact that Irish theatre generally is producing excellent work, despite the many challenges it faces.

So as I say, I think the debate has hit an impasse, with people adopting (understandably) defensive positions that are unlikely to lead to any progress.

Enter Garry Hynes. On Thursday, the Irish Times published a hard-hitting feature by Garry, in which she calls for a much broader conception of what policy should be about Irish theatre. She raises all sorts of major problems, most of them focussed on the future of Irish theatre – and how we can make sure that there will still be an Irish theatre in 10 years’ time. If nothing else, this was a brilliant and sophisticated piece of writing, and I know I’m going to be referring to it in my teaching for years to come. I know some people will disagree with the points in it, but the quality and level of analysis made Irish theatre look well.

And then on Friday, Declan Gorman wrote a blog post which makes similar arguments, saying that the debate about the Abbey is an argument about “the wrong thing” and that there are far more important matters for us to attend to.

These two contributions are massively important – and while people may agree or disagree with individual points made by Hynes or Gorman, the overall thrust of both articles is constructive and positive. And both raise a series of important questions.

The first is what kind of national theatre we actually want. I have heard and read a lot of different ideas about this. Some people suggest that we should simply close down the Abbey – and while I think that would be a disaster,  it’s a useful thought experiment: what would Irish theatre be like if there was no Abbey theatre?

In truth, the world would probably be appalled at what would seem an act of cultural barbarism, but it’s worth asking the question anyway. And if we want a national theatre, we need to think about how we pay for it – and indeed how we devise assessment systems that will persuade the public that their money is being well spent.

I hear a lot of people saying we should adapt the National Theatre of Scotland model. I’m not so sure. The NTS is brilliant and exciting and dynamic. But it’s only been around since 2006; it’s been driven by a remarkable  artistic director in Vicky Featherstone (now at the Royal Court); and its energy is partly influenced by the renaissance in Scottish playwriting (featuring remarkably productive playwrights like David Greig) – not to mention the renewed cultural energy in Scotland heading towards its independence referendum. So the NTS is one of world theatre’s success stories.

But that doesn’t mean it will still be working the same way in 10 years’ time – or that the NTS model would work here. So I have serious worries about the way in which many irish commentators see the NTS model as a quick-fix solution to Irish theatre’s funding worries.

Then there’s the national picture. People complain that the Abbey gets roughly half of all theatre funding. Look at the figures a different way though – how much theatre funding goes to venues outside Dublin 1 and Dublin 2?  In other words, how can we talk about an Irish theatre when most of the money is being spent within two postal codes?

Then there’s the matter of succession. Garry Hynes makes the great point that the Arts Council funds theatre in order of their date of establishment: the Abbey gets most money, then the Gate, then Druid, then Rough Magic, and so on. This raises the very serious question of how we fund the next generations of theatre artists.

Other questions. How do we support new writing, by all sectors of Irish society? How do we develop theatre craft generally – not just acting but also design and direction? How do we build new audiences? How do we create a system where the Irish taxpayer can be satisfied that their money is being well spent on Irish art? What role does the Arts Council have?

If we could have a debate like this without it being used as an excuse to justify mediocrity (a common defence – “we’re being reviewed right now so we don’t have to be good”), and if it doesn’t get bogged down in a turf-war (now there’s a mixed metaphor), then all of this could be constructive.

What I’d like to see, then, is for speedy movement on the appointment of an Arts Council chair, and the replacement of its retired members. I think a detailed review of the Abbey, with the publication of a final report within an agreed timeframe, could be good for all concerned, though Eithne Shortall’s report in today’s Sunday Times suggests that may not happen now (behind a paywall so I can’t link to it). Some sort of debate about what kind of Irish theatre we’d like to have by 2020 would also be very useful. Some awareness that there is an Irish theatre scene in Dublin, and then several other Irish theatre scenes in Ireland, would also be helpful – and incidentally, the only national paper that is producing any kind of coverage of Irish theatre outside of Dublin is still the Irish Times (albeit to a reduced extent).

But as regards the Abbey story, I think it’s time to move on. The imminent premiere of Selina Cartmell’s Tender Thing – not to mention the opening of a great production of Skull in Connemara at the Gaiety – followed soon by the intriguing prospect of Annabelle Comyn directing Noel Coward at the Gate, and Conal Morrison directing Keane at the Abbey – all of this means that we can all just get back to the business of making, talking about, studying, and most importantly enjoying some excellent Irish theatre.

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More Thoughts (and stats) on Women Writers at the Abbey

At last week’s Theatre of Memory Symposium at the Abbey, I made a comment about the number of plays that have been produced by women on the Abbey main stage over the last 70 years or so (five in total). That comment has, understandably, attracted a lot of attention so I thought it could be helpful to go into more detail about this interesting aspect of Abbey history. I’m also responding to a couple of people who got in touch with queries about (for example) how a particular playwright had something on at the Peacock, and who were thus confused by the figures.  So some explanation of my methodology is needed. Also, since the paper, I have learned of a couple of other playwrights who need to be added to the list – great news, and very interesting information. 

A health warning straightaway: the information below is based on very preliminary research so treat this as a work in progress.

And one other thing – the current Abbey is doing a great deal to address this problem (as I explain in more detail below), so we need to distinguish between past and present in considering this issue.

The difficulty with doing anything with Abbey history is that you’re dealing with a series of different managers, different buildings, and so on.  In trying to measure the presence of women on the Abbey stages, there are a number of factors that can distort the picture. Sometimes the Abbey produces more plays by women than other Irish theatres, or other theatres internationally – and deserves credit for this. And sometimes it produces significantly fewer. But before we can get a full picture we need to bear in mind the following distorting effects:

  1. Lady Gregory. Over a quarter of the plays by women at the Abbey were by Lady Gregory. Some were co-written (e.g. with Yeats or Douglas Hyde), some were one-acts, and some were full length plays. On the one hand, she has a strong presence within the repertoire, and was revived from time to time – but then we have to deal with the fact that from the 1970s onwards, she more or less disappears. So the case of Lady Gregory alone is complex  and multi-faceted.
  2. The Peacock. The Peacock actually has a fairly good record of producing plays by women, especially in recent years. Yet as we know the Peacock is a much smaller space than the Abbey main stage. And more importantly, the transfer of women writers from the Peacock to the Abbey main stage doesn’t really happen all that often: you get (now) high profile writers like Jennifer Johnston, Maeve Binchy, and Carolyn Swift premiering in the Peacock but never making the transition to the mainstage. We also see writers like Marina Carr – who had plays on the main stage in 1998, 2002 and 2009 more recently appearing in the Peacock. So ultimately I am taking the view that a mainstage production is not the same as a Peacock production, and that we need to bear this in mind. But the Peacock has hosted roughly 50 plays by Irish women since the late 1920s.
  3. How do we measure the Abbey at the Queens period? After the Abbey burned down in 1951, it went to the Queens, where it stayed for 15 years, staging plays only on one stage. This means that the Abbey/Peacock distinction vanishes during this period, making comparisons difficult. For example, Mairead Ni Ghrada had plays on at the Queens, but while some did well (e.g. Mac Ui Rudai had many performances, albeit as a one-act play performed after the ‘main’ production), others were performed less frequently than other plays during the period. And when the Peacock opened, that’s where Ni Ghrada was produced thereafter.  The record of women at the Queens is both very good (there were quite a few plays) but also very bad (as a proportion of the whole there were very few). In other words, at the Queens, we are not  comparing like with like, so I have chosen to exclude it from the list, but I do provide more stats about this below.
  4. The Classical repertoire is male dominated. One of the jobs of most national theatres is to stage plays from the world repertoire. This creates a kind of feedback loop: theatres stage classics, which are almost always by men, which in turn eats up space in the programme that might be used to create new classics by women. It’s for this reason that you don’t hear people complaining that the RSC or Globe repertoires are dominated by a male playwright. So if we include the Abbey’s productions of plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht, Ibsen, etc. that will create a picture much more dominated by men – which in turn risks obscuring the efforts to produce new plays by women
  5. When is a play not a play? Not everything that gets staged in the Abbey is alike. Is an adaptation by a woman of a story by, say, Flann O’Brien the same thing as a play by a woman (especially if the marketing for the show emphasises the identity of the male author rather than the female adapter)? Do readings count? What about the recent series of 10-minute plays at the Peacock, called The Fairer Sex and dedicated exclusively to female voices? Does a one-act play count? Especially when women are disproportionately likely to write one-act plays rather than full length ones? In other words, raw stats may hide other forms of marginalisation.
  6. Limited Data. The information below is based on the material we have already digitised at NUI Galway (roughly one-third of the archive), and is therefore limited. I expect us to find more plays by women. So what I am interested in here is finding evidence of broad patterns rather than detailed stats.

All of this is just to say that compiling any set of statistics is inevitably going to create distortions. I’ve chosen to interpret the figures in particular ways but I hope I’ve presented the information in a way that people will be able to make up their own minds.

In calculating the number of plays by women at the Abbey, it seemed necessary to me that we (a) exclude the Peacock, (b) more problematically that we exclude the period at the Queens for the reasons above, (c) that we exclude revivals, (d) that we exclude productions of plays that had already been produced elsewhere (e.g. the Shakespeares, Ibsens, etc), and (e) that we exclude adaptations of work by men. And when I did that, I found the following five plays on the main stage of the Abbey during the last 70 years:

  1. Jean Binnie, Colours
  2. Marina Carr, By The Bog of Cats
  3. Marina Carr, Ariel
  4. Marina Carr, Marble
  5. Elaine Murphy, Shush.

Since the Abbey symposium, Ciara O’Dowd has written to remind me of the case of Elizabeth Connor, who had a number of plays staged at the Abbey during the 1930s and 1940s. So she should be added to the list for 1947 for her play The Dark Road. That brings the total to 6. This is an interesting one – I had actually searched for Connor, but did so under the name Una Troy: a good example of the limitations of digital technology: finding no listings for Troy, I assumed that there were no productions by Connor.

I’d also been uncertain about a play by Edna O’Brien from the early 1970s, called The Gathering,  which I had seen listed in several sources as having been staged on the Peacock stage.  But I am assured by the Abbey archivist Mairead Delaney that this was a main stage production. So that brings us up to 7.

As I said, the period at the Queens is quite interesting because we actually do have some plays by women. These are:

  • Anne Daly, Window on the Square 1951
  • Mairead NI Ghrada, La Bui Bealtaine  1953
  • Mairead ni Ghrada, Ull Glas Oichne Shamna 1955
  • Pauline Maguire, The Last Move 1955
  • Anne Daly, Leave it to the Doctor 1959
  • Mairead Ni Ghrada, Sugan Sneachta  1959
  • Mairead ni Ghrada, Mac Ui Rudai 1960
  • Eilis Dillion, A Page of History 1964.

These are very important plays but, as I say, I think they need to be excluded from our sample because we don’t have the main stage/Peacock distinction to work with, and so we need to find other ways of measuring the significance of these plays relative to work by men.

A further complication at the Queens is that what might look like a ‘main stage’ production could actually be a one-act that was produced after the ‘main’ play.  For example, the four plays by Ni Ghrada listed above are all one-acts, performed after the ‘main’ performance of the evening.

If we include these plays in the list, then we’d have 15 plays during the last 70 years.  But I’m not sure we can or should do that. For example, once the Peacock re-opened we find the theatre producing new plays by women just as regularly as they did at the Queens – but they almost all appear at the Peacock, including plays by Ni Ghrada and Dillon.

I don’t want to seem in any way like I am trying to detract from the achievements and/or status of these writers, all of whom have been neglected badly enough as it is. Rather I am trying to explain that the Queens period is anomalous and can’t readily be considered representative. I am sure many will disagree with this, so I have included more information about this below so as to give the fullest possible picture.

If we go into the decades before my rather arbitrary starting point of 70 years ago, we also find some plays by women. These include:

v Olga Feildon, Three to Go

v Nora MacAdam, The Birth of a Giant

v Elizabeth Connor, Mount Prospect

v Margaret O’Leary, The Coloured Balloon

I need to find out the correct dates of these, as there are a few differing and contradictory records. I said incorrectly at the symposium that Teresa Deevy was the most recent of these, but in fact there were one or two others (my mistake). That whole period from 1926 to 1966 needs a lot more research – so many Abbey histories seem to suggest that there was nothing interesting going on once O’Casey’s Plough premiered. The plays above show this isn’t the case.

I have also been sent a list of plays by women during the early decades of the Abbey – thanks again to Mairead Delaney. Here they are:

  • Winnifred M Letts – 1907 & 1909
  • Suzanne Day & Geraldine Cummins         1913 onwards
  • Gertrude Robins              1913
  • Mrs Bart Kennedy           1913
  • Rose MacKenna               1918
  • Dorothy Macardle           1918 onwards
  • Mrs Theodore Maynard                1919
  • Elizabeth Harte                 1926
  • Kathleen M O’Brennan 1928
  • Margaret O’Leary            1929 onwards
  • Teresa Deevy                    1930 onwards
  • Maura Molloy                    1935 onwards
  • Maeve O’Callaghan         1936 onwards
  • Maura Molloy                    1937
  • Mary Rynne                       1938

We can use another way to come at the statistics, which is to just treat all Abbey premieres as equal, regardless of where they were staged and how long they ran for, and whether they were one-acts or full-length. If we do that, we get the following approximate figures:

Total Plays Premiered All new plays by women (incl. adaptations) In Peacock Plays by women as % of total
1904-1913

78

22

28%

1914-23

85

10

12%

1924-33

66

9

14%

1934-43

85

12

7

14%

1944-53

57

9

4

16%

1954-63

72

5

n/a

7%

1964-73

74

5

4

7%

1974-83

100

6

6

6%

1984-93

77

9

8

12%

1994-03

78

15

13

19%

2004-2012* (very rough figures)

30

8

7

27%

OVERALL TOTAL

802

110

52

14%

This table  is based on a VERY rough count so could be out by a few plays here and there, but the overall patterns are clear enough.

Also clear is the distorting effect of the Peacock. You can see how the Abbey of Patrick Mason and Ben Barnes made a concerted effort to produce new plays by women, but you can also see how all but two of those plays appeared on the smaller stage.

And you can also see the distorting effect of the Queens – during the 54-63 period, the Abbey produced proportionately fewer plays by women than at almost any other time in its history (7% of the total), but these appear to be on the Queen’s ‘main stage’, thus skewing the figures. We should actually, I think, be critical of the management of the theatre during this period for its production of women playwrights but, viewed in isolation, the figures actually look very positive. So again that explain why I think we should probably exclude the Queens from the sample, and should treat it in isolation instead.

A few conclusions I would draw from this.

  1. There is a very rich tradition of writing by women at the Abbey. We need to retrieve that tradition, to appreciate writers like Una Troy, Dorothy Macardle, and many others. Lady Gregory has been particularly neglected. There are several PhDs waiting to be written on this, some of them in Galway I hope (please contact me if you’d like to write such a PhD!). And a critical anthology of plays by women at the Abbey would make a brilliant addition to our bookshelves.
  2. The Abbey of Fiach MacConghail actually has one of the best records of producing new plays by women (Aideen Howard should be mentioned here too)– over a quarter of their new plays, albeit mostly on the Peacock. This is a pattern that seems to start with Garry Hynes and is intensified under Patrick Mason. The Abbey of the oft-criticised Ben Barnes needs credit for producing new plays by Stella Feehily, Hilary Fannin, Paula Meehan and Marina Carr.  The Abbey has come in for a lot of criticism over the last few days, but the current administration can’t be blamed for history – they are doing a great deal to address and redress the problem.
  3. There is an ongoing issue whereby women writers start off on the Peacock (as many male writers do) but for whatever reason don’t transfer onto the main stage. Why is that? I’m not sure.
  4. In short, the absence of women from the Abbey main stage over recent decades is striking and difficult to account for.
  5. Overall, it looks like roughly 14% of plays premiered by the Abbey on any of its stages – just over 100 – were by women. However, if you remove Lady Gregory from that list,  it falls to about 10% of the total.
  6. However, the proportion of plays by women on the main stage is much smaller. During the last 70 years, it’s just over 1% (based on the provisos above), moving closer to 1.4% if we include the period at the Queens.
  7. One final point – my comment on women at the Abbey has generated a certain amount of “Abbey bashing”. While i would not exempt previous administrations from criticism, it is probably worth saying that, certainly in recent years, their record compares favourably with that of other Irish theatre companies and other national theatres. In other words, there is a problem here, but it’s not exclusive to the Abbey, or to Ireland.

One of the things I’d love to see us doing when we have finished digitising the Abbey archive would be to create a database that can allow us to measure the presence of women writers in the Abbey by looking at the following records:

Log-books of plays received. How many women sent plays to the Abbey as a percentage of the whole?

Show programmes, posters and handbills. Are plays by women marketed differently from plays by men? We saw a bit of this with Shush last year, which included a competition where people could get a ‘pampering’ session before the show – not something you’d find with a new Tom Murphy play, for example.

Box Office figures. Before we blame a theatre for its programming decisions, we have to look at what audiences did. How many people went to see plays by women, and how do those figures compare with plays by men? I remember seeing Marina Carr’s Ariel in 2002 in the Abbey’s main auditorium, and my feeling was that there were more people on the stage than in the audience: surely the role of the Irish theatre-goer in perpetuating these patterns  needs investigation too.

Number of Performances. It’s one thing to premiere a play but quite another to revive it. A good example is another Marina Carr play, Ulaloo from the early 1990s, which was pulled very early in its run. I’d be interested in finding out how many plays by women have a full-run, and how many then go on to enjoy multiple productions. Teresa Deevy’s Katie Roche is one good example of a play that has been revived at the Abbey, but there aren’t many others.

By looking at all of this information we can form a fuller and more complete picture of women writers at the Abbey, and can do more to consider the role of the audience in all of this.

As I’ve said above, Mairead Delaney provided me with some information to help with this blog post, but if I’ve made any mistakes or omissions – or any stupid interpretations – then the blame is entirely mine.

One final thing. At the Theatre of Memory symposium, Catriona Crowe pleaded that the Abbey archive would never charge money for access. That plea may have created the impression that there is actually a plan to do this. In fact, the first time I have ever heard anyone suggest that the Abbey Digital Archive would not be free is when Catriona said it at the symposium! The Abbey Digital Archive IS free, and anyone who wants to use it for research/educational purposes is welcome to come to the NUI Galway library to use it, free of charge.

As the very rough stats above show, there is some great work waiting to be done there.

Defending the Abbey

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.