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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8 thoughts on “After the Abbey Debates – Where Do We Go Now?

  1. Entirely agree about the questions that need to be provoked regarding what sort of theatre we want, how we are to criticise it and how much we’re prepared to pay for it. Not sure about the Paediatric Centre analogy though… When paying for an NCPM there are certain absolute criteria we can agree on. The purpose of such a centre would be to save the lives of children – a purpose that would be societally defined as an absolute uncontroversial “good”. The extent to which this NCPM provided an effective means of saving children’s lives would provide a very transparent criterion of success or failure.

    In theatre, as in any ambitious art form, such criteria are necessarily contested. But increasingly, such contests are been bled out of the vocabulary of assessment. The tyrannical word “excellence” is being used, as ever, to enforce transparent quantitative measurement of a controversial subjective experience.

    One thing that we can say about any public-funded theatre is that it must take risks. Anything that is, or pretends to be, a “National Theatre” funded in a “National Interest” must risk something other than satisfying what is currently (and lazily) assumed to be popular. This does not mean that the Abbey should eschew popular productions, only that it must demonstrate that it is producing plays that an unsubsidised theatre (if there is such a thing) could not.

    This means failure. It means that a nationally funded theatre should reconcile itself to the inevitability of making mistakes – risking productions that attempt something that fails to come off – productions which alienate audiences and critics alike. Without the ability to absorb such failures, a “national” theatre has itself failed.

    This means, of course, that a theatre that is publicly funded in the national interest is bound to sometimes alienate and disappoint the public. This paradox should be as familiar to us as it was to Yeats and Lady Gregory and to Thomas Sheridan the Elder centuries earlier.

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  2. I’d agree with you on all of that Conrad. The issue of how we assess things that can’t easily be assessed – from teaching to research to performance – is an ongoing debate. I think you need to have agreed criteria and for them to be applied consistently. I think you need to engage with the subject of the assessment as part of the evaluation (that is, ask the Abbey to respond to the criticisms before reaching a conclusion). And you need to frame the criticisms within the context of agreed targets – not ‘what did you do’ but ‘what will you do?’ followed by ‘did you do what you said you’d do?’

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    • I think Declan Gorman hit the nail on the head when he mentioned the extraordinarily reductive and facile nature of all of the Abbey assessor’s reports. Many moons ago as a first year drama student I had to fill out much more extensive and rigorous reports while trying to learn about semiotics. I was struck by the inability to assessor’s to evaluate lighting (my own area) in terms other than ‘good’ or ‘effective’.

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      • I think they were similarly reductive in terms of acting, which again was called good and effective – or ‘variable’ (what does that mean?). So as others have said it actually becomes more like the scoring system on the X-Factor. It was the vocabulary not of expertise but of the regional newspaper critic.

        That said, the level of discourse about design generally in Ireland is very poor. And indeed the discussion of theatre overall remains too subjective, marooned in the realms of “I liked this” and “I couldn’t hear that young actress”, with the usual lousy cliches thrown in for the posters and banner ads (“compelling”, “bravo!” “a theatrical tour de force” etc). One of the thing we could take from this fiasco is a concern to ensure that we actually raise the level of discussion. And to be fair I think Garry Hynes, Declan Gorman and also David Horan (on FB) have done that.

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  3. Perhaps it would be helpful if reported “shortcomings” were explored not in a spirit of crisis but a spirit of creative and enjoyable public debate. Controversy is not failure.

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    • I could not agree more. As I have said elsewhere the media only seems to be interested in culture where there is fighting or controversy involved. Had the Limerick City of Culture run to plan it would not have generated a fraction of the press coverage. The reason I mention media is that it allows for our most important stakeholder – the audience – to be aware of and be part of the debate.

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  4. I live in a country where there is very little public funding for the arts. From my perspective, the Irish people are fortunate to have a national treasure like the Abbey and a tradition of public support for it. That doesn’t mean it should never be scrutinized; quite the opposite. The discussion is healthy. If only we could have such a discussion in the US!

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