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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The Irish Times and Two Female Theatre-Makers

Last Saturday the Irish Times had two very interesting features about female theatre-makers.

The first was written by Olwen Fouere, about her new show Riverrun (which starts tonight in Galway).  Fouere gives an interesting account of how her response to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake took shape, describing how it had its genesis when she was asked to read from the text in Sydney. Aside from being a useful description of the process of adapting (or not adapting) Joyce, her piece is also very well written. Take this, for example:

How now to create a performance that can remain fluid, the form non-fixed, everything the theatre fundamentally aims for, but this time the question is a lot more complicated. It’s also wildly exhilarating. The river of words fills you with negative ions.

As an example of how the creative process can often involve a series of questions, the line is both informative and eloquent. The full article is here and is well worth reading. It makes me look forward to seeing the show itself next week, and appears in the print edition’s Weekend Culture pages.

Meanwhile over in the Magazine, Lara Marlowe has interviewed Yasmina Reza – and it’s notable that whereas the Fouere article appears under ‘Culture’ on the Irish Times website, the Reza profile is under “Life and Style”, perhaps in part because this weekend’s magazine was a special issue about France and all things French. Again, we have an interesting discussion of what motivates Reza as a writer. As Marlowe recounts:

Reza says she wanted to explore human relationships “not as a subject of happiness but as a subject of disaster. That is what I have always done, in all my plays. For me, the couple has always been the very subject matter of disaster . . . Love exists. Happiness exits. Love and happiness have been associated in culture since the dawn of time, but it’s an aberration. Adam and Eve were not happy.”

That’s one of the better explanations of the seriousness of comedy that I’ve read recently. And it encapsulates well Reza’s distinctiveness as a writer: she understands love and happiness but also understands disaster – and finds a way to make those different elements cohere in a way that manages to avoid cynicism or sentimentality.

There are some lines in the feature that made me pause – notably this one (which was first pointed out to me by my wife): “Reza is a literary powerhouse, but there is something sex kittenish about her clothes and high-heeled shoes.” I found myself wondering if any Irish dramatist would ever be described as “sex kittenish”, and found the “but” in the middle of the sentence quite telling (literary powerhouse BUT sex kittenish: can’t she be both?). And while some might be critical of parts of the article for being a bit gossipy about Reza’s relationships with Sarkozy and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, those issues do shape her public perception, at least in France, so they seemed relevant and important.

The full article is here, and again I’d highly recommend it. It’s interesting in its own right, and as ever with Marlowe it’s very well written.

The contrast between the two articles says a lot. Fouere is one of our great theatre artists, and it’s a relief that we still have an outlet in which a theatre practitioner can write about the creative process for a general audience. That hardly ever happens any more, and I’ve chaired enough post show talks in the last few years to know that audiences everywhere love to hear artists talk about their work. And it’s good too to read more about Reza, whose theatre has not often been seen in Ireland and who deserves to be better known. And it deserves also to be taken more seriously: Art and God of Carnage are sometimes spoken of in a slightly snobbish manner, as if they are inherently unworthy of serious discussion. Those plays are not always well produced, but they are well written and merit attention.

And it’s interesting to see the placement in the newspaper of the two pieces: Fouere, who adapts Joyce, is seen as ‘culture’ – but Reza, who writes comedies and has interesting things to say about James Gandolfini, is part of ‘life and style’.

I’m not complaining about this – I’m glad to see the Times profiling two women theatre-makers in this way. But isn’t it interesting that the woman who writes ‘comedies’ is considered part of ‘life’ but the woman adapting Joyce is seen as ‘culture’? Perhaps it says something about where theatre fits in our societies that life and culture are seen as distinctive, and not just in The Irish Times. And perhaps there’s evidence too of the old idea that a person who writes comedy can’t be as admirable as someone who writes something more challenging and less accessible. Reza and Fouere are very different from each other, of course, but can both be admired hugely for their achievements.

I don’t want to make too much of this: newspapers divide their content in various ways and this will sometimes give rise to overlaps and contrasts. But the pattern seemed worth remarking upon.