Fiach Mac Conghail looks back at 11 years as director of the Abbey Theatre
 

Fiach Mac Conghail looks back at 11 years as director of the Abbey Theatre

Today, 3 May 2016, is eleven years to the day of my appointment as Director of the Abbey Theatre.

This week we have seven productions at work. On the Abbey stage we are in the final stages of the technical rehearsals for Othello directed by Joe Dowling, while downstairs, the vibrant cast of Tina’s Idea of Fun by Sean P. Summers is playing to packed houses on the Peacock stage. Our forthcoming play within music Town is Dead by Phillip McMahon and Raymond Scannell is in the rehearsal room in Dublin while Frank McGuinness’ contemporary classic Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme rehearses in London. The explosive Cyprus Avenue  is enjoying a sell-out run at the Royal Court, Sean Holmes’ raw, powerful production of The Plough and the Stars is on tour in Wexford and Ali White’s charming play Me, Mollser is introducing O’Casey to sixth class students in Castleblaney.  I love days like this, when we’re in full flight as the national theatre of Ireland, bringing world class Irish-made theatre to audiences at home and abroad. We’re travelling far and wide this year reaching 40 locations across Ireland, the UK and the US. Managing such a high level of activity and supporting the teams that make this work possible is both the joy and the challenge of a busy national producing house.


My eleven years as Director of the Abbey Theatre have seen a lot of change, on Abbey Street and beyond. The transformation of the Abbey Theatre auditorium by internationally renowned designer Jean-Guy Lecat and Irish architect John Keogan in 2007 was a key moment for me as Director. With enhanced acoustics and a new seating design, an intimacy was fostered. It transformed the theatrical experience at the Abbey Theatre, drawing audiences into the heart of the onstage action. This enabled the Abbey repertoire to expand – previously neglected classics became possibilities, as did contemporary styles of new Irish writing. But I happily note the constants of the Abbey Theatre throughout my time here, too – an ever deepening commitment to playwrights and a sustained commitment to national and international touring.

THE WRITERS THEATRE

It is the great privilege of a national theatre to engage with writers across a lifetime and throughout a long career. Playwrights like Tom Murphy, Thomas Kilroy, Marina Carr, Frank McGuinness and the much missed Brian Friel have been my companions and my teachers throughout my time at the Abbey Theatre. Not alone through our shared collaborations, but through their writing itself, which I keep close by and return to often. The responsibility of the artist is to pull us into worlds that we are afraid to go to. I feel privileged to have had such navigators. Some of the richest artistic journeys I have taken were with the formidable talents of playwrights Mark O’Rowe, Marina Carr and Frank McGuinness. Mark was Writer in Association here at the Abbey Theatre in 2004. We first worked together on a celebrated production of Howie the Rookie (2006) in the Peacock, quickly followed by his genre defining Dublin odyssey Terminus (2007). The subsequent tour left audiences spellbound across three continents, with 155 performances in 19 venues from the Museum of Contemporary Arts, Chicago, to the Sydney Opera House. I then proudly supported Mark, together with an extraordinary cast including Sinéad Cusack, Ciar Hinds and Tom Vaughan Lawlor, in realising his vision for Our Few and Evil Days (2014) on the Abbey stage, an elemental love story and an artistic achievement that will endure.


Marina Carr, one of our finest playwrights, has gifted a rich body of work to the Abbey Theatre over the last decade. Audiences have enjoyed Woman  and Scarecrow (2008), Marble (2009), Sixteen Possible Glimpses (2011) and a revival of the enduring By the Bog of Cats (2015), and we can look forward to an exciting new take on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina from Marina later this year. With great admiration, I continued the Abbey Theatre’s engagement with the work of of the nation’s leading playwright Frank McGuinness. We produced Frank’s adaptations of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman (2010) and Joyce’s The Dead (2012), his searing family drama The Hanging Gardens (2012), and we’ll embark on a world tour this year with Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, followed by a brand new play from Frank in Autumn 2016, Donegal.

THE IRISH CANON

As Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey Theatre is charged with celebrating the rich Irish theatrical canon, while simultaneously entrusted with cultivating the nation’s artistic futures. Uniquely positioned as both commemorator and innovator, we must reimagine the treasures of our literary heritage, while making new myths to add to the narrative of cultural history. Holding these dual missions in balance will ensure that Irish theatre can continue to thrive in the years to come. We have done this by inviting leading directors from home and abroad to create daring interpretations of classic  plays, from Jimmy Fay’s indelible production of The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht (2008) and Sean  Holmes’ visceral production of Drum Belly by Richard Dormer to Róisín McBrinn’s superb  treatment of Heartbreak House by Bernard Shaw (2014). One of my biggest thrills has been matchmaking leading contemporary theatre artists with seminal Irish playwrights. I believe these partnerships have yielded some of the finest work of the last decade; Wayne Jordan and Thomas Kilroy came together to create Christ Deliver Us! (2010), a vivid production with stunning performances from a celebrated intergenerational cast. Annabelle Comyn’s heart rending production of Tom Murphy’s The House (2012) unlocked the secrets of emigration and homecoming. This partnership  returns in June 2016 when Annabelle directs a timely revival of Tom’s play, The Wake.

CREATING NEW PLAYS

It has been my great pleasure, season after season, to present new voices in dialogue with the ancestral plays that came before them. I have always envisaged the Peacock as the engine room of Irish theatre, an incubation space where the best of new Irish talent can thrive. It’s a space where audiences love to gather and actors love to work. I recall a particularly stellar 2011 season featuring the world premieres of No Romance by Nancy Harris, Perve by Stacey Gregg, Sixteen Possible Glimpses by Marina Carr and B for Baby by Carmel Winters. Four impressive plays from writers of great skill. Soon afterwards, we produced Gary Duggan’s Shibari (2012). This was followed by Owen McCafferty’s internationally acclaimed Quietly (2012), a play which marked the beginning of a programme of work exploring contemporary life in Northern Ireland. We have a responsibility to support and understand the fragile society slowly emerging in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement. To help us do just that, the Abbey Theatre commissioned and produced Jimmy McAleavey’s Monsters, Dinosaurs, Ghosts (2015), Stacey Gregg’s Shibboleth (2015) and David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue  (2016). Despite the challenge of continued reductions in public funding, the Peacock stage  has been more vibrant than ever in the last two years – in addition to the new plays in our Northern Irish series, the Peacock has also given life to Conservatory by Michael West (2014), The Waste Ground Party by Shaun Dunne (2014) and Death of a Comedian by Owen McCafferty (2015). This is an impressive collection of new plays and I couldn’t be prouder of this body of work from some of Ireland’s finest playwrights.

TOURING

Touring has always been a central part of the Abbey Theatre’s strategy to introduce new plays to Irish and international audiences, with the goal of creating contemporary classics.  Over the last ten years, our plays have travelled farther than we could have ever dreamed. B for Baby brought us all around Ireland and to the Tampere Theatre Festival in Finland. Having premiered Quietly on the Peacock stage in 2012, it played to great acclaim in Edinburgh followed by an extensive tour of Ireland, a run at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, at the Soho Theatre in London, and a presentation at the RUHRFESTSPIELE Festival in Recklinghausen, Germany. In July 2016 Quietly will open off-Broadway at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York. Closer to home, it’s important to me that audiences all over the island of Ireland have the opportunity to engage with their national theatre. The Seafarer by Conor McPherson (2008) enjoyed a successful Irish tour with performances in Cork, Galway and Letterkenny and audiences in nine Irish cities and towns engaged with Outsiders by David McWilliams (2010). In 2013 Elaine Murphy’s wonderful comedy Shush was a joy to share with audiences here at the Abbey Theatre, before delighting audiences with a local tour to the Civic Theatre in Tallaght and the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire. Conall Morrison’s brilliant interpretation of John B. Keane’s Sive (2015) left Abbey Street after a sell-out run and embarked on a 55 performance tour across the island of Ireland. In the same year, national treasure Eamon Morrissey beautifully evoked artistic kinship, taking his elegiac Maeve’s House from Heir Island to Dún Laoghaire and on to New York City. The Priming the Canon series, part of our Community and Education programme, is our way of introducing children to the classic plays. In 2015 Me, Michael, a re-interpretation of Dancing at Lughnasa, toured to an audience of almost 3,000 school students; and in 2016 Me, Mollser, the second in the Priming the Canon series and a re-telling of The Plough and the Stars, will visit over 150 schools.


The first Abbey Theatre tour to the US took place in 1911, and we have upheld that tradition over the last decade, building on our deep connections with theatres and audiences in the US. Frank McGuinness’ adaptation of John Gabriel Borkman (2010) travelled to BAM in New York; Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus (2008) toured the US extensively and our partnership with Sam Shepard brought two world premieres from one of America’s greatest living playwrights to Dublin. Kicking a Dead Horse (2007) subsequently toured to the Almeida, London and the Public Theater, New York, and Ages of the Moon (2009) transferred to Atlantic Theatre Company in New York. We also look forward to sharing our current production of The Plough and the Stars with North American audiences in 2016.

A NATIONAL CONVERSATION

The Abbey Theatre has been active on its Abbey Street site since 1904. Over time the nature of the conflicts or tensions around it have changed, while the theatre has retained a role as a forum for national conversation. Jimmy Fay, Conor Linehan and Colin Dunne came together in 2013 to reimagine James Plunkett’s The Risen People, a powerful production with deep connections to the contemporary moment. In response to this, I invited activists, performers and politicians to respond after each performance with their own Noble Call. This project saw sixty-two Noble Calls in total including Richard Boyd Barrett, Stephanie Meehan and, of course, Panti, whose game changing speech about homophobia caused a viral sensation. Inviting the people of Ireland on stage in this way demonstrated my continued commitment to facilitating a national conversation. We have worked hard to protect the position of the Abbey Theatre as a crossroads for debate; our Abbey Talks and podcasts series, as well as the Noble Call for Marriage Equality, gave countless opinion makers, theatre artists and stakeholders a forum to critique, debate and challenge issues  and themes with Abbey Theatre audiences. This intention was realised to great success across our three symposia: The Theatre of Memory Symposium (2014), The Theatre of War Symposium (2015) and The Theatre of Change Symposium (2016). We undertook this project in 2014 as Ireland prepared for the challenge of this year, 2016. Over three years, key questions were posed about how to acknowledge major historical moments in a contemporary, social and political context. Irish and international artists across a broad range of disciplines provocatively explored the tension between memory and history, and how artists might position themselves within this creative juncture to imagine new futures for the nation. At The Theatre of Memory Symposium Declan Kiberd observed the relative difficulty of accessing some of the seminal texts of the Irish Cultural Revival. Given that the Abbey Theatre was central to the Revival and our tradition of publishing, which dates back to Beltaine, edited by W.B. Yeats, I was proud to collaborate with Declan Kiberd and P.J. Mathews who co-edited Handbook of the Irish Revival, the first publication from Abbey Theatre Press and our contribution to deepening the debate around the Decade of Centenaries. As guardians of the Abbey Theatre Archive, we always have an eye on how our own history can inform the future. Having embarked on a ground-breaking partnership with NUI Galway in 2012 to digitise the Abbey Theatre Archive, I have been consistently impressed by the progress made in just a few short years on this huge project. The Abbey Theatre Digital Archive, portions of which are already available online at the James Hardiman Library in Galway, will make an important and highly valuable resource accessible to theatre-makers and scholars.


Putting on a play is a political act. Great art both entertains and teaches us, it’s the Abbey Theatre’s job to create work that challenges and reflects Irish society. That ideal was challenged late last year. The Waking the Feminists movement pointed out that our Waking the Nation season did not represent gender equality. An urgent conversation began online and we welcomed the debate, hosting a public meeting on the Abbey stage on 12 November 2015 to give voice to the call to redress the gender inequality that exists across the arts industry. The board of the Abbey Theatre is committed to the development of a comprehensive policy and detailed implementation plan to ensure that the Abbey Theatre leads the way in achieving a much-needed cultural shift towards gender equality in the Irish theatre sector. I am pleased to say that an exciting programme of plays will be announced in summer 2016, and will go some way to redress the gender imbalance in our 2016 programme to date.

NURTURING IRISH THEATRE

The Abbey Theatre exists as part of the thriving ecology of Irish theatre. The theatre has played host to inspiring and ground-breaking work from some of our most exciting colleagues; Druid Theatre Company’s Empress  of India by Stuart Carolan (2006) and The New Electric Ballroom by Enda Walsh (2009), The Corn Exchange’s Freefall (2010) by Michael West, Gúna Nua’s Little Gem by Elaine Murphy (2010), The Company’s As You Are Now So Once Were We (2011), HotForTheatre’s I Heart Alice Heart I by Amy Conroy (2012), Mikel Murfi’s The Man in the Woman’s  Shoes (2015), Dead Centre’s Lippy by Bush Moukarzel with cameo playwright Mark O’Halloran (2015) and Fishamble: The New Play Company’s Olivier award-winning Silent by Pat Kinevane (2013) to name but a few. We enjoyed collaborating with our partners Dublin Dance Festival, Dublin Theatre Festival and Tiger Dublin Fringe, bringing vibrant international productions like You’re Not Alone by Kim Noble to Irish audiences and spotlighting home-grown heroes including choreographer Liz Roche who we co-commissioned to create Bastard Amber in 2015.


The Abbey Theatre has cultivated a fertile environment in which excellence and passion are celebrated. Eleven years is sufficient time to see the seeds planted take root and grow. Watching artists develop over time in this way has given me great joy; witnessing actors go from their first audition to giving star-making performances; watching playwrights hone their craft as their play undergoes the pressure of production, from workshop draft to opening night; watching promising new directors with strong instincts grow into assured visionaries with a signature style. We are always looking for ways to nurture Irish theatre talent. Our Green-Light Programme develops artists through our Yeats Design Residency, the Lennox Robinson Bursary and the Resident Assistant Director programme. On one very special night in 2012, music legend Patti Smith and Pulitzer Prize winner and dear Abbey Theatre collaborator Sam Shepard played a combined gig on the Abbey stage to raise funds for our New Playwrights Programme. The work of the Literary Department with emerging playwrights through initiatives like the New Playwrights Programme, Short Play Commissions, Playwriting Pop-up workshops and Peacock Scratch Nights will help to sustain the Abbey Theatre for many years to come.

CITIZENSHIP

I spoke a lot in the early days about the importance of the citizen, and continued to explore the concept through a programme of plays that engage with the issues of the day in a way that is distinctly Irish. This began in earnest with my first production as Artistic Director, when Homeland by Paul Mercier reflected that specific moment in the Ireland of 2005, with a play written in the rehearsal room and devised with a talented cast. Since then, productions as diverse as Bernard Farrell’s hilarious Bookworms (2010), Roddy Doyle’s brown-envelope bashing adaptation  of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector (2011), THISISPOPBABY’s soulful musical Alice in Funderland (2012) and Stacey  Gregg’s  anarchic Shibboleth (2015) chronicled many aspects of a changing  Ireland. I see attending the national theatre as an affirmation of citizenship. We found increasingly dynamic ways of interacting with diverse audiences. Audiences can buy a ticket for the Waking the Nation season for as little as €9. I found it inspiring to hear wise and talented playwright Shaun Dunne recount coming to the Abbey Theatre as a child and growing up believing that a piece of it was his. It’s my desire that all citizens should feel that way about their national theatre. We took responsibility for actively fostering that feeling, not just through low ticket prices and community programmes, but by extensive touring of the whole island and bringing our work to non-theatre venues, making it easier to interact with our work. For example, the Abbey Unplugged project sees us lock the doors of the theatre and take the show on the road to schools, to hospitals and memorably, the very first of our Unplugged performances at the assembly hall at Wheatfield prison.


At the close of that performance of The Risen People (2014), a group of inmates performed a powerful Noble Call in which they sang a self-penned song entitled Stand Together. That was a moving and momentous night in Abbey Theatre history. The last decade or so has seen the citizens of Ireland live through troubled times. In response, the works we staged unveiled the anger, disappointment and distress being felt across Irish society. Tom Murphy’s The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant (2009) looked at life in crumbling societies; David McWilliams’ discursive show Outsiders (2010) examined the reasons for the socio-economic crisis; while No Escape (2010) by Mary Raftery offered a powerful means of engagement with the Ryan Report. The perils of borrowing and the trails of poverty were highlighted by new productions of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (2011), and the impact of banker’s greed was examined in Frank McGuinness’ version of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman (2010).

FINANCIAL CHALLENGES

As Ireland endured dramatic social and economic change in the last decade, the Abbey Theatre did also. We have faced several financial challenges during my tenure, beginning with the Abbey Theatre facing bankruptcy and near extinction in my first weeks as director designate in 2005. Shortly after my appointment, the extent of the deficit was revealed as €3.85m. Securing a government bail out later that year, the Abbey Theatre was enabled to continue its mission. The change management processes my colleagues and I initiated at that time would again be tested as the Arts Council funding for the Abbey Theatre decreased from €10m in 2008 to €5.8m in 2016. In light of this dramatic cut, keeping the doors of our theatres open while practicing prudent financial management was crucial to our survival. Throughout this turbulent period, we kept to our mission statement and did not lose a single performance or production. With thanks to the government, the taxpayer and in particular our loyal and dedicated staff, the Abbey Theatre has evolved from near extinction to sound   financial health. In order to fulfil this promise and stabilise the organisation’s finances for the long term, we had to make drastic changes to company structures and work practices. Through this work, we managed to survive one of the worst recessions in our history and the most severe cuts to Arts Council funding on record. Unfortunately, the financial concerns for Irish arts organisations are far from over. Our community remains under serious threat from diminishing funding.


The greatest challenge facing the arts community is to raise income from public, private and corporate sources to create  and nurture theatre of the highest quality. There is a lingering disconnect between our sector and the makers of policy. We must challenge our government to reassess the long-term vision for the arts in Ireland, and the best way to do this is together. Our community must unite in a selfless way in order to foster real change.

THE FUTURE

From just outside the rehearsal room on the top floor of the theatre, there is a great view of the city. The Abbey Street Luas tracks stretch over O’Connell Street towards the GPO in one direction and the new Rosie Hackett Bridge crosses the Liffey in the other. I have done a lot of thinking and dreaming in that spot, about art and about Ireland, about how best to support artists and about what people want to see on our stages. I have watched the changing physical I have watched the changing physical and cultural landscape of the city from that spot and in the time to come; the Abbey Theatre itself will further alter the view.


In 2012, we took the bold decision to purchase a new building on Eden Quay which finally enables the Abbey Theatre to turn towards the river. Our current building is not adequate to meet the needs of a modern theatre. The world class performers, theatre makers and staff who work here, as well as the audience members who attend the Abbey Theatre, deserve higher standards than we can currently provide in relation to working conditions, health and safety standards and access for people with different abilities. Upon the discovery of asbestos in the Abbey auditorium in 2012, our production of The Plough and the Stars had to relocate to the O’Reilly Theatre, Belvedere. This is indicative of just one of the challenges of the current Abbey Theatre building, built in the 1960s. Our legacy is that the Abbey Theatre will remain on the site gifted to us to us by its founders. I look forward to my successors and future Boards delivering a new building on the existing location, securing the future of the Abbey Theatre forever in the heart of Dublin.


Since 2005, more than 1.2 million people have watched 191 plays on our two stages on Abbey Street. We have offered varied audience experiences with more than 40 Irish premieres. We have created a space for visionary voices to work in unison, resulting in extraordinary theatrical achievements, like Seamus Heaney’s unparalleled adaptation of The Burial at Thebes directed by Patrick Mason (2008) or Selina Cartmell’s rich realisation of Tom MacIntyre’s daring and mischievous Only an Apple (2009). Presenting work ranging from James Thiérrée’s Raoul (2011) to the Rubberbandits (2015), from Shakespeare to Shaw, the Abbey Theatre is a place for work that questions the canonical and embraces the new.  Over the last eleven years I have been consistently inspired and moved by the conviction and creativity of my collaborators, the army of brilliant artists and dedicated staff at the Abbey Theatre. This leaves me in no doubt that they care as much about this theatre as I do. Audiences have echoed that care with over 50,000 people attending performances of our Waking the Nation season at the time of writing. 112 years after its foundation, the Abbey Theatre’s future looks bright.

Fiach Mac Conghail


Director / Stiúrthóir

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