A statement from the board of the Abbey Theatre
Commenting on the contributions of Graham McLaren and Neil Murray to the Abbey Theatre over the past five years, the board of the Abbey Theatre issued the following statement:
“Neil and Graham have brought dynamic and positive change to Ireland’s national theatre. They have delivered exceptional new talent to the Abbey and Peacock stages alongside new audiences to share it with.
“Their introduction of Free First Previews contributed to broadening audience diversity, with over half of the audiences in their tenure visiting the Abbey for the first time. Their work with under-represented communities, especially through the 5×5 programme, helped to increase the diversity of artists on the Abbey stages. Black actors led shows, simultaneously, on both the Abbey and Peacock stages for the first time in our history and the Abbey achieved gender balance in its employment of artists, a full two years ahead of target.
“Alongside creating a new senior management team and working ethos, they established the New Work Department to nurture and develop a diverse range of future artists, as well as producing the work of established artists. They have consistently delivered excellent shows with huge box-office appeal while maintaining financial sustainability within the organisation. Productions including Jimmy’s Hall and The Unmanageable Sisters proved enormously popular with audiences and brought a signature style combining music and movement, “presented full heartedly as a political act, led by the beat and buoyed by the optimism that any gathering carries revolutionary potential.” (The Irish Times).
“As well as presenting work in Dublin in the Abbey building and beyond, Graham and Neil took our work to theatres and non-traditional venues across Ireland, and 12 international venues including London’s West End and New York.
“With the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020, Neil and Graham and their team moved quickly to find new ways in which theatre could adapt digitally to lockdown conditions and provide employment for artists when the world’s stages went dark. They brought the Abbey’s work to world-wide audiences through their digital initiatives, including the Dear Ireland series and Home: Part One. The innovative collaboration with the Irish Museum of Modern Art saw a magnificent Abbey Theatre production of Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger, pointing to the potential for live theatre, outdoors, in the face of the continuing constraints of the pandemic. Similarly, the collaboration with the GAA in commemorating Bloody Sunday showed how outdoor production could effectively combine with streaming.
“Graham and Neil have also contributed to the evolution of the organisation, overseeing the implementation of its first five-year strategy. They have overseen an increase in the rate of return in fundraising, including securing Bank of America as the organisation’s first ever multi-annual Principal Partner. During their tenure, they have doubled the Abbey’s annual unrestricted reserves and overseen a 16% increase in Arts Council Ireland funding.
“They have led on securing an Irish Government pledge of €80 million for a new Abbey Theatre building, on its current site, which represents a huge investment in the Arts in Ireland. Their work in the planning of this future building will provide Ireland’s national theatre with an exciting and realistic vision for a sustainable and accessible future home.
“Graham and Neil are held in high regard for their honesty and integrity by their colleagues and the many artists who have worked with them over their tenure in the Abbey. They leave the theatre in a strong artistic and financial position for their successors. The board of the Abbey Theatre wants to thank Neil and Graham for their energetic contributions and particularly for their excellent leadership in the pandemic. In wishing them every success in the years ahead, we say:
“Go raibh maith agaibh agus go n-éirí an t-ádh libh.”
THE BOARD OF THE ABBEY THEATRE
A fond farewell from the Directors of the Abbey Theatre
As we publish the 2020 Annual Review, in our final week as Directors of the Abbey Theatre, we want to take a moment to reflect. 2020 was a year like no other in the storied history of the Abbey Theatre. The pandemic forced the longest closure since the theatre’s formation in 1904. It was a year of firsts, that also marked our final full year of tenure.
When we took up our roles in 2016, our ambition was to open the doors of the Abbey as widely as possible, giving a diverse range of voices the opportunity to tell their stories from the national stage. Our commitment to this continued over the last five years and in January 2020, the year commenced with little indication of what lay ahead. We were set to present a full season of live theatre with major new productions from the Irish and international canons, standing alongside the premieres of daring and exciting new plays from Irish playwrights and theatre-makers. The programme was diverse and designed to speak to the Ireland of the present.
The Abbey Theatre became one of the nation’s first institutions to close due to COVID-19, on 12 March 2020. What to do when the doors we cast open were firmly closed to artists and the public? The world’s theatres closed, cultural calendars and programmes were cancelled and with it the decimation of incomes of freelance theatre-makers. Our original programme for the year succumbed, but we remained true to our core function of connecting Irish artists and audiences. We created an ‘extraordinary programme for an extraordinary year’ – embracing this time period as a digital revolution for theatre. We experimented and innovated with online productions, gaining an audience of close to 700,000 viewers. When restrictions allowed, we also made bespoke experiential live productions for limited socially distanced audiences.
We are hugely proud of what the theatre, its staff, and especially Ireland’s artists achieved in the most challenging of years. Our work on this programme required the development of new technologies and practices which will allow the Abbey to confidently continue to engage audiences in 2021 and beyond, no matter the restrictions. This year may have changed theatre forever, certainly opening our eyes to the possibilities of providing greater access to our work. This is an important consideration for a national theatre if we are to be truly ‘national’.
Ambition, hard work and public funding of theatre allowed the Abbey to prevail. We felt it was vital to prioritise projects that created employment for as many as possible, that provided entertainment, distraction, comfort, interpretation and an escape for the Abbey’s biggest ever audience. Through productions, development support and commissions, we were able to employ 599 artists to either be part of our pandemic productions or to work on new, future theatre pieces. This has ensured that there is a time capsule for future generations that documents a difficult year in Ireland’s history, but that there will also be a wealth of new plays ready for Ireland’s stages when they reopen after COVID-19.
We have used our positions to fight hard for better funding and improved working conditions and supports for artists and the sector as a whole. We are buoyed by Minister Catherine Martin TD’s announcement of a universal basic income initiative for artists. The theatre industry enriches the lives of Ireland’s citizens. There is more to be done to bring investment in the arts in line with European standards to ensure the artform is sustained and invigorated.
We are very proud of what we have achieved in our five-year tenure – from 10,000 free tickets issued through our Free First Preview series, to the broad range of stories and new artists’ voices that inspired, provoked and entertained captive audiences. We want to thank all the artists, practitioners, Abbey staff and board members, the Arts Council, the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport, the Gaeltacht and Media, Government Ministers and civil servants’ donors and supporters and, especially, our audience, who have supported us during our Directorship. We haven’t pleased everyone, but that is the challenge of artistic leadership, especially at the Abbey Theatre!
It has been an unforgettable privilege to lead the theatre and we believe that we have made the Abbey a more open, diverse and contemporary national theatre. We leave it in good artistic and financial shape for our successors to take it forward into a challenging and brave new world. We wish them every success.
Very best wishes,
Graham and Neil
Graham McLaren and Neil Murray
DIRECTORS OF THE ABBEY THEATRE