That all was not well at the national theatre became apparent to the general public last January when over 300 members of the Irish theatre community signed a letter criticising the direction the theatre was taking under its co-directors, Graham McLaren and Neil Murray.

When the pair took the reins at the Abbey in mid-2016 they promised change, and that the theatre would be opened up to those who mightn’t have felt represented there before. However although many of their initiatives, which included free previews, were well received, local theatre practitioners became concerned that a policy of staging co-productions and ‘bought in’ shows was having a serious impact on employment in the sector. They addressed their letter of concern to the chair of the Arts Council, the chair of the Abbey Board and Minister for Arts Josepha Madigan.

Abbey Theatre co-directors Neil Murray and Graham McLaren 

The issues raised were discussed later that month at the Oireachtas committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht which was told by Abbey chair Dr Frances Ruane that the theatre was undergoing a process of change which included bringing different types of companies onto the stage. However, she said an ‘unintended consequence’ had been that some artists felt changes at the theatre had contributed to their personal hardship and she said the theatre regretted that. Director of the Arts Council Orlaith McBride confirmed that E300,000 of funding had been withheld from the Abbey pending clarity on issues including employment opportunities, the presentation model and remuneration. Meanwhile, co-director of the theatre Neil Murray said there was no question of the people who signed the letter being ‘blacklisted’, saying many were friends and all were colleagues.

The theatre agreed to meet representatives of those who signed the letter and the first meeting took place offsite on Friday February 1st.

Speaking afterward, both sides agreed the meeting had been positive and productive and said that a series of bilateral meetings would now be arranged between concerned groups and Abbey management. Five of those meetings took place in March, involving representatives of groups including actors and agents, directors, producers and technicians, designers, and writers. All of the meetings were attended by the co-directors, Graham McLaren and Neil Murray as well as other Abbey staff members.

The cast of the Abbey's musical Come From Away, in rehearsal

Many of the points raised in the initial letter were discussed at these meetings, which allowed each group to elaborate on their own concerns. For example, designers were seeking the reinstatement of the costume department and the restoration of the post of ‘Head of Costume’ rather than costume manager. Actors and agents asked for clarification of minimum and maximum rates of pay and said the lack of a casting department was having a negative impact on career progression for young actors as well as communication in industry, while directors said there was a lack of job opportunities in the sector.

The Abbey group had asked that the content of these meetings be kept confidential, however the representative groups felt this wasn’t possible as they had to go back to update the signatories they represented. It was later decided that each side would deal with the media separately and as they felt was appropriate. The Abbey has said it won’t comment publicly while the dialogue was ongoing.

A separate development then arose when, following a meeting between the Abbey and the writers’ group, playwright Jimmy Murphy made what he termed a ‘personal statement’ outside the theatre. He told reporters that, apart from the issues raised in the letter, there was also another problem at the Abbey, that of ‘difficult working conditions’ and the use of ‘inappropriate language’. He called on the Minister for Culture and Heritage and the Arts Council to intervene and insist the Abbey appoint an independent investigator to look at the allegations. In response, the theatre said it couldn’t comment on HR issues.

The Abbey's adaptation of Edna O'Brien's novel The Country Girls,
directed by Graham McLaren, tours venues nationwide this spring

So what happens now? All of the bilateral meetings have now taken place and representatives of the signatories are due to meet to discuss the next steps they want to take. It’s understood they feel that there is further work to be done to achieve policy and strategy changes and to make the national theatre accessible to all. Having felt strongly that an independent mediator was needed for future meetings with the Abbey, they crowd-funded for money to appoint a mediator and this appeal was successful.

The signatories hope a further meeting with the Abbey to look at the situation so far and discuss the next steps will take place before the end of May.