Everybody Loves Sean

Writing in Saturday’s Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole weighed in again on the spat between Garry Hynes (of the Druid Theatre) and the Abbey, over a proposed cycle of Sean O’Casey’s three Dublin plays (celebrating the centenary of 1916 in 2016) that’s soured the relationship between them. In an earlier interview with Hynes which appeared in Thursday’s IT, the basis of the dispute was outlined:

According to Hynes, she approached the Abbey’s director Fiach MacConghail in 2006 with the idea of undertaking this project as a co-production. “I approached the Abbey and suggested that this would make an ideal co-production project. The Abbey has resources beyond what we had, and a relationship with the writer. Druid had the expertise and the proven ability to deliver on major projects of this kind and it seemed to me that that was an ideal and potentially very exciting co-production for the two organisations. It seemed to make complete sense to me, but the Abbey rejected the proposal.”

Just before Christmas 2007, according to Hynes, she discovered that the Abbey had in fact gone much further. Druid, which had been in discussion with the O’Casey estate on the rights to the plays, was told quite suddenly that the Abbey had taken the rights to both The Plough and Juno , making the Druid project impossible.

“We were gazumped by the Abbey. It was pretty disturbing. We were in the middle of negotiation. We were very much taken by surprise to find that the Abbey had purchased the rights to two of the plays, therefore making our plans untenable. And they had done that in the full knowledge of our plans.” Abbey director Fiach MacConghail accepts that he had some discussion with Hynes on the O’Casey project, but strongly rejects any suggestion that Druid was “gazumped” (see panel). What is clear, though, is that a potentially very significant project is now impossible and that Hynes’s own relationship with the Abbey, where she was artistic director in the early 1990s, is completely severed as a result.

Fiach MacConghail’s response rejected Hynes’ version of events, stating that “the co-production between the Abbey and Druid wasn’t something that interested me. I also had no intention of producing any of these plays until 2010 at the earliest,” and that Hynes knew of the Abbey’s prior claim on The Plough and the Stars. However in Hynes’ view the dispute is symptomatic of a larger imbalance in power and funding of Irish theatres:

“You can’t say that the Abbey is over-funded, but everyone else is under-funded. If you take an organisation that is now taking 48 per cent of all the theatre funding in the country, then that organisation is a very big beast in what is a very small jungle. As in any other industry, anything that will tend to encourage monopoly practices is bad for the industry as a whole. It has to be.”

“I try not to let it depress me but sometimes it does. I sometimes look at it through the template of the way funding happens in this country. The Abbey comes along first and gets the most. The Gate comes along next in 1928 and gets the next most. Druid comes along third in 1975 and gets the third most. And Rough Magic comes along fourth and gets the next most. In the ensuing hundred years everything under the sun has changed. It doesn’t make sense to me that the same paradigm is being applied.”

O’Toole clearly sympathises with Hynes and questions that reluctance of the Abbey to cooperate with the Druid, asking “if it’s okay for the Abbey to co-produce a play about contemporary Irish politics with a foreign national theatre, why is it not okay for the Abbey to co-produce a major project on historic Irish politics with an Irish company?”

In a subsequent letter to the Editor published today Rough Magic’s artistic director Lynne Parker supports the view that the hierarchical relationship between the Abbey and independent companies is an unhealthy one:

The National Theatre has been given much-needed bolstering in recent years; the fact remains that it is chronically under-funded in comparison with its European counterparts in a manner which should embarrass a nation supposedly on the crest of an economic wave.

But the difference in funding between the Abbey and the independent companies is clearly disproportionate.

We desperately need a funding system which responds to the holistic needs of the theatre industry, and which can properly manage a healthy and thriving national theatre while acknowledging the fundamental contribution of independent companies. It is this interdependence in our sector, from grassroots level to companies such as Druid, which enriches and sustains the national institutions and our cultural profile both at home and abroad.

Is this a personal disagreement between Hynes and MacConghail writ large? A minor issue blown out of proportion? Or just another incidence of the Abbey flexing its muscle at the expense of smaller companies? Certainly Hynes and Parker are correct in pointing out funding imbalances and the recent dig-out of the Abbey that cost millions… and yet, while it may be true that theatre is underfunded in Ireland when compared internationally, it is certainly not the case that theatre (as artform) is under-funded in comparison to other artforms in Ireland. This disparity is marked also in Culture Ireland’s recent announcement of its spring grant disbursements, where theatre and dance received the lion’s share of grant monies. This is not necessarily a surprise nor is it inappropriate, given Culture Ireland’s remit to support Irish art & culture abroad, and the strong position of touring theatre companies to do just that… but it is interesting to note that Rough Magic received the largest single grant in this round of €80,000, four times that of the largest single grant given to any non-theatrical proposal. Of the 16 proposals which received €20,000 or more, nine were in theatre and dance, five in music, two in visual arts, and none in film, literature, or architecture.

What would Oscar say?

“In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”

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