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Abbey taps McConghail

New director to start in May

DUBLIN — Fiach MacConghail has been named director of the Abbey, Ireland’s national theater.

MacConghail, 40, is an independent film and theater producer who has served since 2002 as arts and cultural policy adviser to John O’Donoghue, the Irish government’s minister for arts, sport and tourism.

Appointment is being welcomed as a much-needed boost for a troubled organization that is heading into a period of total overhaul.

MacConghail told Daily Variety the Abbey’s well-publicized woes, which included a disastrous 100th-anniversary season in 2004 and the revelation of a €2.5 million ($3.3 million) deficit, did not deter him. “For the past 20 years, I have had my eyes set on this coveted position. It’s the best job in the arts in Ireland,” he said.

MacConghail was an unsuccessful candidate for the Abbey helm five years ago, but lost out in the final round of interviews to Ben Barnes.

“It’s no secret that I went for it before,” said MacConghail. “I wanted to work there and I still do.”

“I want to work with the staff, who I know and like, and I want to engage with Irish writers and directors at a new level.”

Loughlin Deegan, executive producer of Dublin-based Rough Magic Theater Company, called the Abbey appointment “extremely good news. There has long been a consensus within the Irish theater community that Fiach is one of the few people who has the entrepreneurial flair and artistic vision needed to rejuvenate the Abbey and develop it out of its current crisis.”

Willie White, director of Dublin’s Project Arts Center (which MacConghail ran from 1992-99), agreed: “One thing that’s very important is that Fiach likes artists, and they like him. The Abbey needs excitement right now, and this is a bold appointment.”

MacConghail is the first non-director at the Abbey’s helm. He began his career working for producers such as Noel Pearson and Michael Colgan (current director of the Gate Theater, the Abbey’s chief rival). Since leaving Project Arts Center in 1999, MacConghail has produced several high-profile arts projects for the Irish government, including Ireland’s participation at EXPO 2000 in Hanover, Germany; the opening of the renovated Irish Cultural Center in Paris in 2002; and the cultural program of Ireland’s 2004 EU presidency.

He’s currently producing feature film “Studs,” starring Brendan Gleeson and written and directed by Paul Mercier. He also has co-produced plays by Marina Carr and Alan Gilsenen.

MacConghail will start working at the Abbey in May alongside Barnes, whose contract expires in December, and managing director Brian Jackson. The Abbey board said MacConghail’s five-year contract involves him assuming “overall artistic and management responsibility for the theater,” raising speculation that Jackson’s position will become obsolete.

MacConghail’s appointment follows last week’s news that the Abbey has accepted stringent conditions attached to an additional €2 million ($2.6 million) in funding offered by the Irish Arts Council in response to the Abbey’s extreme financial and organizational crisis.

One of these requirements is that the Abbey disband the National Theater Society Ltd. — the company that has run the Abbey since W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory founded it 100 years ago — and replace it with a new company.

By agreeing to these terms, the Abbey board and advisory council have effectively terminated their own positions.

Few disagree, however, that wholesale change was necessary to the antiquated and obsolete corporate structure. “There needs to be a more efficient legal structure and a more efficient way for the board and executive to engage with the staff and with artists,” says MacConghail.

The timeframe for these changes is daunting: The Abbey has agreed to formalize its new corporate structure and develop a new management and business plan by June, with all changes to be implemented by the following June.

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