Irish theater touts director's overhaul

DUBLIN — The Abbey Theater is dead. Long live the Abbey Theater.

On the first day of this year, the National Theater Society Ltd. — commonly known since its founding in 1904 as the Abbey — was legally closed down and its assets and liabilities transferred to a new organization called the Abbey Theater Ltd., a key part of a total overhaul of the structure and management of Ireland’s national theater.

To the outside observer, this particular shift is doubtless more symbolic than practical — the theater has kept its doors open during the changeover. But the change was widely felt to be a necessary step toward closing the book on the org’s tortured recent past, and starting with a pristine slate under a new regime, led by director and CEO Fiach MacConghail.

MacConghail, in his first major interview since taking the Abbey helm seven months ago, says last month’s deficit-clearing grant from the Irish government to the Abbey of E4 million ($4.8 million) was made to establish a fresh start.

“It was an inheritance question,” says MacConghail. “Should the new company take on the enormous baggage of the previous company’s debts and liabilities? I was surprised, and reaffirmed, when the debt was cleared. But it took three to four months of getting our house in order to convince both the government and the Arts Council that it was safe for us to take the money.”

Much of the Abbey’s internal housecleaning has followed the recommendations of a report by auditor KPMG, commissioned last summer when it was discovered the theater’s debt was nearly $1.2 million more than had previously been reported, prompting the resignation of then-artistic director Ben Barnes and managing director Brian Jackson.

“The stark fact is that we have to manage our business a lot better,” says MacConghail. “The coordination of different areas of the theater’s activity, in terms of administration, compatibility of systems and reporting, was lacking and antiquated. A lot of the work was done manually and was labor-intensive and prone to human error.”

Though some of the gaps revealed by KPMG beggar belief — such as multiple and divergent accounting records for the same short financial periods; no evidence of agreed-on budgets for some productions; an error that led the theater not to account for $1.01 million in 2004 touring expenditures — MacConghail is careful not to bad-mouth his predecessors. He underlines that the theater’s financial problems were exacerbated by less-than-adequate grant levels from the government.

“It was a vicious circle of savage underfunding and a less-than-rigorous approach to business,” he says.

The December windfall, for MacConghail, marks “only halftime in a funding negotiation that has to include what the theater will get in 2006 and beyond.” When the Arts Council announces its annual funding decisions Jan. 23, MacConghail says he expects a significant increase on the Abbey’s 2005 grant of $6.1 million.

Even sans deficit, the theater plans to be circumspect about spreading its wings. “We’re not going crazy,” MacConghail says. “There is going to be a steep learning curve for me, because I’ve never run a national theater before. Our vision for the next three years is to re-engage with Irish society and with the Irish theater artist, to manage our business well and to begin to set a base so that after three years, we can begin to grow.”

A particular focus in 2006 will be in helping directors and designers make the national leap.

“It is my responsibility to see that Irish theater artists get onto the Abbey and Peacock stages as fast as possible,” says MacConghail, who during the ’90s was the director of Dublin’s Project Arts Center, a hotbed of small- and midscale theater activity. Directors getting their first chance on the Abbey mainstage in 2006 include Paul Mercier (whose film “Studs,” due for release in the spring, was produced by MacConghail), Jason Byrne and Jimmy Fay.

MacConghail says his first season will focus on “contemporary classics,” including plays by Sam Shepard, Joe Penhall and Mark O’Rowe. While he is enthusiastic about new Irish writing, he is cautious about pairing new plays with younger directors.

MacConghail scored a coup by naming Conor McPherson the 2006 Abbey playwright in residence: McPherson has been vociferous in the past about feeling ignored early in his career by the Abbey and has tended in recent years to work with the rival Gate. McPherson, Tom Murphy and Marina Carr have all promised their next plays to the Abbey.

Upcoming steps in the Abbey’s overhaul include the appointment of a new board of directors and, eventually, the creation of a new facility at George’s Quay in Dublin’s burgeoning docklands area. The new building will not open before 2009, but the Irish government’s commitment late last year to building at that location provided closure to a protracted public debate about the relative benefits of moving the theater away from its current, limited — but historically valuable — space to an area with much broader architectural possibilities but little current cultural life.

For MacConghail, the promise of a new facility is doubtless a relief. But his focus is on the short to medium term: “My task is to continue to revitalize the work of the Abbey, and to earn the right to a new building.”

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