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  • Chris O'Rourke

The Abbey Theatre - steering the ship as autumn approaches

Photo Credit:The Abbey Theatre

A culture change is like turning a ship. Less of a handbrake turn, with everything changing direction all at once, it’s a slow, steady process of turning by degrees. True as this may be, too often this argument has been used to justify, or conceal, a lack of change or an unwillingness to change. But in the case of the Abbey Theatre, there would certainly appear to be a genuine openness to change over the past twelve months, with the ship seeming to be turning.

The Board of The Abbey’s creation in December 2015 of the Gender Equality Committee, a sub-committee to develop a gender-equality policy for the Abbey Theatre, seems to be paying dividends. Appointees Loretta Dignam (Chair), Deirdre Kinahan, Niamh Lunny and Mark Ryan have certainly wasted no time, recently releasing a set of guiding principles to ensure that gender equality is both embraced and enshrined at the national theatre. Describing the process and its objectives, Dignam states;

‘The Abbey Theatre’s Gender Equality Committee has spent several months engaging with a wide variety of stakeholders, including staff and the new Directors of the Abbey Theatre, the wider theatre and Arts community in Ireland, the UK and the US. We have learned that gender equality is a complex issue in theatre globally. To really succeed, gender equality needs to become part of the DNA of an organisation, with a stated goal, clear actions and accountability. In order for the Abbey Theatre to achieve gender equality, change is required in several areas simultaneously. We believe that this comprehensive set of principles encapsulates the change that's required.’

The eight guiding principles, listed below, place gender equality at the heart of The Abbey’s decision making going forward;

Update the mission statement and other key documents within the Abbey Theatre to specifically reflect a goal of gender equality. The key documents include:

The Mission Statement of the Abbey Theatre

The Memorandum and Articles of Association

To put gender equality as a key board priority and responsibility, meaning that gender equality will become a permanent board agenda item with immediate effect.

The Abbey Theatre commits to continued gender equality at board level.

To achieve gender equality in all areas of the artistic programme over the next five years by presenting more work led by female theatre practitioners. Gender equality will be measured in five year periods starting from 2017. There will be ongoing flexibility within programming for a given year but over the course of each five-year period the artistic programme will achieve gender balance.

The Abbey Theatre commits to gender equality in the play commissioning process.

The Abbey Theatre undertakes to deliver a workshop programme for all employees, examining issues of gender equality in the workplace.

With a view to raising awareness of the career opportunities for women in theatre, the Abbey Theatre will create an annual programme for second level students within the National Theatre.

Progress made by our gender equality initiatives will be specifically reported in the Abbey Theatre’s Annual Report. This recommendation will ensure that both the focus and progress on achieving gender equality at the national theatre will be documented and detailed within the Annual Report thus ensuring that there is clear visibility on this journey. The 2016 Annual Report will contain the first update on gender equality.

All of which was warmly welcomed by #Wakingthefeminists founder Lian Bell;

“We are honestly very moved at how seriously the Abbey have taken this and how they listened to us when we said this wasn’t just about the work on stage but also the living work of those working in administration, backstage and in all other areas of theatre. Today has paved the way for the incoming Abbey directors to implement the guidelines and that will be the real test. It sets a standard, a benchmark for all the other organisations.”

Chairman of the Board of the Abbey Theatre, Bryan McMahon, acknowledged the importance of #Wakingthefeminists in bringing this issue to the forefront of discussions on Irish theatre;

“Last November, the Abbey Theatre addressed the lack of gender equality in the context of our Waking the Nation programme for 2016. We welcomed the debate and discussions that followed and the Waking the Feminist event on the Abbey stage. A committee of the board recommended comprehensive principles, which the board accepted as suitable guides in the key areas that needed to be addressed. These principles will ensure that the Abbey Theatre continues to lead the way in achieving a shift towards gender equality in the Irish theatre and Arts sector. The board is grateful to the Gender Equality Committee for their exceptional work on this matter.”

Judging by The Abbey Theatre’s Autumn/Winter Programme, which also marks Fiach Mac Conghail’s final season as Director of the Abbey Theatre, it would appear the shift towards gender equality has already begun. As the hugely successful Waking the Nation programme comes to its end, the next step on the journey sees world premieres by Marina Carr (Anna Karenina), Frank McGuinness (Donegal) and Carmel Winters (The Remains of Maisie Duggan), as well as a performance by international activist Penny Arcade, (Longing Lasts Longer), a co-production with Tiger Dublin Fringe. Fornocht Do Chonac by Eoghan Ó Tuairisc and produced by Taidhbhearc na Gaillimhe sees an Irish language production feature in the programme and a trilogy of plays from THEATREclub, trace an unwritten narrative of Ireland, one that looks at the recent past through the lens of equality.

Fiach Mac Conghail, Director of the Abbey Theatre states;

“I’m proud to present an important line-up of national and international artists at the Abbey Theatre. I have been motivated in programming the Autumn/Winter season by my desire to work with the best of contemporary playwrights and directors and to increase the representation of women making and presenting work at the Abbey Theatre. I believe that an increased visibility of women artists at the Abbey Theatre will have a positive impact in achieving gender equality in Irish theatre and in the wider arts sector. I welcome the important and public dialogue with Waking the Feminists in advocating this change. Although a lot more needs to be achieved, I’m pleased with the quality and balance of the programme for my final season at the Abbey Theatre.”

Mac Conghail added;

“Waking the Nation was an artistic and box-office success. It has been a fantastic year for the productions on our stages and on tour. Almost 100,000 people have been to an Abbey Theatre production so far this year and we have toured from Washington DC to Inis Oirr. I want to thank all of our artists and audiences for engaging with Waking the Nation. I want to pay tribute to my outstanding, loyal and talented colleagues at the Abbey Theatre who have supported me and the artistic policy and programme of the Abbey Theatre over the last 11 years. We also welcome our Directors Designate Graham McLaren and Neil Murray…I’m looking forward to working closely with them over the next six months, as they prepare to take over what I consider to be the most exciting job in Irish theatre.”

With its Autumn/Winter season striving for gender equality, diversity and inclusiveness, the ship that is The Abbey certainly appears to be turning a number of degrees in the right direction. Something Directors Designate Graham McLaren and Neil Murray say they are keen to continue into the future;

“It is exciting to be arriving into an organisation that is committed to gender equality. It is a long held value of ours. We welcome the committee’s recommendations – we believe that artists and audiences regardless of gender, sexual orientation, geography, ethnicity and wealth should have access to their national theatre."

Fittingly, #Wakingthefeminists will be holding another public meeting on the Abbey stage on November 14. Exactly one year on from their first meeting on the very same stage.

"It will be a moment to mark what has been achieved during the year, and will light the fire for the work still to be done."

As Ireland's national theatre, The Abbey certainly has a particular obligation to address gender equality, and equality generally, something they appear to be genuinely attempting to do. But it is not an exclusive obligation. It's time for others to take note of what can be achieved, once the willingness is there, to facilitate equality right across the theatrical spectrum. To take note, and to step up.

For further information on The Abbey Theatre's Autumn/Winter Season, its Guidelines for Gender Equality or the #Wakingthefeminists event, visit The Abbey Theatre

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