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Main image: Darragh Kelly in Performance Corporation's production of Slattery's Sago Saga.Photo: Ciaran Bagnall

Terms and conditions may apply

Nobody has come out of this year's Arts Council funding decisions well. In the fourth straight year of declining State subsidy for the arts, two regional theatre companies have lost recurring funding from the Arts Council completely while two others (neither based in Dublin) have incurred significant reductions and been told that their regular grants will conclude in 2013. Yet there has still been much surprise at the magnitude of cuts apportioned to various companies in the independent sector followed by renewed calls for transparency in the Council’s assessments and clearer communication of the theatre strategy underlying it.

In one superficial discrepancy the cut to the Arts Council’s budget from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaelteacht, amounted to just a 3% reduction (from €65.16m in 2011 to €63.20m this year), while the theatre budget was reduced by 7.4%.

The Abbey, whose budget fell significantly between 2008 and 2010, is unaffected, receiving a second €7.1m tranche of its three-year multi-annual funding agreement worth €21.3m. For the rest of the theatre sector, sharing a pool of  €6.3m, a picture is now emerging of an Arts Council with less funds to disburse but greater influence to wield. Identifying four key organisations to maintain, a Theatre Context note supplied to the Grants Committee advised that, “the Council may wish to link its commitment to prioritised funding to each of these organisations with a more specific expectation of what each delivers in return.” For those that received money this year, then, new terms and conditions apply, including an emphasis on co-productions, hiring with outside directors and sharing resources.

These four, understood to be Druid Theatre Company, Rough Magic Theatre Company, the Gate Theatre and the Dublin Theatre Festival, essentially already operate like that, each receiving a precise 2.4% reduction to the previous year’s awards. Such safeguarding suggests a batten-down-the-hatches approach while national economic recovery remains a distant prospect.

Seven more companies were also identified, “being of significance either regionally or in terms of the area of practice in which they specialise”, but which “do not operate on an institutional basis”: in short, they should be maintained, but cut to a greater extent. This, then, was the recommendation made to the grants committee: invest in blue chip stock, preserve a number of the independents and let the remaining companies and artists compete for alternative, non-recurring funding schemes.

In policy, the Arts Council’s executive may have found a tough but practical solution to an intractable problem, and in the last three years Irish theatre has become accustomed to the new deal. In the last three years the number of organisations in receipt of annual funding from the Arts Council, across all art forms, has fallen from 300 to 270. Theatre clients account for 17 of those no longer regularly funded. Project Awards, where competition is extremely high, have enabled several high-quality productions, albeit on an ad-hoc basis.

In practice, however, the Council members implementation of the Executive’s policy seems less transparent. This year Drogheda-based Calipo Theatre Company and Cavan’s Livin’ Dred were defunded. In addition, Red Kettle, Tall Tales and Performance Corporation all received hefty reductions – of 31%, 50% and 60% respectively – with the latter two informed that recurring funding will be discontinued in March 2013. At least one company is appealing its decision, seeking precise details of the assessment, while another has sought a meeting with all Council members. Yet again, clarity in strategy and its implementation has become a heated issue.

Speaking to ITM, David Parnell, the head of theatre at the Arts Council, recapitulated the context, describing how economic collapse has accelerated a more exploratory process of reducing the number of funded companies while initiating new non-recurring funding mechanisms. “At no time was it suggested that the theatre company was a bad thing,” he said. “It was simply a question of how many is enough and how many could we sustain meaningful relationships with.” Inevitably, more pressure has been placed on non-recurring schemes, particularly the Project Awards, which seems unable to bear it. The 2012 budget for Project Awards has not been expanded, at just €1m. “The only way it can better support [an increased volume of applications] is by having more money allocated to it,” Parnell said, although this will not happen. Total applications for the scheme amount to €5.2m per year and demand has always far exceeded supply for the €1m pot. Round 2, divinding a fund of €600,000 “give or take” is currently being assessed.

One conspicuous consequence to the current strategy is the squeezing of the middle. With established organisations prioritised through revenue funding, and emerging artists more likely to endure the vicissitudes of Project Awards, mid-career artists now have few sustaining options. A severe contraction of the independent theatre sector seems inevitable.

“We’ve seen the writing on the wall for the company model for so long,” said Jo Mangan, whose Performance Corporation has diversified its revenue in recent years, formed partnerships with local bodies and international producers, and toured its work nationally. (Its recommendation from the Arts Council contained nothing negative, she said.) Mangan’s company would have to revise its plans, she conceded, but felt that the company would soldier on without radical change. Her broader concerns were representative of many in Irish theatre: that the current strategy offered no career path to artists other than on a project by project basis. In such conditions, she anticipated “the amateurisation of the sector”.

I suggested such a possibility to Parnell. “I would absolutely not accept that at all,” he said, pointing out that the majority of people making theatre – designers, actors, stage crew and technicians – worked on a project by project basis and were rarely in receipt of a regular salary. “While there is a profound shift, it affects a relatively small proportion of the overall theatre sector. A salary and a career are not the same thing.” With fewer companies, however, and no rise in funding Projects, there will be fewer opportunities for everyone.

Parnell conceded that the current system is “not working for those middle-sized middle-aged theatre companies”, for which the Theatre Artist Residency Scheme was designed to support: “To give employment, to put it crudely, to these artists who had lost their companies or who didn’t have any, secondly to animate the venue in which they were working, to offer the venue the resource of the knowledge and experience of those artists.”

Parnell would not discuss the Council’s deliberations, conducted over two hours (“It’s like cabinet confidentiality”) but explained that the Council may consider the recommendations of staff and make decisions based on independent views of the company and its application. I asked how he felt the Council had interpreted the strategy and whether their decisions were representative of its intentions. “I think there were always going to be exceptions that kind of disprove the rule, if you like. There’s always good reasons for that… It’s just a question of having a different perspective. I wouldn’t say that it is a significant problem. It’s more an issue around trying to get the balance between 13 people in a room being allowed to deliberate and talk about very difficult decisions and then having a transparent process on the other. Sometimes there’s a bit of a clash because of the nature of decisions around art, which by their nature, can be quite subjective. And sometimes it’s difficult to express the reservations that the Council might have towards a theatre company. I don’t think that’s unique to the last round of funding decisions.”

This is one reason why an appeals process will be of so much interest. A successful appeal, ironically, cannot result in returned funding (“We simply don’t have the money,” says Parnell. “The money has been spent.”), but Freedom of Information requests, meetings with Council Members, and increased public scrutiny may shine a light on how the grants committee deliberates, on what criteria their decisions are made, and the level of familiarity members possess about the companies, organisations and artists they are assessing.

I asked Parnell if he felt the current strategy for theatre was working for both the sector and for the production of work. “It’s too early to tell in a global term whether it’s working,” he said, “and I don’t think we’ll really know until we get back to where we were in funding [levels], because then people would start to see the pool of project money expanding and the range of opportunities growing. Obviously there is less work, because we have seven million [euro] less than we had four years ago. Of course there’s less. It’s very difficult to tell if it’s working because the cut in funding has been so massive.”

Hence the shape of theatre funding today: a policy that had originally been intended to introduce alternative funding schemes and enable a broader range of work beyond the company model has since been overtaken by the ravages of the economy and become an ad hoc system of damage control. “That’s what we’re attempting to do,” said Parnell, referring again to the investment in quasi institutions with stipulations for creating more opportunities. Weathering the storm? “Exactly,” he said. “That’s the attempt."

Peter Crawley is News Editor of Irish Theatre Magazine


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