The end of The Abbey Workshop?

The Abbey Theatre Workshop is likely to be the most significant casualty of the Abbey’s restructuring, with proposals made to abolish the department entirely. This would lose eleven full-time jobs at the theatre while also sacrificing the Abbey’s capacity to construct its own sets.

According to the Abbey’s director of finance and administration, Declan Cantwell, the workshop has been under scrutiny for some time. In 2006, when the Abbey was the recipient of generous State subsidy, a review of the workshop revealed “a huge difference in cost” between manufacturing sets at the workshop and outsourcing the service to Irish or overseas companies. For nearly three years, efforts have been made “to narrow that gap”, according to Cantwell, with systems and software developed to increase its efficiency. “We did that in the context of [knowing] the workshop would never being as cheap an option as outsourcing,” he says. “But we felt at the time that for a national theatre it did make sense to have its own workshop, even if it meant paying a premium.”

In the present economic crisis, however, the workshop is no longer considered tenable: “The bottom line, unfortunately, is that when the Arts Council started cutting our grant this year – and we're anticipating a significant cut next year – the world changed. We were left in a position where we couldn't carry the premium of keeping the workshop internally.”

The loss of the workshop may not yet be a fait accompli and is meeting with resistance from staff. “We’re not accepting anything until we’ve been through everything,” SIPTU’s Des Courtney told ITM. “We understand that there’s a difficulty coming down the track, but remember, the Abbey’s not in financial difficulty now. What they’re saying to us is that next year, because of the funding shortfall from the Arts Council, there will be a problem. They need to verify that that’s a fact.” Courtney conceded though “The people in the Abbey are realists. They know if they don’t face the issue this year, they’ll face it next year. We might as well do it while there’s time to spare.”

The Abbey has since met with the Building and Allied Trade Union in the Labour Relations Commission, with a meeting expected at the LRC between the theatre and SIPTU over the same issue if an agreement cannot be reached in local discussions.

With hopes dwindling for the preserving the department, the culture of Irish set-building faces decline. The Abbey has previously sourced sets from abroad, with Ferdia Murphy’s circus and boxing ring design for last year’s Lay Me Down constructed by a Liverpool-based company. Meanwhile, Lane Productions recently choose to have the set for The Shawshank Redemption outsourced to the UK.

Designer Monica Frawley is aware of problems that have beset the workshop “for as long as I can remember”, but sees its potential loss as the beginning of a wider deficit. In an email to ITM, she wrote: “As a young designer, part of my training (as was the case with most of my colleagues) was in the Abbey Theatre workshops. It was an invaluable experience. There is to be a full-time theatre design course in Dun Laoghaire. Where will those graduates gain their practical experience? Indeed, where will they find work?

“Will the independent workshops always be able to cater for the Abbey builds, as well as the those they already cover? Will we see a situation in the future where our National Theatre will have its sets built and painted abroad?”

Declan Cantwell admits that where set building is concerned, price is the motivating factor. “We would obviously want to ensure that the quality was up to a certain standard. We believe that there are a number of workshops in Ireland that would be able to do it. There are a far greater number of workshops in the UK, because of its size.” For similar reasons, it is unclear whether Irish companies can be competitive.


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