Art Talk with Fiach Mac Conghail of Abbey Theatre
"An artist to me is one of those kind of prophets of our community. Their antennae, or their sense of what’s happening, is so vital and so pure that we always need to listen to them." --- Fiach Mac Conghail
In 1904, writers W. B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory founded the Abbey Theatre as a means of "bringing upon the stage the deeper emotions of Ireland." Nearly 110 years later, the theater steadfastly maintains this mission under the direction of Fiach Mac Conghail, paying tribute to Ireland's most renowned playwrights while also supporting and encouraging a new generation of writers to follow in Yeats and Lady Gregory's footsteps and continue to---as Mac Conghail puts it---"reflect, engage, and challenge Irish society."
Mac Conghail has the unique position of being both the head of Ireland's national theater as well as a Senator in Seanad Éireann, Ireland's parliament. When we Skyped with him, he discussed the history of the Abbey and its connections to American playwrights, the theater's efforts to support Ireland's up-and-coming playwrights, and how he balances his work as an artist and a senator.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience with the arts?
FIACH MAC CONGHAIL: I grew up in what I would call a kind of bohemian family, who were based in Dublin City. My grandfather was a very well known painter, and his son, my father, was a documentary filmmaker, so on that side I had the visual arts and cinema as part of my experience. And then on my mother's side, she was part of a very well known Gaelic-language family and therefore [I had] the connection with the Gaelic language and culture. My mother used to take us to the theater when we were younger and we used to meet up with writers and playwrights. So from a very early age I was exposed to the arts by my parents.
NEA: What was your journey to becoming the director and CEO of the Abbey Theatre?
MAC CONGHAIL: The short answer is 25 years! The long answer is that I went to university, to Trinity College in Dublin, and I studies politics and economics. While I was in university, I started getting involved with local theater companies and drama companies. Then while I was in university, I went to New York City and spent a summer working for the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater Company. After a while I realized that actually, this is a part of the work I enjoy. I felt it was almost like a vocational call to be working with artists and also to be helping artists find their audiences. After I graduated, I became a stage manager for a while, working in theaters in Dublin, and got to know actors and writers, and just kind of worked my way up. I was artistic director of an avant-garde theater company called Project Arts Centre, which programmed theater, dance, music, and visual arts. Out of that, I kind of set my sights on the Abbey Theatre and I was appointed in May 2005. So in hindsight it seems to have been a natural journey, but looking back, every job I had---working in theater and working in the arts---was something that I was profoundly connected with and I didn't think beyond that.
NEA: It's interesting that your background is in politics and economics, because you're now a Senator in the Irish Parliament, correct?
MAC CONGHAIL: That's right. First of all, being director of the Abbey Theatre, which is Ireland's national theater, in itself can be seen as a kind of political job. Our mission at the Abbey is about engaging and reflecting Irish society. So we always try and do work and create work and create a context for work that is a commentary on Irish society. And then to my surprise, two years ago our Prime Minister appointed me as a member of the Senate, which means that my job is doubly political, in that I'm a parliamentarian, I'm a legislator, as well as the director of our national theater.
NEA: Is the mission of the theater today the same as it was when it was created in 1904?
MAC CONGHAIL: Next year, 2014, we will celebrate our 110th anniversary of the foundation of the theater. It's an extraordinary legacy. The key to the foundation of the Abbey Theatre was, first of all, a meeting of minds between writers and actors. Writers, like W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and later, J.M. Synge, came together with the Fay Brothers, who were really amazing actors based in Dublin. And together they formed the National Theater. The mission statement hasn't changed in 100 years---it's about reflecting and engaging and challenging Irish society. The way I do that today, which is in direct lineage to my founders, is that we commission new Irish writing a lot---we work and support both established Irish writers and emerging Irish writers and ask them to write plays which we produce, and [these plays] somehow or other help us understand Irish society. And the second part of our mission statement is we work with the plays in our repertoire. Whether it's a play by Yeats or Synge or Sean O'Casey or Brian Friel, we try and present it in a contemporary light in today's world. So the short answer is that mission statement has been with us for the last 110 years. In one way it's a great responsibility and in another way it's a great joy.
NEA: Can you speak further about Abbey Theatre's work in supporting playwrights?
MAC CONGHAIL: There are many, many ways by which a writer can write a play. Of course, we have some great Irish masters, like Frank McGuinness, Marina Carr, Sebastian Barry, Conor McPherson, Mark O'Rowe who would write a play, or we would commission them, and we would work with them, but there are other strategies. What's important is never to assume there's only one way to write a play. One of our great inspirations is that Brian Friel spent a season in the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in the early 1960s, working with Sir Tyrone Guthrie. What he learned there was how theater works, how actors rehearse, how stage managers, directors, designers, how all of that works. Our new playwrights program is based on that model. We invite the excited unpublished, or unproduced, or indeed, little-known playwrights to spend a season with us. They can have master classes with all the great Irish writers, they can workshop, and they also have time to hang around with us in the theater and see some rehearsals, see a dress rehearsal, and also see the opening night. It gives them a connection between what they're writing in their room on their own and what it might be like for one of their plays to be produced. It gives them that support and that context as well. We're very proud; it's quite a unique program. This year we have five playwrights in that program.
NEA: Do you think there anything in particular about Irish playwrights or Irish theater that sets it apart from the theater of other nationalities?
MAC CONGHAIL: Of course everybody in Ireland thinks Irish playwrights are the best! I often reflect on this when I travel to the U.S. and see a lot of theater. It's a kind of influence that Irish theater had on American playwrights and vice versa. There's a kind of symbiotic, artistic relationship with playwrights from both nations that goes down through the years. In 1911 the Abbey Theatre toured to the U.S. for the first time. What was crucial was when it came to New York, I think around 1913. Eugene O'Neill saw them and Eugene O'Neill was inspired by what he saw---a type of acting that is kind of heightened realism. He wrote in his diary that the Abbey Theatre was one of the main reasons why he started to write his particular plays. Eugene O'Neill, of course, is one of your great writers but we also consider him sometimes to be an Irish writer. I'd say Samuel Beckett had a huge influence on [American writers] like Sam Shepard and David Mamet. And of course David Mamet and Sam Shepard had a great influence on our younger writers, like Mark O'Rowe and Conor McPherson and so forth. There's a wonderful, rich connection between playwrights on both sides of the Atlantic. And of course, let's not forget Tennessee Williams and his use of language. He has a lot of huge admirers in this country, including Tom Murphy.
NEA: You've already mentioned many great Irish artists. Are there others that you're currently working with that you're really excited about and we should be watching?
MAC CONGHAIL: I'm in the middle of rehearsals now for a new play by a writer named Richard Dormer. He's making his debut at the Abbey Theatre and he's written a play for us called Drum Belly, which is set in New York City on the weekend of the moon landing in 1969 and tells the story of second-generation Irish and how they get before they lose control of the city to the Italians. I'm very, very excited about this play and I'm very excited about the actors working there. And after that we have a new play by a young woman, Elaine Murphy, who has written a play called Shush. She's making her debut at the Abbey. It's great to have both a male and female writer making their debuts this current season. I always get excited about how we can give new voices new opportunities on our stages.
NEA: Can you speak more about your work as a member of the Irish Parliament? How do your balance your work as an artist with your work as a member of Parliament?
MAC CONGHAIL: It's always a juggle. I had decided earlier on in my career as a parliamentarian that I would only focus on particular aspects of the work that I can make a difference in. I get involved in any arts or culture related events, activities, or legislation, as well as issues around social justice and economics, in particular. I receive a salary [as a member of Parliament] but I give it away to the Abbey Theatre and also to other arts organizations. The fact that I have two jobs but only get paid for one of them is something that is very important for me.
The reason the Prime Minister picked me was because I was director of the national theater, first and foremost. So I try and give a unique perspective on behalf of artists and the artistic community in any debate. I think it is important for other areas of society to be heard and the arts are an important part of that.
NEA: What do you see as the role of the artist in the community?
MAC CONGHAIL: In one way, you could be provocative and say the artist has no role in the community other than to bear witness. An artist to me is one of those kind of prophets of our community. Their antennae, or their sense of what's happening, is so vital and so pure that we always need to listen to them. That is their first job---their responsibility is to tell us their stories, tell us the myths of our community. And it's my job as a producer and as director of the Abbey to try and support the artist in that community. But other than that, I don't necessarily see them as having any other responsibility. I think that's the role of the management of a theater company, or the management of an arts organization. We need to protect our artists and give them enough money and enough time to tell our stories.
NEA: What do you think is the responsibility of the community to the artist?
MAC CONGHAIL: What's unique about Ireland is that the majority of the arts in Ireland are subsidized by the tax payer where it's kind of the opposite in the U.S. There is a government policy to support the arts. Obviously, we are in an extremely challenging economic time at the moment, but clearly the community supports the arts through their taxes by making sure that [artists] are creating work in the community.
NEA: At the NEA, we say "Art Works," referring to the work of art itself, the way art works to transform people, and the fact that artists are workers. What does "Art Works" mean to you?
MAC CONGHAIL: To me, it means that if I see a movie, or a play, or go to a gallery, and if I'm moved for a second…. We have a production of King Lear on at the moment and I see a standing ovation every night. I see people crying at the end of it because the character of King Lear has been humanized. I see people being quite moved and that phrase "Art Works" comes straight to mind.