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The Abbey’s Rejuvenation

Fiach MacConghail, Director of the Abbey Theatre

By Marilyn Cole Lownes, Contributor
October / November 2006

With artistic flair, business acumen, and oodles of courage, Fiach MacConghail is set to rejuvenate Ireland’s national theatre

It was in January 2005 when Fiach MacConghail, knee deep in a muddy football field in west Dublin, got the call. It was from the chairwoman of the Abbey offering Fiach that much cherished post – director of the oldest and most famous theatre in Ireland. “I’ll always remember that phone call. It was 9:15 a.m. and I was on the set of Studs, a film I was making that centers around Irish football,” recalls Fiach. “I was thrilled at the news but I asked the very nice chairwoman if I could phone her back after I’d spoken to my wife.”

Fiach, 41, married to actress Brid Ni Neachtain, the mother of his two daughters, smiles as he explains, “You see, I wanted my wife to be the first person to know, and be directly involved in the decision, but Brid’s phone was switched off. She was in a lecture for her degree course at college, so I couldn’t reach her for over three hours!”

Today, casually dressed in a maroon track suit, sporting dark shoulder-length hair, and sipping an early morning tea in the bar at the Roosevelt Hotel, Fiach is on a visit to New York to give a talk about the Abbey at the Harvard Club.

The affable, laid back yet highly professional Dubliner reveals how, as excited as he is to be running the Abbey, established by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1904, he also feels an enormous sense of responsibility toward the Irish government, which recently awarded the theatre a major grant of 31.3 million dollars, and his performance to date would seem to justify the faith that has been placed in him.

Born in Dublin in 1964, as the eldest of five children, Fiach MacConghail was brought up in a veritable arena of creativity.

“My father, Muiris, was a television director for RTE, the national broadcasting station, and a documentary filmmaker involved in current affairs,” he explains. “And my grandfather was Maurice MacGonigal, a famous landscape artist, whose paintings hang in The National Gallery of Ireland and in a lot of major collections.” The family’s artistic talent didn’t stop there. “My grandmother was a costume designer and actually wrote a couple of plays,” he explains, “and my mother is a genealogist, and her mother was quite a famous Gaelic scholar, who studied old legends in Ireland and translated them from old Irish into modern English.”

The family’s artistic and creative flair has been inherited by Fiach and his brothers – one is a film producer and editor, another is an arts officer, and another runs a dubbing company for cartoons.

While Fiach and his siblings were brought up to be aware of the arts, and how important they are for a full life, they were also brought up in an Irish-speaking household. “I remember, at an early age, my parents speaking in English and me not understanding a word they were saying,” Fiach admits. His formal education, up until he was 17, was all in Gaelic, and he is anxious to pass on the tradition to his own children. “The language is such an important part of my life that my own kids are being educated in Irish as well,” he stresses.

Although he says that he was not a particularly ambitious student, he was conscientious enough, and he is quick to pay tribute to those who helped him. One teacher in particular inspired in him a love of literature.

“I wasn’t that good at English essay but when I became exasperated, my English teacher, Brendan Mulally, said, ‘Just start reading books, your vocabulary will improve and the way you express yourself will get better.’ There is no greater gift in my opinion than the ability to enjoy reading. It gives you vocabulary, expression, and confidence. We encourage reading in our own children by always having lots of books around,” he continues.

Fiach’s love of language led him to the debating society in high school – his school team won the All-Ireland Debating Championship – an experience that would prove useful when he was putting forward his vision for the Abbey at his interviews before the board.

“Debating is a big thing for the Irish,” he laughs. “We love to talk; we actually have talking competitions. The idea is to pick a theme and you have a half hour to prepare and then two of you flip a coin to see who is going to be for the motion and who is going to be against it. I really loved that.”

In fact, Fiach’s love of a good debate initially caused him to choose politics over theater.

“My father left RTE to become chief communications officer for the government in the mid-seventies. Liam Cosgrove was Prime Minister, the country was going broke, there was the oil crisis of 1973, complicated negotiations with the North – things were pretty turbulent. We’d have a lot of discussions at home about politics so I enrolled at Trinity College in Dublin to get a political science degree.”

However, in his second year at college, he had a change of heart.

“I directed The Hostage by Brendan Behan in Irish, with Liam O’Maonlai who later became the lead singer in the Hothouse Flowers. And I thought, ‘Hey, I feel very comfortable doing this sort of thing.’”

But he felt “a bit bored with the endless rehearsals,” and found that he was more interested in what the poster was looking like and the marketing of the play.

“It did extremely well; we sold out and I would say that it was then that I got a taste for working in the theater,” he relates.

Very soon he got a taste for a completely different way of life. “I dropped out of Trinity and went off to work in a Burger King in Copenhagen,” he recollects. “At the time I felt Ireland was very stultifying and conservative and staid. Burger King in Denmark was my rebellion.”

In 1985, Fiach returned to Ireland with kind of a dual mission, primarily to try to get into the business of theater, and to return to college to get his degree.

After a stint as an assistant stage manager in a touring company, he graduated to working at the Gate Theatre, and here he met Joe Dowling, his first mentor. In theater circles, Dowling, who is now the director of the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, is known as the best regional director in America.

“At the same time I decided to go back to college and get my degree. So I was working at night at the Gate and going to my lectures in the day,” Fiach recalls.

In 1987, during his third year in college, Fiach came to New York for the summer on a student visa. While his friends went off to Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard to work, he stayed in New York.

“I worked as an assistant stage manager for the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater based in New York. And I got to know the boroughs pretty well because the company was touring all the Hispanic areas from Harlem to Staten Island, to the Bronx and Brooklyn, to Long Island City.

“I had such a great summer, working in theater and getting to know New York that I vowed that I would come back here again,” he says. By 1988, Fiach had finished his degree.

At the time most of the young people were leaving Ireland. “There were no jobs, high unemployment, and all my friends were leaving to go and find work,” he recalls.

Once again, Fiach didn’t follow the herd, he decided to stay and go back to work as an assistant director with Joe Dowling at the Gaiety Theatre. It was a good decision.

“I learned a lot from him. He always gave young people a chance because he thought that it would bring new energy to the theater. It was because of him that I made a lot of connections and moved along to become the producer on a couple of commercial productions.”

In the summer of 1989, Noel Pearson, a film producer, who made My Left Foot, was artistic director at the Abbey, and he asked Fiach to come in as his assistant.

It was another turning point for Fiach, not just professionally, but personally.

“I had four years learning the role of producer at the Abbey Theatre and it led up to us coming to Broadway with Dancing at Lughnasa. Brid Ni Neachtain was in the original cast [she played Rose], that’s how I met her. We got married in June 1992.

Fiach remembers that time in New York as “a wonderful period” in his life. “It was like ‘the Irish had come to town!’”

“Dancing at Lughnasa opened the door on Broadway. It was such a great hit, winning the 1992 Tony Award for Best Play and a nomination for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play. It just made it so much easier for other Irish plays to come to New York. Irish was cool, Irish was hip,” he emotes.

Continuing his career back in Dublin, Fiach left the Abbey to become artistic director of the Project Arts Center, an important contemporary arts venue in Dublin. “It was great for me because I could put into action all I had learned from Noel Pearson and Joe Dowling. It was, I suppose, my second university. There I was able to work with a team, think of my own ideas and produce work with the best of young writers and directors.”

After “a very happy seven years” at the Project Arts Center, Fiach decided to go freelance. “I was Culture Director of Ireland when it participated in the World Trade Fair in 2000 in Hanover, Germany. I also worked in Paris creating the Irish Cultural Center.

“After Paris, I was an advisor to John O’Donoghue, the then Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism. That was also a big learning experience for me.”

Discussing his ability to get the biggest government grant ever for the Abbey, Fiach reflects, “I had experience working in the arts with writers, artists and actors. Then I spent time working with government agencies and getting to know how public administration works. I understood enough to put the two together.”

A lesser talent would be daunted by the task of taking on a hundred-year-institution badly in need of artistic and financial deliverance, but not Fiach.

“The challenges I had when I started this job were a financial crisis and the fact that I inherited very few new plays. Sometimes it’s not cool to admit that as the director of the Abbey I have both a responsibility to art and a responsibility to balance the books,” he acknowledges, saying, “I have to use the left and the right side of my brain.”

For inspiration Fiach looks to the writers.

“In times of tragedy and times of unease, we Irish turn to our poets and our writers for some explanation and for some understanding. Seamus Heaney or Brian Friel or Tom Murphy. We turn to these writers at moments of crisis.”

Is this uniquely Irish?

“I think it’s very Irish; storytelling and poetry are very important. It’s part of our life and who we are. So I went to all the writers I know and persuaded them to write for the Abbey. Now, we have Conor McPherson, Mark O’Rowe and others like Tom Murphy, Frank McGuinness, Tom McIntyre, and Sebastian Barry – the whole slew of them,” he explains.

“There’s Brian Friel, who was himself influenced by Chekov. His Faith Healer, a substantial play about memory, storytelling and about art – had a recent run on Broadway. And his Translations, which is soon to open on Broadway, looks at the Irish colonization by the Brits, the appropriation of our language and memory. “

And there’s the extraordinary visceral, energetic writer Tom Murphy who is looking at family and where ‘home’ is; what does ‘home’ mean, is it a metaphorical thing, is it a physical thing? Murphy’s recent plays include The Wake and The House. Also there’s Tom MacIntyre who deals with the imagination and with the ‘other world.’ These are the things that greatly influence me.

“We have a disproportionate amount of successful playwrights in Ireland. Out of a nation of only four million we have an extraordinary amount of excellent writers and playwrights,” Fiach readily imparts. “For centuries the poet was seen as an important person in the Irish community, and I think that has carried over to the playwright and the writer in Irish society. That’s acknowledged to the point that the Irish government does not tax the work of writers.”

To which Irish writers will the public be looking to for guidance and reassurance in the future?

“That all depends, because relationships with writers can also be personal ones. There was a period when Irish writers and playwrights left the Abbey to work in other places. At the Abbey now, one of my priorities is to re-engage with Irish writers.

“We commission plays. Writers can’t and shouldn’t be made to write to order; they should be given time and space to write to their own rhythm,” he explains, “and writing a play can take two to three years, so I’m now investing for the years 2009, 2010, and 2011.”

Discussing future projects, Fiach is enthusiastic. “It’s very exciting news for us at the Abbey that we are staging Doubt by John Patrick Shanley in October, 2006. John Patrick’s father came from Westmeath so it must be very exciting for him, too.

“The play is fantastic. It’s an important play about something that has had huge impact on Irish society: child abuse by some clergy. It is a great honor that Doubt, which won a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize, is having its Irish premiere at the Abbey,” Fiach enthuses.

“I think Shanley paints the nun, Sister Aloysius, as a beautiful character, very sympathetic and very understanding, but he shows up her frailties and weaknesses as well. I don’t think Shanley is anti-church. He’s more judging of the hierarchy in the church,” he continues.

Fiach also plans to stage the work of the London Irish writer Martin McDonagh, who has also found success on Broadway. “McDonagh was very angry with the Abbey when they rejected his plays early on, before my time, but we hope he will give us the rights now, because I would love to put them on,” says Fiach. “I saw The Lieutenant of Inishmore on Broadway. It’s a great production. I also would love to put on The Cripple of Inishmaan.”

The Royal National Theatre in London and Royal Court refused The Lieutenant of Inishmore because they found it too violent. Might this constrain the Abbey, too?

“No. It’s a wonderful play and a wonderful cast. Hopefully, all that needs to happen now is that Martin McDonagh will pass the rights on to the Abbey so we can do his plays,” stresses Fiach.

It’s been a year since MacConghail took over as director of the Abbey. A year in which he has “loved every minute.” He is very proud of what he has accomplished so far but admits that it will take him at least three years to get it all really right.

“We inherited a financial mess, a deficit of almost five million dollars and an artistic mess,” he explains.

“When I took over the Abbey it was run in a very antiquated way. This past year I’ve been working with the staff, unions, government and the Arts Council, trying to restructure the whole organization to get the funding right. We’re not quite there yet; we have to introduce a new box office system, we need a decent online booking system and our marketing has to be improved. Even in Ireland a lot of theaters are way ahead of us. My job is to make our business even better, and at the same time invite all the writers and artists back in and encourage international work like Doubt.”

Fiach is also lucky in that Ireland has a strong tradition of fine actors to draw on.

“We have great Irish actors like Stephen Rae, Gabriel Byrne, Colm Meaney, and Dearbhla Molloy – just an extraordinary pool of talent – Fiona Shaw, Sinead Cusack, Colin Farrell, Cilian Murphy. I could just go on and on.”

As far as the tradition that the Abbey Theatre has in Ireland, it also plays a part in Fiach’s own family heritage,

“There was a guy called William Kelly who owned a newsagents in Dublin in the early 1900s. One of the kids who used to come into that shop was Sean O’Casey, who lived around the corner. In O’Casey’s biography he tells us that William Kelly was the first person to take him to the Abbey Theatre to see a play.”

Fiach goes on, “I imagine that would have had a big influence on Sean O’Casey, it being the first play he had ever seen. During subsequent years, when O‘Casey had his own plays on at the Abbey, he would write to William and ask him to keep the newspapers, so he could read all the reviews. I have one of those letters because William Kelly was my great-grandfather. Fiach smiles. “Another connection I have with the Abbey is that my grandfather the painter, designed a set for an O’Casey play in the 1930s, so it’s in the blood alright!”

Fiach concludes our interview by saying, “I feel I have the best job in Ireland, working with such brilliant writers, actors, and staff. It’s just fantastic. I pinch myself when I wake up every morning.” ♦

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