August 23, 2007

The case for investment in regional theatres

William Walker posted 13 Aug 2007, 09:07 PM

New Zealand Theatre: the case for investment in regional theatres

by William Walker

I have been one of a fortunate few New Zealand actors to step straight from school to a fulltime apprenticeship in theatre; in my case, at Gateway Theatre in Tauranga. After a stint at the New Zealand Drama School under the inspired tutelage of George Webby, Grant Tilly and Erica Stevenson, I was then paid to work in the professional industry almost non stop for the next twenty or so years.

At the age of twenty-five, I was lucky to be appointed Artistic Director of Centrepoint Theatre in Palmerston North and ten years later (perhaps less luckily) to be appointed Artistic Director of Downstage Theatre in Wellington. I have also independently produced theatre tours regionally and nationally. Although attendance figures were generally healthy, in the long run they cost me financially; but they have also added to a history from which I have learnt more than most, first hand, about an intrinsically tricky business.

Aside from theatre, I have been a student, and worked variously as a filmmaker, gardener, tram conductor, salesman, driver, house painter and croupier. With the possible exception of tram conducting, none of these make anywhere near the positive contribution to society that theatre makes. Since the turn of the new millennium, I have spent six years as a fulltime secondary school teacher. I have managed to write and see a few plays performed, squeeze in three professional seasons as an actor; and even some television but mostly by far I have been a teacher.

My teaching of drama has reinforced my conviction that drama is among the most valuable activities a society can participate in. At school, it inspires, challenges, motivates and disciplines the students to achieve at levels way beyond what they imagine they are capable of reaching. They study within a team context and all their assessments are observed, critiqued and discussed by their peers and the wider school community. Just as what occurs when professional theatre exists within the wider community. This period as a teacher particularly, has allowed me to view the professional theatre industry from a distance and even, to my relief, with dispassion. Now though, my passion is again beginning to rise.

The following is my own personal stocktaking on an industry I, like many other New Zealanders, young and old, love and care about. I encourage others to add to what is here. Contradict, correct, build on and enlighten further. We in the professional theatre industry need to speak up.


The New Zealand Theatre industry is a key but poorly represented and sadly neglected branch of the arts. There seems to be no-one passionately and persistently lobbying the current and otherwise forward thinking government (despite the picture our media paints of it) to make a much firmer, bolder and more imaginative commitment to the present and the future state of a professional theatre industry. It is an industry that urgently needs the attention of its minister, or else the Labour led government will miss the opportunity to secure the future of what is a vital media and cultural form.

The effect of Drama being included as a legitimate NCEA subject should not be underestimated. A palpable hunger for live theatre has developed across the country, not only among the young adults who have studied it at secondary school but also among their parents, associates and the wider community who have been following their progress. Moreover, the talents and skills necessary for a vibrant, top flight professional theatre industry now exist in abundance in the provincial cities and it is in provincial New Zealand where the future development of our theatre industry lies.

The connection to film and television

The film and television industries are organically connected to theatre. The much bigger and more active professional theatre industry of the seventies and early eighties is, to a large part, responsible for spawning the current success New Zealand film and television is enjoying. You don’t have to look far into the backgrounds of the creative leaders of the film industry, such as Roger Donaldson, Geoff Murphy, Sam Neill, Bruno Lawrence, Ian Mune, Jane Campion, Cliff Curtis, Taika Waititi, Anthony McArten, Garth Maxwell, Robyn Malcolm and so on and so on and so on, to find their close connections to the theatre.

Film and television are the muscular and visible limbs on the body of a successful New Zealand drama and comedy entertainment industry. Theatre is the heart. When it is pumping soundly, it sustains the resources film and television need; actors, directors, designers, set builders, props makers, promoters and writers. With writers and directors especially, it provides low cost opportunity for a range of fresh New Zealand voices to be heard, and, just as importantly, it gives those playwrights an invaluable boost of encouragement and confidence to write on and thus develop.

Of course the stage and the screen are very different mediums and their forms demand differences of emphasis placed on the elements of character, situation, story, light, sound, time, movement and meaning but both rely on the manipulation of these same essential ingredients. As a medium, Theatre also provides a personal, considered and/or immediate point of view on just about any aspect of society, unfettered by the commercial restraints that tarnish television’s contribution or by the high budgetary considerations of film. Theatre should be an incredibly nourishing staple in the diet of a healthy democracy.

Although the Wellington City Council took twenty years longer than it needed to, it has firmly established the city as the ‘Creative Capital.’ Theatre has always been a key driving force behind the creative industry in Wellington. It is easy to argue that the ‘circle of theatres’ that has existed for decades in the vicinity of Courtenay Place formed the nucleus around which today’s thriving bar, restaurant and cafe scene there have grown.

The film industry is providing a similar stimulus on a national scale and now sits comfortably in the same league as forestry and horticulture. It has the potential to do for New Zealand identity and profile what the music industry has always done for Ireland. A New Zealand that is serious about developing a national identity, whilst also encouraging a truly healthy democracy, neglects the theatre at the cost of both.

Let’s play the YES game!

Experience and the contemporary cultural environment strongly suggest that there is every reason to be optimistic that a greater level of government investment in theatre will be rewarded. Because of the commitment and skills of theatre practitioners, the effect of NCEA Drama in schools and because of a still surging, general appetite amongst New Zealanders for New Zealand culture, the potential audience for theatre throughout New Zealand is huge and waiting to be tapped. When it finally is tapped, it will spur on an entertainment industry capable of, not only maintaining our invaluable international profile but one that continues to grow as a major export business.

But first, some history. In 1976, there were no less than nine fulltime, professional companies operating in Auckland, Tauranga, Wanganui, Palmerston North, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. At least three of these also ran second, smaller companies, specializing in theatre in education, children’s theatre and/or lunch time theatre. There were literally hundreds of actors in fulltime employment in theatre.

A healthy television drama industry also aided viable careers to be pursued. But any actor or theatre worker would’ve told you then that theatre provided not only their spiritual sustenance but, more essentially, their bread and butter. Without a theatre to work in, writers, actors, directors and production crew, including – even especially – the best of them, flee to other occupations or other countries where a living income is more reliable.

There is hardly ever a case for employing people for the sake of it, but there is most definitely a case for recognizing the potential of an industry that has many times proved itself; and for growing and developing that industry by creating in it much better defined and more soundly structured career paths than exist now.

The era of a strong theatre industry, trained and developed dramatists, actors, directors and production workers.

As indicated earlier, very many of our most well known faces owe their success to the early opportunities provided to them by professional theatre. The same era produced The Arts Council, The New Zealand Drama School/Toi Whakaari and The New Zealand Film Commission. Tragically for many, after the onslaught of the narrowly focused free-market ideology that permeated government thinking in New Zealand during the eighties and nineties, the theatre industry was left in a sorry state. Funding was held at way below the inflation rate. Ticket prices soared and audiences shrunk. When the user-pays ideologues turned their gaze full bore on to the theatre, any show not doing raging business was enough for them to scream ‘waste’ and have their reason to slash funding from the company that staged it. This was a very harrowing period for a business that naturally swings between high and low box office returns.

Sadly, the industry itself fell into the trap of celebrating the demise or near demise of its major companies such as Theatre Corporate, Mercury Theatre and Downstage, in the mistaken belief that a wider pool of players would benefit from the misfortune of the ‘established’ infrastructure. In 1994, those older heads who attended the Arts Council policy ‘consultation’ in Auckland from which the old funding policies were replaced with the new, saw a swifty being pulled on the younger and more numerous members of the theatre community.

We can see now by comparing the dramatically fewer theatre jobs existing today with what existed then, the lack of wardrobe departments, rehearsal space and workshops in the companies that do exist, and the appalling wages these companies pay to their creative workers, how misguided the cheerleaders of institutional collapse were. It was pure politics, deceitful and with a nasty edge to it, not dissimilar to what our main opposition party practices now.

When the Labour government came to power in 1999, it immediately rescued many art forms from near oblivion, including theatre, by shoring up the surviving infrastructure. Most theatre artists remain grateful that the steady decline was momentarily arrested. We were optimistic when the Prime Minister personally took on the Arts portfolio. The message was that the Arts would be taken seriously now that we had a very influential figurehead.

Unfortunately, as far as theatre is concerned, our figurehead has held her head too high, while the figure going to theatre has remained too low too long. The theatre industry lacks ambition, direction and most of all leadership.

By contrast, under Labour, the New Zealand Film Commission has developed a very forward thinking and well considered plan for growing and sustaining the industry in the future. There are opportunities for all kinds of filmmakers with a range of experience and ambition. The Commission has a policy of devolving power to production companies and filmmakers themselves, especially in the areas of short films, digital film, Mâori filmmaking and films for television. The clear vision of the Film Commission has been possible by its close relationship with filmmakers themselves and, more practically, by the substantial and dramatic increase in the financial investment in film made by the government.

There has been nothing like a corresponding increase in theatre funding. The industry just manages to maintain a profile in the larger cities but it does it on the smell of an oily rag while drifting on in survival mode, rudderless and without vision. To a large part, the lack of inspiration has come about because there is no organization representing the broad interests of theatre anymore. The Association of Community Theatres (ACT) which used to represent the professional theatre industry, collapsed with The Mercury, Theatre Corporate and, for all intents and purposes, Downstage and The Fortune which are now only shadows of their former selves.

The other strong voice for the industry, Actors Equity, was virtually legislated out of existence when the Lange government forced it to amalgamate with the Distribution Workers Union. It left the industry defenceless when, later, theatre companies were annihilated by the Richardson agenda to hack back all state investment in the country. Nowadays, Creative New Zealand itself has assumed the role of ‘expert’ on the needs of theatre and it is patently not up to the job. After seven years of progressive government, the professional theatre industry is still only half the size it was thirty years ago.

Worse, in 1975 the professional industry was being actively encouraged and fostered by the then minister, Alan Highett, with an Arts Council that seemed more accountable to artists than Creative New Zealand does today. (I began shaping this paper last year when I realized the status of theatre in New Zealand had sunk so low that the iconic man of theatre, Bruce Mason, could not even make a well publicised list of the 100 most important New Zealanders in our short history. Did Creative New Zealand say anything about this? Was it not affronted? Did it care? Did it notice?)

Today, the theatre wing of Creative New Zealand exudes a sense of disdain for experienced artists. It pursues policies which elevate administrators to dominant positions within theatre companies at the expense of artists, particularly Artistic Directors whose status has suffered a severe relegation. Ears are better attuned to the advice of Arts festival directors and ‘project-based’ theatre company administrators. An old story has been rewritten yet again: Administrators elevate other administrators at the cost of the administered.

Theatre has become the plaything of the champagne circuit. Nowadays, creative workers either bow to ‘taste’ or burn as their masters twiddle their fingers around long-stemmed glasses. No wonder there is only a smattering of conscious and real development of actors, directors, designers, playwrights and production workers. Now there is a façade, maintained by the titles given to funding streams but behind which administrators whimsically bestow favour on the latest flavour.

None of this is to say that good things aren’t happening in theatre. On the contrary, wherever professional theatre occurs, standards are invariably high. Inventiveness and excellence are becoming a constant in our industry. The ‘flavour,’ is tasty no matter its ingredients.

In Auckland the ATC is serving its audience extremely well. It has established a range of opportunities for new New Zealand writers and has intelligently crafted a development program for their works. It also has excellent marketing and provides a wonderful service to the schools in the region by giving affordable access to a range of shows over the course of the year. Given the ticket prices the ATC needs to charge for its mainbill program to cover the ludicrous advertising rates the New Zealand Herald extorts, its mainbill audience is, generally speaking, a conservative one for which the ATC strikes an appropriate balance of aesthetic stimulus and depth.

Looking ahead, Auckland’s main worry is likely to be a lack of affordable venues in which to perform though some lateral thinking might find solutions in the excellent facilities owned by some of the secondary schools there. Real opportunities also exist for building the professional industry in Auckland’s suburbs. Because the ATC caters so well for the elite, and the Silo in the city offers both style and substance for the rest, growth in the professional industry should be encouraged in the suburbs and satellite cities such as on the North Shore, Manukau, Papakura, Takapuna, Mt Eden and so on. This will not only alleviate the need for audiences to make tiresome journeys into the city, it will allow for closer links with these communities and eventually more immediate professional structures for the many gifted actors, directors etc already emerging from these places.

Wellington almost has an oversupply of theatre companies in the city, though the co-ordination between them is very poor. Exciting new work is often staged at Bats theatre, Circa Studio or even at Studio 77 in Kelburn. These venues have very limited capacity however and it is not unusual for shows to sell out there then have no life beyond. (It should be appreciated that with the commonly funded cooperative theatre model that the artists – director, designer, production staff and actors – are the last to get paid. They often don’t get paid at all and when they do, even with a hit show, in a smaller venue the payment will be only in the hundreds of dollars – for six to eight weeks commitment!)

The situation can be ridiculous. It happens that a ‘hot’ show at Bats will quickly sell out and then die when its short season is over, usually paying a really paltry income to all involved, despite attendance percentages in the high nineties. Meanwhile, in the up and down, unpredictable world of theatre, over the road at Downstage a show will limp on for two, maybe three more weeks with little interest in it. The same situation can happen at Circa Studio and the main venue.

The sensible thing would be to let the dying show die and for the hit show to transfer as soon as possible to the bigger venue and maximize the return from the investment in advertising, production costs and time. Hit shows, after all, are hard earned and hard to come by. They’re gold! So the human and financial investment in them should never be wasted. Wellington theatres need to coordinate!

As an aside, Bats needs to improve its facilities. Its lack of them, in particular its lack of mirrors in what passes for dressing rooms, gives the impression that the theatre has little or no respect for the actors who work there. This is unlikely to be the case but if the venue was being run by an actor, there would definitely be adequate dressing room facilities by now. Even the old beat up Circa venue had mirrors and benches on which actors could safely lay out their make-up.

My last period of employment with Court Theatre in Christchurch was in 2003. It was then still operating as a fully resourced and well supported community theatre. It still had its own wardrobe, workshop and technical department, all with full time staff. Its rehearsal and storage spaces were generous and its two theatre spaces were both drawing full houses. It was then the last remaining ideal model of a major city based professional community theatre. I hope it is still this today but I recall at the time there were rumours that the board was planning to draw power away from the Artistic Director in favour of the Business Manager. Hopefully, this hasn’t happened.

Meanwhile, in Dunedin, the role of the Artistic Director had been dispersed with altogether. The Fortune theatre is still receiving funds despite having no artistic direction. Instead, a board of amateur enthusiasts hires and underpays directors from outside Dunedin to do its bidding show by show. It saves another salary ‘wasted’ on an artist, I guess, and it is a situation Creative New Zealand is apparently comfortable with but one any self-respecting theatre artist should find appalling.

In Palmerston North, Centrepoint Theatre continues to operate as the other highly successful model of a professional community theatre. It is the only remaining provincial theatre and is, as it almost always has been, well supported by the city. In recent years it has launched a number of premiere New Zealand plays which have filled houses there and later in other theatres, whilst also providing excellent opportunities for actors and directors to develop their craft. Its proximity to Wellington has always meant that the best actors and directors from the bigger city work at Centrepoint off and on throughout their careers. All recent accounts of what is happening there in terms of quality are very favourable.

The independent ‘project’ and touring shows over the last few years have been exceptionally good. Toa Fraser’s Number Two, all of Indian Ink’s productions, Taki Rua’s parody of the Maui legend, the stunning Niu Sila, Wheeler’s Luck, The Tutor and the recently toured Maui spectacular have all been superb pieces of original New Zealand theatre. The current Ugly Shakespeare Company is also providing brilliant theatre, as slick as you’ll see anywhere, to school children across the country for a mere $5 per head.

New Zealand professional theatre then, wherever it occurs, is successful and more than stands up by international standards. It is mature enough now, not just to copy what occurs overseas but to innovate and lead. An assessment of the industry must conclude that everybody in it makes the most of the opportunities they have. Unfortunately, it must also conclude that there are simply not enough opportunities for the skilled professionals out there, or the many kiwis who do not live in Wellington, Auckland or Christchurch.

Let’s be honest, as a rule, most New Zealand actors and directors today, even some of the most successful ones, tend to live on the breadline. The state and business continue to under invest in the theatre. The industry still awaits the kind of boost the Whitlam Government gave the Australian industry in 1974. There, the country seized the opportunity, picked up the ball and still runs with it today. Every city including the provincial ones has numerous council, state and or federally funded theatre companies. A lively and profitable commercial industry feeds from the successful subsidised industry. Likewise, the Australian film industry benefits from the existence of a healthy theatre industry, and, although it naturally has its highs and lows, it remains a major revenue earner for the country and a respected cinematic force in the international market.

Why REGIONAL professional theatre?

Any theatre company draws its strengths from the community it serves. Smaller cities have many advantages over larger ones. The people who live in or around the regional cities tend to cross paths with each other more often than Aucklanders do. Word tends to travel fast around regional communities. Institutions that serve a valid community function, like the local library and not unlike local successful sports teams, become fiercely, proudly and loyally supported. Regional amateur theatre companies thrive, as do professional companies once they are established.

Palmerston North’s Centrepoint Theatre has demonstrated this for over thirty years now. Long ago, Tauranga’s Gateway theatre was also well supported by the city but fell over due to the opportunistic withdrawal of government support.

In Whangarei, Playfair Theatre demonstrated as recently as 2002-2004, just how receptive the Whangarei community was to home based quality professional theatre. In that very short period, Playfair built up a local base of no less than 900 fully paid up members. It established a reputation for excellence in the region and a reliable audience of between 900 and 1200 for each of the eight seasons of New Zealand shows Playfair had mounted here, including The God Boy, Middle Age Spread, Ladies Night and The Daylight Atheist. In short, there was hardly a Creative New Zealand goal or criteria that Playfair did not meet. But until The Daylight Atheist, which Stuart Devenie, who was the driving force behind Playfair, had already performed, needless to say, in Auckland, Playfair received no – yes, that’s right – no funding at all.

When Stuart became weary of dedicating so much time to Playfair without pay (as did most in the company) and wary of risking his house any longer to finance each venture I picked up the ball with his blessing. Unfortunately, CNZ could find nothing in the success of Playfair or in our application for a program of plays in the following year to warrant granting the company funds. Stuart returned to Auckland, I settled into teaching, Kelly Johnson and Jan Fisher gave up applying and a paid up membership base and loyal Northland audience dispersed. So much for Creative New Zealand’s policy of developing audiences.

The market ideologues would ask, ‘Why should taxpayers support theatre?’ The answer is; because taxpayers, their children and their retired parents receive a benefit not only in terms of having access to the work the theatre produces, but by the economic activity generated by the theatre. Our money is not given away but invested and re-circulated. Cafes, building suppliers, printing and photocopying companies; photographers, local musicians and composers, students, teachers, graphic designers, electricians, lighting services, magazine and newspaper publishers and the local tourist industry all receive a direct benefit from locally based professional theatre activity. And, of course, much of the government’s investment is returned to the government through both personal income tax and the tax on the company box office.

At the present time, there is an awful lot of waste. Typically, a student, say from Whangarei, will study drama for five years at a secondary school. She may either go on to study for two years locally at Northtech or at Unitec in Auckland, or at Toi Whakaari in Wellington. She may travel to or remain in a big city to compete with hundreds of others for a mere handful of poorly paid jobs. Or she may return to Whangarei and start another career there – or live off the dole. It would make much more sense for the best to work in a local theatre company and produce what they have been trained to produce, quality shows for their community.

WHAT should happen, then?

It would be presumptuous to assume the same management structure or program of activities would suit all regional theatre companies but the Government urgently needs a vision to foster. It could do worse (and indeed is doing worse) than trying this for size:

Over the next five or six years CNZ should foster the development of professional theatre companies in a number of regional cities. It should take its lead from who and what already resides in them. Basically, what’s needed is the will, skill, experience, perseverance and drive to guide new, dynamic companies into being.

Sticking with the experience of Playfair, Whangarei would be an excellent starting point because those key elements already exist there. Hamilton, New Plymouth and Nelson are also likely candidates. A company based in Whangarei would produce say four main bill shows a year, each of which would tour the region i.e. travel at least to Dargaville, Kerikeri and Russell – possibly to elsewhere in time. The main bill program would be complemented with two or three children’s shows; one for each of the school holiday breaks. A core company of actors would offer classes to local enthusiasts, and tour schools with a repertoire of Theatre in Education shows, potentially drawn from issues close to the local community. In time, it would offer apprenticeships to graduates from the Northtec Performing Arts course and it would certainly aim to produce new scripts generated by local playwrights.

There are a range of possible management structures for such companies and each should and probably will vary from others according to context and personnel involved. In Whangarei, the responsibility for guiding a professional company would fall to a collective of highly experienced professionals along the lines adopted by the Circa Council in Wellington, but with a smaller, rotating executive.

At present, it is impossible to set up such a company within CNZ policy, particularly with its blind big city bias. CNZ will only fund single projects each funding round. As most projects only last one or two months, anyone over thirty years of age simply cannot contemplate such a hand to mouth existence.

If this vision was to be pursued, a whole new set of criteria would need to be applied by CNZ, starting with funding for ‘a program of plays’ along the lines suggested above. It is an obvious contradiction, with an in built conservatism about it, that the established theatre institutions are required to plan well in advance while the rest are actively discouraged from it.

In time, after companies have been operating successfully around the country, the establishment of a REGIONAL THEATRE NETWORK would be a wise move. Such a network would make efficient use of the most successful shows staged in each city. i.e. Whangarei’s great work tours to Hamilton, New Plymouth and Nelson while Gavin Richard’s brilliant performance in the Nelson smash hit tours the other centres in an opposite direction.

With touring, the current situation is that independent show after independent show reinvents the wheel as it tours and struggles to find its audience in the regions. A smash hit in Wellington is a flop in Napier. Why? Because there is no local connection. Networks are not maintained. Each sucker repeats the mistakes of the last sucker and CNZ’s stated goal of building audiences goes down the drain, along with the cost of advertising and venue hire. Frustrating!

By establishing real bases in each city, all this would change. Resident companies would host shows from outside and provide for them a ready made network through which to draw an audience. Audiences would be maintained by the continuity locally based companies would provide. The bigger cities would also benefit. There are many actors and production workers in them whose skills are wasted because even the most successful ones usually only perform in two, three or four shows a year. This means for the other two, three, four or seven months of the year they have little income.

A network of regionally based theatre companies could provide the sustenance theatre workers from the bigger cities need from time to time whilst also developing their skills, all to the benefit of audiences – citizens, that is – across the country. As described, this relationship already exists between Palmerston North and Wellington. It is successful and should be promoted elsewhere.

If such a vision were to occur, there would be spin offs similar to what is happening now in the main cities. Some writers, actors, directors etc. would turn to film as their medium. Regional film and TV industries would grow; all of them operating at a much lower cost than those in the big cities. New Zealand would eventually develop a unique, vibrant, booming and exportable entertainment industry. It’s obvious! This is something we’re good at! It is something we can do for ourselves AND sell overseas. It’s happening already and we must protect it and build on it.

New Zealand business understands stock and bulk and units and profit. It ‘gets’ cows, sheep, ostriches, kiwi fruit, pine trees etc etc. It doesn’t seem to get social reflection, social capital, the communication of ideas, values, insight; the worth of a story. The creative theatre and live performance fraternity, most certainly do. If the government invests in us, we will, as we have already demonstrated, make it work! As has happened in the rest of the western world, business will catch on and quickly take advantage of the market subsidised theatre produces.

Again, for such a vision to become a reality, the theatre industry urgently needs the attention of its minister.

William Walker, July 2007

Hilary Norris       posted 14 Aug 2007, 10:09 AM / edited 14 Aug 2007, 10:25 AM

Thank you William Walker for your thoughtful and insightful paper.

In Dunedin, local theatre practitioners have been completely disempowered by the professional theatre here. If we are lucky our application to direct one of the very few in house productions may be favourably considered. This is usually after outside directors have been invited to direct first.

The paper refers to the sharing of work amongst centres. How it works here is that a company comes from the North Island and the local input is some design and technical personnel. The traffic is never in the other direction, no local actors or directors are involved in these “collaborative” productions, despite the theatre claiming that an actor who lived in Dunedin once upon a time is a local actor!!

Luckily I am currently involved in an exciting project in Oamaru which is the brain child of a manager /producer who treats artists with respect .We have gathered an exciting group of talented people from Dunedin, Oamaru and Christchurch to mount a new tourist/historical play in November , which should eventually be a terrific source of work for artists for many months of the year. True Community theatre in action.

Foreigner             posted 14 Aug 2007, 03:25 PM

Hilary would love to hear more about this venture; names, website? Yes thank you WIlliam, extremely interesting

Hilary Norris       posted 14 Aug 2007, 04:07 PM / edited 14 Aug 2007, 10:57 PM

In reply to Foreigner the website and contact 

Sam Snedden    posted 15 Aug 2007, 09:04 PM

Dear Hilary, I would think, and i am new to the industry, that having the best work on is good for everyone. Good work means more people in the pews and the development of an audience that will come to the theatre again and again. Whether the work is from Wellington, Auckland or Dunedin is surely by the by, if it’s good it’s good, right?

Foreigner             posted 15 Aug 2007, 09:52 PM

“Good”? If you ask an Inuit and a Zimbabwean to describe a night of good entertainment you’d get two very different answers. For a national theatre to be strong, the regional theatre must be strong, and local practitioners supported. That’s what supporting Culture means.

alistair browning              posted 16 Aug 2007, 01:42 PM

Thank you, William, Hillary, Sam and Foreigner. Healthy debate. If I may contribute my own thoughts as an actor and director who has worked for 30 years  in every major centre and every major theatre in NZ as well as abroad: the last thing we need is a National Theatre. Yes,  we need concerted lobbying and advocacy for this undernourished art form, but an unwieldy monster masterminded by yet another egocentric, megalomaniac “Artistic Director” or, worse, a  politically correct,  do-good committee; I don’t think so. We need to celebrate and support regional theatre, there needs to be more of it, and those community theatres we do have need to be more vibrant and flourishing. This is not going to happen if we form isolated, parochial and defensive huddles. We all, as arts practitioners, need to cross-pollinate, collaborate and invent together. The more the better. This can only benefit us all. The Arts community in NZ is small and the current economic and political climate precludes ensemble companies, like it or not. No one theatre owes any of us work.  We must move around to find and create work for ourselves. That is the reality. We must produce independently, collaborate – and work well with others! Thats healthy.

anon#2                 posted 19 Aug 2007, 12:19 AM

Isn’t there a lot of regional theatre already, or don’t we count amateur theatre? Don’t the amateur groups already have some pretty good national networks? Seeing as regional professional theatres will grow out of the already existing local amateur groups, shouldn’t amateurs and professionals join hands a bit more and help this regional thing grow?

John Smythe      posted 20 Aug 2007, 04:27 PM

Yes, Anon #2, there is a national network of amateur theatres and I believe that in many towns they are very proactive in welcoming touring professional shows and using their contacts to generate audiences. I’m not sure it logically follows, however, that “regional professional theatres will grow out of the already existing local amateur groups” – although there would doubtless be individuals who would straddle the divide.

Amateur societies are necessarily a part-time, hobby operations that people fit into schedules dominated by their ‘real jobs’ or other primary responsibilities. Professional theatre employs people, has to operate on a proper business footing, and sets up a very different set of expectations within its community to which it is accountable in a very different way. The approach to the work can therefore be entirely different.

So yes, alignment and hand-joining would be welcomed but I would have thought professional theatre needs to network on its own terms in order to build a regional theatre infrastructure.

(Incidentally, while theatreview is fully aware of the great value amateur theatres have throughout NZ, we don’t review them because they are simply not as accountable to audiences, tax-payers, funding bodies and sponsors as professional companies and co-ops are. In this context we define ‘professional’ as work produced by teams who see theatre as their vocation, so even if they mount shows on the proverbial smell of an oily rag, they will welcome rigorous feedback predicated on professional standards.)

Hilary Norris       posted 20 Aug 2007, 05:34 PM

Absolutely we need to work together and cross pollinate. But for me the key is that we have to work and by working we continue to learn and upgrade our skills. This happens by forming a strong local core that is equally respected all over the country. That core then learns and develops by working with actors and directors from different parts of Nz and indeed the world. But actors and directors can only learn and improve by working

Lopez    posted 23 Aug 2007, 01:18 PM / edited 23 Aug 2007, 10:23 PM

In reply to Anon#2 John Smythe says that he is not sure it logically follows that “regional professional theatres will grow out of the already existing local amateur groups”. Nevertheless it mostly has been the case that a town’s first successful professional theatre emerges in this way – and that seems perfectly logical to me.

His comment that amateur societies are “necessarily part-time, hobby operations that people fit into schedules dominated by their ‘real jobs’ or other primary responsibilities” will amuse many of our ‘professional’ practitioners for whom theatre pretty much always has been part time, regardless of their talent and commitment, in order that they don’t starve.

“Professional theatre employs people” – well, as many BATS actors particularly know, ’employ’ is a slippery term here; and whatever the theatre the ’employment’ is usually only a matter of weeks.  The difference in attitude and accountability he mentions may be true of a city that has both sorts of theatre, like Wellington. However in towns and cities that have no professional theatre the amateur society is the only option for local practitioners, who can often bring a dedication and level of talent to their work that puts so-called professionals to shame.

Sure, local amateur groups have their share of deadly actors – but so do the professionals. (And by the way, amateur theatres too have to “operate on a proper business footing”! and often run their theatres a great deal more efficiently than some professional ones I can think of.)

Finally, what does John mean by his ominous sentence, “I would have thought professional theatre needs to network ON ITS OWN TERMS in order to build a regional theatre infrastructure.”? Surely not that a committee of well meaning professionals intend to try and impose their version of professional theatres on communities? This fairly arrogant approach has been tried before with disastrous results. A community with a strong local theatre will want to continue seeing and supporting their local actors, and while they will welcome visitors they will not take kindly to outsiders taking their theatre scene over wholesale. True regional theatre will not develop if a bullying ‘professional’ mafia is permitted to make all the national decisions.

Lopez    posted 23 Aug 2007, 01:22 PM / edited 25 Aug 2007, 11:43 AM

OK I give up. How do you make this damn site do paragraphs?? 

[As you can see, I have gone through and done it, using 2 soft returns (i.e. shift+enter) to put a space between pars. If you use a hard return it tends to make the space too big.  My suggestion is to always write your post in Word first them copy and paste it into the site.

If anyone who has this problem can email me and Emily – find our emails under ‘Contact’ – with details of what you are doing and when the formatting disappears, we’ll do our best to resolve the problem at this end. – JS]

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