January 22, 2008

Downstage bail-out

Anne Guns          posted 21 Jan 2008, 07:56 PM

Spotted the following new item in Scoop a week or two back. This is not the first time is it ….? If Downstage aren’t succeeding lets hope some serious questions are being asked. When I think about how many strong, innovative, nationally toured, independent productions might be funded by the money that CNZ grants to Downstage ….

“Wellington’s  Downstage Theatre has had to ask Creative NewZealand and Wellington City Council for help, afterdifficulty paying its staff wages.

Creative NZ chairman Alastair Carruthers confirmed theorganisation had agreed to advance $117,000 of Downstage’s 2008 grant of $500,000, to help it meet commitments to staff and creditors.

The council’s grants committee approved another $15,000. Downstage board chairman Tom Hardy said the help was sought “because we needed it”.

“Some of our shows have not been as well supported as we had hoped.”

The emergency cash comes days after Downstage artistic director Cathy Downes announced her resignation. She had a big say in deciding which plays were put on. Ultimately, they did not attract enough people.

But Mr Hardy said the events were unconnected. “Her term expired on December 31 and she decided not to renew her contract.”

Though Downstage had financial issues to resolve, jobs were not at risk and creditors would still be paid.

Downstage now had “time to regroup”. It would have to give Creative NZ its plan for the future by the end of March.

He was confident of its long-term future. “We’re not in the business of putting in good money after bad.”

Downstage got a $476,000 Creative NZ grant in 2006 and $470,000 in 2007.

The council agreed two weeks ago to give it a one-off $15,000 grant.

Deputy Mayor Ian McKinnon said it recognised Downstage’s importance to Wellington.

“We would expect them to look at their organisational approach so they don’t find themselves in this situation again.””

martyn roberts posted 22 Jan 2008, 11:05 AM

Would it be useful to remind ourselves that Downstage Theatre is the company in residence at the Hannah Playhouse theatre building and has been for a very long time. Has Downstage Theatre reached the end of its useful life perhaps? Should there be a new company in the Hannah? Perhaps BATS Theatre could make good use of the Hannah as it is full and overflowing with product over the road? Why are CNZ propping up a company that seems to be hanging on to a top heavy structure? New model army anyone?

John Smythe      posted 22 Jan 2008, 03:02 PM

I’m told the Downstage board is having a thorough look at its operation and more than one person has told them this is a great opportunity to thoroughly reinvigorate what happens in the Hannah Playhouse.

As the discussion evolves, one thing I think we should not lose sight of is that Downstage is the only professional adult theatre company with its own home venue in Wellington that pays wages.* It helps to ensure Wellington maintains a sustainable professional theatre infrastructure that is attractive to freelance practitioners. 

I believe the Downstage / Hannah Playhouse must therefore remain fully professional. I also believe it should now become a home for proven entrepreneurial practitioners who have outgrown BATS and already have a following in the younger demographic, yet are obliged to struggle on from project round to project round – a process involving vast time-lapses and massive uncertainties that must surely sap their creative energies let alone compromise their ability to keep their teams together.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Circa/TACT (Theatre Artists Charitable Trust) operates on a guaranteed funding / co-op participation model, which means if a show does bad box-office  the co-op members wear the loss; conversely, if it does great business, they get paid better than they ever would on wages, which some argue makes for relatively conservative programming.

* BATS is largely a venue for independent co-ops with staff wages assured by funding and the STAB commission also independently funded.

Also paying wages but operating with a nation-wide focus are Capital E National Theatre for Children and Taki Rua Productions.

Paul McLaughlin               posted 22 Jan 2008, 05:13 PM / edited 22 Jan 2008, 05:15 PM

Most full-time Wellington actors I know can (just) eke out an existence by working at several of the local theatres/venues. With Downstage in financial strife (again); I agree with calls to re-examine the structure of this company and – more importantly – this venue.

My major concern is with the allocation of future funding. Should Downstage cease to receive major CNZ funding, where would that money go? Back into the national pot? Would The Hannah Playhouse become a venue for touring shows at the expense of local practitioners? (Is this happening already?) If so, I feel this could be a mortal blow to the dynamic local theatre scene our audiences enjoy, mainly because it would be one less income stream for many actors. Add this to the dearth of radio and TV work, and the fact that no production houses make TV commercials here anymore; most local actors  – especially the newer graduates – will join the exodus to Auckland or go offshore.

If the funding can stay, but the structure is altered significantly; there will indeed be a future for The Hannah Playhouse.  Most of the theatre that has excited me over the last 4 or 5 years has been from independent companies/co-ops and not so often from established groups such as Downstage and Circa. One only has to look at the Chapman Tripp Award winners over the last few years to see the increasing dominance of independent companies. [SEEyD Co-cops, The Bachannals’ work, STAB and Y&H co-ops, Jealous, Trouble and many other one-off co-ops] These (usually short-term) collectives get paid very little for their creative endeavours; yet continue to give the audiences of Wellington some of the most challenging and creative works of theatre.

 Such co-ops utilize the talents of our local theatre professionals, yet we are damned to re-invent the wheel every time we go into a new co-op. These are also co-ops who often lose out in funding rounds to the recurrently funded companies; [whose grants are often based on bums-on-seat, so they can’t be blamed for their much more conservative programming – but I sense a younger demographic becoming very tired with this conservative approach].

These co-ops also often rehearse for no money, and get a 10 day season  squeezed in with another show before and/or after them, working for two-month stretches for a payout that would appal most theatre goers if they knew how little the actors and crew receive. We desperately need another venue accessible to all.

 So – kill two birds with one stone: re-allocate the funding to the co-ops, directors and producers who are already creating the challenging, award-winning shows, and breathe new life into The Hannah by giving said groups and individuals another badly needed performance venue.

 Hair-triggered armchair experts are gonna shoot holes in my suggestions, but I believe these ideas may help consolidate and nourish the plethora of underpaid talent in Wellington theatre, and ultimately the audiences will be the winners if we can consistently create, produce and perform better theatre.

Simon Bennett posted 22 Jan 2008, 09:06 PM

Another thing to consider is to only apply to CNZ for project funding with realistic professional wages built into the project budget. That would dispel some of the lack of reward for participation in independent theatre. Given the total project funding pool is finite, it would probably lead to funding of fewer projects overall, but funded projects would be on the basis of a professional endeavour. If people continue to make project funding applications without a realistic weekly wage/fee for practitioners built in, CNZ will keep funding them as long as they meet the relevant criteria. If no-one submits applications without built-in wages, then non-paid co-operative theatre will become much more rare. There will still be an element of risk-share for most independent ventures – unless the scenario is one where a producer contracts for the services of cast, production team etc. Or unless the venue takes the risk – which would probably lead to a certain amount of conservative programming.

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