June 24, 2008

Andre Anderson               posted 22 Jun 2008, 01:41 PM / edited 22 Jun 2008, 02:04 PM

The vision for Downstage’s future is bold and exciting.  But it’s frustratingly short of details.

At yesterday’s forum, the Downstage board presented a vision of two separate showcase seasons each year, one in the first half of the year and one in the second half.  Each showcase season would be comprised of 4-8 productions over the 6-month period.  But the key part of the new vision is that, rather than be produced exclusively in-house, each production will be sourced from the wider New Zealand theatre industry, thereby giving independent theatre practitioners the opportunity to stage their work at Downstage.

Consequently, the programme of works will be selected 12-18 months in advance via a contestable process in which anyone interested in staging a work at Downstage can submit a written application pitching their idea for a production.  Following selection, each work would be placed in a development incubator for the 12-18 months until it is staged.  As such, each work will become a co-production between Downstage and the industry professional(s) concerned.

So far so great!  This is a vision that clearly responds to the needs of the theatre industry, as expressed in the feedback Downstage solicited earlier this year. 

Unfortunately, that was it.  None of the supporting details that will make or break this new vision for Downstage were available.  In particular—

    What are the criteria that will determine which ideas are selected for production?  Answer: To be advised.

    What management roles will be appointed at Downstage to support the implementation of this vision? Answer: To be advised.

    Who takes the financial risk? Answer: To be advised.

The last of these core concerns perhaps received the most attention at the forum, being the substance of at least three different questions.  In each case, the answer was that the producing relationship between Downstage and the successful applicant was entirely negotiable.

As a result, the initial impression that more than one person got was that the new vision for Downstage was effectively a co-operative model, in which Downstage would perhaps contribute theatre hire, technical support and marketing in return for a share of the box office, much as BATS does.  However, when this impression was communicated to the board members who presented the vision, they hastened to assure their audience that actors would still be employed on a professional basis, without having to share any of the risk of low returns at the box office.  But whether that means Downstage will produce each work and take all the risk itself, perhaps subject to a negotiated royalty with the successful applicant, or whether Downstage expects that a co-production agreement means the successful applicant must share the financial risks, was left entirely unclear.  As far as the forum was told: it was all negotiable.

That said, one disturbing hint of Downstage’s thinking in this regard was the expectation that, as part of the negotiation, the successful applicant wouldn’t just contribute his or her intellectual property to the co-production (i.e. the show itself), but that he or she would also contribute financially.  This was disturbing because, apart from government grants, no one in the theatre industry has any money to risk on new and unproven theatre productions.  So much so, in fact, that it seemed naive for Downstage to expect theatre practitioners to be able to contribute financially (unless, of course, via grants they receive from CNZ, WCC or elsewhere).

The reality is that, as limited as its funding may be, Downstage has the money with which to produce new works; while independent theatre practitioners have the talent and ideas.  In principle, it’s a perfect fit.  But only if Downstage is willing to play the producer’s role by providing the necessary capital and taking the financial risk.

Unfortunately, whether it is prepared to take all the risk or not was one of the fundamental details the board members declined to discuss in any detail.  Consequently, we were left trying to read tea leaves.  On one hand, that Downstage is determined to employ actors on a weekly wage suggests it might have a bold producer’s role in mind.  But, on the other hand, the reference to applicants having to supply some capital themselves suggested a more timid approach in which the theatre pushed some of the risk back onto the theatre practitioners.  Thus, exactly how these two positions will sit together in practice is impossible to understand.

The same frustrating lack of information surrounded the other two core questions noted above.  If the new vision is to be realised well, it will need a new management structure to support it.  In particular, it will need effective line producers who can work alongside practitioners to develop a concept from selection to production.  Having sourced its work from existing scripts in the past, Downstage has very little in the way of accumulated expertise for developing new works.  Consequently, it will need to employ that expertise if this vision is to work effectively.

Moreover, there was no discussion of what was meant by the concept of a development incubator, or what that would entail in practice.  On one hand, the board said they were looking for production ready ideas; but, on the other hand, that this didn’t necessarily mean the work had to have been staged elsewhere already.

Yet, it’s an enormous challenge to develop good ideas into good theatre productions.  Given the celebrated difficulties the New Zealand Festival has had taking ideas from “Show & Tell” to production within the same 12-18 month time-frame, Downstage needs a robust development plan backed by skilled line producers to make this vision work.  But, once again, the concept of the incubator and the staff with which to implement it were notable for their complete absence of any supporting detail.

Unsurprisingly, the same can be said for the selection criteria and the selection process itself.  On one hand, the board confirmed that there would no longer be a “house style” that was the product of a single artistic director’s particular approach to programming and staging.  But, on the other hand, there would be an “artistic ethos” that did inform the selection and programming of new works.  What these mean in practice was left to speculation.

As for the selection process, that too was “to be advised”, leaving us none the wiser as to whether the process would be led by independent and objective selection panels (like those used in the CNZ process), or would be subject to the “artistic ethos” of Downstage’s new director.

In short, Downstage has presented a genuinely exciting vision.  The problem is that’s all it seems to be at the moment: an idea.  With the right financial model, staff and development process it could well be a great idea.  But, based on yesterday’s presentation, it only seems to be half-cooked right now.

The vision is grand.  Pity the details are so opaque.

Martyn Wood    posted 23 Jun 2008, 04:48 PM

Unfortunately I was unable to attend the Downstage presentation, but from reading this post I think I have a fair idea of what the board is proposing.

Correct me if I am wrong, but nowhere did anyone say that all ideas pitched to be staged at Downstage had to be new works. Surely the board (or artisic manager or whatever they end up naming the person who calls the shots) will be accepting pitches of established works, including previously produced international scripts?  In order to get a slot at Downstage will I have to show up with an idea for some radical devised work, or could I suggest a season of whatever show was packing them in on Broadway last year?

I may be in the minority here but a theatre the size of Downstage programming only new, New Zealand works is surely a recipe for financial disaster? Even BATS programmes international works, and is able to sustain itself as a showcase for New Zealand works by keeping seasons short and have 2-3 shows running in tandem in order to offest overheads.  One only has to look at the dire box office that has besieged unknown NZ works, not just at Dstage but at BATS and Circa too to realise that while theatre makers may dream of a theatre that presents only NZ work, this is not something that the general public is likely to support.  All great theatre companies (MTC, STC, ATC, National Theatre in London etc) maintain their greatness (and their financial viability) by keeping their horizons broadened and their perspective global.

I think the Downstage vision is a sound one, and while details are lacking at this early stage, I’m sure they will be forthcoming as the call for the first round of pitches is closer.  And while I look foward to the exciting new NZ stuff that will hopefully emerge, I am also looking foward to seasons of great European, American and international plays. And mayeb even the odd Shakespeare.

Mark Amery       posted 23 Jun 2008, 09:44 PM / edited 23 Jun 2008, 10:08 PM

Dear Martyn, Just a quick note on behalf of Playmarket to correct your rather old fashioned presumption that New Zealand work is dire at the box office.

Beyond Roger Hall our analysis of box office over the last 15 years shows this to not be the case, particularly in recent years. Not only has licensing of NZ plays quadrupled in 20 years, box office has steadily risen. It’s only veteran comments like yours that hold NZ work back from reaching its audience.

A theatre that is relevant and vital to NZ audiences is naturally not just made up of NZ work, but its a crucial component compared to what saturates the rest of the media. What New Zealand lacks aren’t the ATCs and STCs of the world, it lacks national new work theatres like the Traverse in Scotland, Royal Court and others in London, and Griffin and Malthouse in Australia. That’s a grown up theatre scene.

What New Zealand needs are theatres and producers that are able to help, through partnerships and strong curation, to build an infrastructure for the burgeoning of NZ work we at Playmarket are thrilled to be seeing.

Cheers, Mark Amery Director, Playmarket

John Smythe      posted 23 Jun 2008, 10:00 PM / edited 24 Jun 2008, 04:54 PM   

Yes you are right, Martyn, ‘exclusively NZ work’ has not been specified. As I understand it, the emphasis is on work made by NZ practitioners, which could include productions of classics or modern international scripts. Proposals could also come from international producers.

Clearly there will be distinctions made between commercially expedient productions what the NZ taxpayer may be expected to subsidise or underwrite. In terms of the latter, original homegrown work should definitely take priority because that is the risk worth taking, and if we don’t grow our own stories and original productions, who will? Where? Why?

If we are going to nourish, explore, confront, satirise and celebrate our own sense of self, and thus be vital players in international performing arts market places, we must have an infrastructure that encourages our best practitioners to develop work that achieves distinction in every sense. I believe the opportunity is here right now for Downstage to take a leading role in developing and sustaining this infrastructure.

In the consultation round I advocated Downstage make its point of difference the development and production of New Zealand work, both new and from the repertoire. I am not saying there is no place anywhere for international work, just that Downstage should not make it their particular priority because someone has to take the other plunge at a level above The Fringe, BATS, The Basement et al. All those hugely talented people who have done the hard yards in co-ops need to be able to graduate – and we would be mad not to value what they have to offer.

It makes marketing sense too, because with that sort of branding we wouldn’t have new, unknown untried work having to meet the same expectations automatically held by audiences accustomed to the thoroughly honed ‘best-of-the-best’ from overseas (that have got to that level because their countries have the capacity to let – to make – that happen) in the same venue. Instead Downstage would offer the special interest and excitement that an organically homegrown menu would offer.

Ask not whether current mainstream theatre goers habituated to international fare would be attracted by this. Ask instead what would attract the thousands more who never go to the theatre because they find it irrelevant/ pretentious/ phoney … People who are not automatically impressed by Kiwi actors doing specific British or American accents really well; who are actually not so much interested in actors as such as in having a experience that engages them personally and profoundly.

Of course there will always be a market for those who prefer to form – and patronise – the theatrical equivalent of cover bands of other people’s cultures, but why should the NZ taxpayer underwrite that? Every day through all media we are bombarded with international cultural product. There is no danger of our ever becoming culturally myopic or xenophobic. But until we develop and maintain a fully professional primary production industry – in film and television too, but the strong foundations for sustainability are built in live theatre – there is a very real and continuing danger that we will achieve no permanent cultural status and continue to be service workers below stairs in the mansions of other cultural identities. 

To suggest NZ work is automatic box-office death is quite wrong. Our major theatres know that NZ plays rank highly in the most popular production statistics. As with most investment opportunities, the highest risks may also produce the highest returns – and the benefits should not always be measured in financial terms. Besides, how many times do we have to prove that it is authentic, culturally specific work that travels best? Would Flight of the Conchords, for example, have any traction in the USA if they hadn’t maintained their Kiwi identities? 

Let me be very clear on this: my highest respect is reserved for directors and designers who are the first to take a play from the page to the stage, and actors who are the first to breathe life into a hitherto imagined character.

Markus Stitz       posted 24 Jun 2008, 03:52 PM

Hello there, I just wanted to post the link to our (short) online survey following up the forum on Saturday, which is a good tool to tell us (Downstage) your thoughts and concerns about the concept. Just click here

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