November 7, 2008

CNZ Funding for Downstage

John Smythe      posted 3 Nov 2008, 05:00 PM / edited 4 Nov 2008, 09:37 AM

So Creative New Zealand is withdrawing recurrent funding from the Downstage Theatre Trust as of mid 2009 – see news item – but Downstage is free to apply for further funding (in November; outcome known by February 2009). My questions to CNZ are these:

    Will Downstage therefore be competing with other independent producers for Project Funding?

    Will the money saved by withdrawing the recurrent funding from Downstage go into the Project Funding pool?

Hannah Evans (CNZ’s Media Strategy & Communications Adviser) replies:

“We’ve agreed to consider an application for the period 1 July 09 to 31 Dec 09 which won’t be contestable. No decision has been made beyond that.  A decision has not been made in relation to Downstage’s Recurrent Funding.”

The joint media statement from CNZ and Downstage does clearly state, however, that “Creative New Zealand will cease recurrent funding of Downstage Theatre from 30 June 2009.”

So if the funding Downstage requests for 1 July 09 to 31 December 09 is not granted, where will that ‘non-contested’ funding go?

Uri Khein              posted 4 Nov 2008, 07:52 PM / edited 4 Nov 2008, 09:11 PM

I think John’s quite right to insist on trying to pin CNZ down on this. Even so, the fact that CNZ is “pulling the plug” on Downstage is proof, if ever prove were needed, that contestability is the sine qua non of ALL CNZ funding. No annual funding commitment is sacrosanct—no institution can expect funding in perpetuity as of right. That’s even the case, ultimately, with institutions that receive their funding direct from Vote: Cultural Affairs. There is a terrible onus on institutions to succeed under great pressure. Stability has to be self-generated: institutions have to demonstrate absolute resilience. Even with the ambiguous promise of patronage, institutions struggle on the same terms as artists themselves.

It’s a horrible thing when an institution fails, but as of last year, Downstage had almost inexorably lost its way. Then came the brave re-evaluation and recalibration driven by the theatre itself.

It does seem cruel that, just when so much effort has been made into recalibrating the whole deal, that the plug has been pulled. And it IS cruel. Now, with a programme in place for the first half of 2009, Downstage faces a test that is beyond any standard of fairness. If, with the axe hovering over it, it can suddenly become an exciting place again in which theatre can really live, everyone will be demanding that CNZ review it’s position. An alternative is that the first half of 2009 may be a presentiment of what may, in time, take Downstage’s place in the Hannah Playhouse. And something will. No one’s going to let the place become the playground for maudlin neo-Pentecostal salvation games, as was the fate of the Mercury in Aucks.

John Smythe      posted 4 Nov 2008, 10:49 PM / edited 5 Nov 2008, 09:08 AM

Quite right, Uri. A process is in place that has tuned into Wellington the way it is now and it deserves to be given time to play out (play in? play up?).

On Checkpoint this evening Stephen Wainwright, Chief Executive of Creative New Zealand, expressed nostalgia for the good old days when people flocked to Downstage which seems unhelpful as those days have gone and the world is different. It seemed clear – albeit from a sound-bite, which is an unfair measure – that ‘bums on seats’ is CNZ’s major concern. But how do we legislate for box office success?  It is THE unanswerable question.

What I think we deserve to know, now, is what all the CNZ criteria are for Downstage to win back recurrent funding. Consider Silo, in Auckland. In the process of moving from project-to-project funding to recurrent funding they seem to have stopped doing new New Zealand Work.

Since Based On Auckland in March 2007, the only NZ play they have done is a revival of Bare. Meanwhile they have produced 5 plays from the USA, 5 from the UK and a Brecht/Weill opera. And I think box office has generally been good – possibly better than Circa, who have been going that way too for some years. But is it OK by CNZ for these better-resourced companies to make it purely as ‘cover bands’ for other people’s cultures and take no responsibility for developing original work? 

Readings presented recently by the Auckland Theatre Company and Playmarket (more this weekend) prove our playwrights are active, but where can they hope to see their work produced?  Why should our playwrights bother to pursue their vocation here?

If Downstage decided to address that responsibility as a major part of its programming, with all the risks that entailed, would CNZ see that as a plus or penalise them for not playing safe with already proven imports?

It’s time this discussion proceeded out in the open. It’s our money CNZ manages, Downstage is our professional theatre – the only one in Wellington (not counting Capital E and Taki Rua, which have a national focus) that plays professional wages rather than obliging practitioners to take all the risk in co-operative structures.

Employment opportunities in Wellington for theatre practitioners is a crucial part of the discussion concerning the fate of Downstage. We no longer have the steady backstops of TV production at Avalon, Radio NZ Drama and TV Commercials –  these opportunities are erratic at best (and most feature film work for local actors is featured extra work at best, while actors from elsewhere get the good roles – and every one of them has got their big break in a homegrown production: think about it).

So come on CNZ, tell us: what are the criteria Downstage must meet to get recurrent funding?

Uri Khein              posted 5 Nov 2008, 09:26 AM / edited 5 Nov 2008, 09:45 AM

John: On Checkpoint this evening Stephen Wainwright, Chief Executive of Creative New Zealand, expressed nostalgia for the good old days when people flocked to Downstage which seems unhelpful as those days have gone and the world is different. It seemed clear – albeit from a sound-bite, which is an unfair measure – that ‘bums on seats’ is CNZ’s major concern. But how do we legislate for box office success?  It is THE unanswerable question.

The thing is, John, if the world is different, how is it different? Has the purpose that theatre fulfils in any way changed in ten, twenty – or ten thousand – years? I don’t think it has. Theatre has evolved and changed – and yet its fundamental moment remains the same. And I think, in light of that, Stephen’s comments bear examination – they may very well be less “unhelpful” than they seem.

“Legislate for box office success”? The only law the theatre has ever had is militant imagination. No one and nothing can legislate for that, beyond the militants themselves. Who are those militants? Where are they? Have they been invited to come and live in the Hannah Playhouse? If not, when will they be invited?

Is the CNZ Chief simply indulging in nostalgia? It may be true that nostalgia has it limits; it may be true that, ultimately, nostalgia references nothing beyond itself. And yet what I detect in Stephen’s remarks more than just “bums on seat” sentiment. The time Stephen seems to be pointing to is a time when Downstage was still Downstage; when the theatre still boasted an artistic identity that people regarded as significant.

The question of a theatre’s identity, who shapes that identity, how it is shaped, and how that shaping affects perception, participation, practice – that is what is paramount. It’s the question that is utterly at the heart of the answer to John’s question to CNZ “what are the criteria Downstage must meet to get recurrent funding?” And at the heart of that is something greatly more fundamental than the politics of constable funding, the politics of “bums on seats,” the politics of “high production values” versus oily rag sniffers, the politics of the work of local playwrights versus the work of international ones.

The real question is this: is Downstage an institution that is worth preserving and perpetuating for its own sake?

If the place is alluring, if it’s being run by bold hipsters of the kind actors demand to work with, if it’s a stable hub of keen community participation and real generative capacity, then the inevitable answer is yes.

If, on the other hand, the institution really doesn’t mean anything any more beyond an address, a (devalued) brand, a site of employment, a frail, fickle artistic identity and an insipid and insecure preoccupation with the afore-mentioned politics of “bums on seats” and so on, then the inevitable answer is no. No, it’s not worth perpetuating at all. In that case, it should lose its funding and it should close. Its board should be wound up, and whatever fixed and liquid assets remain should be secured and placed in trust for the next crowd that comes along. The crowd who have a vision for the place, and whose vision has inevitable moment because, simply, no one in the world (or in CNZ!) can stop it, or them.

Last year Downstage launched a plan that indicated that it was trying it’s best, it’s very best, to regenerate the place and make itself the home of militant imagination again. And now the carpet is about to be pulled from under it. Will the first half of 2009 be enough to save Downstage – will it be the game-changer that makes the place a real theatre again? 

Harrison Johnson             posted 5 Nov 2008, 11:43 AM / edited 7 Nov 2008, 03:39 PM

As we all know Downstage Theatre doesn’t own the Hannah Playhouse Building. It is a tenant to the Hannah Playhouse Trust. It pays rent, and uses the building to stage productions and continue to be an entity, I admit, a tired, uninspiring and confusing entity, with funding.

It would be interesting to know what each production for the first half of 2009 has negotiated with the management, and I use that term loosely, of Downstage? What if the in-coming productions; actors, directors, crew etc, have been offered “a slice of the box office profits”, if any, instead of being paid a professional wage? Sounds similar to a co-op. It would be good to have clarification on this.

Shouldn’t the owners of the building, the Hannah Playhouse Trust and the Wellington City Council, come up with a new plan for the Hannah Playhouse title “2009 and Beyond” and have an open forum to discuss? Imagine who and what would be staged there! Downstage Theatre group, from their rented offices somewhere else in Wellington, could then put their hand in and bid like everyone else, if they could afford it and/or had artistic direction. With a new crew at least the patrons would get better bar service, in a nicer bar and a smile at the top of the stairs more often to name but just a couple of things.

CNZ money should go to more deserving theatre entities that are moving with the times. Lets all move with the times.

John Smythe      posted 5 Nov 2008, 12:06 PM

Excellent points, Uri, I agree with almost all you say. You’re absolutely right: theatre, in all its forms, continues to fulfil the same human and social needs it was invented to address in the first place.

What has changed is the delivery systems for entertainment in general and theatre in particular, and the employment opportunities for theatre practitioners in Wellington. I make no value judgement on the nature of most of these changes: all living organisms change in order to survive – that’s life.

As Mr Wainwright notes in today’s Capital Times, the options available to habitual and would-be theatre-goers in Wellington have also changed over the 20 years since the 1980s Downstage heyday. And it must be added that the way Downstage changed in the 1990s – abolishing its company structure, becoming a presenter venue, divesting itself of its workshop and wardrobe departments – was pretty well forced on it by the radically restructured Arts Council trading as Creative New Zealand who were, at the time, driven by a Rogernomics/Ruthenasia economic agenda (the chair of the Arts Board being the wife of the then head of Treasury, as it happens).

Do the same imperatives drive their policies now?

I would argue that “the politics of the work of local playwrights versus the work of international ones” is absolutely THE fundamental issue in any country seeking distinction (in both senses of the word) and any state-funded performing arts organisation that does not see producing homegrown work as its major priority – in action as well as in principle – has no business drawing funding from Vote Arts.

All the ‘cover versions’ of international ‘hits’ that feed the schedules of the recurrently funded companies were brand new original works once. Likewise the classics. And don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted we have the opportunity to see them, mostly well done, amid the plethora of screen drama and comedy from the same dominant cultures. But who takes responsibility for bringing those plays into the world in the first place?

How can we possibly meet our own cultural needs, let alone distinguish ourselves to others, without an infrastructure that is hungry for new work and dedicated to revisiting and maintaining the homegrown repertoire? And how can this be achieved without risk – the right to risk failure as part of the creative development process – being factored into it?

What will it take for our best writers, directors, designers, actors, technicians, etc wo want to work in the live performing arts (where their craft is properly learned and nurtured)?

These questions clearly reach well beyond the immediate concern regarding Downstage but the Downstage situation offers a timely opportunity to confront the issues.

The question remains on the table: by what criteria will Downstage be able to reclaim its right to recurrent CNZ funding? 

Earl Curtain         posted 7 Nov 2008, 10:22 AM / edited 7 Nov 2008, 03:38 PM

John, John, John …

Why are you not demanding answers from Downstage with the same vigour ? Despite Downstage’s recent inability to demonstrate any resemblance to the kind of organisation that both you Uri extol successive Board members or management teams seem to have escaped your public demands for accountability?

 Isn’t it time for a more honest conversation about why we don’t have the healthy, vibrant art community that we all seek and, for a change, realise that we have a collective responsibility (starting with a little more self accountability) for delivering this.

To get the ball rolling, here’s a couple of starters for 10:

Creative New Zealand    posted 7 Nov 2008, 11:55 AM / edited 7 Nov 2008, 11:57 AM

John, thank you for your question. Let me first clarify that an organisation has to be invited by an arts board to apply for recurrent funding, and Creative New Zealand’s delivery of any funding is contingent upon satisfactory value, quality work and confidence in the institution.

To be eligible for recurrent funding organisations must be able to demonstrate:

    an advanced level of organisational development

    at least a three-year track record of significant project funding support from Creative New Zealand (when entering the portfolio for the first time)

    an established governance structure, long-term planning processes, produce annual audited accounts and have considerable stakeholder support.

Organisations that receive recurrent funding are regularly assessed and monitored against the following criteria:

    financial sustainability

    artistic merit (evaluation of artistic quality of programmes presented)

    organisational capability, including good governance and management

    market/audience development

    alignment with CNZ’s strategic priorities.

Recurrent funding of the type enjoyed by Downstage Theatre (Downstage) will cease on 30 June 2009. Creative New Zealand (CNZ) has agreed this with Downstage and this is what has been announced. 

In February 2009, Creative New Zealand will decide on a proposal from Downstage for funding for the period July to December 2009. 

You are right to note that the CNZ’s view of Downstage is informed by more than ‘bums on seats’, contribution to creative and professional development amongst them. This is one reason why we seek practitioners’ views on the organisations in which we invest public money. 

It is interesting to note that, of our 36 recurrently funded organisations, six regional theatres presented an average of over 50% New Zealand works in their 2007 programmes and the two national theatre organisations (National Theatre for Children – Capital E and Taki Rua Productions) presented all New Zealand work to audiences around the country. 

It is also right to say that without a committed community of interest, a theatre can lose its mojo. At a fundamental level, a theatre should meet the needs of an arts community and the public. Without an appropriate level of public or community support, (typically through buying tickets) any performing arts organisation will struggle to achieve its mission. 

Downstage is confident it can turn things around through its new vision, let’s hope they can. Time will tell. 

Stephen Wainwright

Chief Executive

Creative New Zealand

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