October 28, 2011

Downstage postpones Presenting Partnerships for 6 months

John Smythe      posted 15 Sep 2011, 09:58 AM / edited 16 Sep 2011, 10:38 AM

Downstage is in financial trouble again and the Board has determined it has to go dark until April 2012. With Circa suffering a cut in funding, this is a huge blow for professional theatre in Wellington. Here are the questions I have – and they are genuine questions (not rhetorical).  If anyone has any answers, comments or further questions, please share.

          How many performing arts practitioners are now out of work because of this decision?

          How many people will remain employed by Downstage while the theatre is dark?

          Given the ‘presenting partnership model’, how many submitted applications for project funding support and sponsorship are now compromised by this decision?

          Would it be correct to deduce that if Downstage had continued to trade beyond October 1 and had defaulted in paying its creditors, the Board members (unpaid?) would have become personally liable for the debts and/or creditors could have put Downstage into receivership?

          Excluding the national-focused theatres like Capital E and Taki Rua), Downstage is the only professional theatre in Wellington that pays professional fees (and therefore takes the box-office risk) rather than operates on a co-op basis (whereby the practitioners take the risk, usually being underpaid and sometimes reaping the benefits of a sell-out success). How important is it that the principle of paying proper professional fees is maintained? 

         How much of this situation is directly caused by the funding pressure Downstage has been under since early 2008? Has Creative New Zealand behaved judiciously and fairly over the past four years or have they made this situation inevitable?

          Silo Theatre in Auckland went into recess too, and has recovered. Is this just something we have to accept or is there some systematic flaw that has to be confronted and fixed?  

Editor    posted 15 Sep 2011, 10:25 AM

 Downstage Theatre Media Release 


Downstage Theatre Trust’s Board and Director/CEO have decided to postpone or cancel shows from mid-October through to December this year, in order to focus on planning for 2012 and beyond.

Director/CEO Hilary Beaton said this year had been a “perfect storm” of challenges for the company, “While 2011 has seen remarkable artistic success, we have not met a number of targets in a very tough economic climate.”

Creative New Zealand’s recent announcement that it would offer Downstage multi-year funding was an expression of support for the organisation, its staff, and the Presenting Partners model, which is unique in New Zealand. The partnership model provides financial support for independent theatre companies to present distinctive New Zealand theatre works in a main stage venue. Partners have the opportunity to grow their professional practice in a sustainable way and to attract audiences for new works.

Over the last three years Downstage’s Presenting Partnerships have enabled Wellingtonians to see outstanding New Zealand creative professionals telling our diverse stories, in our voices, through innovative, high-quality, exciting theatre.

“We remain committed to developing 21st century performing arts practice, and working in partnership with the independent sector – the source of New Zealand’s most compelling theatrical creativity.” Beaton says.

“If theatre is to remain a vital art form, we must bridge the gap between fringe practice and sustainable professionalism, while retaining the creative edge that will engage new generations of audience.  With support from our funders and sponsors we will further develop our model to ensure 2012 and future years are a success for our partners, our audiences, and Downstage.

“The decision to reduce this year’s programme has been carefully considered, as we recognize the impact this will have on our staff, audiences, sponsors, Presenting Partners, and suppliers. We’re grateful to have their support, as well as that of Creative New Zealand, Wellington City Council, Hannah Playhouse Trust, and Downstage Theatre Society.” 

“We expect to re-launch in April 2012, following the International Festival of the Arts, “ Beaton said.

Downstage’s current show, Te Radar’s Eating the Dog, is not affected by these decisions. All performances are as scheduled and tickets are selling fast.  

Downstage Theatre         posted 15 Sep 2011, 11:56 AM

 Kia ora John

Thanks for your questions and we really appreciate your support. We’ll do our best to answer them soon.

There will a be a drop-in day this Tuesday 20 September 4-5.30pm for any one who wants to drop in and talk with Hilary and Downstage staff. 

We have put together some answers to some common questions – you’ll find them here.

You can also contact me directly on programming@downstage.co.nz if you prefer to be in touch that way.

And don’t forget, we are open for business with four more shows in 2011:  Te Radar, Bella Kalolo, Carnival Hound and Stroma.


Associate Producer, Programming, Downstage

Editor    posted 15 Sep 2011, 02:36 PM / edited 15 Sep 2011, 05:37 PM

Listening to Hilary Beaton on Radio NZ National’s Afternoons – I now learn that what is being postponed is the ‘Presenting Partnerships’ programme, but the venue remains available for hire. Indeed there will be a New Zealand International Arts Festival show in there in February. The heading ‘Downstage to go dark’ is therefore inaccurate and I will change it.

Editor    posted 15 Sep 2011, 02:51 PM

Please respond to this link and/or pass it on to anyone you think may be in a position to respond.


Downstage Theatre         posted 16 Sep 2011, 12:53 PM / edited 16 Sep 2011, 01:12 PM

Kia ora John and Theatreview readers.  Here are the answers to John’s great questions from yesterday.

How many performing arts practitioners are now out of work because of this decision?

19 artists have lost wages and two playwrights have lost royalty payments. 

This year to date we have directly paid fees to 72 practitioners, and showcased the work of a further 126.

We pay artists while they are working in the house. We manage box office risk. Meaning practitioners are guaranteed a wage upfront that is independent of box office revenue.

How many people will remain employed by Downstage while the theatre is dark?

The theatre is not going to be dark. Te Radar runs until 1 October and Bella Kalolo is our Soundstage guest this Sunday.

Our subsidised venue hires and community access programme will go ahead as planned. This includes two shows scheduled for the remainder of 2011: Carnival Hound and Stroma.  Our facilities are also open to the industry for rehearsals, workshopping and small performances.  If you are interested in this opportunity please contact Angela programming@downstage.co.nz

The venue will also be available for corporate and fundraising events.

Implications for Staff

Five full time positions will be dis-established.  Four staff members will remain. The impact of these decisions on artists and team members has always been our deepest concern.  The people whose livelihoods are directly affected are not just dedicated professionals whose work we admire and respect; they are our friends and our colleagues. It is a business decision for our organisation, but it’s personal for us as staff.

We know that if we did not take this action at this time, the impact, the pain would be greater, wider and longer lasting. This gives us a fighting chance, and one we intend to take.

As of the 10 October the five positions will cease to exist with two contracted positions created to manage finances and front of house services.  We are providing those leaving us with assistance and support in their search for further employment.

The remaining four positions are Director/CEO, Manager Marketing and Communications, Associate Producer Programming and Co-ordinator of Stakeholder Relations.

Production personnel and casual staff will be contracted on a show by show basis for the remainder of 2011.

Given the ‘presenting partnership model’, how many submitted applications for project funding support and sponsorship are now compromised by this decision?

We programme well in advance.  The shows that were programmed in 2011 have not been awaiting any funding decisions, and both are existing works (Titanics 2010, Intricate Art 2009).

In the last CNZ grants round, we have written letters of support for six companies for potential seasons in 2012.   Any companies who receive the funding they need to create their work are still likely to be programmed.

Would it be correct to deduce that if Downstage had continued to trade beyond October 1 and had defaulted in paying its creditors, the Board members (unpaid?) would have become personally liable for the debts and/or creditors could have put Downstage into receivership?

The Downstage Theatre Trust is a board of dedicated volunteers.  They would be personally liable for any debt.

Excluding the national-focused theatres like Capital E and Taki Rua), Downstage is the only professional theatre in Wellington that pays professional fees (and therefore takes the box-office risk) rather than operates on a co-op basis (whereby the practitioners take the risk, usually being underpaid and sometimes reaping the benefits of a sell-out success). How important is it that the principle of paying proper professional fees is maintained? 

This is one of our core principles and will not change.

Alongside this financial commitment is strategic support; mentoring, advocacy and creative provocation.

How much of this situation is directly caused by the funding pressure Downstage has been under since early 2008? Has Creative New Zealand behaved judiciously and fairly over the past four years or have they made this situation inevitable?

When CNZ reduced our funding in 2008 from $500k annually to $300k, our underlying fixed costs remained the same – venue overheads, staffing and so forth. This placed increased pressure on our box office.

We have an artistically successful model but an undercapitalised infrastructure.

CNZ are supportive of our new direction, as evidenced by our recent acceptance onto the Arts Development (Kahikatea) Programme.  Our on-going partnership with them is essential.

However, our CNZ funding is still 35% below what it was 5 years ago, without factoring in inflation.

We are taking responsibility for finding a way forward and building a structure that addresses existing weaknesses. We intend to take into account the lessons learned over the past three years. There will be further changes. However, the aim is to strengthen the organisation to facilitate our ambitious vision.

The Downstage Theatre Trust is working to secure additional financial resources over the coming months.

The Presenting Partners programme is designed to deliver maximum benefit to the creators of work in terms of opportunity and investment; and to the sector in terms of developing career pathways for artists and to the audience in terms of presenting a diversity of the very best local product.

Our programming has been tremendously successful, our presenting partners have been inspired and empowered through working with us, and in two of the previous three years we registered a financial surplus.

However in those years, New Zealand has suffered, along with the rest of the world, a significant economic downturn, culminating this year when the public purse is under extraordinary pressure. Across those same years, CNZ’s figures show a steady decrease in household spending on the arts, and nobody in the industry would debate that audiences are down across the sector.

Some would ask, and will ask again, why we do not choose to present a more commercially-driven programme.  We say: that is not Downstage.  It was not why this theatre was created, it is not why it continues to be funded, and it is not where anyone involved wishes to take it. Furthermore, it is not in the long term best interests of the industry, or the community.

The issues are apparent, the way forward is traceable, and the will is there to do the work and make the changes.

Silo Theatre in Auckland went into recess too, and has recovered. Is this just something we have to accept or is there some systematic flaw that has to be confronted and fixed?  

Every situation and theatre company is different, and it would be dangerous to attribute success or failure on any one model.  Silo has a different operating model to us and Auckland is a different environment to Wellington.

Cycles of recess or market fluctuations are inevitable. We are now operating in a new landscape, and we have a picture from CNZ as to our immediate future in terms of base resources.  We have an unshaken belief in the value of the Presenting Partnership model. What lies ahead for us over the coming months is an opportunity to revisit how we deliver the model in this new landscape.

The priority is to address the instability of the overhead burden, to restructure and gather our resources in order to insulate the programme from bearing the full weight of that burden.

Ways and means to do this are under discussion already. Plus we will undertake a full examination of how we continue to develop the audience for our programme to increase ticket sales. Part of CNZ’s funding offer is allocated for this purpose, and our on-going participation in the Move On Up audience development programme is specifically designed to build our capability in this area. 

Jerome Chandrahasen   posted 16 Sep 2011, 01:30 PM

As the Downstage Theatre Trust is a registered charitable trust, your board members shouldn’t be personally liable for any debts incurred?

Al Bennett           posted 16 Sep 2011, 01:57 PM

“Some would ask, and will ask again, why we do not choose to present a more commercially-driven programme.  We say: that is not Downstage.  It was not why this theatre was created, it is not why it continues to be funded, and it is not where anyone involved wishes to take it.”

Has Downstage considered programming a greater number of productions with individually LESS commercial potential?

Re: paying ‘proper professional fees’:  “This is one of our core principles and will not change.”


John Smythe      posted 16 Sep 2011, 02:38 PM

 What Wellington – in fact New Zealand – needs is a New Zealand Playwrights’ Theatre and I have long held that Downstage could/should take on that role (just as The Royal Court – a non-commercial theatre in London – houses The English Stage Company which prides itself in developing new talent and work).

New Zealand playwrights, and writers who might turn to theatre if it was thriving, need to know someone is hungry for their work.  Those who cut their teeth at Bats, The Basement, etc (often confined to 50-minute time limits) need to know there is, potentially, another level to aspire to, thus leaving room for the emerging talent nipping at their heels to come on through. 

Audiences – both local and visiting – need to know there is a theatre that will always be showing homegrown work. Look at the REAL New Zealand Festival for proof that original creativity has a crucial role to play in sustaining distinction in all senses of the term.  

Yes, of course, that requires significant capital funding. But a playwrights’ theatre, as part of the innovate work Downstage seeks to attract, would be an investment in reinvigorating our capacity for self expression and in adding to the body of work that encapsulates our social history for generations to come. 

If Downstage took this on I cannot see how it could do anything but greatly enhance their case for sustainable funding. 

Adey Ramsel      posted 16 Sep 2011, 03:15 PM / edited 16 Sep 2011, 03:16 PM

There is a company in the UK that only produces new work; new work that has not even had one production.  Doesn’t matter if you are Alan Ayckbourn, Neil LaBute, Joe Smith from down the street or someone who’s just had the latest West End hit, they will only produce a play of yours if it has not been done before. Doesn’t matter if it was produced the other side of the world or the other side of the country they insist on ‘never seen before’.

Hence, they are never short of new scripts to produce; new scripts have a natural home to flock to without the fear of being turned down because it’s an unknown; funding is never a problem as they live to promote theatre; audiences arrive in droves never knowing what they are going to see and you have a company with an electric programme with no revivals, no classics, no tried, true and tested pot boilers – sure you may recognise some playwrights but you will always be seeing new work.  Every country could do with one of those companies.

Michael Smythe                posted 16 Sep 2011, 03:59 PM / edited 16 Sep 2011, 04:14 PM

Another model would be the Matlthouse in Melborne that is “a non-profit organisation dedicated to the development, production, and promotion of contemporary Australian theatre”. Find out more at http://www.malthousetheatre.com.au/page/Our_Company

Michael Wray    posted 16 Sep 2011, 04:21 PM

Jerome –  if a charitable trust incurs new debts or carries on trading knowing there is not enough money to meet debts, the directors can be held personally liable.

sam trubridge    posted 17 Sep 2011, 07:24 PM

Really John? Theatre is not just for Playwrights to show their work. Sounds deadly. This antiquated view is only going to alienate a large audience who don’t go to the theatre to have words read to them from a book. What of the amazing talent in dance (Carnival Hound), music (Stroma), and devised performance (Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants?) that Downstage has been profiling? Including this range of works and these performance disciplines in a programme at Downstage helps bring in new audiences to their work, and new audiences to the theatre. Royal Court succeeds in London because there is space for a niche market there, and there are many theatres to cater for different interests, approaches, disciplines, and styles. Yet even then, the Royal Court is as much a director’s theatre, an actor’s theatre, or a company’s theatre, as it is a playwright’s theatre. The great thing about Downstage is that it never was a playwright’s theatre – right from its opening it was an amazingly avant-garde performance SPACE, defined by flexibility, innovative staging, and rigorous challenging of what theatre is. This produced defining productions of original NZ plays and startling new approaches to plays from abroad. I think that Downstage were on the way somewhere really interesting and positive for NZ and Wellington – and I hope that they get both the support and the constructive forum that they need to break new ground and bring audiences in.

John Smythe      posted 18 Sep 2011, 05:08 PM

Sam, I did say “a playwrights’ theatre, as part of the innovate work Downstage seeks to attract…” I do not mean to discount to value of the work they have been attracting and I do not see such work and playwright-initiated work as mutually exclusive. All the means of developing performing arts works can surely co-exist without having to be sectioned off into different spaces.

Your assertion that all playwright-originated theatre amounts to for an audience is “words read to them from a book” is as silly as suggesting people living in an architect-designed house are merely experiencing an expression of drawings on paper. A playwright conceptualises a physical and metaphysical event. The words they put ‘on paper’ are simply the access point to a multi-dimensional experience to be created in performance via the creative talents of many people including a sensate, imaginative and empathetic audience.

In my opinion any artistically crafted work that does no more than draw attention to the means of its own creation rates as little more than an egotistical (“see how clever I am!”) display of the craft. Craft achieves the status of art when it transcends itself and adds value to the beholder’s personal experience of being. And that of course can be initiated by an individual or a team.

I also believe that ever since humans began to perform for each other, playwrights have played an invaluable part in holding the proverbial “mirror up to nature” in order to observe, record, interpret, characterise, confront, critique, celebrate and otherwise conjure with human existence. They reflect their age and give it form for the benefit of their peers and all who follow. Their particular voices and viewpoints have enriched our lives and there is no reason to suppose that will stop. 

In my experience a playwright is someone who moves through the world constantly inspired to write plays. As with other types of artist, they are driven to it; it is their vocation.

My concern is that although we are very good at importing, reassembling and reproducing the products of international playwrights (whose work has grown in climes that welcome their work), New Zealand theatre is still not operating at a level where our best writers are attracted to theatre as their mode of expression. While there are all sorts of initiatives to support and develop ‘emerging’ talent, there is not enough turnover to sustain playwriting as a profession.

A playwrights’ theatre need not be tied to one particular building. It could network throughout a number of theatre companies. The important thing is to have an entity that manifests a commitment to sustaining a constant turnover of professionally developed homegrown works at such a level that mature talents with significant life experience will see a future in writing plays (that can take their place alongside the other forms of performance). 

So what I am suggesting is that Downstage could play a key role in this concept – take the initiative, even.  And I hasten to add that such an initiative should not absolve any others from seeing the development of new works as their primary responsibility.  

Michael Smythe                posted 18 Sep 2011, 05:44 PM

That’s wright!

(Not write.)

sam trubridge    posted 19 Sep 2011, 08:32 AM

I am rather confused by this paragraph (below) John. I understand more or less what is being said, but it seems to come out of the blue as a rather moot point that has nothing to do with what either you or I were debating. Of course, no work should rely on craft alone, and artistry is the presence of a deeper purpose and/or connection with with the audience.

“In my opinion any artistically crafted work that does no more than draw attention to the means of its own creation rates as little more than an egotistical (“see how clever I am!”) display of the craft. Craft achieves the status of art when it transcends itself and adds value to the beholder’s personal experience of being. And that of course can be initiated by an individual or a team”.

It would be unfair for this debate to railroad the discussion on Downstage. So I would like to repeat my support for the team and the individuals. I am excited to see how the theatre is working towards a curatorial approach to programming which I think stands to really challenge and lift the quality of work being shown in our country, and can engineer some fantastic collaborations and partnerships. Neither the ‘recieving house’ nor the ‘theatre company in a theatre house’ models encourage much rigour in the work that is made.

Dane Giraud       posted 20 Sep 2011, 09:05 AM

 The “theatre company in a theatre house” is and would be fine if we had a visionary leader inspired enough to transcend the standard theatre killers of cronyism and general complacency. 

John Smythe      posted 21 Oct 2011, 10:13 AM

Re this morning’s DomPost article: I understand the need to bridge the gap so Downstage’s future plans can come to fruition. I applaud Downstage’s continued commitment to operating professionally, albeit as a ‘curated venue’. And I wholeheartedly believe that Downstage has been grossly underfunded for many years, to the extent that its reinvention of itself as a vital resource to a plethora of independent practitioner groups is something of a miracle.

What I am having difficulty with is that creative practitioners have been ‘laid off’ while four administrators stay on the payroll. (I am assuming this is what most of the money sought is for.)

Such positions would not exist if it were not for writers, actors, directors, devisers, designers and production workers. Nor would the jobs in Creative New Zealand and other funding agencies exist without the artists whose work and value in the world justify ‘vote arts’ in central and local government budgets.  Yet it has become acceptable for artists – the vital organs – to lose their incomes and ‘live on nothing’ while efforts are made to keep the ‘skeleton’ standing in the hope those organs can be resuscitated later.

The current model in the performing arts requires vast amounts of unpaid creative work to be done before anyone can even apply for funding and attempt to secure a venue in which to present their work. This may be fair if the financial rewards at the other end balanced it out, not least so that there was something to live on while creating the next work. But that is not how it happens. Artists are the last to be paid and the first to be ‘let go’ when times get tough.

In the short term I hope the WCC comes through so that Downstage can return to full health in 2012. But in the longer term, we need to prioritise sustaining the health of those ‘vital organs’.  

Grant Buist         posted 21 Oct 2011, 10:58 AM

 But chasing audiences with tacky populist shows was not on the agenda. “We are not suddenly going to do topless lap dancing or commercial British comedy. We are committed to our programme of presenting local crafted work.”

I hope that’s not a dig at a certain rival theatre known for staging commercial British comedy. Because that theatre’s in the black, as far as I know.

Also, bad news for future productions of (for example) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Or didn’t that count as “commercial” when Colin McColl directed it at Downstage in 2000, winning four Chapman Tripp awards?

Michael Wray    posted 21 Oct 2011, 12:05 PM

Grant, 2000 pre-dates the new programming direction by several years so is hardly relevant to the integrity of the current Presenting Partners approach. I doubt very much that there is any intended dig at any other theatre – unless I missed the topless lap dancing?

John Smythe      posted 21 Oct 2011, 12:19 PM / edited 21 Oct 2011, 04:13 PM

Downstage is not aiming to be all things to all people, Grant, but what it is aiming to do is crucial. They used to compete with Circa for rights to the latest hits from overseas. Now their focus is on facilitating the growth and development of independent creative artists and their works, the best of which are destined for much longer lives than a four week season in one venue only.

How long have we wailed that those who cut their creative teeth at Bats have nowhere to ‘graduate’ to, so that their investment – our investment is them – is not wasted, and the next generation can follow?  The new Downstage model is a vital part of Wellington’s right to call itself the Creative Capital. 

Grant Buist         posted 21 Oct 2011, 01:44 PM

 Fair enough. I think working closely with BATS is the right direction, as the success of ‘Stab’ revivals has shown.

Corin Havers       posted 21 Oct 2011, 08:31 PM

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Downstage described as a place to ‘graduate to’ from Bats. Why is this – just because it is a larger space?   I’ve seen far more interesting work at Bats than Downstage, and it also feels much more like a working theatre. Just because a space is small doesn’t mean it has to be a stepping stone to somewhere else. However if Downstage is seen that why why not give it to Bats to administer? 

John Smythe      posted 21 Oct 2011, 10:35 PM

Corin, because Bats is small and mostly runs short seasons of 50 minute plays that often share the space with others (except for Stab shows and the odd other exception), it favours entry level co-ops willing to work for peanuts because (to generalise) they still live like students. There comes a time when practitioners who have proved their worth at this level deserve to be better resourced and better paid to either mount return/developed seasons for new and larger audiences or create new work with the option available to go ‘full length’ as aspire to greater production values.

The youth audience is very well served by Bats and most practitioners love the space. But as they mature – practitioners and audiences alike – if they can’t move on to somewhere like Downstage they will crowd out the new talent coming through.

Once students graduate, join the workforce and adopt different lifestyles their concerns, interests and tastes in theatre may differ, as with practitioners who are wanting to make a living in their chosen vocation. Downstage needs to be resourced to meet those needs on both sides of the proverbial footlights. 

Corin Havers       posted 22 Oct 2011, 08:07 AM / edited 22 Oct 2011, 08:08 AM

Thank you for this explanation but it does still indicate to me that my suggestion of giving Bats both Downstage’s space and cash would therefore be an ideal solution.  And I have to say that I’ve seen work at Bats that is far, far better than ‘entry-level’ – and certainly not exclusively for ‘youth’ –  and I have seen extremely poor work at Downstage.

Michael Wray    posted 22 Oct 2011, 10:23 AM

Corin, I don’t understand how giving Downstage to Bats to run would solve any of the issues Downstage has been experiencing. Could you please explain?

On your other point, Bats is not exclusively youth and every theatre has its share of good and bad work – this is not unique to Downstage. The risk factor is a major differentiator between Bats and Downstage; mature practitioners can often stage a production at Bats that is too risky (for whatever reason) or not palatable (for whatever reason) for Downstage/Circa to take-on. A show that performs badly at Bats tends to involve small financial risk for both the venue and the practitioners. The rewards are not large but neither are the costs. Downstage offers the opportunity of higher production values than Bats can. And, not least, a fixed wage to the practitioners  – Bats (and Circa for that matter) will only provide a decent return to the actors et al if the show performs well. You could put a case forward that Downstage could off-load the risk to the performers in the shows by adopting the co-operative model, but that’s a whole topic of its own.

John Smythe      posted 22 Oct 2011, 11:52 AM / edited 22 Oct 2011, 02:41 PM

An article I have written on Downstage for the Dec/Jan edition of FishHead magazine includes the following: “Bats’ Programme Manager Martyn Wood sees his theatre and Downstage as intricately connected within Wellington’s theatrical ecosystem. ‘Downstage is an important stepping-stone for the practitioners, works and companies we support and develop, as they look to expand and present their work on national and international stages,’ Wood says.” 

The work and practitioners Bats nurtures can only benefit from sensing a promising future that lifts their horizons beyond the immediate project. 

What it comes down to is whether Wellington wants a professional theatre environment that

a) capitalises on the proven creative talent that keeps growing within this city (not least because Toi Whakaari and Vic University Theatre Department are here), and

b) pays a living wage, so that 

c) Wellington is a stimulating and therefore attractive place to live and work in the performing arts. 

Simon Bennett posted 22 Oct 2011, 08:05 PM

 A bit out of the loop here, but does Downstage pay wages to practitioners during the development phase of a production? Are the actors, directors, stage manager, composer, designers et al paid during the rehearsal period? Or is a wage paid solely for the period a work is being performed in the theatre?

If it’s the latter, then like all the other Wellington theatres, the practitioners are subsidising the work at Downstage, by working unpaid throughout the rehearsal period (at least four or five weeks, I would expect).

Michael Smythe                posted 22 Oct 2011, 10:03 PM / edited 22 Oct 2011, 10:11 PM

Hot off the press from Melbourne … today’s Saturday Age has an article that could be helpful. It has a ‘performing arts centre guru from Connecticut, Steven Wolff, stating: ”The buildings are less important – they are just a means to get to the ‘stuff’,” performing arts centre guru Steven Wolff, who runs a consultancy from Connecticut, told delegates to the Association for Asia Pacific Performing Arts Centres. The ”stuff” Wolff argued was not just about shows, spectacle or exhibitions but also about pioneering new art forms and reaching across all parts of a community. ”A performing arts centre is all about discovery and is uniquely positioned to create moments of contact with diverse communities,” he said. His mantra is that 21 century arts centres must be ”a host, incubator, educator, showcase, change agent/advocate and innovator”.

The article states that this week, arts leaders from around Asia-Pacific and North America gathered in Melbourne/s to discuss how art centres have to stop being seen as mere buildings with halls to rent but ”living, learning, teaching organisms”. Was anyone from Wellington there? Is Courtenay PLace Wellington’s Arts Centre?

The full article can be found at http://www.anhourago.com.au/show.aspx?l=40923724&d=505

Dane Giraud       posted 22 Oct 2011, 10:28 PM

What’s an arts leader?

John Smythe      posted 22 Oct 2011, 10:38 PM

Simon, as I understand it, now that Downstage is a ‘curated venue’ and not funded to produce its own shows, it only pays practitioners when they are ‘in the house’ – and the creating /producing entity (e.g. SEEyD, Barbarian, Taki Rua, Strike.. etc) retains full rights over their work, which in many cases goes on to other venues. In some cases the work has premiered elsewhere.

So the development stage is funded independently and it most cases those independents have got to the stage where they can attract project funding from CNZ et al. I imagine having a ‘presenting partnership’ with Downstage strengthens their claim for development funding. 

Of course this goes to my fundamental disquiet at how much time and resources are soaked up in applying for funding – which seems to be the major talent performing arts groups are required to have nowadays.

And Michael S – thanks for that missive from Melbourne. The full article is indeed worth reading. I suppose the equivalents here to Melbourne’s monolithic arts centre would be the collections of venues managed by Positively Wellington Venues and Auckland’s The Edge. 

Corin Havers       posted 23 Oct 2011, 07:41 PM

Michael Wray – you ask me to expain how giving Downstage to Bats might help solve the issues Downstage has been experiencing, but I am afraid all I know about the ‘issues’ are the guarded clues given by the CEO elsewhere in this forum. However I have assumed that financial mismanagement and poor planning must have played a reasonably large part. 

It may not be fair that arts bodies are underfunded and have to juggle so carefully, but needs must; and Bats seem to juggle and adapt their financial and artistic issues extremely well, as far as I can see, which is why the organisation looks to me like a safe pair of hands.

Michael Wray    posted 25 Oct 2011, 08:15 AM / edited 25 Oct 2011, 08:42 AM

If only it was that simple. As I said, the approach to who takes on the financial risk for a show differs. Bats takes a share of the box office, with the costs borne by the production. This works very well for Bats with what is generally a low-budget programme and an audience happy to take  “you never know what you’re going to get” attitude, presumably aided by the Bats philosophy of keeping ticket prices comparable to cinema tickets. Circa take a similar production-funding approach, but with much higher production values that leads to less risky programming decisions and higher ticket prices. Downstage sits with the Circa production values but a risk-profile between the two.

CNZ have made clear they see no value in funding a Downstage that has no differentiation to Circa and that is presumably why Downstage lost recurrent CNZ funding years ago, which lead to the current CNZ-endorsed partnership-programme model and the concerted effort to provide emerging practictitioners somewhere to go after establishing themselves. The issue being that the production values means the ticket prices lean towards the Circa end of the market, but the risk is nearer to Bats profile. With Downstage taking the show-performance risk themselves, there will be ups and downs.

That’s the significance of the waged-performer model I referred to earlier. Presumably to offset the risk, Downstage will look to host shows as John mentions above. As well as the Bats board have done, I don’t think simply transferring Downstage to Bats will solve anything – it just isn’t that simple.

John Smythe      posted 25 Oct 2011, 09:32 AM

Thanks for that, Michael. Just to clarify, when you say “risk profile” you are referring to “risky programming”. (I’ve often thought that when it comes to competinging with other forms of entertainment around Wellington, the biggest risk is not to take a risk.) When it comes to financial risk, Downstage stands alone in paying contract fees to everyone ‘in the house’ – cast, crew, front-of-house, bar staff – along with the continuing overheads of management, admin and box office salaries. (FOH and bar staff are mostly performing arts students – the ‘next generation’ in need of part time work to support their studies.)

Downstage therefore ‘takes the hit’ when a show makes a loss and potentially earns a profit from a ‘box-office hit’ (doncha just love the English langauage?). As I understand it they’ve made a small surplus this year so far, when direct costs for the shows are subtracted from box-office income. But that doesn’t take account of the ongoing overheads (let alone the pre-production / development costs).

Here is a full breakdown, from Hilary Beaton, of the


Since October 2008, Downstage has undergone a significant cultural change which has resulted in a new business model. The organisation has shifted away from being a traditional in-house production company to a curated venue that backs independent theatre companies and artists to develop their professional arts practice. This change is in direct response to the changes that have occurred within the theatre industry and audience attendance patterns. It reflects international trends.

As a curated venue, we enter into presenting partnerships to support the very best contemporary New Zealand theatre and to foster audience development and appreciation for this work.   Over the last three years, we have been developing four programmes:

1.       Presenting Partners

2.       Resident Company

3.       Community Access

4.       Presenting Alliances

Presenting Partner Programme

Sector development programme (funded by CNZ)

Aim: to provide a risk-free environment for independent artists and companies to present a mainstage season at Downstage and to build audiences for the work of contemporary New Zealand theatre-makers. We present 4-6 productions a year of 3 – 4 week seasons.

This programme showcases significant emerging and mid-career artists who have graduated from the Fringe to mainstage but who need a strong business partner to succeed. The partnership allows artists to develop high quality work and present it at Downstage without having to take the full financial risk. Downstage pays professional fees to all the creatives during the show’s season and takes the box office risk (or reward).

We broker relationships with festival directors, booking agents and venue managers, nationally and, in some cases, internationally. This provides the artist or company with long-term employment opportunities with the aim of making a return on their investment in developing the production.

Resident Company

Artists’ development programme (seeking corporate sponsor)

Aim: to assist three of Wellington’s most dynamic independent theatre artists or companies to:

·         develop their arts practice

·         create new work of an international standard

·         compete more successfully in touring, festival, and venue networks in New Zealand and abroad.

Three companies are selected for a residency at Downstage over 3 years. To be selected, they must have demonstrated strong creative leadership, have a body of work behind them, and be committed to developing as a business enterprise.

Over the three-year period they receive mentoring and advice from expert staff, and are provided with an opportunity to present on the mainstage each year. We broker workshops and sessions with outside experts to help them they develop business and marketing acumen.

The work they present is developed in conjunction with the Downstage team. This ensures an increase in overall quality, and an increase in artistic capacity and thinking. It also enables the company to develop its ‘aesthetic’ while still retaining the intellectual property it has developed.

Community Access Programme

Audience development strategy (potentially funded by WCC)

Aim: to attract new audiences to Downstage and to promote a love of theatre in Wellington while serving our broader community. It is proactive in breaking down barriers or perceptions about ‘theatre’, by educating and cross-pollinating audiences.

This programme is designed to showcase one off or short seasons of niche or community led works. Downstage allows access to our venue and staffing support at a significantly subsidised rate.

Downstage has become a home for cool, quirky, unique shows that aren’t FRINGE but are distinctly Wellington and reflect our melting pot eclecticism. This programme is designed to be responsive to the diverse artistic communities and audiences of Wellington. We allow access to 4-6 groups per year of 1-5 nights’ duration.

Presenting Alliance Programme

National distribution and promotion strategy (self-funding)

Aim: to offer our venue as a resource for established producers, other arts organizations funded by Creative New Zealand (CNZ), previous presenting partners, and special arts events.

Reasonable hire rates are set at a sliding scale depending on level of funding.

This provides independent artists and companies with the opportunity to capitalize on their intellectual property, and gives extended life to productions of new works or return seasons.

Finances for the programme

Downstage’s annual income is a combination of fixed grants from CNZ, Wellington City Council, and Hannah Playhouse Trust, together with variable returns from box office, bar sales, show sponsorship, donations, contra, and miscellaneous.

Downstage has never had a substantial capital base, and with CNZ’s decision to reduce the maximum level of on-going funding for theatre companies, Downstage needs to raise over $300,000 annually from sources other than box office, fixed grants, and contra deals.

The CNZ grant of $325,000 has been confirmed for each of 2012 and 2013.

We are seeking to secure multi-year funding from the Wellington City Council and a corporate partner to match CNZ funding (eg $150,000 each) to develop a more secure core revenue stream and ensure Downstage has the capacity to deliver its programmes.

Editor    posted 26 Oct 2011, 04:21 PM

 CAPITAL TIMES 12/10/11 

Downstage funding plea 

A proposed investment fund to secure the future of significant regional events and attractions would put an end to groups such as Downstage coming to the council cap in hand each year.

Downstage will ask Wellington City Council this week for $90,000 to get the theatre through the next six months.

Editor    posted 28 Oct 2011, 10:07 AM

Downstage Theatre receives city council bailout  


The Dominion Post, 27 October 2011

Wellington City Council have agreed to bailout the cash-strapped Downstage Theatre.

Downstage had asked the council for $90,000 to tide it over until January when it will receive almost $300,000 from Creative New Zealand. The theatre – New Zealand’s oldest professional company – had been forced to lay-off staff and cancel its programme for the rest of the year after declining audience numbers and sponsorship revenue.

After more than an hour of debate the council unanimously decided to grant the funding, which is on top of the $33,000 it already provides Downstage with each year. [More] 

John Smythe      posted 28 Oct 2011, 10:17 AM

This reply to a letter in the Dominion Post was published today: 

In his comments on Downstage, Jeremy Jones (Letters, Oct 26) implies “local crafted work” and “bums on seats” are mutually exclusive. The record shows that throughout NZ the most popular and memorable productions over time have been homegrown.

Wellington brands itself the creative capital not the copycat capital. Yes, there is more risk in creating original work but the rewards can be far greater. It’s called investing our creative capital wisely and well.

John Smythe Mount Victoria  

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