October 1, 2013

Downstage Closing

Michael Wray    posted 17 Sep 2013, 02:54 PM

from http://www.downstage.co.nz/2013/09/downstage-theatre-to-close/

Downstage Theatre to close        September 17, 2013

The Board of Downstage Theatre today announced its decision to close the company.

The decision comes following the announcement by Creative New Zealand not to fund Downstage in 2014.

Downstage Theatre Trust chair, Allan Freeth, said today that the Board had not taken the decision lightly.

“Downstage has a fifty year history of bringing outstanding theatre experiences to Wellington audiences.”

“In recent years the theatre has pursued a new model – based on partnerships with artistic companies, taking risks on new works, and creating a supportive environment for artists.

“It is not possible to continue this work without adequate and stable funding.”

Mr Freeth said the Board acknowledged the many achievements of the individuals and artists who have worked with Downstage over the years, and the professionalism and hard work of the theatre’s staff.  In particular, the Board acknowledged the contribution of CEO and Director Hilary Beaton.

The Board was also grateful for the backing of Downstage’s many dedicated supporters, funders and sponsors.

The theatre closure will take place immediately following the season of Live at Six, which is currently showing.

For further information contact:

021 677 379

John Smythe      posted 17 Sep 2013, 04:31 PM / edited 17 Sep 2013, 04:50 PM

This is tragic – just one year short of their 50th anniversary!

It seems to me Downstage has been funded to fail over the past few years – and that Creative New Zealand owes the people of Wellington – indeed New Zealand – an explanation. 

They must have their good reasons and given the effort the creative community went to in 2008 I think we’re entitled to know and understand.

Michael Wray    posted 17 Sep 2013, 05:33 PM / edited 17 Sep 2013, 05:35 PM

Given the venue (land & buildings) are not owned by the Downstage Theatre Trust, but by the Hannah Playhouse Trust, the important question if Downstage Theatre Trust closing is a done deal, is what happens to the theatre itself. Perusing the accounts of the HPT on the Charities Register reveals that Wellington City Council holds a 44% share in the venue. While the management of the Trust is conducted by its board, the WCC are allowed to appoint three members to the board (total allowed size between 5 and 10, currently 6 officers listed) and therefore WCC have a big say in what happens with the venue. Consequently, this can be made a topic of interest in the local elections and the forthcoming Mayoral debate.

The Downstage Theatre Society can also appoint two board members, so it would be interesting to know if this, the third of three bodies within the Downstage governance structure, is continuing or also closing.

I have looked at the 2013 accounts of the HPT and note they need to generate income of just over $100k a year to meet operating expenses. (Unless they close the HPT as well – in which case the question of what happens to the venue becomes pressing.) I think it likely the venue will become one for hire, perhaps a smaller alternative to the St James/Opera House but the question then is if there is sufficient demand. Clearly the answer to that would depend on the financial model used for hiring out.

The question CNZ must have considered is what happens now to the ecosystem of Wellington theatre? What is the career path for those who are graduating from the traditional Bats emerging artists sector but are not yet established enough to gain acceptance at Circa. The NZ-centric partnership model that Downstage adopted was an attempt to fill that middle ground. CNZ must have other plans for funding this part of the ecosystem – otherwise we’re a generation away from having an industry that has forced out its mid-career practitioners who go on to other careers in order to earn a living. CNZ must have considered this in their plans, right?

John Smythe      posted 17 Sep 2013, 06:04 PM

As I understand it Downstage has a rent-free lease with The Hannah Playhouse Trust which earns rental revenue from The Tasting Room and Zico, its tenants at street level. 

As you imply, Michael, it is crucial that whatever use the space is put to generates consistent PROFESSIONAL employment for theatre practitioners. Circa cannot be expected to be the only adult theatre provider of fully professional productions in Wellington – that would be unhealthy. There has got to be another professional production entity that keeps the talent that arises from Toi Whakaari, Victoria University and Whitireia, who cut their public teeth at BATS, in Wellington when the top level talent commit fully to a vocation in professional theatre (given the paucity of TV series production, TVC production, radio drama, etc, in this city).

Capital E – which has been using Downstage as its performance venue – employs professional practitioners, of course, but is a national company and does not maintain a year-long performance schedule in Wellington.

I believe there is a Maori / Pasifika consortium seeking a whare too, so they can consolidate and develop the activities they’ve maintained over a number of years. Kia ora to that!

Then there is BLAG – the Big Live Arts Group. Are they contenders to occupy the space?

And what will it take for CNZ to support a new venture?

Michael Wray    posted 17 Sep 2013, 06:41 PM / edited 17 Sep 2013, 08:22 PM

I’d forgotten about the Tasting Rooms paying rent. That changes my statement that a $100k income requirement exists for HPT. Looking at the Downstage Theatre Trust accounts for 2010 (the last ones filed that include a breakdown), there is rent of $125k a year – presumably for the HPT. The HPT accounts show grants back to Downstage, so that offset would be the vehicle for providing free rent. All up, it would mean that HPT have their expenses covered and have no urgent need to have the venue utilised.

I also note the existence of a new Charitable entity called the Downstage Foundation, created earlier this year, with the purpose of supporting the Downstage Theatre Trust. It includes within its rules a clause stating that in the event of the Downstage Theatre Trust ceasing to exist, it would support any theatre organisation taking its place. Does this answer my question about the Society (i.e. yes, it is closing too) and the creation of the new entity with a specific clause at least means there was forethought that closure was a real threat. With regards to a replacement organisation, its success would surely depend on securing CNZ backing.

John Smythe      posted 17 Sep 2013, 11:25 PM / edited 17 Sep 2013, 11:31 PM

Exactly, Michael. And as you may or may not hear me say on Morning Report tomorrow (Wed 19 Sept), the model whereby CNZ effectively programmes what happens there is untenable. The space needs a production entity that is trusted to get on with the job of developing, rehearsing and producing first class homegrown professional theatre.

Editor    posted 17 Sep 2013, 11:42 PM

This from Scoop:

City Council will work to help theatrical ventures to replace Downstage

September 17, 2013

Press Release – Wellington City Council

Councillor Ray Ahipene-Mercer, the Wellington City Council’s Arts and Culture Portfolio Holder, says he shares the sadness many Wellingtonians will feel about the announcement that Downstage is to close.


Editor    posted 17 Sep 2013, 11:51 PM / edited 18 Sep 2013, 11:24 PM

Check these photos.

Editor    posted 17 Sep 2013, 11:57 PM

And this: http://www.voxy.co.nz/politics/great-sadness-demise-downstage/5/167928

Editor    posted 18 Sep 2013, 08:54 AM / edited 18 Sep 2013, 08:58 AM

Radio NZ’s Morning Report Wed 18 Sept 2013: The curtain is coming down for the final time at Wellington’s Downstage Theatre this Saturday.


Editor    posted 18 Sep 2013, 08:56 AM

This morning’s DomPost front page:


Angela Green     posted 18 Sep 2013, 09:48 AM

Regardless of who or what entity may come in to run a theatre, it cannot be underestimated how much time, money and resource it takes to keep a building going and fit for purpose.  It’s not a simple as allowing another arts company who may makes great work, to inhabit the space.  The building itself needs to be managed and funded and upgraded (as many parts are sorely in need of repair and a refresh) – perhaps a natural role for the HPT?  Ticket sales will never cover operating costs of a building.  Ticket sales will hardly ever cover the cost of a professional production full stop.

And by the way, Downstage’s level of fundraising to the tune of nearly half a million a year while under huge pressure and funding cuts is to be applauded, that is an incredible achievement.

jann tarrant        posted 18 Sep 2013, 01:31 PM

Really saddened to see the end of Downstage Theatre.  I did two shows there as a Drama Student and learnt hugely from the experience.  It was a great to develope my skills and participate in outstanding theatre production.  The venue is versatile and provides a uniquiely flexible performance space.  I think as a platform for New Zealand actors and technicians the loss of this venue is nothing short of a tragedy.  I’d work there for free if it meant keeping it open….. I don’t understand why once again the Arts falls victim to funding.  It is part of our varied culture and should be nurtured.

Jann Tarrant

Editor    posted 18 Sep 2013, 05:38 PM / edited 18 Sep 2013, 11:22 PM

I forgot to put last night’s Checkpoint link up. Here it is.

Editor    posted 19 Sep 2013, 09:12 AM / edited 19 Sep 2013, 09:22 AM


Thursday 19 September 2013

EDITORIAL: The sad demise of Downstage

The news that Downstage will play out its final act on Saturday will be greeted with great sorrow by theatre lovers, not just in Wellington but around the country.

During its nearly 50 years, New Zealand’s oldest professional theatre company has been a beacon for practitioners and fans of the dramatic arts. It has nurtured some of this country’s finest actors, playwrights, directors and producers and led the way for other professional companies to follow. It will be sorely missed. [More]

– – – – – –

Downstage closure a tragedy

OPINION: New Zealand’s oldest professional theatre company is a victim of a funding system that constrains creativity, writes John Smythe.

Something is rotten in the state of arts funding. Since it opened at the defunct Walkabout Cafe on the corner of Courtenay Place and Cambridge Tce, 49 years ago come November, Downstage has been a hothouse of performing arts creativity. Its sudden closure is a tragedy for the professional performing arts.

Instigated by Martyn Sanderson, Tim Eliott, Peter Bland and Harry Seresin, Downstage offered a whole new way of providing quality, cutting- edge theatre, as an alternative to the failed New Zealand Players model (a national touring company trying to fill large Opera House-style venues around the country).

The course of maintaining a lively presence never has run smooth for Downstage. [More]

– – – – –

Downstage exit left, but the show will go on

Theatre down, but not quite out


The Downstage theatre company might be down, but the show will go on at the Hannah Playhouse.

The country’s oldest professional theatre company, which has been running for 50 years, announced it will close this Saturday, after a Creative New Zealand decision to pull the plug on its funding.

But yesterday, a trustee on the board that owns the Hannah Playhouse, the building where Downstage is based, said the venue would continue to operate.

David Underwood said it would definitely remain a theatrical venue. The board would meet next week to flesh out the details, including whether it would be available for individuals or companies to hire and how this might work. [[More]

Editor    posted 19 Sep 2013, 03:53 PM

THE WELLINGTONIAN on Downstage 19 September 2013 

Front page:

Harcourts grieve over Downstage closure 


Dame Kate Harcourt and her daughter Miranda, part of the first family of New Zealand theatre, say they are heartbroken at the closure of Downstage.

They say it has been their home for decades.

Downstage, which would have turned 50 next year, is the country’s oldest theatre company.

It will close this weekend, following a Creative New Zealand decision not to renew its funding.

Dame Kate said she was “absolutely devastated” by the news.

“It’s a tragedy for Wellington,” she said. “I don’t know what Creative New Zealand’s motives are, but I only wish they could have seen fit to support Downstage more than they have done.” [More]

– – – – – – – – –

EDITORIAL:  Sad demise of Downstage

Wellingtonians will be shocked to hear of the demise of Downstage.

The first Downstage play was in August 1964 at Victoria University’s Memorial Theatre. In November 1964, Downstage moved to the Cambridge Tce corner of Courtenay Place.

Admittedly it had four years at the Star Boating Club, from 1969 till 1973, but when it returned to the smart Hannah Playhouse, it seemed its future was secure.

Downstage has been part of the scenery for as long as most of us can remember and has been a constant source of pride, not only for those involved in the theatre industry, but for Wellingtonians in general.

Over the past few years Downstage, New Zealand’s oldest current theatre, has suffered increasing financial problems.

The appointment of Hilary Beaton as chief executive in 2008 gave the venerable old theatre one last chance. [More]]

John Smythe      posted 20 Sep 2013, 05:27 PM

Some clarity of terminology will be helpful in the current situation, especially with shows like SEASONS still planning to play in the Hannah Playhouse.

We have all go used to calling the building Downstage, but Downstage has only ever been a production or presenting company, with a long term lease on the Hannah Playhouse.  So we need to re-educate ourselves and each other to call the building the Hannah Playhouse and the winding-up company Downstage.

Editor    posted 23 Sep 2013, 10:58 AM / edited 23 Sep 2013, 10:59 AM

The demise of Downstage Radio NZ Links:

ARTS ON SUNDAY, 22/9/13.: The future of Wellington theatre, post Downstage ( 30′ 41″ )


MORNING REPORT, 23/9/13: Curtains for Wellington’s longest running theatre ( 3′ 11″ )


Editor    posted 24 Sep 2013, 09:53 AM

This from Michael Kaiser in The Huffington Post seems pertinent:

“ … The projects developed by the artist not tied to an institution are typically not created with an eye towards long-term economic sustainability as much as they are focused on artistic expression. This is remarkably important. …”

Full article here.

(Thanks to Graham Atkinson for this.)

Thomas LaHood                posted 24 Sep 2013, 08:24 PM / edited 26 Sep 2013, 03:41 PM

This little hui between Hone Kouka, Jo Randerson a tardy Tim Spite and Eva Radich was quite interesting on 20/09.  http://www.radionz.co.nz/audio/remote-player?id=2570008

This link may work better:


Simon Taylor      posted 30 Sep 2013, 12:57 PM / edited 30 Sep 2013, 01:57 PM

nothing succeeds quite like … http://wellington.scoop.co.nz/?p=59899

I have so far written very little about what has happened to Downstage at the Hannah, but here’s a little: http://squarewhiteworld.com/2013/09/29/creative-new-zealand-under-stephen-wainwright-finally-succeeds-in-destroying-downstage-after-nearly-50-years-trying/

I don’t think enough has been said publicly about the architectural status, originality and uniqueness of the Hannah. We need to get Constance on the blower.

The response has been generally passionless. And gutless.

Hilary’s statement that it will take another fifty years to replace the fifty that we are losing is hardly adequate but at least gets at something worth shouting about: it is not – has not for some years been (but that’s another story) – a company with rentfree occupancy of a building. The Hannah was built for Downstage. And Raymond Boyce – has anyone bothered to speak to him? – had a lot to do with the design. That is to say, the architecture embodies a philosophy, which the name, Downstage, nods towards: Raymond has called this ‘one room’ – strange, but it used to be that when one talked about models, they were not management structures, not matters of political economy … – the one room model of theatre, with no separation between actor and audient, no pros-arch, no raised board, necessarily.

Of course, the building’s great strength lies in its extraordinary flexibility, a fluidity of use and function that has become rigidified and static at the same time as the notion of model has dematerialised into economics.

I think it was even dictated back in Bill Walker’s tenure that the stage not be shifted around so much because the board were concerned at the expense.

Downstage has for so many years not been Downstage, that I am most concerned that the embodiment in the Hannah of a philosophy, a way of doing things, sheer architectural possibility, which has not extended into mere economic possibility, is protected. The walls do remember. They remember the blood that Mervyn memorably said they ran with. They remember when you could do a 48-hour turn-around between shows, when actresses could use hammers; they remember Erin’s never-equalled bread-and-butter pudding at 2 am, just when the codeine, cigarettes and whiskey were proving insufficient sustenance and actresses were losing their grip on hammers.

I was told last time Downstage required a bail-out that the real-estate vultures were circling. It was around the time of Occupy, which is what I suggested we do then: occupy the theatre, make some work, make some noise, show what can be done rather than saying and doing the right thing.

Let me know if you’re interested in breaking the law of mediocrity.



Simon Taylor      posted 30 Sep 2013, 07:13 PM

I ought to have said, the great strength of the building used to lie with its extraordinary flexibility, fluidity… and so on, because listening to Jo Randerson, Tim Spite and Hone Kouka I’m reminded of the depredations the building itself has suffered through successive budget cuts. Tim says bad feng shui – but there was an evening that was an asset: Muldoon was expected to attend; the stairs were ideally placed for pushing him back down. Thea came alone, in her cardy, got pissed and slid slowly under the table. Tim also mentioned a lack of drive-in access to bump sets in: do the dock and winch no longer work?

The alternative power source also comes to mind: power cuts were so common in the 1970s that the theatre had racks of batteries up in the grid to ensure in the event of an outage that the show go on. Are they still there?

Indeed, has there over the years been adequate documentation of the working parts of the building? the modular floor, entirely removable – put to excellent use in Phil Mann’s production of The Balcony; the ridiculous conceit of a fly-tower – nobody’s flown sets for over a century, but then, for the period production of East Lynne in 1977, the sets were flown…; Raymond’s brilliant rostrum design, entirely modular and collapsible. …?

I’ve started uploading some photos from the Taylor archive to www.squarewhiteworld.com … starting with Candide, possibly the production that best exploited the Hannah’s potentials.

John Smythe      posted 30 Sep 2013, 10:03 PM / edited 30 Sep 2013, 10:05 PM

Indeed Simon the last production to brilliantly exploit the flexibility of Downstage was The SEEyD Company’s PAUA (2008), directed by Tim Spite.

Simon Taylor      posted 1 Oct 2013, 11:27 AM

I report the incident as a wake-up call for all theatres.

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