End of an era for Downstage

Yesterday we got another harsh reminder that New Zealand is certainly not in the midst of a ‘golden age’ for the arts, as the Minister infamously claimed earlier this year. Downstage theatre, New Zealand’s oldest running professional theatre company, was forced to close after 49 years. The hard decision was made by their board on the news that Creative New Zealand would not be funding the theatre next year.

Downstage theatre is more than a theatre. It’s an extended family and an incubator for many aspects of the dramatic arts. Wellington and the arts sector deserves so much better.

Creative NZ is the national arts development agency, charged with investing in and advocating for the arts. The funding from Creative NZ made up 26% of their annual budget, so without this steady funding Downstage was forced to admit they couldn’t continue.

Creative NZ’s decision to pull the funding is devastating for the theatre community in New Zealand.  Places like Downstage are a huge asset to the community, and they shouldn’t be forced to rely on ordinary New Zealanders to fund projects – philantropy can never replace sufficient government support for the arts.

The arts community deserves to be supported and valued, and recognised for the worthwhile contribution they make to New Zealand’s social, cultural and economic wellbeing.

12 thoughts on “End of an era for Downstage

  1. Why should the community financially support these people? If they cannot attract an audience why should we pay ?

  2. How very surprising with this current climate of philistines. If it were the Americas cup bullshit it would be a totally different issue!

  3. “they shouldn’t be forced to rely on ordinary New Zealanders to fund projects”

    Ummm… isn’t government funding a case of ordinary New Zealanders funding projects?

  4. … and given there’s a gazillion arts performances of various types which don’t get funded by Creative NZ, why should Downstage in particular expect regular and continual funding?

  5. Yesterday we got another harsh reminder that New Zealand is certainly not in the midst of a ‘golden age’ for the arts, as the Minister infamously claimed earlier this year. Bongos Strip Club, New Zealand’s oldest running professional strip company, was forced to close after 49 years. The hard decision was made by their board on the news that Creative New Zealand would not be funding the strip club next year.

    Bongos Strip Club is more than a strip club. It’s an extended family and an incubator for many aspects of the dramatic arts. Wellington and the arts sector deserves so much better.

    Creative NZ is the national arts development agency, charged with investing in and advocating for the arts. The funding from Creative NZ made up 26% of their annual budget, so without this steady funding Bongos was forced to admit they couldn’t continue.

    Creative NZ’s decision to pull the funding is devastating for the strip community in New Zealand. Places like Bongos are a huge asset to the community, and they shouldn’t be forced to rely on ordinary New Zealanders to fund projects – philantropy can never replace sufficient government support for the arts.

    The arts community deserves to be supported and valued, and recognised for the worthwhile contribution they make to New Zealand’s social, cultural and economic wellbeing.

  6. Background: I’ve been involved in the management of community theatre groups (“amateur theatre”) for some years, so although the budgets may be a fraction of a percent of Downstage’s, the same basic principles apply.

    Everyone is hammering Creative for the closing of Downstage, but to do so is to both do a disservice to Creative (an organisation that annoy me intensly, but I’m glad they exist) and to fail to examine why Downstage are in this mess.

    10cc, in 1975, sang, “Art for arts sake, Money for Gods sake”. This is an absolute truism in theatre. If the books don’t balance, then like any business, eventually the doors will have to close, the theatre “goes dark”.

    If one is in the business of theatre, for it is a business, then one incredibly important quality is bums on seats. So well understood is this phenomenon that Roger Hall even used that saying as the title of his autobiography. Yet we have Dr Freeth, chairman of Downstage (albeit for all of three months), saying “he was surprised at how low ticket sales had been to some shows.” “Sales this year had been up and down and that’s been part of the problem. We have some really good shows this year, and some that have disappointed us”.

    So they went to Creative to ask for contestible funding with a wishy washy plan. Creative note that “Downstage has struggled to meet audience and financial targets in recent years.” So tyhe Downstage is putting on shows people dont want to see.

    In its latest application for ongoing funding under Creative New Zealand’s Toi Uru Kahikatea (Arts Development) investment programme, Downstage was unable to demonstrate to the Arts Board that it had a compelling plan to improve its performance”

    And other groups did have compelling plans, and so they got the dosh. Thats the nature of contestible funding.

    So there you go. If one doesn’t get the basics of theatre right, then one is in the doggy doo. And getting it right means putting on productions people actually want to come and see. In a somewhat experimental organisation like the Downstage, obviously there’s more risk with some shows, unknown authors, strange subject matter. But such potential lossmakers must be presented as part of a balanced programme, so there is money in the coffers. And it also means having effective cost control in place.

    The Court in Christchurch understand all this, and have worthy shows that no-one goes to see, as well as blockbusters, a major purpose of which is to stuff the coffers so they can do the audience-less shows. Having said that, The Court also get a large wodge each year from Creative, and one can bet that they (and other big annual recipients) will be making sure their proposals to Creative remain “compelling”.

    I should add that all theatre is a risk; one never genuinely knows if a show will attract audience or not, though one can, with experience develop guidelines, and a kind of spidy sense, mainly based on putting all the inside knowledge aside, pretending to be Joe Public, and asking “Would I come to see this show”. If Joe Public would answer “no”, then the show will struggle to make the break.

  7. jc2 notes

    Part of the context for this is Baumol’s cost disease

    Not convinced. But sufficiently interested that I’ve located a copy of the book in a local library, which I will read.

    Most folks (excluding names, both front and back stage) in the world of theatre are paid poorly, and the work is intermittent in nature. However, audience expectations of the theatre “experience” have increased in line with increasing ticket prices over the years. Thus craft and “stuff” costs are greater by proportion than they used to be.

    For a given cast size, I would suggest that less of the production income is spent on cast than it ever was.

  8. It’s worth noting too that the Downstage Theatre Company – i.e. a group of actors – disappeared decades ago. The ‘Downstage’ occupying the Hannah Playhouse are a bunch of administrators. The performing companies that use the space seem to have their own company names, and hopefully alternative venues. Hopefully the CNZ money that used to go to the upkeep of that horrible building will now go to them.

  9. Worth noting that BATS Theatre, all of 20m away from Downstage, is doing just fine by all accounts.

    I suspect because they have identified the magic formula: performance people want to watch x short show runs x reasonable prices = patronage!

    You’d think Downstage could have figured that out.

  10. As I noted in my post above, it is mportant to have cost control.

    It’s much easier to control costs when you don’t pay actors a wage.

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