(Photo: Tina Tiller)
(Photo: Tina Tiller)

BusinessJuly 28, 2021

What went wrong with the Pop-up Globe?

(Photo: Tina Tiller)
(Photo: Tina Tiller)

With five years of sold-out shows and ambitions to go global, Auckland’s Pop-up Globe carved out a dominant place in New Zealand’s creative ecosystem. So why did it all end so abruptly? Adam Goodall investigates.

On March 19 2020, the cast of Emilia were debating whether they could keep going. Emilia – Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s West End hit about the trailblazing 17th-century poet Emilia Bassan – was the last show to play the Pop-up Globe stage at Ellerslie Racecourse during the theatre’s 2020 farewell season. With the theatre’s first all-woman company, the show was breaking new ground just as the Pop-up Globe was closing up in Auckland and beginning its new life as an international touring company. 

The day before, though, the government had announced there were eight active cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand. It had started bringing in restrictions; organisers of gatherings of 500 or more people had been told to shut down or reduce capacity. The Pop-up Globe had promptly taken action to accommodate the new rules.

To complicate matters, a cast member had fallen ill. A cold, most likely, but she’d still emailed her colleagues, telling them she wouldn’t be coming in for fear of spreading what she’d caught. The conversation was forced into the open. Some in the cast were deeply uncomfortable with the prospect of performing in the middle of a pandemic; others were worried they wouldn’t get paid if they didn’t press on. 

Caught in this horrible bind, the team had cancelled their scheduled Wednesday schools performance and held a hui to decide what they were going to do next. “We were there for quite a few hours… talking about everyone’s different responses,” says Emilia director Miriama McDowell. 

After a long and intense conversation, the cast and crew were nearing a decision. But then Miles Gregory, the theatre’s artistic director, entered the room and told everyone the news: the government had recommended that gatherings of more than 100 people should be cancelled. The decision had been taken out of their hands. The Pop-up Globe was going dark, indefinitely.

Just under a year later, on March 3, 2021, the Globe was placed into liquidation. Gregory and co-founder Tobias Grant told media the theatre had been “crushed” by the pandemic. “We hoped to weather the Covid storm and come back stronger than ever,” they said, “but for us the timing couldn’t have been worse and sadly we haven’t been able to find a way through.”

Miriama McDowell at the Pop-up Globe on its tour to Melbourne in 2017 (Photo: Mal Fairclough/AFP via Getty Images)

The Pop-up Globe was always destined to leave New Zealand’s shores. Indeed, that was Gregory and Grant’s ultimate goal. Emilia was the final show in the theatre’s farewell season, following a double bill of Romeo & Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing. “I think it’s the right time for us to go and fulfil our destiny,” Gregory told The Spinoff in August 2019.

So why did a project with such ambition and industry impact end so abruptly? Over five short years, the Pop-up Globe had carved out a dominant place in the New Zealand theatre ecosystem. At risk of repeating long-touted statistics, the theatre, the world’s first reconstruction of Shakespeare’s 1614 Second Globe, welcomed 100,000 visitors in its first season at Greys Avenue in summer 2016, and saw a further 650,000 ticket holders pass through its doors in the years leading up to its liquidation. Richard Clarke, head of major and business events at Auckland Unlimited, which supported the theatre’s first season in 2016 and its Winter Festival in 2019, described it as “a great example of a homegrown event that provided a platform on which to display the sizeable creative talents of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland to the world”.

Clarke’s not wrong about it providing a platform for Auckland’s creative talent. The theatre attracted hundreds of local performers, designers and technicians, employing them on the kind of large-scale, large-cast productions that aren’t often made in New Zealand, staged in the kind of theatre few New Zealand performers get the opportunity to experience. “It was this expansion of what was possible,” says Stephen Lovatt, who played the titular role in the Pop-up Globe’s seasons of Macbeth in Auckland and Australia in 2019.

“I had a whole team behind me,” says McDowell, who performed in the theatre’s 2016 season and was invited to direct its 2017 production of Much Ado About Nothing, despite having only one directing credit to her name at the time. “I had a whole costume department; I had props makers – anything that I wanted, there was a guy that was a specialist that would build it for me… They encouraged me to go as far as I wanted.” 

The result of that support was one of the Globe’s hallmark productions, a high-energy, Polynesian take on Shakespeare’s classic comedy that the theatre revived for its farewell season. “It was a really huge leap,” she says, “and I feel like they really invested in me.” 

The theatre was also prone to attracting the wrong kind of attention, most famously when it blundered into the #MeToo era by using the hashtag to market its 2018-19 summer season – a season scheduled to include an all-male production of The Taming of the Shrew. But even at its most clumsy and ignorant, the Pop-up Globe commanded public attention like no other theatre in the country. Audiences, many of whom were unfamiliar with New Zealand’s theatre ecosystem, loved it. Creatives valued the opportunity to flex their muscles in a remarkable new space for a steady wage. 

Which made its unceremonious collapse all the more shocking.

Stephen Lovatt as Macbeth at the Pop-up Globe in 2018 (Photo: RNZ)

Gregory and Grant both declined to comment for this piece, as did a representative from Ecovis KGA, the accountancy firm currently managing the Pop-up Globe’s liquidation. Of the creatives and creditors The Spinoff spoke to, both anonymously and on the record, few had the sense that the Pop-up Globe was in serious financial trouble during that last year of operation. Cast members did speak of having limited resources and limited time to rehearse: performers working on Emilia, for example, took up the work of creating content for the Globe’s social media channels because, as one cast member recalled, “the Globe wasn’t”. One staff member said several teams had been downsized ahead of the farewell season, but the workload those teams were expected to meet did not change. 

“I’m pretty sure people in the creative team spoke about [the financial realities],” says Darcy Kent, an Australian actor who played Romeo in the farewell season’s production of Romeo & Juliet. “It was like, ‘we want to keep this thing going, but we’re not raking it in.’”

But this is the New Zealand theatre industry. Everyone strains against financial pressures. For many of the creatives I spoke to, time-poor schedules and limited production resources were familiar obstacles to be overcome. “I’ve never had an experience where there’s abundance,” says McDowell, “so it’s always about the space between the actors, not what’s going on outside the room.”

Nor was there much notion outside the theatre that it was struggling financially. Unlike in its previous years at Ellerslie, the theatre had applied for support from Auckland Unlimited for its farewell season. However, Clarke says the application was declined, “due to the event being commercially viable without Auckland Unlimited support”. At the same time, the theatre missed two payments to its performers during the farewell season: one to members of the Northumberland Company during their seasons of Romeo & Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing, and one to the cast members of Emilia. “It was stressful for a lot of people,” says Kent.

It’s not clear whether these payments were eventually made. One cast member from Emilia told The Spinoff that Gregory paid a portion of that missing week’s wage out of pocket, while Graham Dunster, founder and director of acting agency Auckland Actors, says Globe never paid the missing fees. Like many other businesses, the Pop-up Globe also relied on the government’s wage subsidy scheme, using it to partially cover the final week of pay to Emilia’s cast and crew. In an email to the whole company, the Globe explained it was “having difficulty” meeting its payroll due to the pandemic, and that company members would have to apply for the scheme independently because they were employed as contractors.

However, this wasn’t the first time the Pop-up Globe had missed payments to their performers. Dunster, whose agency represented actors across all three shows, says there were late and missed payments during the theatre’s Australian seasons, and multiple sources indicated there were instances where per diems were paid in the incorrect currency. Then there were the arrangements where the talent operated through an agent, which the Pop-up Globe would honour erratically. “They would sometimes pay directly to the actors and we wouldn’t know,” Dunster says, “and often, they [wouldn’t] send the payslips detailing what was happening to us, so it was really hard for us to keep track of what was going on.”

Dunster has a low opinion of this behaviour; he says it makes it difficult to account for missed pay when it happens and undermines trust between companies and creatives. “This business… operates on trust,” he says. “Even if you have a contract, it operates on trust. Because [these performers are] independent contractors, and if somebody decides to go bankrupt, there’s really no recourse.” 

Miles Gregory (Photo: RNZ)

There are many possible reasons why the Pop-up Globe could have found itself in this difficult financial situation before the pandemic even began. Sources indicate that the Perth and Winter Festival seasons, and the 2019 New Zealand tour, had not performed to financial expectations. One creditor who was involved in the Perth season also indicated that a scheduled tour of Australia’s east coast was postponed in part because of the underwhelming figures in Perth. However, this is disputed by Live Nation Australia, the Globe’s promoter in Australia, which says the tour was postponed because of the pandemic and the Globe’s subsequent liquidation.

The Pop-up Globe’s oddly unattributed Wikipedia page says the financial strain of trying to retain both a permanent Auckland operation and an international operation weighed on the company, and this precipitated its 2019 decision to focus primarily on international touring. And the company, unlike many of New Zealand’s large theatre companies, rarely sought support from trusts, foundations or central or local government – Gregory and Grant intended for it to live and die as a business.

What can be pinpointed with some certainty is the final nail in the coffin. Multiple sources indicated that the Pop-up Globe had sold on its next leg of international touring to Live Nation, with whom the Globe had a long-standing relationship in Australia. The Globe was receiving regular payments from Live Nation ahead of that international tour, but those payments were also being used to meet expenses from the farewell season and other preexisting debts. When the pandemic hit, Live Nation backed out of the agreement. The payments stopped. Live Nation New Zealand declined to comment on the financial details of this agreement, instead making the statement that it was “a proud promoter of the Pop Up Globe in Australia and… grateful to have been given the opportunity to wow Australian Shakespeare audiences and bring the unique experience to Sydney, Melbourne and Perth over a three-year period”.

This left the Pop-up Globe on the verge of collapse, with more than $2.3 million in liabilities across four distinct companies. Creditors ranged from the Inland Revenue Department and the Auckland tax office to photographers, composers, voice coaches and haberdashers. They would determine the Globe’s next steps. 

The view of the Auckland sky from the inside of the Pop-up Globe

In a creditor compromise document circulated in September last year and provided by an anonymous source, the Pop-up Globe proposed a potential solution. The company would return to the boards in September 2021, and in the interim Gregory and Grant would create a new company named Illyria Ventures. Illyria would respond to the times, focusing on developing “web-based entertainment and educational products” alongside new productions. The company would license the Pop-up Globe’s 17 productions as part of that digital work for a total of $1.5 million across three years. They anticipated that Illyria would be able to pay off the licence fee within three years, “assuming large-scale live entertainment can resume in New Zealand from April 2021, Australia from June 2021, and in other international target markets from April 2022”.

There was initial enthusiasm for the idea among creditors. In an email provided to The Spinoff that Grant sent to creditors who were still to vote, at least 25 creditors had voted in favour of the proposal two days before the voting deadline.

McDowell, who is owed residuals from the revival of Much Ado About Nothing, was one of the creditors who voted in favour of the compromise. “My best scenario [was] that the company continues to grow and thrive… and I continue to make work with them,” she says. “Much Ado is my baby and I don’t want that show to end up in a box, I want that show to have a life around the world.”

However, the compromise ultimately failed. The first two Pop-up Globe companies, Pop-Up Globe Melbourne and The Pop-up Globe Foundation, were placed into liquidation on March 3, 2021. The two remaining companies were liquidated three months later.

The failure of the compromise brought to a quiet end to a company that occupied a complicated position on the New Zealand theatre stage. For some, the Globe was a museum piece in more ways than one, an old-fashioned British import that had struggled to connect with New Zealand’s theatre community or with the land on which it was based. For others it was the highlight of their careers, a place where artists could take risks at a scale that was otherwise inaccessible to them as creatives. “So many people invested so much,” says McDowell, “and I think that that idea and that vision, it benefitted so many people.”

For now, the shell of the Pop-up Globe still sits on a patch of land at Ellerslie Racecourse, empty, unused, unable to be dismantled. Caged up behind a chain-link fence. “Greg [Johnson] and I did go back,” Stephen Lovatt recalls. They found an opening in the fence, and burrowed their way inside. When I ask him what it was like to revisit a space he remembered so fondly, he takes a moment.

“Just empty. It was just empty. They’d taken up the floor of the groundlings. All the frontispieces had been taken off… It was desolate. It’s like Tom Waits’ quote: ‘Lonelier than a parking lot when all the cars have gone away.’”

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