Over the weekend The Press reported multiple stories about toxic culture, resignations and cashflow issues at Christchurch’s Court Theatre. Sam Brooks explains what this means for the theatre itself and theatre in NZ on the whole.
What is the Court Theatre?
The Court Theatre is the country’s largest theatre company and is currently the only professional mainstage theatre company in the South Island. The company was founded in 1971, and has operated in multiple venues across Christchurch since then. Most notably, after the earthquakes in 2011, it moved to its current location, The Shed, a converted warehouse in Addington.
In July 2020, the theatre signed a lease with the council to build a new venue in the city centre, to serve as the backbone of the new arts precinct. In 2021, that venue’s opening was pushed back from 2023 to 2024. In 2022, Stuff reported that costs for the theatre had blown out from $30m to $56m.
What’s been happening there?
Over the weekend and continuing through to today, Shannon Redstall at The Press has reported on the struggles at the company.
On Friday, The Press indicated it would be publishing a story “imminently” investigating the culture at the Court Theatre. It reported that the chief executive, Barbara George, had gone on medical leave, and the chairperson of the board had departed “abruptly”. For clarity: while an artistic director has oversight over a theatre’s programme, and is often the public-facing voice for the vision of a company, the CEO is responsible for the overall business.
The next day, the full story was published. The reporting unveiled deep culture issues at the company, pointing to George as the source of it. More than 30 people have quit the theatre since her appointment in 2018 (after surviving a vote of no-confidence at her previous job), and she has had three artistic directors during that time. For context: many artistic directors in New Zealand have had runs of close to, or well over, a decade.
The Press spoke to more than 20 current and former employees across the company, with many pointing to George’s workplace conduct as the root of the toxic culture, and others fearing that there would not be a company to move into the new venue.
Claims include reports of shouting “sessions”, personal attacks and micromanagement. Staff from nearly all departments of the company have left, including wardrobe, graphic design, box office, production and almost “four entire” marketing teams.
This morning, another story from The Press reported that the theatre was “literally running out of cash”. The head of finance, Kevin Fee, blamed rising costs alongside a difficult sales and sponsorship environment. Like most professional theatre companies in New Zealand, the Court Theatre’s main revenue streams are through ticket sales, sponsorships and grants from bodies like Creative New Zealand, pub charities and council funding.
In the story, George is reported as saying that the last show that had made money was Jersey Boys, which ran during the summer of 2020-21. A former senior leader at the company went on to say, “The Court Theatre cannot make great work and it cannot consistently be high performing with a culture like this. The artists of Canterbury are being damaged and they’ve been used and abused and thrown aside.”
Social media posts from within the sector suggest that much of the reported behaviour was an open secret, and many were relieved that this story was being told in a public forum now.
Why does this matter so much?
The Court Theatre’s place in the theatre ecosystem of New Zealand is essential – even more so now that it is the only professional mainstage theatre company in the South Island. Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre closed in 2018, and while The Professional Theatre Company Trust received funding to establish a professional theatre company in Nelson from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s Regeneration Fund, it is unclear whether that will serve the same function.
The company employs 30 to 35 full-time staff, has a robust regular programme that blends local shows with new productions of international hits, and maintains both a youth company and the Court Jesters programme, which have produced many creatives who are now pillars of the sector. It remains one of the few places where freelance theatre workers can potentially find regular paid employment, and one of even fewer in the South Island.
On the surface, the Court Theatre appears to serves the same function as Auckland Theatre Company or Circa Theatre. In practice, the Court Theatre is much more embedded in the culture – and community – of Christchurch than either of those companies are in Auckland and Wellington. Its longevity – over 50 years – gives it a legacy that few theatre companies have. It is often the only destination for professional theatre in the city (with the exception of infrequent professional tours), although smaller theatres like Little Andromeda Theatre have made inroads into that space recently.
This, combined with the massive $56m cost of the new theatre ($46m of which is council investment) means that the state of the company is not just of huge concern for the community that it serves directly, but the wider arts sector. Put simply: Less work for artists means less art for the community.
In the theatre sector, a story of this nature, at this scale, is unprecedented and it is difficult to ascertain what impact it will have on the company. A toxic workplace culture is unpalatable, and that culture potentially leading to the jeopardy or even closure of one of the country’s largest arts institutions is equally so.