Everybody's been affected by these shifts in alert level, but the arts are being completely disrupted. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Not just a bump in the road: Performing artists on lockdown’s cruel blows

The move to level three in Auckland, and level two across the rest of the country, has once more thrown the live arts into disarray. Sam Brooks asked some practitioners to tell us how the pandemic continues to disrupt their work.

There’s no doubt that New Zealand has been able to withstand the pandemic better than many countries. Our live arts have been able to weather this past year – and in some cases even thrive – thanks to a robust government response and extremely low case numbers. Almost anywhere else in the world the idea of going to a gig, a play, or an opera is still a dim light in the distant future. Here, for the most part, we can still bop to Six60 or bliss out to Schubert.

The situation is far from perfect, though. Auckland has had four lockdowns so far, and the rest of the country has moved to level two from level one three times. These alert shifts, while necessary for art to happen at all, have huge impacts on the industry. Cancellations, postponements and audience restrictions aren’t just bumps in the road, they’re gaps in the railway.

I reached out to artists, venues and companies whose work has been affected by this particular shift into level three and two. It’s a cruel irony that part of the beauty of the arts is not letting the audience see all the effort behind the final product. Hopefully, this will give you an idea of how hard the process is, and how it’s even harder when you can’t finish the job.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Anna Julienne in Auckland Theatre Company's Two Ladies.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Anna Julienne in Auckland Theatre Company’s Two Ladies. (Photo: Michael Smith)

Jennifer Ward-Lealand is an actor who appeared in Auckland Theatre Company’s Two Ladies. The show was disrupted by the earlier February level three lockdown, and has since had to cancel a North Island tour.

I didn’t find out (about the latest lockdown) till I’d stepped off the stage. Five minutes earlier a barrage of Covid alerts went off for the 550 audience members but we on stage didn’t know what the hell was going on. It was loud but not fire-alarm loud, and no one from front of house was coming into the theatre with high-vis vests on so… we just ploughed on and finished the show, and the Auckland season. My first words in the wings were “What the hell was going on?!” and our lovely stage manager answered, “Level three from 6am tomorrow for a week.” I knew then that our tour to Hamilton would be affected but I was still holding out for the rest of the tour to go ahead.

On Monday, we found out that the whole tour had been cancelled. To say that I’m gutted is an understatement and it’s hard to shake off the disappointment. I’ve been attached to this production since June 2020 with the show and tour in the diary since July 2020. I started research about November then seriously started learning lines from December 2020 before rehearsals on January 5th.

Beyond me, the work that has gone into organising the tour has been significant: production management, tour management, publicity, travel bookings, rental vehicles, hotel bookings… you name it. If there is a bright side, it’s that we got a whole season of a show completed albeit with four socially-distanced performances and three cancelled shows – and the audiences came, laughed, stood up and applauded. That’s got to be a good thing in a pandemic.

Cat Ruka, executive director of Basement Theatre.

Cat Ruka, executive director of Basement Theatre. (Photo: Ralph Brown)

Cat Ruka is executive director of the Basement Theatre in Auckland. The theatre has had to postpone shows twice this year due to Auckland moving into level three.

When the announcement was made I was doing some late-night housework. Just as I was starting to sink into my sacred unwinding, the announcement hit and took my brain straight back into crisis mitigation mode. Thankfully for us at Basement Theatre, we are in the privileged position of being well-resourced with an exceptional team and great response plans, so the management around level changes has so far been doable. Not easy, but doable. 

Regardless, I have concerns around the long-term impact this disruption will have on us and our wider industry, both in regards to our economy and the hauora of our workers. As we all know, constant change and the need to relentlessly problem-solve can be exhausting and demoralising, and the artists who invest their blood, sweat and tears into making work that is already challenging to create on a good day, suffer the most.

When we go into Covid restrictions, it’s our programmer Nisha who gets hit with the biggest and most challenging piece of work. Her role is to work quickly with each artist whose show has been affected by a level change, and together they have to arrive at a new delivery plan that will best suit the artist and their needs, taking into account their financial and mental wellbeing every step of the way. Once a solution is found – whether it be a season postponement, a postponement with a reduced season, a postponement with reduced audience capacity, a cancellation, or an alternative mode of presentation – then Tim and Ali kick into gear with comms and the fiddly work of re-ticketing, while Helen and I work to ensure there is a solid financial frame around it and that the new plans can be staffed well, and Trigg and Joel work to get the venue ready. It requires us all to show up in our fullest, have our thinking caps on at all times, and work in a deeply collaborative manner.

In comparison to the festivals that we have on at the moment, and other large scale events, I am really conscious of how lucky we are at Basement in the grander scheme of things. It’s for this reason that I’m trying to keep it all in perspective, and remind myself frequently that lockdowns are there for a very, very important reason.

Ella Becroft, director of Dakota of the Flats for Red Leap Theatre. (Photo: Andi Crown Photography)

Ella Becroft, director of Dakota of the Flats for Red Leap Theatre. (Photo: Andi Crown Photography)

Ella Becroft is the director of Red Leap Theatre Company’s YA show Dakota of the White Flats. The show was midway through its tour when it was forced to cancel due to the level three lockdown.

It is so out of my hands that I feel a sense of surrender. I mostly felt very very lucky that we managed to get three shows up in Whangarei after having to cancel our first shows due to the three day level change, and that lockdown had ended in time for us to get to perform in Hamilton. This tour was nearly over before it began, which would have been really devastating.

We initially did a two week workshop for Dakota of the White Flats in early 2019. We followed this up with three weeks in November 2020, and five weeks rehearsal leading up to this tour. We worked 8am to 4pm, Monday to Friday. Devising original theatre requires everyone, from the actors to the creative team, to invest huge amounts of creative, physical and mental energy.  

It makes you feel like you are on constantly shifting sands, and that it’s a real gamble to invest so much energy into creating new work that might have its chance to be in front of an audience snatched away in the very final moments. You throw the dice and hope for the best. Maybe you live a little in denial.

I find it hard when the conversation about the show that was such a joy to make and going really well out in the world, suddenly becomes focused on financial loss. That conversation can very quickly muddy the feeling of creative success. The tour ended so abruptly and without warning or celebration, so that very real post-show blues feeling is amplified.

Katie Wolfe, writer and director of The Haka Party Incident.

Katie Wolfe, writer and director of The Haka Party Incident. (Photo: NZ Herald)

Katie Wolfe is the writer and director of Auckland Theatre Company’s The Haka Party Incident, scheduled to premiere on March 4 as part of the Auckland Arts Festival. The entire season has been postponed.

I was in an Uber on the way home from our final studio rehearsal on Saturday night. We had just packed down the rehearsal rooms at Auckland Theatre Company and said goodbye to the space. We had an amazing run the day before and were really looking forward to getting into the ASB Waterfront Theatre. The driver said, “there’s gonna be a press conference at 9 o’clock” and I knew it was all over. 

I walked in the house, and I heard “seven day lockdown”. It was a very raw moment, in that it was kind of surreal. I actually think I felt absolutely nothing. Jonathan Bielski, CEO of Auckland Theatre Company, rang very quickly and told me that ATC will be presenting The Haka Party Incident, somewhere, somehow – that they were going to do it. That made me feel reassured and calm.

The Haka Party Incident began in 2017. It was presented at the ATC Navigator development season and since then I’ve been working towards this production. I am now in Taranaki, staying in my apartment which is next to the Len Lye building and about to publish the tenth draft of The Haka Party Incident. I’m looking forward to bringing it to the stage. Hā ki roto, hā ki waho – breathe in, breathe out. Mauri ora.

The dancers from Celtic Illusion. (Photo: Christopher Hopkins)

Anthony Street is producer, choreographer and lead male dancer of Base Entertainment’s Celtica The show is currently set to tour across the country in March.

The whole journey since landing in New Zealand has been an emotional and stressful one. The country went into lockdown the day before I was released out of MIQ which was horrifying, because all of my budget was in TV commercials and there was no turning back. The financial commitment was beyond comprehensible.

The second (2021) lockdown came as a huge shock and worry. I was sitting down watching TV at about 8:50pm, I just made a cup of tea after a nice day in the sun, relaxing and looking forward to what was looking to be a successful tour. Sales had picked up once again, but the 9pm press conference caused my world to come crashing down once again. I felt helpless but had to stay strong and work out an immediate plan to work around this issue, despite how terrified I was. Being so far from breakeven (a matter of hundreds of thousands of dollars) and then being told that we are going into lockdown, is something that I hope nobody else ever has to experience.

This job is a 24/7 role. I go to bed thinking of the tour and wake up thinking of the tour. We have 13 shows meaning that 13 venues are in constant communication with me. We are talking hundreds of emails daily. As alert levels change, so do our plans with each venue. My mood is really dominated by ticket sales at the moment, unfortunately. I have a certain number that I need to hit each day based on the number of days until opening night, and if we drop below, it has a huge impact on me.

Emma Katene and Rutene Spooner in Sing to Me. (Photo: Philip Merry)

Alex Lodge is the writer of Taki Rua theatre company’s Sing to Me. Sing to Me is currently in season in Wellington and due to be performed in Auckland next week as part of the Auckland Arts Festival, ahead of a nationwide tour.

I came out of the opening night of Sing to Me at Te Whaea in Wellington and was standing around with friends when someone got an alert from the RNZ app. Then everyone’s phones started doing the freaky alarm noise.

I have been writing Sing to Me since 2015 and developing it with Taki Rua since 2019. We did a lot of early workshopping with our amazing design team over the 2020 level four lockdown. The cast and crew are from all around the motu, so many people have been trapped in and out of Auckland during the rehearsal period and the Wellington season already.

Personally I am relieved for our Taki Rua family that we have got to open a complete show, because there have been many false starts. I was working for the Auckland Arts Festival when the 2020 festival was shut down and remember how demoralising that was. So I’m hopeful for the works that can be rescheduled, even though making that happen will be an epic task. I’m also interested in how we as an industry adapt to this as a long term, volatile environment. 

For myself and most of my performing arts colleagues, we plan at least two years in advance, so that we may have funding and scheduling lined up for projects. That simply isn’t possible now, so how can we make this unpredictability work in our favour?




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