For months New Zealand audiences have had to show proof of vaccination to see a theatre show. Now that’s all changing, reports Sam Brooks.
Along with hospitality, theatre has been one of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic. Multiple lockdowns, then the introduction of the traffic light system that put a hard cap on numbers for indoor gatherings, meant putting on theatre became not just unprofitable (the industry is used to that) but close to impossible to continue.
The abandoning of mandatory vaccine passes and vague hints of a shift to orange means theatre venues have to start making their own decisions about how to operate now that omicron has taken hold in New Zealand. They find themselves in a situation not dissimilar to that of theatres in the US and UK, with proof of vaccination or negative Covid tests not required by law, but up to individual venues to decide. We asked some of the country’s leading theatre venues about their Covid plans and what the future holds.
At council-owned venues like Māngere Arts Centre, one of South Auckland’s largest performing venues, and venues under the Auckland Live umbrella, including the Auckland Town Hall and Civic Theatre, vaccine passes are no longer required. This is in effect for venue hirers, staff and audience members.
Auckland Theatre Company has decided not to continue with the vaccine pass system at its ASB Waterfront Theatre base, with a few caveats and considerations in place.
Jonathan Bielski, the company’s CEO and artistic director, says he feels comfortable about the decision not to require passes. “I think there’s a mood for people to be able to come to the theatre without needing to show their vaccine pass,” he says. “With a really highly vaccinated population, that’s the right thing for us to do. It’s always been temporary, the restrictions, so we’re going back to make it as easy as possible for people to come along.”
Under the red and orange traffic light settings, audiences will still need to wear a mask, which Bielski expects to continue under the green light as well. “It feels to me like mask wearing when you’re in close contact with other people will continue for a while.”
When it comes to people actually engaged to work with the company – whether full-time employees or those contracted to work on a specific production – the company is leaving the current vaccine pass requirement in place for now, but will review it at the end of April.
For workers, particularly artists who are in very close contact with each other all day long in a rehearsal or performance space, the vaccine pass system offers a significant level of security and comfort, Bielski says. But he’s also aware that it excludes people who can’t work with the company under a vaccine mandate. “I just want to take some time for us to balance those competing things. I’m a bit conflicted around the equity issues of having compulsory vaccination, but I also know that it has become somewhat normalised in the workplace.
“I do know that whatever we do, we weren’t about to make everyone happy, but I don’t feel the need to rush a decision around that. It’s a big decision. It’s something we need to do some lifting on and see where people are most comfortable with.”
Other venues spoken to had dropped vaccine passes entirely, generally after a period of consultation. That’s the case for Christchurch’s Little Andromeda theatre, whose director Michael Bell says it was an easy decision. “I talked to a few of our staff, talked to a few of our regulars and nobody saw any reason to keep taking vax passes,” he says.
“Everybody had different reasoning, but on the whole, there wasn’t any energy coming from anywhere to keep doing vax passes.”
Both BATS Theatre and Circa Theatre in Pōneke have dropped the vaccine requirement as of last week. Masks will still be required at all traffic light settings, though, and the venue is still operating at reduced capacity with extra distancing and bubble seating, with all staff and volunteers required to be vaccinated.
BATS is currently consulting its community and hirers – more of a Venn diagram compared to many other venues – about introducing “pass nights”. This would mean that for select performances of shows, vaccine passes would be reinstated for those who prefer to be part of a fully vaccinated audience.
Auckland’s Basement Theatre, which plays a similar role in the performing arts community to BATS in Wellington, says it is still consulting internally about its plans. For the past few weeks the venue has run outdoor events for both stand-up comedy and spoken word poetry, many of which have sold out.
The results of these decisions – to drop the vaccine pass requirement entirely or to drop with caveats – could have both positive and negative effects on audiences’ access to live arts. Richard Benge, executive director of Arts Access Aotearoa, notes that there is evidence that participation in the arts, whether as a creator or a consumer, supports mental wellbeing and provides social connection.
“We sympathise with immunocompromised people who may feel unable to attend live performances and reap the wellbeing benefits that come with participating in the arts,” he says. “However, apart from being vaccinated and boosted, we know that mask wearing is another important thing people can do to keep themselves safer.”
While the curtain might be coming down on vaccine passes, it’s coming up on theatre. Now it’s up to patrons to decide.