There hasn’t been a theatre performance in Auckland since August 17. Sam Brooks looks at how the sector is weathering the rest of 2021.
On the night of August 17, Auckland’s theatre sector couldn’t have looked brighter. After the derailment of the 2020 lockdowns, theatre companies were looking to finish the year off with a big bang, almost as though the pandemic had never happened.
Auckland Theatre Company was set to preview Things That Matter, based on the bestseller by doctor David Galler. Silo Theatre was in the thick of rehearsals for Night of the Living Dead. The Basement Theatre was about to open Morgana O’Reilly’s new solo show and host a quiz night. Thousands of tickets across the city had been booked for dozens of shows.
Then there was one community case.
On the night of August 18, everything was dark. Things That Matter was cancelled. Night of the Living Dead was postponed. O’Reilly didn’t open her show. Seats across the city remained empty. By the time the city had moved into level three over a month later on September 21, the writing was on the wall.
It soon became clear that Aucklanders wouldn’t be able to see a show, in person, for the rest of 2021.
Auckland Theatre Company’s response was the most nuclear. The company swiftly cancelled the rest of its 2021 season: Things That Matter, a nationwide tour of The Haka Party Incident and its Christmas show, Blithe Spirit, were all pulled. Artists working on these shows were paid out in full, as though the performances had gone ahead, and were offered a free counselling service. Audiences were offered refunds immediately.
The reason for the cancellations was that the 2022 programme was locked in already, says the company’s artistic director and CEO Jonathan Bielski. Choosing instead to postpone this year’s shows would mean either postponing or cancelling the plans for next year. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” he says. “Blithe Spirit is a play we can return to in any year. We’re sad we’re not doing it with that particular group of artists, but it’s not a play that’s gone from our future, it’s part of the canon.”
The option to pivot to digital, which the company did successfully last year, wasn’t on the table this time, and anyway, Bielski believes the moment for those productions had passed. Pivoting to digital would be neither easy nor profitable – with the added risk of it potentially not being creatively interesting. “Without that moment of inspiration and galvanisation, you’re simply doing it for the sake of doing it and we didn’t want to do that.”
However two companies, NZTrio and Silo Theatre, have managed that risky pivot towards digital, if under wildly different circumstances.
While NZTrio is not a theatre company but a very popular contemporary classical music ensemble, in model and scope it is more similar to a theatre company than it is to, say, a philharmonic orchestra. When this lockdown hit, the ensemble was about to embark on a series of concerts across the country. They initially responded by rapidly arranging new dates for those concerts in the hope that the restrictions might ease, but it soon became clear that no amount of shuffling would see out the rolling delta wave.
The ability to perform digitally has been a lifeline for the group. Jessica Duirs, general manager for the company, says NZTrio was able to secure funding last year from Creative New Zealand through its Adaptation fund, which supports organisations to develop models and practices in response to the pandemic. “This year, all three of our Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber shows were already planned for livestream,” she says. “So we can still perform something, regardless of whether we can have an audience there or not.”
This will allow NZTrio to perform their Cumulus show, a tribute to legendary composer Jenny McLeod, next week from the Auckland Town Hall’s Concert Chamber, making them somewhat of a unicorn in the arts sector. The show will be broadcast on Facebook, Vimeo and on RNZ Concert. For NZTrio, the challenge is accepting that the audience, with whom the ensemble has a uniquely intimate relationship, can’t be there.
“We see them time and again, and so many of them are NZTrio family. Trying to find ways of connecting with them and also with our other patrons and supporters has been really important,” says Duirs. The ensemble hopes the livestream can maintain that relationship – a bridge between the before and after times.
Silo Theatre has had a tumultuous 24 months. The company has only performed two shows in person in two years: Upu and Every Brilliant Thing. When the latest lockdown hit, the company was quick to postpone its upcoming show, Night of the Living Dead, to next year. Like Auckland Theatre Company, it paid out all of its contractors.
The company’s upcoming show, Break Bread, a “pursuit of theatrical victory in the State of Things”, has been in development since 2019, and was meant to be performed in person at the end of 2020, as Silo’s Christmas show. Due to the nature of both the pandemic and the piece – which would involve the audience making bread onstage – it was postponed to this year. It has now been retooled and redeveloped for a digital platform, and opens at the end of this month.
Sophie Roberts, artistic director of Silo Theatre, says the decision to retool the show was made to provide some certainty for the artists. “We didn’t know at the time if we were making the right decision. It felt like a real gamble – what if come November we were back in level one and we’d made this call to switch the work to digital?”
After nearly two years of sporadic lockdowns and ever-changing restrictions in Auckland, Roberts calls theatre programming in the Covid era “crystal ball gazing”. Trying to predict which conversations are going to be relevant in the future doesn’t just affect decision-making on programming, but on strategy too. “We’re all trying to make decisions that are going to best support our most vulnerable: our contractors, our artists, and our independent workforce. How to support them – not just financially, but creatively as well,” she says.
“How do we ensure that artists are still able to grow their practice over this time? And that we don’t just put everybody’s artistic growth on pause for two years.”
Just under two months after that first delta community case, Basement Theatre announced that it would be closing its doors for 2021; the rest of its programme would be postponed into the new year. It was a real shake-by-the-shoulders moment for the sector. Basement Theatre is a unique organisation where artists and audiences rub shoulders. Other theatre companies have subscribers; Basement Theatre has a community.
For executive director Cat Ruka, the decision to close was tough to make in some respects, but was ultimately an easy one in the face of uncertainty for both artists and audiences. “Something that became a habit in the industry is to have backup plans upon backup plans based on hoping that there’s going to be level shifts,” she says. “I love being organised, but I also despise the burnout that comes from that for my team and the artists as well.
“Independent artists are already in such hardship in times like these. They’re just trying to survive, let alone trying to create and rehearse works.”
On Thursday, the organisation announced that the board would be giving a $500 “gesture of goodwill” to everybody involved in their spring programme who was affected by the lockdown. It’s the first time the organisation has done such a thing.
Ruka acknowledges the connection that Basement Theatre has to its community; it’s not just a venue that puts on work, but a hub that smaller communities can use as a gateway to the wider theatre community. “It’s really important to us that we keep our communities informed and be transparent around the work that we’re doing for them in this time. It’s been a real learning curve for us in terms of continuing to build community in times like this. We’re more interested in deepening our care and nurturing the communities that exist.”
One artist who belongs to the Basement Theatre community is Adeline Esther Shaddick. She was set to open a show, Soaking Out Here, in September. The show has since been postponed to early next year. Shaddick isn’t funded by Creative New Zealand or any other funding body. She isn’t being paid to develop or devise her show, and there’s no box office if the show doesn’t go on. A saving grace, however, is that one-off payment from Basement Theatre, which represents the entire financial payout she and her fellow makers have received for making the show.
The lockdown hasn’t just derailed Shaddick’s plans for this show, it’s derailed her plans further down the road as well. “The goal was to generate my own theatre show in Auckland at a proper venue,” she says. “Then after that, to push myself to maybe take it to Wellington and turn it into some short film thing as a summer project.”
The show, which was intended to be a response to the anxieties felt through the first phase of the pandemic, has also been altered by the delta outbreak and lockdown. “This show was very much of that time. Now it’s been postponed, the show has to be something different. It can’t be what it was. Even now, we’re feeling something else.”