Just over a week ago, Auckland had a full slate of live events going ahead. But this week and next? Silence. Sam Brooks reports on how returning to lockdown has affected Auckland’s live scene.
If you were an Aucklander leaving the house on Tuesday morning, you might have been leaving that house with a full weekend ahead of you. You could have been going to see stand-up at the Classic, Sol3 Mio at Spark Arena, or even see the Crusaders play the Blues at Eden Park. Hell, you might have just had vague dinner plans followed by hopping around a few bars until you got sick of it. By the time you went to sleep Tuesday night (or Wednesday morning, anxiety depending), the government had cancelled those plans for you. Auckland had returned to level three, until at least Friday midnight.
Midday on Wednesday was the start of the worst lunch break in a few months for Aucklanders. Like a dream where you show up to an exam not knowing anything, we had to reacquaint ourselves with the rules of level three: stay at home, takeaways open, click and collect only. Those two days of uncertainty were capped off with that definitive 5:30pm press conference (has anything good been announced at 5:30pm on a Friday?) telling us that we would be at level three for two more weeks. The live scene’s nap was looking more like an induced coma.
Even though the rest of the country doesn’t have it so bad, it’s worth remembering that even under level two, venues have to social distance, and it’s the kind of social distance that can mean the difference between selling to a house of 100 and selling to a house of 50. Even more crucially, gatherings can’t have more than 100 people in a ‘defined space’. That’s a lot of lost income, for everybody on that side of the box office. Not just in Auckland, that’s across the whole country.
But for Auckland? Level three it is.
If you’re an artist or a venue that relies on live events to make your income, the lockdown is less of a curve in the road, and more of a speed bump that sends you careening into the gutter. What to an audience member is just a fun night out that won’t happen is for artists months of work potentially rendered null and void. Rescheduling is a blessing, but often not the norm; cancellation is much more common. The world moves on, and can leave the work behind.
While many venues had been operating as usual in level one – and it’s important to remember that level one was never truly back to normal – other venues had moved cautiously and carefully. One of these, Basement Theatre, was due to begin its run of regular programming mere hours after level three descended on Auckland.
Although the Basement has been a hub for artists since level one, providing residencies and space to create work, August was when the venue was set to relaunch as normal, with a return season of James Nokise’s stand-up show God Damn Fancy Man, the venue’s regular improv show Snort, and a tribute to the Black community, Dear Ebony.
Elise Sterback, executive director of the venue, says that while the news came suddenly, it wasn’t a surprise. “The second time around, we feel a lot more prepared. Obviously we’re disappointed that we can’t kick off our Basement Reunited season as planned, but we now feel like we have everything in place to be ready to reopen as soon as we get the all clear.
“Our plan at this point is to await the next update, and postpone and reschedule wherever possible. It felt very heartening to see some of our comedy seasons sell out very quickly, so we really hope that we can reschedule as it seems audiences are very keen to return to Basement.”
One of the bigger events that was scheduled over the weekend was We ❤ Aotearoa, an event founded and curated by gaming developer and entrepreneur Gabe Newell to celebrate the “team of five million”. The event, set to be the first major festival post-Covid, was an all-day, family-friendly festival featuring the likes of Anika Moa, Ladi 6, Leisure, and Jess B performing at Queen’s Wharf in downtown Auckland.
The festival was the brainchild of a “group of friends from around the world”, who were living in Aotearoa over the first lockdown and who wanted to “give back to the nation” for its hospitality. (It was reported that Newell and friends, including racecar driver Alex Riberas, were visiting New Zealand in March and had 48 hours to decide whether to stay or leave. Obviously, he stayed.)
Newell said in a statement to The Spinoff, “Despite our excitement to host We ❤ Aotearoa, our team understands that postponement is unquestionably the right thing to do … we are confident the people of Aotearoa will overcome this setback as valiantly as they have before. The reality is New Zealand has handled Covid-19 better than any other country in the world and we are lucky to be here.”
The group still intends to go ahead with the event. Newell stresses that they’re well-placed to respond to Covid, and that hiring local suppliers has allowed them to be especially agile with their plans. “We are lucky to be connected to a great team of local professionals who follow best practices during events. We were ready to be as safe as possible with QR codes and registration upon entry, hand sanitisers throughout the venues, detailed health and safety plans, and contact tracing in place.”
Smaller venues are feeling the crunch a bit harder. An example is Whammy Bar, one of many venues whose future was uncertain during lockdown but, between the Save Our Venues campaign on Boosted and the wage subsidy, was able to stay afloat. Since being able to fully open at level one, the live music venue had been thriving, with events such as The Dark Eighties and festival Deep Dive selling out entirely.
Whammy owner Lucy Macrae says that after the first lockdown the venue came back strong. “People were ready to appreciate music, to dance and socialise again, they were really revelling in it! It was quite amazing and beautiful to witness, but also nerve wracking. Part of me was waiting for the crash.
She says she was relieved that the lockdown was only two weeks. “I tend to work and exist quite linearly, so I can see what needs to be done in this timeframe, and I can see to the end of these next 12 days so it’s not overwhelming.”
As for comedian James Nokise, whose show was meant to be a part of Basement’s returning season, he’s determined to stay positive. “I think understanding that ‘normality’ is not what it was in 2019 helps – the setback is a part of what’s normal. My philosophy on this year has really been to do the mahi when you can, and appreciate it all the more.”
He adds, “I mean, I’m London based, so everything in New Zealand is currently a ‘contingency plan’.”
That’s a reminder that while New Zealand is lucky that there will only be two weeks of this (fingers crossed, as always), it’s still a blow. It’s a reminder to support our artists, our venues, and their work when we can. And until then? Wash your hands, wear a mask, make sure that level three is always a contingency plan and not a new normal.