The struggle to keep theater alive and relevant

With viewership struggling to recover from the effects of Covid-19, many of the people keeping Aotearoa’s vibrant theater scene alive are more likely to break the bank putting on a show than break a leg. Sarah Robson looks to the future of the theater scene.

Scenes from a Yellow Peril performed at the ASB Waterfront Theater in 2022.
Photo: Andi Crown photography

When was the last time you went to the theatre?

It’s been a long time for many. Some of us may never have been.

Theater was never a big moneymaker, but today the industry is in dire straits more than ever. Lockdowns and restrictions on gatherings resulted in hundreds of shows being canceled and thousands more artists left without a source of income. And theater never really fully recovered; A recent survey of the arts sector found that audience interest is still low and workers fear they are not making enough money to make ends meet.

Adding to the problems of Covid is the endless expanse of online content to compete with. Getting people off their devices and into cinemas is proving to be a major challenge.

Continue today The detailSarah Robson addresses the two-pronged struggle of theater: keeping theater relevant and financially viable.

Sino-Kiwi playwright Nathan Joe has just wrapped up a triumphant season of his work Scenes from a Yellow Peril at the ASB Waterfront Theater in Auckland. Growing up in Christchurch, he says he never considered going into the theater industry until he lived in the North Island metropolitan areas of Wellington and Auckland.

“Christchurch wasn’t exactly known for having a strong, independent and diverse theater scene,” says Joe. “There was the Court Theater which I liked to go to every now and then, but I would never say that I saw a show there and thought ‘I could do that’ or ‘my play could be on this stage’. “

Scenes from a Yellow Peril is a genre-bending piece exploring Asian identity, racism and privilege in New Zealand. He says The detail Having his play staged in a professional theater and co-produced by one of New Zealand’s leading professional companies, the Auckland Theater Company (ATC), was a real coup.

“It’s so incredibly difficult to stage a play on a large scale. In many ways it’s persistence, timing and luck, and the right person is there at the right time and the right people are involved. So all of that was about a four year process to get this play on the Waterfront.”

The play wasn’t easy either. There are elaborate costumes, live music, dancing and lighting – and a top-class team that has to be paid to put it all together. In addition to some additional support from ATC, Joe and his team secured a $75,000 grant from Creative New Zealand to put the play together, more than he ever had.

“I’ve done $7,500 shows. This is the kind of world I usually play with.

“We found [funding] very difficult. We were turned down twice before getting it the third time. And you know most people would have stopped applying after a certain point because it’s pretty daunting.

“The reality is to make a show like Scenes from a Yellow Peril, you need financing. To get art right everywhere and pay people right, you need money. So, Creative New Zealand, like it or not, when it comes to independent artists, they are essentially the gatekeepers. That’s something they’re not happy about either, but it’s the situation we’re in because we have such limited ability to host shows.”

The BATS theater building from the street side at night.  The facade of the old building shines in golden light.  The word bats is written in lights.  People are inside and having a good time.

The BATS Theater in Wellington.
Photo: Maeve O’Connell

The New Zealand theater scene has taken some stock in recent years, with increased scrutiny of which plays, playwrights and actors program and promote professional theater companies. People noted that the theater that was being made was overwhelmingly Pākehā, which was sorely lacking in cultural diversity.

“I think historically it was absolutely awful,” says Joe.

“The Auckland Theater Company has historically had shows that don’t reflect Auckland for a full year. This is ironic and hypocritical at worst and ignorant at best.”

Jonty Hendry, Managing Director of BATS Theater in Wellington, recalls growing up in New Zealand’s theatrical scene, formerly known as ‘South Sea Britain’, which mainly featured classics by Shakespeare and Chekhov.

“Professional theater back then was somewhat modeled after the British repertory system,” says Hendry.

“It had some New Zealand work, but little New Zealand work, and tried to show the best from overseas. I think if you were to jump four decades now, I think the real energy now isn’t what we can do, maybe the question is how best do we do it as a reflection on ourselves.

“When we invest, we should certainly invest in the work that reflects us.”

Nathan Joe hopes to lead New Zealand theatre.

“I think the landscape is changing. And you can now see companies like the Auckland Theater Company [plays like] Dawn RaidsWith The Haka Party IncidentI really try with my piece to reflect the city that the company represents,” says Joe.

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