Downstage closes

September 18th, 2013 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

has announced:

The Board of Downstage Theatre today announced its decision to close the company.

The decision comes following the announcement by Creative New Zealand not to fund Downstage in 2014.

Downstage Theatre Trust chair, Allan Freeth, said today that the Board had not taken the decision lightly.

“Downstage has a fifty year history of bringing outstanding theatre experiences to audiences.”

“In recent years the theatre has pursued a new model – based on partnerships with artistic companies, taking risks on new works, and creating a supportive environment for artists.

“It is not possible to continue this work without adequate and stable funding.”

Mr Freeth said the Board acknowledged the many achievements of the individuals and artists who have worked with Downstage over the years, and the professionalism and hard work of the theatre’s staff.  In particular, the Board acknowledged the contribution of CEO and Director Hilary Beaton.

Downstage has been an institution in Wellington, and it is very sad to see it close. I’ve seen many great plays there, and so many people have contributed to it over the years.

The only consolation is that Wellington is at least well served by other theatres such as Circa, Bats, Gryphon etc. But it will be a shame to lose the custom made Downstage building from theatre – unless of course another theatre buys the building.

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30 Responses to “Downstage closes”

  1. Auberon (870 comments) says:

    Is there some slim hope that this will now lead to the knocking down of that hideous building?

    I just thought that I’d get that in before some heritage nut proclaims that it’s a rare treasure in the Brutalist architectural tradition and is therefore a taonga.

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  2. PaulL (5,873 comments) says:

    It’s a pity to lose Downstage. I’ve been out of Wellington for a while. Is this a reflection of them going downhill and therefore someone has pulled the plug, or is it some sort of collateral damage in the arts sector funding in which Downstage weren’t in the right faction or didn’t have the right supporters?

    I can imagine the council or maybe a corporate stepping in to help, it feels a bit like a cry for help. But if the answer is that the current management have run it into the ground then that would clearly be the wrong response.

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  3. Fisiani (953 comments) says:

    The problem with Downstage was that they often put on shows that the director wanted to put on and which audiences chose not to attend in any great number. If there were enough bums on seats then it would flourish. Because it was heavily subsidised it did not have to care about audience size. That was an excuse to ignore public taste.
    All successful theatre companies know that you have to entice an audience. You do this by having the audience leave feeling that they had a great time and keen to recommend the show to others. That still leaves some place for innovation and experimentation but you cannot ignore economic reality and public taste.
    BTW – Does anyone know of a suitable venue to put on a cracker brand new Who-dunnit play in February in Wellington. If so can you make a suggestion of a suitable space. Thanks.

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  4. Redbaiter (7,632 comments) says:

    So another bunch of troughers exits the scene.

    When is National going to close down the whole Ministry of Culture and Heritage and Creative NZ parasitical organisation? If the arts can’t exist on ticket sales and/ or private patronage then too bad.

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  5. David Garrett (6,447 comments) says:

    Auberon: Yes, that building sure is an example par excellence of the “70′s brutal concrete” school isnt it?

    I do dimly recall however that the site was one of the first to be identified as the resdience of a taniwha.. that may cause some problems re a demolition…

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  6. Mobile Michael (414 comments) says:

    I remember going to the Hannah Playhouse many times in the 80s and 90s. Back then it was bums on seats alright – annual Shakespear for college students, blockbusters like Shirley Valentine and Sensative New Age Guy, Roger Hall plays… If they’d stuck to that formula they’d be able to run the more experinental stuff in between because the theatre wouldn’t run at a huge loss.

    I also can’t help feel that the announcement, right on the middle of local body elections, is an attempt to have the City Council save it. No candidate wants to appear to be a philistine!

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  7. Harriet (4,523 comments) says:

    “It is not possible to continue this work without adequate and stable funding.”

    Well no shit……….as the childlike Peter Pans of the NZ artworld don’t live in the real fucken world as they live in pretend land where they believe they should get given other peoples money for fucking around – and they then expected to be fucken applauded for it. fuck meeeeeeee!

    fucken dreamers. :cool:

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  8. David Garrett (6,447 comments) says:

    sorry …trying to multi task…the RESIDENCE of a taniwha…

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  9. decanker (222 comments) says:

    Why so sad DPF?

    The system you prefer is working, it couldn’t sustain itself and must be closed to prevent it receiving more public funding. I expect nothing short of a celebration from you.

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  10. wf (374 comments) says:

    Sad for Downstage to finally have to put up the shutters. I remember the very first meeting and the excitement that followed as Wellington got it’s very own professional theatre group. I also remember many an anguished discussion about finance. There’d have to be a couple of guaranteed box office successes so that the theatre could afford to put on something not so commercial, that might not go down well with the public. I remember the first WCC grant – it helped out when one of the box office successes didn’t meet expectations. It was received with gratitude. But the signs were all there and the Wellington audience is simply not big enough (or interested enough) to sustain multiple theatre groups year round.

    Hannah Playhouse is owned by a trust.

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  11. PaulL (5,873 comments) says:

    Right, I remember going to Downstage for Othello probably 25 years ago. As a school trip from a boys school, the nude scene caused quite a stir. Not entirely sure there was need for a nude scene, but certainly we didn’t complain.

    They used to pack the place out with plays people wanted to see that weren’t too far over the top. Although I do recall Sweeney Todd having a masturbation scene one year that wasn’t strictly necessary, my employer at the time was sponsoring the show, and having a client sitting right in front of the guy who did the masturbating, and I think I recall getting some spray on her, wasn’t ideal from our perspective.

    If the answer is that they’ve been putting on shows nobody wants to see, then logically they need to go broke. Someone else can buy the assets and potentially even the name, and start a company that can sustain itself. Kind of like any other commercial entity. A bail out definitely seems the wrong idea, particularly a bailout by a council or other public institution that wouldn’t require them to have some sort of turnaround plan.

    If I ran a Wellington-based company with some cash, I’d be tempted to tell them I’d give them a 1 year lifeline, but only upon provision of a genuine plan to become sustainable based on ticket sales and giving the punters what they want. And I’d also write into that agreement that in the event they failed, the Downstage name would revert to me so I could fund a new theatre company to start up in their place.

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  12. wikiriwhis business (3,883 comments) says:

    Hamilton is the theatre capital of the country. People go to live theatre in droves. Every time I go to a live performance it’s full.

    Move eto Hamilton if you’re a theatre company. Hamilton appreciates you !

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  13. F E Smith (3,302 comments) says:

    The problem with Downstage was that they often put on shows that the director wanted to put on and which audiences chose not to attend in any great number. If there were enough bums on seats then it would flourish

    This.

    We have bred a culture where artists now routinely expect government funding of their organisations.  All of the great classical music was composed either through commission, or through the composer holding a position that allowed them to compose as a part of the job. Even then, the compositions only received extended or repeated use if the audience continued to attend.  The fact is that the music we listen to today, be it classical, jazz, or popular, is the music that put bums on seats.  That concept was and is directly transferable to pretty much every art form.

    Artists may not like the tastes of the general public (apparently they often don’t), but in the absence of government funding it is the general public that ensures that the artists continue to survive.   We need to encourage artists to be commercially realistic in their works, which includes pricing tickets at a low enough level that encourages as many people to attend as possible, and get away from the idea that the goverment should be the primary sponsor of the arts.

    Rant (mostly) over.

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  14. Auberon (870 comments) says:

    Alas David Garrett, I’m sure that had the widely discredited Christchurch City councillors not misrepresnted public opinion in voting to “save” that other paragon of the Brutalist tradition, the God-awful Christchurch Town Hall, someone would have discovered a taniwha resided under it too!

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  15. Empty Jester (7 comments) says:

    A few facts.

    [[Those who believe the arts should survive solely on sales and not government subsidy (y'know like rugby teams, yachting syndicates, banks and aluminium smelters do), feel free to ignore. I don't think I can communicate with you. ]]

    Around five years ago Downstage’s CNZ funding was slashed by around 40%. At that point the company could no longer operate in it’s traditional; manner – producing plays from scratch, hiring contractors to act, build, direct etc. Not economically practical. At that point the company could have elected to close, or to turn venue-for-hire. In an effort to retain the legacy of the company, a new option was taken – the theatre would instead go into co-productions with local theatre companies, aiming to provide a bridge between fringe venues and touring opportunities, in order that the cream of the crop could rise and we might have more international successes in the mode of Indian Ink Theatre Co (Krishnan’s Dairy, The Guru of Chai etc etc).

    Let me be clear – at that point the option of a ‘bums on seats’ populist programme was simply not on the table. This would require mounting plays from scratch, which, following the big reduction in funding, the resources weren’t there to do. Straight venue hires were also part of the programme, which could provide some guaranteed income.

    The strategy the company took was, by necessity, not commercially focused. It was, however, industry development focussed, and artistic excellence focussed. It also meant NZ had a fully professional theatre (Wellington’s only one, apart from Capital E – Circa and BATS are co-operative models), that was almost entirely dedicated to contemporary local product. This was a sign of maturity for the industry. From the outside, at least, it was hoped that CNZ would therefore recognise the value of each dollar of funding being an investment in NZ performing arts development, rather than simply being ‘burned on stage’ for each production.

    CNZ, however, seemed to put the company on increased oversight, strategic planning and consultation regimes, increasing the workload on reduced resources. One might say they cut one leg off and then asked them to jump through hoops.

    When a return to fuller funding was not forthcoming (and with Downstage meanwhile actively pursuing and growing a private donation and philanthropy programme at the same time), the company tripped.

    The narrative now appears to be that CNZ has wisely pulled the plug on a dysfunctional organisation.However, the term ‘funded to fail’ has been suggested in some quarters. Auckland has, probably correctly, demanded an increasing slice of the arts funding pie, pressure on the overall pot has increased, and somewhere along the line the dogma may have been adopted that each major centre need have only one major theatre. Someone had to go. In the same announcement that pulled Downstage’s funding, CNZ announced and increased subsidy for Circa – a fantastic theatre, which produces more commercial work and which lessens its financial risk by sharing it with the artists and technicians who work there.

    Downstage’s recent years have been driven by a business strategy that fitted it’s circumstances (NOT flighty artistic whim, as some are seeming to suggest), but, of necessity, a risky strategy. With nothing to lose, they gambled on the prospect of attracting back central government support. Central government didn’t buy it. Thus.

    Whatever emerges in the wake of a company that has entertained, inspired, moved, and connected hundreds of thousands, if not millions of New Zealanders over half a century, you better believe they went down fighting.

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  16. Redbaiter (7,632 comments) says:

    “I don’t think I can communicate with you.”

    Naah, why would you? After all, it was only the money we earned that paid for your endeavours. (when we would have preferred to spend it on our families or in so many other ways)

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  17. Empty Jester (7 comments) says:

    My endeavours?

    Anyway…

    My taxes (I’m not an artist, nor do I work in the arts – although they pay taxes too), get used to pay for all sorts of things that I would prefer they didn’t. Possibly some things that you are in favour of, and vice versa. Whose preferences win?

    I mean, you speak for everyone, clearly, (‘money we earned’, ‘we would have preferred’) – or do you pay enough personal tax to subsidise a theatre company yourself, Redbaiter?

    You should get an accountant on to that…

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  18. F E Smith (3,302 comments) says:

    Downstage’s recent years have been driven by a business strategy that fitted it’s circumstances (NOT flighty artistic whim, as some are seeming to suggest), but, of necessity, a risky strategy.

    Which is a good reason why the government is better off not funding places like Downstage.  Had they been purely commercial, they might not have got to

     With nothing to lose, they gambled on the prospect of attracting back central government support. Central government didn’t buy it. Thus.

    Which makes it sound like the board was its own worst enemy. 

    There is nothing in your story, Empty Jester, that makes me think that my position is wrong.  

    Whose preferences win?

    Depends on whether it is a core service or not.  Funding the arts, or sport, or banking, is not a core service, therefore government should not be doing it. 

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  19. bc (1,334 comments) says:

    Redbaiter @ 11.46am

    Yes, who needs culture. Yuk! Here I was thinking that culture is a sign of a civilised society.
    Here’s one for Redbaiter and all the other philistines:

    http://www.nzonscreen.com/title/culture-1980

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  20. Andronicus (219 comments) says:

    Very sad to see. Have spent many enjoyable evenings a tDownstage. The place was always packed when I was there, but that was a few years ago.

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  21. Johnboy (14,998 comments) says:

    Jokers that have to have striven in the shit to make a living will not even notice that Downstage has gone.

    As for the rest of you effete wankers…..? :)

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  22. Jimbo (40 comments) says:

    This would be a great opportunity for Sam Neale and some of other lefty luvvies (is there any other kind?) to stump up and pay for the rescue of Downstage. They’re rich enough.

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  23. big bruv (13,311 comments) says:

    “Whatever emerges in the wake of a company that has entertained, inspired, moved, and connected hundreds of thousands, if not millions of New Zealanders over half a century”

    What a lot of tosh!.

    Had they “entertained, inspired, moved, and connected” then they would not have to close. I welcome the demise of Downstage, one can only now hope that the next thing showing at downstage is a bloody big bulldozer knocking down what is without doubt one of Wellingtons most hideous buildings.

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  24. Johnboy (14,998 comments) says:

    As long as the cream of the Wellington effete are inside the building at the time bb! :)

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  25. Left Right and Centre (2,821 comments) says:

    Poky little place – around 200 stalls. Couldn’t even fill that many most of the time. Au fait accompli.

    I did get to see lots of comp shows though. Saw some stuff I actually thought was really cool (and some was ‘cringe festival’). I gave up my ‘prized’ ‘mission control’ seat to a kid at the Apollo show about 2009 or 2010. (Mostly to get away from two yukky women seated to my left).

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  26. Empty Jester (7 comments) says:

    @F E Smith

    Sorry – I’m not sure how the quote function works…

    “We have bred a culture where artists now routinely expect government funding of their organisations. All of the great classical music was composed either through commission, or through the composer holding a position that allowed them to compose as a part of the job. Even then, the compositions only received extended or repeated use if the audience continued to attend. The fact is that the music we listen to today, be it classical, jazz, or popular, is the music that put bums on seats. That concept was and is directly transferable to pretty much every art form.”

    I don’t think you’ve captured the whole truth here.

    The commissions and positions you’re talking about that enabled the great classical compositions were for the most part royal, or church institutional. In the context of the time that _is_ government funding. Ditto the great orchestras that played the compositions, the great halls that they were performed in etc. Do you really think they paid their way through ticket sales?

    Also – I think you’ll find the success of most jazz and popular music was it’s capacity to get bums _off_ seats! :-)

    Seriously though, immediate commercial success is far from an indicator of lasting success or ‘greatness’. Just for starters -Van Gogh, Schubert, William Blake – all unpopular commercial failures in their lifetimes. According to opinion on this site, seems they would have been better to have concentrated on making work they could sell – ie. familiar, predictable, commercial work. Actually, in most cases, they probably would have been! But would we??

    If you value art at all, the answer is clear. Great, lasting artwork fairly often pushes the boundaries and goes off into territory that has no commercial security. The Impressionists shouldn’t have bothered – there was no ready market for this radical new style of painting. As it happens the public caught on quickly and they got very popular. But when they began making it, it was categorically not commercial work.

    “We need to encourage artists to be commercially realistic in their works, which includes pricing tickets at a low enough level that encourages as many people to attend as possible, and get away from the idea that the goverment should be the primary sponsor of the arts.”
    Ticket pricing is a tricky thing, and basic economics will tell you that just dropping price to increase attendance is not necessarily a recipe for profitability. Let’s make tickets free – we’ll be millionaires! If you give artists no protection against pure market forces, you’ll decrease innovation. Just like in business, where R&D funding, bankruptcy laws, patent protection and, increasingly, employment law are all designed to reduce financial risk and stimulate experimentation and innovation outside of well-worn commercial practices. Same with funding in the art, only more prevalent and less costly. Unless you don’t think that kind of intervention is government’s role at all, and, well…that’s a libertarian ‘utopia’ that I hope never to live in.

    “Funding the arts, or sport, or banking, is not a core service, therefore government should not be doing it. ”
    And there it is. That’s simply an opinion with which I respectfully disagree. Its such a fundamental constitutional/philosophical/worldview difference that I unfortunately don’t see any potential of bridging it with reason or argument.

    But, hey, at least you like jazz.

    I think.

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  27. Redbaiter (7,632 comments) says:

    ” But, hey, at least you like jazz. ”

    What the fuck is it with you people that you cannot grasp such a simple concept?

    He may well like jazz, he just does not want government involved in it.

    You need to understand that there is a massive and growing force of people out there who think government is at least ten times too big and has vastly over reached itself and is now intruding into every facet of our lives in a way we do not enjoy.

    We want to cut its size by 90% and we want to completely dissolve the myriad of government depts that are either completely unnecessary of able to be served (if there is a demand) by the private sector.

    We don’t believe government should be in health, or education or even provide social security. We think it should provide armed forces, record keeping facilities and a police force. EOS.

    Get it??

    There is no fucking way we want to see government involved in the arts, and even though we may enjoy them, we will pay for them ourselves and we do not want government paying for it. We’d rather do without than accept that option.

    You need to get out a bit more, and leave the cosseted environment of bureaucrats, application forms, grants and subsidies and govt favouritism behind you. There’s a whole other world out there you should learn about.

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  28. RRM (9,467 comments) says:

    Empty Jester –

    Alternatively you might like to consider Alexander Borodin, who had a day job as a GP so that he could afford to write music in the evenings for fun, without worrying about where his next meal might come from.

    Or Beethoven… who actually backed himself and hired the hall, hired the orchestra, and counted on the ticket sales to keep him afloat.

    I acknowledge what you are saying – but just because art is a nice thing to have, does that mean the government should spend taxpayer’s money supporting artists?

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  29. Empty Jester (7 comments) says:

    I thought you were the one who did the baiting, not the other way around.

    Certainly pulled your chain, haven’t I?

    Hey, best of luck to you and your “massive and growing force”. If you ever get your shit together and get the changes you want democratically, well done. That’s how it works. Oh, that’s a point – should the government run elections and so forth, or is that an unnecessary intrusion too, once you and your massive and growing Freudian force get their way? Just checking…

    Seems to me I am the one who’s dealing with the real world, as it exists, right here, right now, rather than getting all spittle-faced over the fact that it doesn’t yet fit my fantasy.

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  30. Empty Jester (7 comments) says:

    @RRM
    You’re quite right. Kafka worked as a clerk, hated it, wrote The Trial & Metamorphosis based on how it made him feel. Chekov was a doctor. Most artists in NZ work other jobs, pay taxes etc.

    I’m not saying the arts funding current system is perfect. Far from it. Nor am I in favour of massive open government chequebooks for the arts. But I do believe in some government funding for the arts. Basically, because I don’t think we’ll get enough good art without it. And I like living in a society that makes good art. I think it increases creativity, social discourse and thought. In NZ we don’t have the population or mega-wealth to support the arts primarily through private philanthropy, as they do in the US. And without the work, the people who make the art will go offshore, and we won’t have it.

    So I believe that if you want to have good art in New Zealand, you have to support it through public funding. Some people disagree. And I’ll admit its an opinion. We haven’t tried many other ways. (Another way might be tax relief for corporate arts investment, like that which drove our film industry in the early 80s). But that’s my opinion. I think you would have very little art of quality in this country if Redbaiter got his way, and there was zero funding. And he might be happy with that. I wouldn’t.

    So, in short – Yes. Because art is a nice thing to have, the government should spend taxpayers money supporting its creation.

    I’m probably in the minority here, with that opinion. But you don’t actually strive to be an echochamber, do you?

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