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October 7, 2013 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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Exit Downstage

I’m sure you’ve all heard by now that theatre company Downstage, which operated out of the Hannah Playhouse (which is named after Hannahs shoes FYI), has had to close its curtains. “Woe is me,” goes the Wellington media and theatre community.

Meh. It’s not that I didn’t see some amazing works of theatre there—among others, Eli Kent’s The Infinite Art of Actually Caring blew my mind—it’s just that Downstage, like so many deceased theatre ventures in New Zealand, had a big hand in digging its own grave.

In 2011, there was a bit of a crisis in funding, but Wellington City Council stepped in and has propped it up since then, as well as the Creative New Zealand funding and independent fundraising. However, the news that Creative New Zealand will no longer be giving $325,000 a year to Downstage, combined with low ticket sales, meant that it was no longer sustainable.

What the Wellington theatrical scene hasn’t seemed to grasp is this simple concept: without bums on seats, you don’t have a show. You need full houses, not only to bring money in the door, but to get people to spread the word so that they’ll bring money in the door. You are so much more likely to go to a show that your friend says is amazing than because Laurie Atkinson at the Dom Post thinks so.

How do you get these mysterious arty bottoms on hard, scratchy seats? You lower the price. Or at least price appropriately. The problem with Downstage’s offerings is that they were new and exciting, perhaps too new for the older, moneyed-up honeys who like to meander round to Circa, and yet the people who should have been going (i.e people like us) are not going to pay $25 for a risk. We can go to BATS for $12, so if it’s crap we can still get a beer and not feel like it’s an evening wasted. But asking for $25+ with no student discounts, early-bird tickets or previews? It is such simple maths: you can get two yo-pros to go = $50, or you can get me and three of my friends to go for say $15 each and then when we all tell three people how wonderful it was, your ticket sales and takings increase exponentially. Duh!

Let’s hope the others can learn from Downstage’s mistakes—which weren’t just limited to ticketing—and keep the body of Wellington theatre breathing.

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  1. Simon Taylor says:

    Longevity is an excellent marker of value. – write Elise Munden and Philip McSweeney in the Lorde review, linked at bottom of page. Downstage was in its 49th year. The longest running professional theatre company in NZ. $325K is not a large sum – but CNZ’s refusing funding says one thing: Downstage’s 49 years do not mark value.

    Was Downstage in fact NZ’s longest running professional arts institution?

    Not if we consider that CNZ is just a very expensive re-branding of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council. Cost more than $325K.

    But it appears that the organisation that funds – or refuses funding – has more… value. (?)

    BTW: I agree that lower ticket prices would have been a better policy. But I know from experience that CNZ would not have accepted this policy as contributing to a sustainable model. I doubt Downstage’s own board of governance would have accepted competitive pricing either.

    I say storm the doors of the old Hannah bunker and undo what most commentators have called sad but inevitable. Not either.

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