OPINION: The news that Downstage will play out its final act on Saturday will be greeted with great sorrow by theatre lovers, not just in Wellington but around the country.
During its nearly 50 years, New Zealand's oldest professional theatre company has been a beacon for practitioners and fans of the dramatic arts. It has nurtured some of this country's finest actors, playwrights, directors and producers and led the way for other professional companies to follow. It will be sorely missed.
The cause of Downstage's demise is a moot point. Its supporters say it was crippled by Creative New Zealand's decision to reduce its funding over the years, ending its ability to stage its own shows and forcing it to partner with other companies and bring in outside acts. That, in turn, increased the financial risks it had to take.
Those funding cuts have been significant in recent years. In 2008, Downstage received $500,000 from Creative NZ; in each of the past three, it has received around $345,000. The axing of its funding from next year means Downstage is no longer financially viable.
Creative NZ, for its part, would argue that the funding cuts were spurred by concerns about Downstage's falling audience numbers in the first place. Certainly, it had doubts about Downstage's performance before 2008. In December 2007, Downstage had to go cap in hand for an urgent $78,000 grant to bridge a cashflow problem, and the next year Creative NZ said it had concerns about the theatre's future. In September 2011, Downstage cancelled all its remaining shows for the year, and the next month asked Wellington City Council for a $90,000 bailout.
So, although Downstage's closure has shocked many in the theatre community, it is not entirely out of the blue. It is no secret it has been struggling to stay afloat.
Creative NZ cannot bear the sole blame for that. As the guardian of public funds, it must weigh the need to create an environment in which new and exciting talent can be developed and challenging, cutting-edge works can come to fruition with the need to fund endeavours that a large number of the general public want to attend.
Ultimately, it was Downstage's failure to get enough bums on seats that caused its closure.
There are many reasons for that. One is the tough economic climate following the global financial crisis. Another is the quality of the productions it has staged. Too many have failed to connect with the public in an age in which a host of new media and entertainment options are competing for discretionary spending.
That said, Circa has seen its Creative NZ grants increased in recent years. Had Downstage produced a better mix of shows it, too, might have been able to achieve the same.
It is also true, however, that when Downstage did put on productions with wide appeal, they were not always as well patronised as they should have been. Many Wellingtonians today mourning the loss of this institution should ask themselves whether they could have done more to keep it open.
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