Covid-19: Community theatre groups scale back and risk closure over lockdowns

The cast of We Will Rock You by Act Three Productions in Palmerston North had to close after just four shows.
Ben Pryor Photography/Supplied
The cast of We Will Rock You by Act Three Productions in Palmerston North had to close after just four shows.

Community theatre groups across New Zealand are scaling back and some could go under after losing hundreds of thousands of dollars due to shows getting cancelled because of the Covid-19 lockdown.

In 2020, a group of 93 theatre companies collectively lost about $1 million of revenue and incurred costs of $500,000 as Covid-19 lockdowns forced show cancellations.

The latest lockdown has hit them hard again, leaving theatre companies with depleted reserves and some with debts. Theatre leaders said it could take years for them to fully recover.

Nelson Musical Theatre’s production of Mary Poppins was due to run from September 4 to 25.
Jane Baken
Nelson Musical Theatre’s production of Mary Poppins was due to run from September 4 to 25.

Act Three Productions in Palmerston North faced a bill of $110,000 after cancelling the musical We Will Rock You after just four performances in August. Nelson Musical Theatre has a debt of $30,000 after cancelling a run of Mary Poppins set for this month, and Showbiz in Christchurch has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars after cancelling a production of the musical Buddy this year and My Fair Lady last year.

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Nelson Musical Theatre president Robbie Burns said his company would not be able to stage a major musical for about two years.

“If we attempted to do another large scale show and then got stung by Covid again we would fold,’’ he said.

“This means we have to scale things back. We were supposed to be doing [the musical] Wicked next year. It was going to have a budget of about $200,000. Now we don’t have the funds to even try and do it.”

The Showbiz production of the Buddy musical has been cancelled due to the latest Covid-19 lockdown.
Supplied
The Showbiz production of the Buddy musical has been cancelled due to the latest Covid-19 lockdown.

Mary Poppins was due to run from September 4 to 25 in Nelson, but was cancelled when the country went back into lockdown last month.

He hoped the company could trade its way out of debt and that creditors would give them a grace period to pay their bills.

“If we move to level 1 before November we should be able to do a show at the end of the year.”

STACY SQUIRES/STUFF
Christchurch's Little Andromeda Theatre goes cabaret-style with table seating only to handle Covid-19 alert level 2 restrictions. (Video first published March 2021)

He said the uncertainty and financial blows from repeated lockdowns meant many community theatre groups may not survive.

“It is hard for the industry to keep going. The emotional blows of rehearsing for three to four months only for it all to come to a grinding halt is really hard.”

Act Three Productions board member Allan Nagy said every level 4 lockdown over the last 18 months had forced the company to cancel a major show.

The company behind We Will Rock You is left with a $110,000 bill by the pandemic lockdown.
Ben Pryor Photography/Supplied
The company behind We Will Rock You is left with a $110,000 bill by the pandemic lockdown.

He said the $110,000 loss on We Will Rock You would be partially covered by company reserves, a grant from the city council, a crowdfunding campaign, and deferment of bills.

The show would be restaged in February and the company was planning a production of the musical Legally Blonde for the end of the year.

“That will help us keep the doors open if we get that show to stage. Hopefully we are not still at level 2 by then. I’m praying for that each morning.”

The Buddy Musical was due to open this month, but has been cancelled due to the Covid-19 lockdown.
Supplied
The Buddy Musical was due to open this month, but has been cancelled due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

Showbiz general manager Craig Ogilvie said the company would scale back future production plans.

“We went through this last year, and it took us so long to feel that we were ready to do it and the climate was going to be OK, but to find ourselves in the exact same position again is gut-wrenching for us.”

He said the losses were covered by reserves.

“We are not in debt. We have reserves, but after two losses of this scale those reserves are now dwindling.

The cast of We Will Rock You are heartbroken after the show closed midway through its season.
Ben Pryor Photography/Supplied
The cast of We Will Rock You are heartbroken after the show closed midway through its season.

“We are looking at lower budget and smaller scale productions.”

He said they would stage one major musical a year, rather than two, and then a smaller scale production. They were still pushing ahead with plans to stage the musical Matilda in April.

Musical Theatre New Zealand national executive member Emma Bishop said many groups had now lost their reserves and would have to operate carefully.

“I hope that we do not lose any of our clubs,” she said.