Downstage is closing. You know this. You’re in November. I just found out because I’m in September. That’s how print is. You’ve had time to think about this. I’m still trying to piece it all together. Like the best work that it presented, Downstage’s closure is not a simple thing.
It’s complicated, sad and inevitable. There are a lot of questions in the air and it’s so easy to get caught in those, but, really, for me, there’s only one real question: should it be happening?
You cannot argue with the legacy of Downstage. Once it was the only professional theatre in this city, paying practitioners a regular wage for what they did. From the 1960s through the 1990s, Downstage had a reputation for vibrant, vital work, experimental shows that often still found audiences and support. It was a model of how theatre should go, always advocating for local productions of local plays. Losing this Downstage is a great loss.
But that Downstage had not existed for quite a while. Through the confluence of many circumstances, it began to degrade. A theatre that had once been bustling with life, staging a performance every night and a new show every few weeks, was now starved for content. The shows, when they were on, were often not local, meaning that one of the core points of ethos of Downstage had died.
Downstage presented itself as the place to which successful practitioners graduated to after BATS and the Fringe. This became provably untrue as less local work (and, more vitally, new local work) trod its boards. There is now a generation of highly skilled practitioners collecting at the top of BATS and the Fringe, clogging the way for those behind them, because they’ve had nowhere to move on to. The Downstage company that is closing in 2013 is less than a shell of what it once was. This is no single person’s fault; it is everyone’s fault.
We all killed Downstage. It died a death of a thousand cuts. Creative New Zealand trusted it too much and then overbalanced in the other direction. Practitioners didn’t support it enough. Audiences certainly didn’t – the best/worst part of the social media storm of Downstage condolences in the days after the announcement was the sheer number of them coming from people who hadn’t been in years. We are a city very good at saying that we support the arts. We are a city that is less good at actually supporting the arts. It is hard to fault Creative New Zealand when they say that they struggled to justify supporting an ageing theatre that couldn’t bring in audiences, especially in years where Circa and BATS continue to go strong.
It seems simplistic to say that Downstage is being put out of its misery. But it also feels apt to say that. We have to remember that Downstage is just the company. The venue, the Hannah Playhouse, still exists. It is sad to see Downstage go. It is exciting to see what is coming next, what is being made space for. Both of those things can be true.
So, should it be happening? Probably. Is that tragic? Definitely. What do we do next? Study Downstage’s victories and its mistakes. Downstage may be gone, but let’s make sure it’s not forgotten.[info]
November Theatre Recommendations
The STAB season is one of my favourite times of year. Creative New Zealand gives BATS $80,000 to fund a few shows that push our expectations of what theatre can contain. Even when they’re terrible, STAB shows are amazing spectacles: great mountains of theatre practice that are worth seeing anyway. This year’s two shows are Pandemic by the 24/7 Project – the STAB veteran company that produced the jaw-dropping Sniper in 2004 – and Broken River by Trick of the Light Theatre – one of my favourite young theatre companies, most recently memorable for crushing the Fringes with the recursively delightful The Road That Wasn’t There. Check out bats.co.nz for dates and how to book – and do book, as STAB shows tend to sell out.[/info]