New Zealand’s employee pinch is filtering down into our struggling creative niches, with one theatre boss warning shows might be cancelled due to short staffing

Last week, one of the country’s premiere arts production organisations, Auckland Theatre Company, lifted the curtain on its latest show in the ASB Waterfront Theatre.

While the cast on stage in Nathan Joe’s Scenes from a Yellow Peril demand the audience’s attention, hidden from spectator eyes are the sets of hands that ensure the lights come on and the curtains close on cue.

It is all stuff the audience probably takes for granted, but these skilled technical staff in the engine room – like lighting experts, sound specialists, and stage managers – are as scarce as hen’s teeth.

According to industry leaders, most of these people were freelancers on casual contracts before the pandemic. This is specialised work and those who take it up have often been in the job for years. When Covid hit, public health restrictions meant shows were cancelled and the tap was turned off on their already tenuous income. Instead of sticking around, many were forced to follow the money to more stable employment and they have stayed there. 

“There’s a real possibility we might have to cancel performances or reschedule because we literally don’t have enough [skilled technical staff] to put the show on the stage.”
– Jonathan Bielski, Auckland Theatre Company

So far, Auckland Theatre Company’s artistic director and chief executive Jonathan Bielski says the organisation has been able to pull together enough techies to do the job, such as for Scenes from a Yellow Peril.

But he fears the company may have to pull the pin on some of its future productions if the shortage persists. 

“We’ve lost enough people for [theatre companies], big and small, to be saying, ‘Where are the stage managers? Where can we get people to do lighting and sound?’ It’s really quite a stretch,” he says.

Auckland Theatre Company chief executive Jonathan Bielski. Photo: NZ Herald

Auckland Theatre Company needs only three or four technicians to get a show off the ground, but even rustling together that amount might be a push.

“There’s a real possibility we might have to cancel performances or reschedule because we literally don’t have enough [skilled technical staff] to put the show on the stage. There’s no easy way out of it. You can’t just pop an ad in the paper.”

This shortage is also playing out in overseas sectors, according to Vicki Cooksley. She’s a senior stage manager herself and also stands as president of Entertainment Technology New Zealand, an industry group representing the events technology sector.

She cannot quote numbers on how serious the techie shortage is here, or how many workers have left – the information isn’t collected. But she knows from talking to colleagues overseas that New Zealand’s dire shortage of technical workers is also being felt in other countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia. 

Vicki Cooksley, president of Entertainment Technology New Zealand, says our events industry is feeling the same tech worker pinch as the UK and Australia. Photo: Supplied

“It’s a very casualised workforce with lots of contractors. Those people have gone and picked up jobs in other workforces, or taken their transferable skills elsewhere.”

The film and television industry is the obvious next step, but Cooksley has also seen people go into construction or administration, where they enjoy a steady income and regular hours.

“We are going to jeopardise productions, in terms of quality and keeping people safe.”
– Vicki Cooksley, Entertainment Technology NZ

The theatre and live events sector is not the only one scrambling to find workers. Hospitality and retail businesses are suffering from a well-documented staff shortage, while the global aviation sector virtually closed down during the pandemic.

As Radio New Zealand reported last week, Air New Zealand shed 4000 jobs during the crisis. Since then, it has employed 3000 staff and is looking to hire another 1100 in the coming months.

In an attempt to sweeten the deal and entice workers, the airline is offering up to $1400 as a cash incentive to staff who refer someone who gets a job, working in areas like baggage-handling or check-in, and then stays in the role for 12 months.

There is no quick fix for the theatre sector, Cooksley says, but she believes investment in training young people, raising wages and making work more secure would help.

If the gap is not plugged, she thinks those few remaining workers will burn out, potentially risking the show-going experience and the health and safety of people behind the scenes. 

“We are going to jeopardise productions, in terms of quality and keeping people safe.”

Down in Wellington, Bats Theatre chief executive Jonty Hendry finds there’s always a bit of ebb and flow with the theatre’s small pool of casual technical staff, who often move into more lucrative work as they upskill.

This time, however, there’s much more of a crunch. Some workers have exited the industry, while the increasing cost of living in Wellington has caused some to leave the city altogether.

Arts Foundation Laureate Shane Bosher says acting talent has also fallen away during the pandemic. Photo: Supplied

Others say it is not just technical workers who have seeped through the cracks.

Acclaimed director, producer, and playwright Shane Bosher has clocked 25 years in the industry and is due to unveil his latest directorial piece, Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill, next month.

Bosher believes acting talent has also dropped away in the past two years, but it is just not obvious yet.

“We’re only just getting going again and a lot of the projects that are happening right now were existing projects. We won’t know the true outcome of this two to three-year whirlpool of turbulence for some time.”

Sector in ‘rebuild’ phase

The past two years have been tumultuous for artists, both financially and emotionally. The Government did step in to provide some financial support to the arts, culture, and heritage sector during the Delta and Omicron outbreaks.

Despite this, the latest quarterly State of the Arts survey of about 700 artists, conducted earlier this year and funded mainly by Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi, found a decidedly more pessimistic mood settling over the country’s creative sphere, even compared to late 2021.

To be fair, the poll was taken in February and March 2022 right when the Omicron outbreak was flaring up under ongoing red light Covid restrictions and artists were picking up the pieces of cancelled shows.

Bats Theatre in Wellington. Photo: Supplied

It does, however, provide an insight into the mood of creatives across the country, compared to a survey taken in September and October 2021.

Freelancers dominated the respondents, making up two-thirds of those who replied.

Respondents reported their financial outlook was even more gloomy than it had been, with 68 percent saying they felt pessimistic, an increase from 60 percent previously.

Source: Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi

The number of organisations expecting to take on new staff or contractors shrunk from 37 percent to 24 percent, while the number anticipating they’d have to let go of staff almost doubled from 8 to 15 percent.

More than a third of creatives (37 percent) also felt there was less desire from audiences for their work.

The survey invited artists to share what they were most worried about in 2022 regarding their work. These fears included whether they’d have enough money to live and whether organisations would be able to stay afloat, whether there’d be enough financial support for the creative sector, and how that was allocated, Covid-19 restrictions, and handling the financial and emotional costs of ongoing cancellations of events.

Source: Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi

The loss of highly-skilled people from the sector was also a concern.

At the same time, artists did highlight things they felt good about. This included the ability to do at least some creative work, the lifting of Covid-related restrictions, and the resilience of creative people.

Theatre bosses also share this optimism. Jonty Hendry believes the mood will be picking up further now shows can resume, while Jonathan Bielski describes the sector as being in a rebuilding phase.

Source: Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi

While audiences have fallen out of the habit of going to shows and box office sales can be patchy, Bielski has seen creative sectors bounce back overseas and he’s confident it’ll happen here, too. 

The company, however, will be more conservative with its business strategy in 2023. This will likely mean planning fewer productions, being more choosy with programming, and picking shows the company is confident will result in solid ticket sales.

“We can’t be as expansive next year, we need to look to building long-term sustainability. It’s not that we won’t take any creative risks, but we might take fewer than we did previously.”

Scenes From a Yellow Peril
Written by Nathan Joe, directed by Jane Yonge
ASB Waterfront Theatre, 21 June to 3 July

A Long Journey into Day’s Night
Written by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Shane Bosher
Q Theatre, 5 July to 30 July

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