Dance and theatre organisations are going digital and switching up their business approach to ensure their longevity
For the first time since the Covid pandemic, performers from leading contemporary dance company Black Grace have set foot on an international stage.
It’s a big deal for them after being cooped up in Aotearoa for the past few years – especially since they were invited to perform at the famed Joyce Theater in New York City, and the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts. Now, they’ll be jetting back home for a local tour in early September.
While the successful company is ticking off 27 years in the game, its founder and artistic director Neil Ieremia is the first to admit the arts sector is not the most sustainable career choice.
In order to build resilience among its ranks, the business has a cyclical staffing model where dancers are mentored to learn basic technical and stage set-up skills, with producing and anything else they might want to dip into.
As previously reported by Newsroom, the industry is facing a crippling technical worker shortage. While Black Grace’s strategy is not a complete antidote to this, Ieremia says it’s important to make career paths for dancers and performers more visible, particularly for younger people.
“It gives them long-term options… they can move into a different area of the organisation when they get older and can’t dance,” he says.
“We’ve really tried to pass on as much knowledge as we can to the dancers to help create a more sustainable pathway for their career in the future,” he says.
All of the management staff at Black Grace have danced for the company at one point or another. In fact, two of the 12 dancers in the current tour hold other roles within the organisation.
Talent succession is also top of mind for Amber Curreen, one of the directors at West Auckland’s Te Pou Theatre, a kaupapa Māori-led organisation.
Instead of focusing just on seeking funding that would just bankroll the creation and presentation of theatrical works, the theatre is widening the scope of funding it seeks, to help bring younger people into the sector.
“With our arts business, we’ve taken a helicopter view and looked at the different ways in which the arts serve the public. Rather than just looking at the straight and narrow arts and entertainment route, we’ve also looked at the education and wellbeing space.”
Curreen aims to secure funding to pave the way for mentors to teach and nurture young people who want to get into specific roles in the organisation, whether that’s producing or technical management.
“We’re trying to have alternative pathways for people to get into professions in the art sector through providing education, and getting funded for the things we already do,” she says.
Right now, the doors to the theatre’s venues are shut for renovations. In the meantime, the company is delving into the digital realm by creating an immersive digital space called Whare Whakaari Matihiko, with the help of funding from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.
The theatre will test it out this month with a show called Kōpū: A Cheeky Peek. This will combine livestreamed shows with an online foyer where the audience can mingle in the digital realm. The theatre will be interactive, too, as audiences are able to share emojis and chat during the show.
“We think that the future of theatre is still very much live … but if we do need to do a digital experience we want it to be social and a place where you get uplifted and not get drained.”
Black Grace is likewise venturing into the digital world. The company has received Creative New Zealand funding to create an immersive dance experience which will be unveiled in Auckland later this year.
This involves an audience entering a circular room that is 15 m in diameter and lined with LED lights that cast images of a video-recorded dance.
The product is scalable and adaptable, and the company hopes it can be set up to provide a long term passive income for the company.
“It doesn’t require any of the company to be there, they can be performing elsewhere,” Ieremia says.
Jonathan Baker, a Kiwi working as a senior lecturer in strategy at Adelaide Business School, is a former director of Dance Aotearoa New Zealand.
He’s previously looked at the arts funding model in New Zealand. Going forward, he believes companies need to be looking at small steps or changes they can make to lure in audiences at a low cost.
This could look like questioning whether the company is truly attuned to the kind of work an audience is wanting.
“What entices a potential ticket buyer off their sofa and away from their big screen TV, to deal with traffic, expensive parking and inclement weather? If arts managers don’t really know the answer to that question it would be good to ask people on their database. Put together a focus group and make some phone calls,” he says.
Audience members should be encouraged to engage further with the show, by posting about it on social media or giving them the opportunity to meet and talk with performers, directors or choreographers after the show in the venue’s bar.
Baker says there’s a variety of options at arts company’s finger tips.
“How about partnering with a nearby restaurant and asking if they will offer a set menu for a discount to your audience? Or how about cross-marketing with another arts organisation and offering each other’s audiences discount codes?”
New Zealand arts companies could also take a leaf out of the Adelaide community’s book, he says, where organisations collaborate together and present themselves as industry partners.
“Rather than having every organisation risk being responsible for building a brand of its own, you can try and build this performing arts brand so the public almost see it as a whole,” he says.
“When everything is said and done, every performing arts company is not competing with another performing arts company. Companies are competing with Netflix, they’re competing with Amazon Prime. They’re competing with people just surfing the internet, or watching YouTube or TikTok.”
Kōpū: A Cheeky Peek
Thu 11 August, 7PM
Digital Foyer open from 6PM
Whare Whakaari Matihiko
Tickets available on Te Pou Theatre website
Black Grace – New Zealand tour
Auckland: Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, Aotea Centre September 4, 5pm
Tickets available from Ticketmaster
Wellington: Opera House 6 September, 7pm
Tickets available from Ticketmaster
Christchurch: James Hay Theatre 10 September, 7pm
Tickets from Ticketek