Opinion: Amid the crisis of tertiary funding in Aotearoa, the teaching and research of arts disciplines is under threat, with subjects such as theatre being particularly easy targets for ‘cost saving’.

Indeed, theatre programmes and courses at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington, Te Whare Wānanga o Ōtākou University of Otago and other institutions are facing existential threat. At Te Herenga Waka, for example, despite consultation and significant public submissions, the current change proposal is to disestablish the theatre programme, halve the current staff and move them into the English Literature and Creative Communications programme.

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The current model of tertiary funding has produced a situation in which short-term economic scrambling threatens to devastate the long-term cultural capital that has been painstakingly built over multiple generations.

In the era of streaming, organisations such as TVNZ are strategically pivoting to the development of local content as their point of difference in a crowded global entertainment market. In this context, tertiary theatre programmes are crucial to the country’s creative storytelling landscape

We have too much to lose. In a country as small as ours, tertiary institutions play a vital role in our creative ecology and have produced some of the country’s most prominent creative artists and creative works.

University theatre programme venues such as Allen Hall in Dunedin and Studio 77 in Wellington have been vital artistic incubators, not only for theatre practitioners, but also for those who have gone on to work in film, television and a variety of other related fields.

I could fill the rest of this article with a roll call of those who got their start in the creative industries by making theatre either directly through, or affiliated with, theatre programmes or drama courses.

Wellington’s theatre programme is inextricably linked with BATS Theatre and the New Zealand Fringe Festival, and some of our brightest global artists – Taika Waititi, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement – came up through this creative ecosystem of which the university plays an essential role.

In the era of streaming, organisations such as TVNZ are strategically pivoting to the development of local content as their point of difference in a crowded global entertainment market. In this context, tertiary theatre programmes are crucial to the country’s creative storytelling landscape, nurturing young talent and providing a pipeline for the creative industries.

What do students learn from studying theatre? How to put on a production, which includes script writing, set design, directing, stage management and so on is only one of myriad components.

Crucially, anyone involved in theatre learns what Associate Professor Vanessa Byrnes, head of Unitec’s School of Creative Industries, calls “sharp” skills, including: lateral thinking, risk taking, the ability to view a situation from multiple perspectives, intellectual and imaginative agility, collaboration and negotiation. Within my own field of education, my background in theatre prepared me to dive into teaching with confidence, drawing on what I’d learned about motivation, group work and creative problem solving to teach literature, screen and drama.

It’s also vital to recognise that the discontinuation of tertiary theatre programmes and courses (as well as other subjects in the creative arts) will inevitably have a flow-on effect to primary and secondary school teacher training, already under significant pressure. The dismantling of multi–generational theatre education at tertiary institutions will only aggravate the decline in education graduates equipped with high-level creative skill sets.

There is certainly no shortage of research pointing to the value of an arts-rich curriculum. Advocates such as Professor Peter O’Connor at the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation at Waiapapa Taumata Rau, the University of Auckland have been vocal champions of arts education in this country and have consistently sounded the alarm at the decline of the arts in our schools. As O’Connor’s research and practice has demonstrated, theatre allows children to make sense of their world, to imagine hopeful futures.

Theatre education is inherently about relating to others, to other people involved in any production, as well as the characters in a production. It is grounded in dialogue and is all about listening. It’s a mode of learning that requires empathy and critical thinking. Theatre programmes in Aotearoa’s universities offer courses in subjects such as public speaking, presentation skills, and using theatre in the workplace, which appeal to a wide variety of students. Essentially theatre is a gateway for learning to respectfully work with others, to learn the art of creative collaboration.

At a time when social cohesion is under threat from a range of social and technological forces, this type of teaching and learning matters. Despite the arguments of those who rely purely on economic rationale to tell us that our courses are “failing,” the fundamentally kanohi ki te kanohi, (face-to-face) nature of our discipline is now more essential than ever.

If we want to understand how universities might both authentically express being treaty-led organisations, rather than paying lip service to it, as well as facing the significant disruption to how we teach and learn coming as a result of AI technology, theatre departments are storehouses of inestimable value, yet now under threat.

The research carried out by performing arts staff is at the critical interface between arts and society. Colleagues and graduates are working in prisons, schools and care facilities, as well as using theatre to express and explore issues such as sexual consent, crime, justice and social alienation.

Research from Creative New Zealand clearly shows the quantifiable ways in which the arts contribute to New Zealand’s economic, cultural and social wellbeing, including contributing to economic development, educational outcomes, creating a more highly skilled workforce, improving health outcomes and personal wellbeing.

As educators, we know the value of what we do, both because of our own experiences in building community with our students, and because of the wealth of evidence that supports the impact of creative education.

The question then becomes one of responsibility. Are our universities willing to accept the responsibility they bear for maintaining a vital component of this country’s artistic and educational ecology? Are they willing to accept creating and supporting creatives is an intrinsic element of their role as social critic and conscience?

The rangatahi who enrol in our programmes every year are the protagonists of the future. And the role they have chosen to play is one that puts people, connection and community at the heart of what they do. Those of us committed to these programmes urge universities and the Government to do the same. 

This article was written with the support of a range of theatre programme educators across Aotearoa New Zealand

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