Funding keeping creative work alive

Rosella Hart embraces the opportunity to develop work as the first of Te Whare o Rukutia...
Rosella Hart embraces the opportunity to develop work as the first of Te Whare o Rukutia residency winner. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Five new theatre residencies have been awarded to allow Dunedin practitioners to develop - rather than perform - new work. Rebecca Fox finds out what that means for those involved.

It is a lifeline.

For Rosella Hart, being awarded a Te Whare o Rukutia residency means securing one of the funding applications she needed to have approved to consider continuing as an independent arts contractor.

"Relief. Honestly just relief," she says of being chosen for one of the five residencies.

"I’m excited now, but when I first heard, I was just, ‘Oh thank God’.

"Although this is only a very small amount of money and time in the big scheme of things, it’s enough to keep me going for a bit longer, and seed something for the future."

That is exactly what Te Whare o Rukutia, a flexible 120-seat performing arts venue managed by the Dunedin Fringe Arts Trust, hopes its residencies will achieve.

Te Whare o Rukutia creative producer Kate Schrader says the project received funding from Manatu Taonga: Te Urungi Innovation Aotearoa, a Ministry of Culture and Heritage Covid recovery fund, to enable the organisation to award $20,000 to the residencies.

Initially, the money was to go towards seed funding to help creatives put on performances, but as Omicron emerged it became clear the ability to stage performances in the coming months might still be uncertain.

"It was tough. Once again we couldn’t foresee if people could even be able to programme work or put on projects, so at that point we went back to the drawing board," Schrader said.

A reading of The World’s First Lovers by Jessica Latton as part of the Otepoti Theatre Lab last...
A reading of The World’s First Lovers by Jessica Latton as part of the Otepoti Theatre Lab last year. PHOTO: KERRY HODGE PHOTOGRAPHY
They still wanted to support creatives in their practice but do it in a way that did not place the burden of expectation of a performance at the end of it.

"I’m a practitioner myself - I produce work and it’s tough," she said.

"The past two years or so being constantly in that cycle of producing and unproducing, planning and then unpack, it’s so heartbreaking."

There have always been many unpaid hours go into the creation of works in the arts and that has only increased since Covid.

"People do it for the love of it."

Dunedin Fringe Arts Trust programme manager Ruth Harvey says what makes it even harder for practitioners in the pandemic world of cancellations is often they do not even get the box office takings to reward them for their hard work, so all the work is unpaid.

Schrader says that is compounded for people who also do not get the reward of sharing their work with an audience.

"That feedback loop never closes. Part of the highs and lows of creating something is that amazing experience at the end of it. So working towards it and never getting it - it’s hard on the soul."

So it was decided to focus the funding on process rather than the end point of performance.

"The project is a pilot so it’s all about innovating and responding to the needs of the community."

Harvey says New Zealand’s arts and culture sector needs to value the richness of the learning gained in the process of creating work.

"Focusing on the end product, whether it’s a production or a painting, does not capture the value of that learning process in the making," she said.

It also excludes people who want to be involved in the arts but not in selling work for money or presenting theatre pieces.

"We want arts to be a much richer ecosystem than just the presentation of work."

Part of the issue is equity, she says.

"There is the assumption artists will labour for free and if you do manage to charge money for tickets it does not cover all the time that has gone into the creation of it. Why is it as a society acceptable for this group of people to not be compensated for their skills and expertise they are contributing to the community?"

The residencies are a way of supporting development and she says there is worth in compensating creatives for the work they do to create a work.

"They shouldn’t have to bring their talents to the table for free."

Schrader says being able to support five of the seven applications is "beyond a dream" and for them to have come from a range practices is what the team was hoping for.

"Hopefully, different groups will benefit from the opportunity."

The residencies give each successful individual or group a week in the Te Whare o Rukutia space, although they are not tied to the space to perform in if the project is staged in the future. Some recipients are also using the funding to collaborate with other creatives, to give them time to create or to experiment with technology.

"They get to play in the space and get familiar with it."

Harvey says as Te Whare o Rukutia is still a pilot project, the residencies will also enable the team to see if the space is doing what it needs to support creatives to create work.

"Part of our goal is to complement existing venues and be supportive of the broader ecosystem so everyone can survive. We can’t lose any more venues in this city. We want to help strengthen but not compete."

For Hart, the first to take up one of the residencies, it means she can continue practising and give some dedicated time to projects she has in various stages, including an "invisible" street performance, a walking street-based show and a verbatim piece centred on the gaming community.

"Basically, it’s a lifeline. Having some dedicated time means I can progress this work, and reach a point where it’s viable to move into ‘production mode’ of some sort."

As development is the invisible part of a project, it can be really hard to fund, or get any support at all for, because there is nothing practitioners can articulate yet, but "every single work ever made has started in development".

"It takes a lot of energy to get original ideas off the ground far enough that they can actually be produced, or have the outcomes you imagine, or outcomes you couldn’t imagine until you were actually in the space working."

The pressure is always on the creator to just "make it happen" with unpaid hours and no resources, she says.

"Realistically, the last few years have exhausted everyone. If you’re working as an individual, or starting a new company, the bigger funders tend to only fund very well-established companies. Which is understandable, but everything has to start somewhere."

She says getting past the beginning is hard when you are fitting it around the rest of your life, you don’t have enough space to work in and are facing the challenges of increasing living expenses.

"You end up in a Catch-22 of not being able to progress to the point where you can get enough resources to move forward to your next level, whatever that means to you or your work. Being stuck in that space means people just burn out. So having dedicated time and space to be able to just develop work and reignite some inspiration, and excitement too, is really important."

Hart hopes the work she does during the residency will mean she can be looking at performing a show at a festival next year.

"Some of my work is pretty under the radar, so it may be on the street in a sneaky way before the end of the year. Or during the residency even. I’m honestly not sure. That’s what’s so excellent about having funding that’s specifically for development - it opens up potential where you couldn’t see it before."

At the other end of the scale is The World’s First Lovers by Jessica Latton (Waitaha, Ngai Tahu), a production that is already well into development, having had its initial development as part of Otepoti Theatre Lab Playwrights Programme last year. Since then the script has been worked on further as part of Breaking Ground (an indigenous playwriting development festival), in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, and the project team has held workshops in movement, hauora and storytelling open to the public, as part of Puaka Matariki Festival, and in closed sessions with its cast and crew.

Producer H-J Kilkelly (Ngai Tahu, Kati Mamoe) of Prospect Park Productions says the residency will allow the team to workshop with the cast and crew and further the development of The World’s First Lovers.

It is the next step in marrying the script with some of the more theatrical and movement-based aspects, ahead of a planned development season of the work late this year.

"It enables us to pay our creatives to dedicate a week full time to putting the updated script on its feet and testing different aspects of the work. It will also allow us to test the parameters of the new venue."

The other successful recipients are the Dollhouse Theatre Company for The Many Deaths of Jeff Goldblum, by local playwright Meg Perry; The Lost Dance by Anna and Miriam Noonan, inspired by The Lost Words; a collaboration between artist Jackie Morris and writer Robert MacFarlane; and an interdisciplinary solo installation by Neza Jamnikar to be composed with a design, visual and sound creative.

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