When Holly Stokes takes her brother Connor to see a children's theatre show, she knows he'll be amused, entertained and relaxed in a place where no one is likely to give him "the look".

Connor, 21, is on the autism spectrum and has an intellectual disability which means he's more akin to a fidgety 12-year-old, which makes Tim Bray Theatre Company's productions for children ideal for him. Now the Stokes family is supporting a crisis appeal as the theatre company fights to survive in the wake of fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Connor's mum, Megan, who works for Autism New Zealand, says her family didn't hesitate to contribute to the $100,000 fundraising appeal because they have directly benefitted from and seen the happiness the theatre company brings to up to 25,0000 children, parents, grandparents and caregivers who attend its shows – usually four - every year.

"I am so grateful for them because they do such a good job," says Megan Stokes. "As well as the shows, there are classes for children and watching what theatre can do for children who are not very confident is amazing. If I won a big Lotto prize, Tim Bray Theatre Company would be one of those I would donate to."

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It's a sentiment shared by former forester and farmer Garth Cumberland who now lives in Devonport and, with 8-year-old granddaughter Ellie, is a regular at the Tim Bray shows. A theatre-goer from way back, Cumberland says he's a firm believer in taking children to the theatre from an early age.

"I've never done any acting but it's such a clever art especially when you think the actors might be rehearsing for other shows during the day then performing in the evenings," he says. "How they do it, I don't know but it brings a lot of joy."

Cumberland has already donated to the crisis appeal, which is aiming for at least $100,000 so the company can continue its work. This frequently sees classic New Zealand children's stories by the likes of Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley and Witi Ihimaera turned into shows with music, dancing and lots of laughs.

Producer Tim Bray. Photo / file
Producer Tim Bray. Photo / file

One of New Zealand's few dedicated children's theatre companies, it has been at the forefront of arts accessibility, pioneering sign language interpreted performances from 2004, introducing audio-described shows for blind and low vision audiences and, last year, starting sensory relaxed performances.

It also runs a Gift a Seat programme so children from low deciles schools, Kelston Deaf Education Centre, BLENNZ (Blind and Low Vision Education Centre of NZ) and Make-A-Wish (NZ) get donated tickets to see shows.

It has won awards for this work and once entertained royalty with its version of Lynley Dodd's Hairy Maclary but is struggling after the Covid-19 lockdown saw its 100th show, an adaptation of Joy Cowley's Greedy Cat, a celebratory Auckland tour and school holiday programmes cancelled.

Around $100,000 and several months had already been spent on staging Greedy Cat. Without revenue from ticket sales, curtailing its youth theatre classes and funding drying up, the company now faces financial crisis.

It does not receive regular annual funding from Creative New Zealand and while it has made use of the government help that it can, founder and artistic director Tim Bray says there's still a shortfall.

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Significant advance ticket sales were refunded by ticketing agencies although Bray acknowledges some opted to donate the refund to the company. Donations now stand at $63,000 which have provided some relief but Bray says the future is far from secure.

"Our demise would leave a huge hole in Auckland's cultural landscape and in the lives of the children and young people in our theatre community," he says. "A huge community of Auckland's children and young people benefit from the company's creative output, as well as many New Zealand authors, actors, composers, designers, choreographers, tutors and technicians, schools and early childhood centres."