Arts organisations across New Zealand are keen to return to the stage as the country adapts to life under alert level 1.

The lockdown in March saw many theatres and venues forced to close their doors, causing countless performances to be cancelled – with many preparing for the possibility of going without performing until 2021.

Royal New Zealand Ballet executive director Lester McGrath said that it has been very unusual for the company not to be out on the road or in the studio rehearsing.

"When you're in the business of performing, that's what you do, that's what you get up for in the morning. To not be able to perform or train in the studio is a real challenge."

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After a rare six-month break, the RNZB will finally be able to return to the stage in August, joined by dozens of other arts organisations that are able to perform again.

The Auckland Theatre Company will stage shows in September, bringing back local play Black Lover, which had to cut its season short in March when gathering restrictions were put in place.

The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra kept busy during lockdown by staging socially distanced performances over social media, raking up over two million views in the last two months.

Now the orchestra will be able to take to the stage again in July with a welcome back performance at the Auckland Town Hall. Chief executive Barbara Glaser said that all indications from their loyal subscribers are that they are as keen to return to live shows as the artists are.

"I think the fact there are no active cases will build confidence for us and other arts organisations as well, so I think across the sector I'm hoping we are going to see a really strong resurgence in a really short timeframe."

The Auckland Theatre Company is bringing back local play Black Lover, which had to cut its season short in March when gathering restrictions were put in place.
The Auckland Theatre Company is bringing back local play Black Lover, which had to cut its season short in March when gathering restrictions were put in place.

While the APO and the RNZB are able to continue with shows for the time-being, both organisations expect to face difficulties in staging future shows while the borders remain closed.

Glaser said that their music director, Giordano Bellincampi, is unable to return to the country as he spent lockdown home in Copenhagen. She said that other international talent, such as soloists, will be unable to join their shows with the borders closed.

"I think generally for professional-level arts organisations, we do exist in an international context, so it's important for them to be able to come into the country to do their work.
Very often those headline people are what audiences will want to come to, and it's really important for the economy as well as for our cultural institutions."

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It's a similar issue for the RNZB, with McGrath saying that they often rely on international choreographers and designers to work on their productions.

Seeking travel exemptions similar to those granted to the crew for the Avatar sequels to enter the country is not out of the question, but McGrath wants the ballet to prove its worth to the economy first.

"The ballet is very much leading the charge to get to those regional arts and entertainment venues again," he explained.
The August tour, Venus Rising, will visit six cities, and McGrath said that the ballet's tours will allow those venues to reopen and contribute to the local hospitality industry.

The border closure does present an opportunity for the spotlight to focus on local artists.

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The New Zealand International Comedy Festival is eyeing a more local line-up as it seeks to stage shows affected by the cancellation of the May festival.

General manager Lauren Whitney said that the lockdown is an opportunity for people to discover local comedians.

"People want to be entertained again, so I think it's a good chance to go out and celebrate local. There's such a depth of talent in New Zealand."

The festival is currently talking with comedians about what they want to do about their cancelled shows, with hopes that the Best Foods Comedy Gala can be staged later in the year.

Whitney said that a benefit comedians have is they don't need to rehearse in large numbers, but she imagines that many comedians would need to edit their content after the pandemic.

How many shows can be staged depends on which theatres and venues are able to reopen. Venues such as The Classic in Auckland and San Fran in Wellington have re-opened, but other theatres are still evaluating their options.

The Basement Theatre in Auckland said in a statement the move to alert level 1 came sooner than it expected. It was currently looking at a reopening date but intended to open in time for their annual Christmas show.

Its Queen Street neighbour, Q Theatre, also hopes to reopen soon, but is in a difficult financial spot.

The theatre fundraised $150,000 during lockdown, which Andrew Smith, who chairs the board that owns the theatre, said would help it survive until it hears from the Auckland Council about funding for next year. He said the theatre could not commit to anything until it knew what its funding was.

"Once we have a handle on that, then we can talk about can we do an opening for a particular show, and what are the costs going to be and how we're going to make it work."

Smith said the theatre wants to support local artists by giving them a place to perform, but it needed to be able to afford to give them that platform.

And while social-distancing requirements have been dropped under alert level 1, Smith said there was still uncertainty about whether audiences were ready to return or not, a concern shared across the sector.

McGrath said that while their audiences had given every indication that they wanted to return to the theatre, the ongoing threat of Covid-19 across the world meant that nothing was guaranteed for some time yet.

"We have a long road of uncertainty ahead of us through until the end of next year."