BATS Theatre and Lockdown

Jean Sergent steps us through how one risk-share theatre managed in the confusing days before lockdown, and captures some of their immediate reflections now.

My solo Fringe show Change Your Own Life played at BATS Theatre from 10 – 16 March. Sunday 15 March was the first date I noticed disinfectant sprays in the dressing room. Four days later the theatre was closed.

The speed at which the situation has progressed in New Zealand, and specifically for the live arts community, who only a couple of weeks ago were still filling theatres, has been immense. When nationwide lockdown was announced on 23 March, to take effect from midnight 25 March, our live arts community was apprehensive. The precarious economics of theatre aside, the idea of losing a season is heartbreaking – to theatres and to artists. In theatres that run on a risk-share model, such as Wellington’s BATS, Auckland’s The Basement, or Little Andromeda in Christchurch, a ten-night season is less about making bank and more about seeing a dream come to fruition.

For all these risk-share venues, there was a brief period of several days two weeks ago when decisions were being made quickly by creative teams and theatres. It was an extremely confusing time for artists and programmers. I particularly want to explore the leadership and care BATS showed at this time. I interviewed General Manager Jonty Hendry, Programme Director Nick Zwart and Marketing Manager Stevie Greeks from BATS Theatre on Friday 20 March. Obviously, since then – a lifetime ago – nationwide lockdown has been enacted. The following is an analysis of the times we are living through, via a snapshot of a specific moment and a specific set of decisions in New Zealand’s response to the global coronavirus pandemic.

BATS closed its doors on 19 March. The Government announced its four-level alert system on 22 March and by 25 March we were in lockdown. What had been a choice, by theatres, to close, a few days later became inescapable.

There was a brief period when decisions were being made quickly by creative teams and theatres.

In what has since become our new normal, I speak to Jonty Hendry over Google Hangouts. I ask him to recap for me the timeline of their decision to close the theatre. He replies, “As far as we’re concerned we’re not closed. What we aren’t doing is bringing the public together because of Ministry of Health guidelines and the steering from the government around social distancing.”

While the growing concern around Covid-19 had been coming up in conversations in the theatre community for some time, it was on Wednesday 11 March that Jonty was speaking to others about how to manage bringing audiences into theatre spaces safely.

“There wasn’t the sense at that point that more needed to be done other than the vigilance we were showing around use of hand sanitisers and regular cleaning. We stepped up our cleaning big time, we took responsibility as a team around cleaning, the staff elected to regularly clean the office and the kitchen area, and we invited co-ops to clean their backstage spaces.”

While this may seem to be the bare minimum now, it is a snapshot of just how quickly our thinking, as a community and as a nation, has changed in the last few weeks. Sunday 15 March was supposed to be the final day of the New Zealand Festival of the Arts. All performances that day were cancelled. That day BATS staff began to change the way they worked as a team. “We started to connect up for a morning meeting and then also an afternoon handover meeting,” Hendry says, “because we needed to make sure the right information was being given to key staff, so they could give it to other people coming into the building.” After consultation with the Ministry of Health, and checking in to see what other venues were doing, BATS started their daily statements on social media. Hendry says, “We thought the best thing we could do would be to keep connected and keep connected to our community.”

Jean Sergent in 'Change Your Own Life'. All images: Jason Aldous

All this in the middle of the New Zealand Fringe Festival. This year BATS had 30 shows scheduled as part of the Fringe. Most of those shows completed their seasons while Covid-19 was still a distant threat or something to banter about in the smoking area in front of the bar. As the threat got closer, the number of confirmed cases in New Zealand seemed to be staying below ten. Theatre and festival management were staying in touch and keeping an eye on each other’s decisions, all suddenly in new and thoroughly unexpected waters.

In the management team at BATS Theatre, honesty and communication became paramount. “If we were going to fall over, if we were going to get stressed, if we were going to put ourselves in danger, then what use could we be to our community?”

Communication with the companies who were working at BATS, and who were scheduled to work at BATS in April, became daily check-ins. Some companies were asking, “Will we be performing tonight?” Decisions were being reviewed daily, sometimes hourly. Programme manager Nick Zwart says, “I’ve been on the phone this week more than I think I ever have been in my life. It was just about that consistent communication. I’ve been talking to the artists every day at least once, and that’s for the shows that were on in the building at the time but also for the shows that were programmed for the rest of the year.”

A statement released on social media announced that the office would remain open, the building would be cleaned, but the shows would not go on. Fringe seasons of Princess Boy Wonder, Maramataka and Butcher Holler Here We Come were all cancelled. The team behind Standard Acts, which was set to open that night, had already made the decision to cancel their season just a day earlier.

In an industry where workers are expected to ensure the show goes on, this was an unprecedented, daunting move.

Eventually BATS decided to close. The health and safety responsibilities, toward performers, audiences and staff, became insurmountable. “We actually realised we needed to close because we weren’t comfortable staying open. We looked at the space, we felt that we couldn’t encourage social distancing within the space, and we were tired. And there were shows that wanted to continue but we just had to be up front yesterday and say hey guys we’re exhausted and we need to reset.”

In an industry where workers never take sick leave and are expected to ensure the show goes on, this was an unprecedented, daunting move. So how has the community responded to BATS being one of the first theatres in the country to make this bold decision? “We’ve been overwhelmed with the support. Because we were aware that some people might resist.” This is an especially difficult tension to manage in a risk-share model. “The construct of the way we work, it’s the artists that are getting the income (85 percent of the box office goes to artists at BATS), so it’s really their livelihood. It’s a tricky balance, but our community has said yes, good call, right thing.”

So, how hard is it to do the right thing? “I think it’s easy,” says Nick. “It felt really easy and as soon as we decided to make a call everything since then has felt easier.” Marketing Manager Stevie Greeks says, “We kind of looked ahead and made a decision for ourselves. Regardless of what comes next, that took a lot of pressure off us because then we felt good in that decision and in our direction going forward.” Sometimes the lead-up to something is harder than the thing itself.

Jonty adds that moving from what-if scenarios and into facts gave the staff “a window of opportunity to be really clear – what we’re doing now is what we feel is right today. It’s about living in the now.”

Jean Sergent in 'Change Your Own Life'. All images: Jason Aldous

Reflecting their dedication to helping artists continue to make live art that is facilitated by the team at BATS, Nick Zwart tells me to “watch this space”. Later that day they broadcast their first-ever live stream from the theatre – Princess Boy Wonder, which had opened the night before BATS closed. The event sold over 170 tickets, and had audiences from around the world. On Sunday 22 March, the New Zealand Fringe Festival live-streamed their awards ceremony, where among the winners was Princess Boy Wonder, taking the Melbourne Fringe Festival Tour Ready award.

As the number of cases of Covid-19 increase around the world, and a third of the world’s population is in lockdown as of 27 March 2020, it remains to be seen if or when Melbourne Fringe will go ahead. In a sign of things to come, the Melbourne Comedy Festival was cancelled on 13 March. New Zealand International Comedy Festival quickly followed.

In the days leading up to BATS’ decision to close to audiences, live arts practitioners around the country were wondering about their own futures. Performers with work programmed at venues from The Basement in Auckland, to Circa in Wellington, to The Court in Christchurch were looking at their work schedules for the year with increasing insecurity and fear.

Behind the scenes, Jonty Hendry tells me, these organisations were in touch with each other on a daily basis, and this was helping the leaders to lead. “Circa invited me to their council meeting on Wednesday. The more connected I feel to other venues like The Basement, with organisations that I respect like Silo, I feel personally that’s where I get my strength. And if that strength manifests in confident decisions then that’s great.”

Perhaps this period of lockdown and precarity will also breed a new strain of compassion, empathy and kindness.

Dunedin Fringe Festival made the call not to go ahead on 19 March. They had been scheduled to open on 27 March. On 20 March, Dunedin Fringe launched a Boosted campaign to help artists recover costs. Basement Theatre in Auckland released a statement on 20 March that they would be closing to the public. Circa Theatre in Wellington released their statement of closure the same day. The Court Theatre in Christchurch cancelled upcoming seasons, including the premiere of Ralph McCubbin-Howell’s Lysander’s Aunty. It wasn’t until the pending Level 4 nationwide lockdown was announced on 23 March that The Court closed its doors entirely.

What might now, with hindsight, be perceived as agonisingly slow decision-making was rather the built-in “show must go on” mentality in the live arts. We never cancel, we never close, we always go ahead come hell or high water, pestilence or war.

Perhaps this period of lockdown and precarity will also breed a new strain of compassion, empathy and kindness in the live arts community. Maybe we will start to take illness seriously. Ask any actor or dancer or musician if they’ve had to perform while ill, or if they’ve caught the flu from another performer who wasn’t allowed to take sick leave. The answer will be yes.

This is especially true in risk-share models like BATS. “We at BATS are funded by CNZ and the city council and a number of other smaller organisations to be able to deliver a risk-share model. We take 15 percent of every ticket sold and the rest goes to the artists. So when you are buying a ticket as an audience member, 85 percent of that goes to the artist.” With risk-share venues closing in the interim, is this a time of potential change for the model?

We are asking what areas of a risk model we can adapt and change.

“We are embarking on making some strong changes,” Jonty says. “There’s a sense of momentum, and what sits alongside this crisis is that we are already in a mutable pattern of working. We are asking what areas of a risk model we can adapt and change. And we are funded now to experiment. There is a sense of opportunity coming out of this, because as part of our mission statement we want to extend to artists the capacity to explore possibilities.

“Safe spaces are becoming very important to us, but we have purposely removed the word theatre from our vision statement because we are interested in live art. So what does that mean if we are going to be exploring other ways that live art can translate into people’s lives. We would be looking at ways we can sustainably and efficaciously work with artists to have the weirdest, wildest, most fantastic experiment that might not actually enforce a risk-share model at all. We will be looking at ways we can support artists to do what they want without it being dependent on them getting a certain number of people clicking a paywall and maybe viewing it online.”

Programme manager Nick Zwart’s attitude is one of positive thinking and forward momentum. “Now is not the time to be spending time on anything negative. We are all learning and we are all growing day by day.”

This period of economic precarity, this deep public-health crisis, can show us the ways we can show solidarity, and the ways that we can come together and share knowledge and strategies. We’re all in this together. In a time of stress and insecurity, artists can become more, not less, connected.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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