Live arts in Aotearoa: Resilience and hope in the face of COVID-19 and financial challenges
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“Artists are resilient, and I think artists are realising they can be activists now, too.”
This sentiment from James Cain, one half of the Wellington theatre company Red Scare Theatre, is shared amongst many working in the live arts. The sector, like others in Aotearoa, continues to feel the ongoing effects of COVID-19 and cost-of-living increases. We sat down with a few members of the sector to kōrero about some of the challenges they’ve been facing and strategies to overcome them.
Previously the assistant programmer at Auckland's Basement Theatre, playwright Nathan Joe has recently taken on the role of Creative Director for Auckland Pride. On what it takes to be a live artist at the moment, he says: “Making art is a risk. It’s a financial, energetic, emotional risk. Not many people putting on theatre are doing it as full-time work, and most hold at least two jobs. This can take a great toll on your finances, wellbeing, and energy levels.”
With regular show, concert, and gig cancellations, significant funding cuts, and an increasing number of workers leaving the industry for more financially stable horizons – the sector's morale is being tested.
“Admittedly, art is often made in times of strife, through crisis. And, sure, there may be some good crisis art that comes out of this, but good art is very different from a good arts sector.”
He believes this reality, in part, has to do with the way Aotearoa engages with its independent live art. “Independent art isn’t in the peripherals of most New Zealanders. And that’s really difficult because how do you then engage? How do you get the arts funded, seen, and recognised as a holistic tool?”
Director of Auckland Fringe and mental health and wellbeing advocate Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho says: “It’s like when you tell your parents what you do in the arts and all they say is ‘Why don't you go out and get a real job?’ They just can’t wrap their head around it, which is why they also assume it’s not beneficial to them.”
These perceptions were heightened at the start of the pandemic, which put a mental strain on people working in the sector. “I think what our artists have been feeling from the start is a loss of being valued. Ironically, when we were locked down, everyone turned to art. So much of what we were doing at home had something to do with an art form, like reading, movies, crafts and so on.”
Artistic director of Auckland’s Silo Theatre Sophie Roberts says that this year, they may be getting to the hardest bit. “A lot of practical support (including wage subsidy and government underwriting schemes) that kept everybody safe in those early stages are gone now, but our industry is still impacted,” she explains.

Cassandra Tse, creative director and the second half of Red Scare Theatre, distills the mental health ramifications of these challenges: “Financial precarity can lead to feelings of anxiety. In a pro-arts world, artists shouldn’t have to lose things or opportunities in order to be artists. With that comes a sense of loss and pressure from comparing yourself to others who aren’t working in the arts. When you’re an artist, there is a feeling that you’ve done this to yourself.”
Sophie Roberts adds: “Weathering the financial uncertainty for so long takes a toll. We’ve seen a lot of arts leaders leave significant roles over the last year, which I believe is a sign of people burning out.”
Another impact is the shift in audience engagement. There is a general feeling that audiences are more reluctant to see live art now. “People are wary of catching COVID-19 or don’t have the money to spend on theatre or gigs. Many may also be feeling nervous about socialising in public after a prolonged period of lockdowns – it requires social muscles, after all – and staying at home to watch Netflix feels much safer and more comfortable,” says Cassandra Tse.
As for the future of the live arts, Nathan Joe worries our cities are going to be less vibrant. “The return of international acts will compensate for some of it, but that’s different from the vibrancy of your own city’s landscape filling up space. The great thing about local art is seeing your own cultural context in it.” A recurring theme, however, is hope. Just recently, a government boost of $22 million for Creative New Zealand has been announced, which will go some way towards alleviating the stress and uncertainty in the arts community. Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho adds:
“There never is a fix-it-all solution, but I think we need to look to our rangatahi and emerging artists. They have a huge revitalising influence, and there’s a fire in that. Those of us who are older or further along in our careers, we’re not just makers and creators but teachers and mentors, as well.”
Having to rethink how it currently operates, Silo Theatre initiated what it calls ‘2023 = CANCELLED’. Instead of announcing the upcoming production season like it usually would, the theatre will focus on the development of three new works. Sophie Roberts says this decision came from considered reflection: “We haven’t been able to invest in new New Zealand work in the last two years because of the pandemic, so it’s about having a big reset and going ‘okay, we don’t have as much resourcing as we’d want. How do we best use what we have?”

James Cain finds this an exciting step. “I think development is a really cool thing to be doing. It’s rare to be able to sound things out before they head on stage, and there’s now a collective want to reassess how our industry works.”

The importance of artists and sector workers looking after themselves cannot be overstated. Nathan Joe says that for him, this doesn’t necessarily mean having the solutions right away but accepting things as they are for now, and surrounding yourself with people that understand the value of art and solidarity.
For him, hope looks like this:
“People engaging with the arts, going out to see the work. It’s audiences being there for the artists. That’s the simplest gesture.”