On Site: An Interview with Cherie Jacobson
For the last three and a half years, Cherie Jacobson has been Programme Manager at BATS Theatre, the person behind the wheel of this Wellington theatre's creative identity. After overseeing one of the most significant periods of transition in the young theatre's life, Jacobson sat down with us to talk about the past, present and future of BATS Theatre.
Cherie Jacobson joined BATS at a dramatic time in the theatre’s life. It was October 2012, and it had been a year since 1 Kent Terrace - BATS' home since 1989 - had been put up for sale, and ten months since Sir Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh had bought the building, effectively 'saving' the theatre following two months of rallying and fundraising by the Wellington theatre community. But the upheaval had only just begun, both for BATS and for Jacobson.
Two venues, three-and-a-half years and over 300 shows later, Jacobson’s calling it a day; the job of keeping BATS’ artistic heart beating falls now to Wellington theatre stalwart Heather O’Carroll. Before she left her role (and Wellington), we sat down for a wide-ranging conversation about her tenure: the renovation and relocation, the challenges facing the theatre as it heads towards its fourth decade and, most importantly, the shows that stood out during her time.
You’ve overseen a period of intense transition for the theatre, working out of Out of Site for 2013 and most of 2014 while 1 Kent Terrace was being revamped. Looking back over the last three and a bit years, what was it like for you and for BATS?
When we moved from Kent Terrace to Out of Site and then back again, we were always thinking about how to bring people along with us to make sure that the ‘BATS spirit’ wasn’t lost, because BATS had always been based out of 1 Kent Terrace. So I think there was a little bit of worry: what is BATS when it’s not in this building? If we take it somewhere else, are people even going to come with us? Are people going to go “naaah, BATS isn’t BATS if it’s not in that building, I’ll wait until it’s back”? But we didn’t have that at all, which I think is incredible. I think it showed that it's more than a building, which sounds cheesy and obvious but it’s honestly true.
When I started, we were set to move into McKenzie Theatre - that’s in Civic Square, where Capital E was - while this place, 1 Kent Terrace, was renovated. Not long after I started, that got red-stickered and our board decided they weren’t willing to ask people to take the risk to work or be an audience member in a space that was earthquake-prone. So, we had an incredibly short amount of time to find somewhere else to live while this building was being renovated. Chris [O’Neill, Business Manager from 2011 to 2015] and Todd [Houston, the current Technical and Facilities Manager] traipsed around Wellington looking at all these spaces because obviously a theatre needs a few basic things in order to exist : height, actual physical space.
It was only while we were looking that the old Big Kumara site became available. It was, like, “ugh, thank goodness!” I don’t know where we would’ve gone if that space hadn’t become available. But then we had an incredibly short amount of time to turn that space into a theatre. The New Zealand Fringe Festival had already been programmed for 2013 so we had a deadline of when the space needed to be open and functioning and we had to turn this bar into a theatre. But people just showed awesome commitment to making BATS happen and helping it exist: I remember, a couple of days before or maybe even the day of the first show, people coming in and helping us paint. Which was really awesome.
Why do you feel people stuck with BATS through the transition? Do you think it’s something to do with that ‘BATS spirit’ you mentioned or do you think it’s something else?
I think it’s because it's a community. It’s a community of people who kind of orbit around BATS; without it, I think they would have to find a new space to orbit around. I don’t know if that makes sense in space terms, but, you know, there’s a community of like-minded people who are creative, who want to put on work, who want to see what other people are making. That continues whether we’re in Kent Terrace or at Cuba Street. People still wanted to put on work and make things, and audiences still wanted to come and see the kind of work that’s put on at BATS, the kind of work they can’t see elsewhere around town. I think that’s what kept it going. Creativity doesn’t stop just because there isn’t a space for it. We were providing those practitioners with an accessible space. We gave them a place to gravitate towards.
Brought it back to a space term!
I know nothing about space.
Do you think that the community’s changed in any way during the last three-and-a-half, four years?
The community’s always changing. There’s obviously a core part of the community that are BATS stalwarts and they’ve been here for years and years and they’ll continue to be here for years and years and that’s awesome. I think, though, because of new graduates from Vic and Whitireia and Toi and because of people moving to the city wanting to get involved, that community is always changing. People come and go as well: people move away, go overseas, come back, work their way back into the community. There’s a core, but it’s always shifting and changing.
As a senior, steady figure in that community for the last three years, what do you think it is about BATS that gives people a connection to the space beyond it just being space? Especially given that young practitioners tend to be transient - you’re here for a couple of years making work and then you’re gone. Why is BATS not just a space?
I think because it’s a really formative part of a lot of people’s careers and theatre experiences. It was for me. I did Young and Hungry in my first year at Vic, so I came to BATS and I put on a show and it was my first show outside of high school. Because BATS gives you an opportunity, the first opportunity to put yourself in front of an audience in many cases, it creates really strong memories and ties you to the space and the people that you work with. When it’s such a formative part of what people’s lives, it creates a really strong connection: to the building and to the people who were around you at that time, the people you looked up to at that time.
The Wellington theatre community at large has undergone a bit of an upheaval over the last three years, with the closure of Downstage. What changes to the community have you observed and what you do think the impact of those has been?
Downstage closing undoubtedly had an effect, even if a lot of it was just perceptional. It was a tangible event that seemed to signify something, but I don’t think it magically, suddenly shut a door in people's faces. We like to talk about a ‘practitioner pathway’ or sustainable careers, but before Downstage closed, there had been some kind of easy road for very few people, the kind of easy road where you started out at BATS, went to Downstage and then conquered New Zealand and the world. There were very few people for whom that was a clear, mappable pathway.
I was recently reading articles from around the time BATS re-opened and on RNZ, John Smythe was quoted as saying BATS could provide much-needed work for established actors in the wake of Downstage’s closure. It sounds like that kind of substitution isn’t something you’ve entertained.
What Downstage was putting on was different to what BATS puts on. If anything, in the last few years of Downstage’s life more shows went from BATS to Downstage than they had previously. It’s not like it was ever the other way around. The Downstage space was very different: it had a bigger capacity and it was a bigger playing space and so what worked there wasn’t the same as the work that was at BATS. So I don’t agree with the kind of linear thinking that goes, “BATS, Downstage, tour New Zealand, the world”. While it might have happened for some people, it wasn’t like some kind of rule was being followed. “This is how you have a successful career: do some shows at BATS! Build up experience and the quality of your work! Then go to Downstage! Create something awesome! It will get picked up and you will tour New Zealand! And then the world!”
People still wanted to put on work and make things, and audiences still wanted to come and see the kind of work that’s put on at BATS, the kind of work they can’t see elsewhere around town. Creativity doesn’t stop just because there isn’t a space for it.
I’m not saying that it isn’t sad that Downstage closed, because there was some really cool stuff that came out of it over its lifetime, and it’s sad to see that building dark for many nights of the week. It’s a really tangible, obvious thing; you walk past it and you see it and it was in the news. In some ways, I think people maybe latched onto that as part of that whole ‘Wellington is dying’ rhetoric, but I don’t think it was as simple as that. There’s a whole community of makers and performers in Wellington and they make things happen! Their creativity tap isn’t turned off just because a building closes. They find other spaces to put stuff on. People already did that anyway. Like, my first Fringe show [A Darling Bud Of Maybe, staged in February 2007] was in a florist’s shop because my pitch to BATS didn’t get accepted but I still wanted to put the show on. We were like, “hmm, where can we do it? This nice florist lady might let us in her shop!” I also think people find spaces like 17 Tory Street, spaces that they want to work in because they want to make a site-specific piece or because they feel like they have opportunities within those spaces that they don’t have elsewhere. That’s not going to stop.
After one year in a revamped space, what do you think BATS has brought to Wellington theatre and given to its practitioners that old BATS couldn’t or didn’t? What do you think it’s added?
Well, it’s offered the opportunity for our programme to increase by quite a lot. There’s the opportunity for more shows to have longer seasons and have sole use of a space; typically BATS would have multiple shows in a space not just during Fringe but throughout the year, so it was rare to get a good chunk of time in the theatre, to create a set and really take over.
I also think the fact that there are different spaces that look different and feel different offers different opportunities. If you’re creating a work that’s in a more developmental phase or if it’s a much smaller more intimate show, like Loose or Anya Tate-Manning’s development of My Best Dead Friend, the Studio is a great space for that and for emerging comedians who are still building up an audience and want a smaller space to try out things in. Then The Dome obviously offers quite a different physical space to the black box Propeller Stage, so that offers different opportunities for people and I think that encourages them to think about what space the work will work best in and how they can make the space work best for them.
I really like it when people use the architecture of the spaces to inform their work. In The Dome, obviously, I like it when when people use the Dome as a key design feature in their work, when people take all the drapes down, when they reconfigure it. Spring Awakening was the first time I’d really seen people use the doors at either end of The Dome as a core part of their show; they didn’t try to hide them, they weren’t just exits, they were part of the show and it was really cool. I hope to see more people using the architecture of the space to their advantage rather than pretending it’s not there.
I think obviously we’ve also been able to offer equipment that we didn’t have previously. The functionality and versatility of LEDS and new sound equipment, powered grid bars so you don’t have to cable for miles, just the kind of ease and functionality of some of that technical stuff. Then also the basic facilities: we never had a proper kitchen and now we have a kitchen; the shower in the previous dressing room was a cold water shower and now we now have hot water; we now have a washing machine and a dryer; we’ve now got a space with couches for practitioners to have dinner in before their show, or have a post-show debrief in, or sleep while they’re packing in.
Could you walk us through the experience of renovating 1 Kent Terrace and fundraising to Fly Bats Home: how that was for you, how that was for the BATS team, and how did you balance that against also managing Out of Site?
It was a huge undertaking! I’m proud of the team because no-one here treats their job as just a job. You know what I mean? Everyone is so invested in BATS and goes above and beyond, and the last three and a half years has really required that of people in terms of the workload and the fundraising required to fit out this building. It’s been a huge, huge effort.
We don’t own this building. So, the building owners and their team, this is their building and it was their renovation. For us it was more preparing to come back and how we would make the building work: programming three spaces, the audience flow, the actual equipment we would need, all that kind of stuff. Also trying to think about how we could still have the BATS feel, and I think that’s something we’re still working on.
What was the level of consultation between BATS and the building's owners during the renovation?
We were really lucky that we were in conversation with the team working on the building about how we saw BATS using the building. As I've mentioned, there were some physical limitations to what was possible; the building team were amazing but they can't yet manipulate time and space! Ultimately we're a tenant in the building, hopefully for a long time to come, so it's important we have a good relationship with those that manage the building on the owners' behalf. The owners have visited the building, one of them has seen at least one show here since it reopened, and I think they're really pleased with how it has scrubbed up and that its life as a theatre has been able to continue.
Do you think that the renovation has changed what BATS is to the community and what its identity is?
You’d have to ask the community!
How about for you?
No! BATS was set up to provide an accessible space for emerging practitioners, new work, New Zealand work, work that you might not see elsewhere and that philosophy is still at BATS’ core. Anyone can pitch a show to BATS. That hasn’t changed. The support we provide to people who are putting on a season here hasn’t changed. So no.
When you think about the alternative, if things had gone really differently when that building went up for sale? This is like, man, you couldn’t have asked for any more, really.
I think what we learned from moving to Out of Site, and what my feeling is, is that BATS isn’t just a building. The colour of the paint on the walls might be slightly different and the door handles might be really nice but if all BATS was to you was its surface? If something terrible happened and the building fell down tomorrow, which given all the work that’s been done maybe wouldn’t be a good thing, I would hate to think people would be like, “Well, BATS is dead now”. Because it’s more than the physical space. Obviously the physical space is important to how people operate within it, but I would hope that it’s not the most important thing. The work is the most important thing and the people putting on the work are the most important thing and the audiences coming in to see the work, they’re all to me much more important than the building.
Having said that, we’re incredibly lucky to have this building. Like, it went up for sale, it needed work done on it. The alternate reality is that we’re not here. We could still be at Cuba Street with a leaking roof and a really cold dressing room and rabbit warrens that we did the best to make a functional space. So the fact that we’re sitting here right now and that people have multiple spaces to work in and they’ve got all that equipment is pretty amazing. When you think about what could have happened, this is like the absolute best dream outcome because hopefully it means BATS is going to be here for another 27 years. When you think about the alternative, if things had gone really differently when that building went up for sale? This is like, man, you couldn’t have asked for any more, really.
This may seem like a weird question to ask following immediately after that answer, but after a year and a bit in the space, is there anything that you wish had been done differently or had been taken further?
I mean, ultimately we’re tenants in a building so the building is not ours. But having just said all that stuff about how we’re lucky to even be here, of course there are some things that would make life easier, but they’re things that just can’t be changed. This building was built almost 100 years ago. It was built to its boundaries. This building is at its absolute limits. It would be great to have a back entrance but that’s not possible, and it would be amazing to have a lift, but the physical limitations of this building mean that that’s not possible.
What were the challenges of operating in Out of Site?
At the risk of sounding glib, we made it work the best we could. As I said, it was a bit of a rabbit warren. The dressing space was quite cold and leaked and the bar was… I mean, we didn’t have a huge budget to transform that space, so it was about creating a theatre that was workable on the smell of an oily rag. And I think there were some really cool things that happened there! Like, the bar got freezing in winter but there were still awesome things like gigs and Scratch Nights. Obviously, too, the theatre space didn’t see a drop in the number of shows from when we were in Kent Terrace.
It actually feels like a lifetime ago because it was just so different to where we are now. But it was cool being in the middle of town. That was an interesting thing.
Like, you step out and there’s stuff going on. That provided some challenges; you could sometimes hear the buskers who would set themselves up right beneath the theatre space, so someone from the box office would have to go down and be like “hiiiii, there’s actually a theatre up there and would you mind moving down the road slightly so the show doesn’t have a Kenny G soundtrack.”
But I have good feelings towards Out of Site, because what an achievement to make that happen and make that work. Some awesome work got put on there and people rallied around, it was alive and stuff was happening.
People have to genuinely feel welcome and part of the community; hopefully, incrementally, that’s going to happen. But I think that there’s always more that we can do to facilitate.
Do you think the type of performance produced at BATS - the theatre, the dance, the podcasts and comedy - has changed over the course of your time as Programme Manager?
In general, no. It’s about emerging artists and new work so it’s always changing, because it’s new people coming in and emerging artists trying things out for the first time or developing. So on that philosophical level, no.
It would be great to see some changes in terms of the diversity of the community and of the New Zealand being represented on stage and of the people making work here at BATS. That’s something I think we need to work on and continue to work towards.
Do you think that BATS is in a position to actively facilitate that?
It’s hard because obviously BATS doesn’t make work. STAB is the only time where we commission and provide funding to work.
BATS is sort of a responsive infrastructure.
Yeah. So what we can offer is an accessible venue: anyone can pitch to us, there are no up-front costs. That’s what we can offer. What we could do to facilitate more diversity on stage and behind the scenes is to make sure that people know that - actively get out there and communicate with people and make sure they know that they can pitch work to BATS and that there isn’t a set venue hire fee that they have to raise the money for. Also, just making people making sure they feel welcome here no matter who they are.
I think we’ve been developing a really good relationship with Tawata and they’re obviously doing really good work with their Pūtahi Festival and Ahi Kaa, which is going to be called Kia Mau this year. I’m really excited that we’re going to have five works here during Kia Mau this year, I’ve kind of co-programmed that with Hone [Kouka, co-founder of Tawata]. I think it’s all kind of steps, and they have to feel genuine. People have to genuinely feel welcome and part of the community; hopefully, incrementally, that’s going to happen. But I think that there’s always more that we can do to facilitate in a way that isn’t through things we can’t offer, like money.
Do you think there are broad structural issues at play that are preventing people from taking that first step to BATS, or do you think there’s something else going on there?
What I would say is that I am aware that there has been a feeling among Māori theatre practitioners that they want a home for Māori theatre. My understanding is that it’s about a sense of ownership and self-determination; they want their own space and they want it to be their space that they run how they want. And what a cool thing that would be! So I wouldn’t want to force people who are like “BATS is awesome and it plays a really important part, but we want to make our own space” to come and do shows at BATS.
But these are broader things that - obviously I’m not a Māori theatre practitioner, so I can only listen and try to understand people’s perspectives and what they want and what they’re looking for. But I think, for me, all BATS can do is make sure that it feels like a place where everyone is welcome and that people understand that they are welcome and that people understand how to access it and that it is accessible. That’s all we can do, I feel, and yeah, we can always work harder on doing that.
In 2014, BATS changed the STAB funding model so that the pool of $80,000 no longer got divided been multiple shows, but was instead divided between one show (for $60,000) and a set of STAB Labs (for $10-15,000) to help develop another idea. Were you involved in this recalibration of the model? What were the discussions behind the change?
The review of how the STAB commission was structured was in response to feedback from companies who had been awarded the commission over the past few years and to changes in technology, the creating and funding landscape, and what is considered 'experimental'. STAB began in 1995 and was created as way to support practitioners to push the boundaries and be innovative and it’s actually had a few iterations over the past 21 years. Early on it was awarded to a number of companies, up to four or more at one time if I remember correctly, rather than a couple.
Over the past 21 years, innovation had understandably often meant technology, but the BATS Board and Co-General Managers felt that this was becoming too much of a focus for companies and that innovation can and should happen in many ways, some of which may not always be obvious on stage - it could be an innovative process for example. We also believed that sometimes true innovation involves trying something and not quite hitting the mark the first time, or failing even. You have a great idea, but you need to test it first to see if or how it will work. So we wanted to make sure there was still some support for that while being responsible with the CNZ funding that STAB comes from.
People are used to seeing something obviously impressive on stage with STAB and saying 'Well that's clearly where the money went', but we didn't want that to just be it as otherwise you could get companies coming up with something shiny to put onto their work to make it 'more STAB'.
So that was the thinking that STAB Lab was born out of, STAB Lab is for testing an early-stage idea and seeing if it flies or flops - the funding is generally enough for a week or two of a workshopping (or workshops over a few weekends stretched across some months with refining in between) and while there needs to be a showing at the end to an invited audience it doesn't have to be public, which again, we hope encourages people to be truly innovative and focus on experimenting and exploring rather than creating a finished product to show.
In terms of making it one major commission, it wasn't just the way the funding was allocated that shifted, we also formulated more guidance around what we considered to be STAB as it had sometimes been quite hard to define. In some ways that loose definition allows great freedom for pitching companies but in other ways it can make the selection process challenging. That guidance was intended to widen people's thinking around innovation beyond technical and design aspects, while still very much supporting and encouraging that type of innovation if that was what the company's work was focused on. In a practical sense, the funding allocation was altered to better reflect what a work of that scale really costs to create and stage and the team of people required to do so.
What kind of impact do you think this change has had on the output of STAB as BATS' only model for commissioning work?
I think the changes we made have worked well so far, particularly with STAB Lab providing the testing out opportunity we hoped it would and the work that has come out if it - for example Java Dance received the first STAB Lab for The Wine Project which has since premiered as a full scale work in festivals around NZ and has a version called Dirt and Other Delicious Ingredients for young people. When that work was pitched, Java Dance had an idea and some early research, but wasn't sure what form the work would take - would it be one person dancing on a barrel in a portable street work? Would it be a full scale dance work and how would things so important to wine such as smell and taste be part of that?
I do think with the major STAB it's been a shift that we could perhaps have done more work to provide context and education around for the industry and audiences in terms of how it can be as much about innovation in process and the ideas behind a work as something with bells and whistles that you see on stage. And what's innovative in the context of the commissioned company's work. People are used to seeing something obviously impressive on stage with STAB and saying 'Well that's clearly where the money went', but we didn't want that to just be it as otherwise you could get companies coming up with something shiny to put onto their work to make it 'more STAB'.
101 shows were staged at BATS last year, which is double the volume of shows being staged at Out of Site. What challenges has that increase in volume brought to operating the space?
On a very practical level, my email inbox! But seriously, the workload of our team. We’re a relatively small team and that is a huge increase in the amount of activity here. Naturally that means a huge increase in the workload of everyone here.
The team’s increased slightly to pick that up, by my understanding.
Yeah. We added the Marketing and Fundraising Manager role and the Front of House Assistant role in the lead-up to moving back here.
Obviously fundraising was a really crucial part of moving back here and, at the risk of sounding like a politician, it’s also crucial going forward. I mean, Creative New Zealand have been very up-front about how lotteries funding is diminishing, there isn’t as much as it has been. There’s been quite a lot of rhetoric from politicians and CNZ about how there isn’t more money from the government at the moment. Fundraising is an increasingly crucial part of an arts organisation because of that and so that role was partly brought about because of that. Also, previously marketing was wrapped into the Programme Manager’s role and with the increase of activity and workload it made sense for there to be someone whose role focused more on BATS’ marketing and supporting co-ops with advice for their marketing.
So our team has increased a bit, but I wouldn’t say it’s increased commensurate with the workload. It’s quite a full-on life.
What else? Lots of people in the building - that’s audience and practitioners. You’ve probably been part of the box office/foyer scrum at times during festivals. But I really like what Ed [Watson, the current Fundraising and Marketing Manager] says about that: it’s pretty awesome to be down in that foyer and be like, WOAH, there are so many people here I’m surrounded I have to inch my way to the bar because it’s so full and going off. It’s a cool atmosphere to be part of.
You mentioned that CNZ’s been frank about the diminishing lotteries returns and what that means for funding of the arts in general. Do you think that the fundraising landscape’s changed for Wellington theatre and New Zealand theatre?
I think there’s more emphasis on the need for fundraising and unearned income - donations and things like that - although I don’t really like the term unearned income. We’re working bloody hard! It’s not like people are just giving money for no return.
There’s probably been more of a focus on trying to upskill the sector in the importance of fundraising and how to do it effectively. There are challenges in that New Zealand doesn’t have a huge culture of patronage. It’s seen as something that wealthy people do, but I think there are probably people out there for who it is within their means to be a regular giver to a cause, and how do we make them think of the arts as that cause? If they believe in the importance of the arts, how do we tap into that and get them to support the arts in New Zealand? I think that’s become more of a thing that people are thinking about and wondering how to approach: how do we create that culture of people believing in the arts to the point where they’re willing to support in a monetary way? Because, obviously, when you see a show it’s being subsidised by funding. You’re never paying the true cost of putting on that work or running that venue.
What do you think that increase in the volume of shows being staged at BATS says about the state of Wellington theatre?
That there are heaps of people and lots of ideas and a willingness to make them happen! That there’s nothing broken with people’s creativity in Wellington.
Is BATS on track to hit the same volume this year?
I don’t know that going further would be physically possible! There’s no conscious reduction or slowing down this year. We had our biggest Fringe this year, we had 29 shows, and our Comedy Festival is going up to 6 shows a night like it did last year. So yeah.
How do we create that culture of people believing in the arts to the point where they’re willing to support in a monetary way? Because, obviously, when you see a show it’s being subsidised by funding. You’re never paying the true cost of putting on that work or running that venue.
There seems to have been a major uptick in the size of Festivals taking place at BATS and the size of those Festivals - Fringe is now the biggest it's ever been, Matariki Development has moved to BATS, Kia Mau’s growing in size, and you've still got stalwarts like the Improv Festival and the Comedy Festival.
The festivals we've always had (NZ Fringe and Comedy Festival) have grown as a result of the additional capacity in the renovated building, and this year Tawata Productions is hosting Matariki Development Festival events in The Studio in conjunction with Kia Mau. The demand for seasons in the Fringe and Comedy Festival is really high so it made sense with the growth to three spaces to increase those programmes, while Kia Mau is obviously a really important and exciting Festival for BATS to be part of along with the other venues who are part of the Festival so we want to make the most of it. Last year Kia Mau offered a great opportunity for the Wellington venues taking part to connect, be part of a shared event and work together to promote everything that was going on in that Festival so I hope it's the same again this year. The Short+Sweet Festival, too, has been running really successfully in Auckland and other countries so the NZ team was really keen to bring it to Wellington to give practitioners and audiences the chance to see what it was all about.
What challenges has that created in terms of programming and operating BATS? How has BATS addressed those challenges and is there anything BATS could do differently or better in order to address them?
In terms of programming, festivals provide good touch points to programme around and offer an opportunity for a more curated programme as the number of pitches received for festivals is more than the seasons available and more than are received for non-festival times of the year. The challenges in terms of the increase in seasons within festivals are the same as the ones I've talked about in general - finding a good balance in terms of practitioners using the spaces and having a good experience, and the flow of audience through the building and their experience of BATS and the shows presented.
Moving into the renovated venue and programming three spaces rather than just one space was definitely a learning curve for me - needing to consider the timing between shows, any potential noise bleed between spaces, audience flow, as well as an increase in workload for everyone. But it was part of the learning we all had to do about how the space works and it's learning that's still happening. We found ways to improve things for the Fringe this year based on what we learned with the first Fringe back in the building last year and those improvements or adjustments will continue. I'm sure there are things BATS can still do better or differently and I think that's one of the great opportunities of having someone new in the Programme Manager/Co-General Manager role who can bring a new perspective, especially someone who has experienced BATS as a frequent audience member since we returned to 1 Kent Terrace.
Could you go into what you’re most proud of from your time as Programme Manager?
I’ve tried to make sure there’s been strong female representation during my time at BATS, both in terms of writers and makers. During the first week of the Fringe, there was a moment where I went, “Hey, that’s cool, we have Sarah Delahunty’s work [Where She Stood] in the Dome and we’re going to have Jess Holly Bates and Sarah Tuck in the Propeller [with The Offensive Nipple Show]” and there were shows happening in the same period with all women, all women-written and -made work. I was proud of that.
There was a pie graph that went around last year that showed the proportion of female versus male playwrights in major theatres in New Zealand. If you added BATS into that, I think it would make the pie look quite different, it would make a significant difference. And if you created the same kind of pie chart for BATS, I think it would look very different to that pie chart. I’m really proud of that.
There’s also when we get nice feedback from people about the facilities and the support that we provide. When we had Talking House Productions come up from Dunedin last year [with their productions The Keys Are In The Margarine and Be/Longing], they were just blown away by the space and the BATS team. It was like having your own little cheerleading team because they kept coming and being like “This is amazing! This is awesome! You guys are awesome! Wellington is so lucky!” One afternoon, they came in and were being all secretive. Then they came into the office and were like, “okay, we’d like to invite you guys into the green room.” They’d made us a cake! And they’d strung up a happy birthday thing because they’d figured out it had been exactly a year since we reopened at Kent Terrace and we’d been so busy that we hadn’t really been taking notice of the date. They were like, “hey, it’s your one year birthday! Happy birthday!” and they sung us Happy Birthday and had this cake for us and had all these balloons and it was kind of like actually, yeah! It’s been awesome. We’ve achieved so much and everyone’s worked so hard.
I think it’s hard because there is so much going on. You’re always working in the future, especially in my role - I always try to programme six months in advance. People during Fringe were like, “oh my god, you must be so busy,” and I’d be like, “Yes, but Fringe was happening for me in October when I was programming it and now I’m in the Comedy Festival and beyond.” It’s weird, because you’re always looking to the future and sometimes you forget to go actually we’ve done some pretty awesome stuff and we’ve worked really hard. So it was nice, having those guys come here and remind us of that.
On the flipside of that, are there things that you’ve thought you could’ve done differently or taken further?
Perhaps the only thing that I’m sad about, in terms of leaving now, is that the last three and a half years have been so focused on transitioning and making those transitions work that it’s been harder to step back and look at the bigger picture: the work, relationship-building, getting out there in the community talking to people and making sure they know that they’re welcome at BATS. I think, if I was staying on longer, there’d hopefully be a bit more time for that kind of stuff. That’s what I’d be looking to do if I was staying on longer.
There was a pie graph that went around last year that showed the proportion of female versus male playwrights in major theatres in New Zealand. If you added BATS into that, I think it would make a significant difference.
So yeah, I don’t think I have any regrets or that I wish things had been done differently. I just think that the reality of it was that it was just a huge period of transition and that took up a lot of our time and energy, so the time for that other important stuff hasn’t been as forthcoming.
What challenges do you see BATS facing as it continues?
Fundraising is one that we’ve talked about and that lots of arts organisations are facing. It costs money to run a venue, and we get excellent support from the City Council and CNZ but we need to make sure that we’re also bringing in revenue from other streams so that we’re not completely reliant on government and local government funding. I also think some of those things I mentioned about ensuring that the community is reflected on stage in terms of diversity and making sure people feel welcome here and that BATS is their place. Just keeping that BATS vibe ongoing.
Do you think there are challenges facing the community as a whole that don’t necessarily touch on those concerns and, if those do exist, do you think that those are things that BATS can play a role in addressing?
I think there’s a clear challenge in terms of sustainable careers for artists and practitioners in the arts. How many people do we see in their forties, fifties, sixties who work full-time in the arts? Especially as a performer or a writer? People that have a mortgage and kids - y’know, it’s almost impossible for people to be an arts practitioner and have all those things because it’s really hard to make a sustainable living. We’re developing and nurturing all this awesome emerging talent where it exists, but is everyone going to get to 30 and go “shit, this is too hard and I can’t have the things in life that I want”? For example, if people do want children or they do want to own a house - do you know what I mean? I’m not even saying that those people are like, “yeah, I want a boat and I want to go out to a fancy restaurant every night.” It’s actually pretty basic things that people want once they hit a certain age and it’s pretty hard to make that happen. That’s a big challenge and I don’t have the answer to it.
I wouldn’t call it a trend because that implies that it’s in fashion and it’s going to go out of fashion, but it’s also been cool to notice some companies working on community involvement, like Barbarian and Binge Culture. I think that’s playing a part in getting people who aren’t working in the arts to engage with it and realise the value of it, when they come across people stranded as whales and get involved and have an amazing experience. Taking theatre outside of venues to open people up to what they think of as theatre and art plays an important part. You know, some people probably aren’t really into art, into live performance because they think of ballet or opera or things that they aren’t really interested in or connected to, but when they see something like the Opera House tours [Grand Opening, by Barbarian Productions], it’s a different experience and it engages them perhaps more than they thought that kind of art could. Hopefully that helps more people realise, actually, this is a pretty cool and essential part of life.
Where to from here?
I’m having a holiday! I’m going overseas til the end of the year hopefully .I’m going to practice my French - then I want to come back to Wellington because I really love living in Wellington and I’ve really enjoyed working with the people that I’ve worked with while I’ve been at BATS and I think there are companies doing interesting and exciting things here. I would really like to do some producing, but then I’m aware of all the things I just said about how it is to make a sustainable career in the arts. So I think I’m pretty realistic about what that life is like, but it’s something that I feel like I have the skills to do, which I’ve definitely developed since I’ve been at BATS, so I feel like I have something to offer. Also, some of my own creative stuff that I haven’t really had time to do much of while I’ve been in this role. My comedy twin Alex Lodge and I had a Playmarket clinic for a script that we’ve written so yeah, it’ll be cool to see that on stage hopefully next year. I want to see what’s going on when I come back and who’ll have me.