NZ Festival a rolling arts splash
Wellington may have lost interest in going to rugby sevens, but it’s hungry for more arts events, writes Bess Manson.
If Wellington needed proof of its claim to be the arts capital, the NZ Festival’s evolutionary makeover could seal the deal. Organisers have announced that two major new events will be staged outside the 2020 festival dates, broadening the biennial event to a rolling arts splash.
One of those events, Second Unit, is something of a mystery. An immersive experience inspired by the world of film, it’s Secret Cinema meets Spinal Tap or a rock concert meets an Escape Room. In a bid to arouse curiosity, the festival is somewhat oblique on the details.
The second project, Made In Wellington, will give audiences and local artists a chance to be part of a work being made in Wellington as a leading international artist comes to the capital for six weeks to make a new production, which will then be staged in the 2020 festival.
In revealing the two new projects, Meg Williams, the festival’s executive director, says it is a win-win both for hungry audience members and keen arts workers in need of regular work outside the month-long festival.
‘‘If we have a calendar of events over 12 months we will have fantastic things for the audience to experience, more opportunities for New Zealand artists and arts workers. We think that is a great role for us to play as a leadership organisation.’’
The NZ Festival has broadened its creative scope over the past few years, taking over management of the formally biennial Jazz Festival, which went annual in 2009, and the biennial Lexus Song Quest in 2008.
Its board has run successful between-festival events, such as the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which sold 84,500 tickets to its 2015-16 shows and injected
$57 million into the region.
Williams says their discussions with the arts community and research into their past events indicated there was sufficient demand for rolling arts experiences in between the biennial festival.
‘‘We have answered the call from Wellington City Council, Wellington Economic Development Agency and arts-loving Kiwis who are looking for exciting, innovative arts events to enhance the creativity, vibrancy and economic strength of the capital.’’
So why not make the festival an annual affair?
In 2014 the NZ Festival board pondered this very question but decided against it, says Williams. A limitation of venues and financial constraints meant this was out of the question.
‘‘In order to make the event annual, the most viable option was that the festival would be reduced in length from three to two [weeks]. When the board looked at that option the consensus was that the status quo was preferable to a shorter, annual offering.’’
The biennial event gives it a sense of specialness, she says.
‘‘The broader point is that we think the alternative – producing new events for Wellington – has additional benefits that annualisation can’t achieve.
The festival is aiming for total audience growth over the two years across all events, says Williams.
One of the principles for this new model was that there would be sustainability and financial backing for the events.
The financial backing for Second Unit comes from The Park Hotel and Liberty Hotel, which has promised a three-year commitment. The festival continues to look for further sponsorship for this event.
Wellington Mayor Justin Lester, who is also on the festival’s board of trustees, says Wellington may have stopped going to the rugby sevens events but there is a strong drive for large-scale events.
There had been huge buy-in for the Eminem concert next year and existing events were pulling in the punters in droves. About 16,000 people had a tipple at this year’s Beervana event, 50 per cent of the coming from out of town, Lester says.
More than 90,000 attended events at the 2018 NZ Festival and World of WearableArt sells about 60,000 tickets each year. Cuba Dupa started out small but now attracts 100,000 revellers.
The festival’s additional programme will fill a few gaps in Wellington’s arts and cultural calendar, he says.
He expected financial returns in the millions.
But revenue aside, the opportunity for arts workers could not be underestimated, he says. ‘‘This will mean more regular work for the cultural sector, from actors to production workers. The festival will be able to offer year-round employment to more workers.’’
Williams describes Second Unit as an immersive experience inspired by the world of film, designed for a movie and comedy-loving audience who don’t often attend live theatre.
The venue site will be a custombuilt set on Wellington waterfront, in and around Circa Theatre.
The project will provide employment opportunities for people in the film and arts industry, she says.
More light can be shed on the second mid-Festival offering, Made In Wellington.
Irish director and choreographer Michael KeeganDolan is at the helm of this dance production. He and and his company Teac Damsa (House of the Dance) will travel to Wellington for a six-week residency period to work on the production.
It will premiere at the Dublin Theatre Festival at the end of next year and be performed at London’s Sadler’s Wells, where KeeganDolan is an associate artist, in early 2020 before coming back to its place of origin at the NZ Festival. The project will receive funding from Arts Council Ireland.
Keegan-Dolan, who was behind the festival’s 2018 production of Swan Lake, will invite fans to go behind the scenes as he makes the work in collaboration with Kiwi artists.
Made in Wellington will be a creative development in a rehearsal space in Wellington but with public talks and classes elsewhere in the city.
During the NZ Festival, the Festival Club will feature late-night drinks and entertainment inside the Spiegeltent on Wellington’s waterfront.
New Zealand Festival executive director Meg Williams.
Lemi Ponifasio will be one of three guest curators at the 2020 NZ Festival.
The NZ Festival is bringing midprogramme events to the Capital next year. Future Playground, pictured, was performed at the festival in 2018.
OrphEus was developed by choreographer Michael Parmenter for this year’s festival.