The Press

Post-lockdown culture starts to bloom

Grabbing a pint, going to a theatre show or playing sport stopped over lockdown. Steven Walton asks how the brief hiatus from life affected the culture of Christchur­ch.

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Stage actor and director Ben Freeth says when an idea for a new show pops into his head, it’s like a curse. Why? Because those ideas generally go into a hypothetic­al scrapbook – to be thought about, but never actioned.

He says it can be hard to balance his daily work life – as an actor or stagehand for production­s across the city – with the creativity needed for his small theatre company, Blackboard Theatre Collective, run by a group of six young actors in Christchur­ch.

But, with Covid-19 causing a swathe of cancellati­ons at the theatres across Christchur­ch and plenty of spare time during lockdown, Freeth has finally delved into his idea scrapbook.

‘‘There’s more opportunit­y now than there has been in my career, you just have to take it,’’ he says.

‘‘I’ve seen more solo projects by my peers in the last month than I would normally . . . lots of my peers have been like ‘I’m just going to put on my own show’, when normally they’d probably be busy doing something else.’’

Blackboard Theatre Collective has put on various shows post-lockdown, including a concert featuring songs and scenes from performers whose shows were cancelled due to Covid-19 and a 72-hour virtual songwritin­g challenge that led to a studio EP. Both shows sold out.

‘‘People were celebratin­g being able to go to theatre or being able to leave the house,’’ Freeth says. ‘‘New Zealand is in such a unique position.’’

‘People have been so grateful’

Well-known Christchur­ch actor and singer Ali Harper agrees, describing the arts as escapism that people no longer take for granted.

‘‘If we can escape from ourselves and actually sit in the theatre with other likeminded people and laugh and cry together, it is incredibly bonding, and there’s an energy that’s given out, and it’s quite wonderful.’’

Harper says border closures have helped local artists. ‘‘Before Covid, things were really hard for performers to sell tickets because we had so many overseas shows coming in and people only have so much disposable income.’’

After lockdown, The Piano, a venue with a 325-seat theatre, waived booking fees for June and July. ‘‘People have been so grateful for the opportunit­y to connect with audiences again,’’ the venue’s director, Bronwyn Bilj, says.

Harper says the decision was wonderful. ‘‘It meant that anybody who was nervous about putting on their own show was able to take the risk.’’

Across the road, the chief executive of the Isaac Theatre Royal, Bob Mangan, says the August calendar for the theatre is looking ‘‘quite healthy’’ compared to his prediction­s during lockdown.

The month will see live performanc­es from New Zealand bands such as The Butlers and Beastwars, as well as movie screenings, including The Greatest Showman and Bohemian Rhapsody.

‘‘We’re yet to get back to normal, but I don’t want to say that as a negative, I think we’re on the road to getting back to normal and we’re dealing with the cards that have been dealt to us,’’ Mangan says.

He is expecting to continue feeling the effects of Covid-19 until early next year.

‘‘We’ve lost over 111 event days, we might have got 20, possibly 30 event days back’’ he says. ‘‘We’re in OK shape, but we need a few more things to go our way.’’

‘Weekends are busy’

Bars and restaurant­s are also adjusting to the tourist-free reality. Data from Christchur­chNZ shows spending across the city returned to pre-Covid levels for the first time in June. Retail spending during the month was four per cent higher than the same time last year.

In just the city centre, about 20 per cent more was spent in department and clothing stores compared to June last year, while cafes, restaurant­s, and bars were only down by four per cent.

Michael Turner, who owns restaurant Cafe Valentino, says patronage has been mixed.

‘‘The weekends are busy, but the week not so much,’’ he says.

Lunches were a ‘‘disaster’’, so he pushed his opening time back to 4.30pm. The weather isn’t helping , Turner says. June 2020 was Christchur­ch’s gloomiest month in more than a decade, with the city suffering nearly a full week without sunshine.

Turner says it is hard to determine what is winter downturn and what is Covid-related. He believes not everyone in hospitalit­y in Christchur­ch will survive.

‘‘Everybody is going to have to keep a firm eye on their costs and overheads.’’

Meanwhile, the Christchur­ch Farmers’ Market seems to be having an easier time. Manager Sam Marchant says they’re seeing some of their best winter numbers ever.

‘‘The first week of the school holidays, that was literally one of our busiest markets we’ve ever had, winter or summer,’’ he says. ‘‘It was just absolutely heaving.’’

‘Pretty much normal again’

Julyan Falloon, chief executive at Sport Canterbury, coaches his daughter’s football team and says, ‘‘it’s almost like Covid didn’t happen’’.

Data from the Christchur­ch City Council shows there has been a 20 per cent jump in the number of people watching hockey throughout June at Nga¯ Puna Wai, despite a drop in the number playing. A council spokesman says after lockdown there were ‘‘new sports groups’’ keen to use the lit fields at the facility.

Falloon says by the time New Zealand got down to alert level 1, things were ‘‘pretty much normal again’’ for sport.

Though some have suffered. Hockey, for example, lost 19 senior teams. Canterbury Rugby League says it did not have enough teams for the division one grade to continue, while just two teams were registered for the women’s grade.

Falloon says many families are choosing to play only one or two sports due to the financial strain of Covid-19.

He also has concerns about what will happen at the end of the wage subsidy and the Sport New Zealand community resilience fund – which has supported almost 300 clubs or organisati­ons in Canterbury.

‘‘I think next year’s going to be a tough year.’’

 ?? JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/STUFF ?? The Christchur­ch Farmers’ Market has posted some of its best winter numbers, amid higher retail spending than in June last year.
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/STUFF The Christchur­ch Farmers’ Market has posted some of its best winter numbers, amid higher retail spending than in June last year.
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