A strategic review of the Auckland Theatre Company’s leadership structure has seen two roles melded into one, as CEO Jonathan Bielski has added Artistic Director to his title and responsibilities.
But the double role is not something he intends to tackle alone.
Instead, Bielski’s vision for the company is one that makes itself relevant to the melting pot of cultures that is Auckland by surrounding himself, as artistic director, with as many different voices and viewpoints as it takes.
“Soon you will see us advertising for a group of artistic associates who will join me in the leadership of the company,” says Bielski.
“And that is designed for us to try to tackle this central problem that we have in a community like Auckland, that has this multiplicity of experiences and world views.
“How one person is supposed to be able to bring all that to the table, I don’t know.”
Bielski says it's important to have other artistic and cultural points of view coming in and informing the debate around the institution and the kinds of artistic decisions that it makes.
“I don't know how I would describe it because it's not a collective approach, but it is just a different approach, certainly different to what we've been doing.”
Figuring out exactly how it will work will also be part of the recruitment processes, he adds, because whoever is engaged will also be part of that co-design process.
“There's a whole lot of stuff we know how to do really well. And then there are other things where we need other eyes, ears and brains on that.”
Jonathan Bielski speaks with guests at the opening of Katie Wolfe's The Haka Party Incident in March. Photo: ATC/Jinki Cambronero.
As an example, ATC will revisit Oscar Kightley’s Dawn Raids next year as a co-production with Pacific Underground (scheduled to run from August 16 to September 3).
Bielski says Pacific Underground will be “very much leading” the process.He believes it would be impossible in today’s world for ATC to put the play on without them.
“They have a sort of a sovereignty over the way that story will be made and told.
“Once you step into certain spaces, there are ways things need to be done these days,” he says.
Raised in a farming family in the Manawatū, Bielski started in amateur theatre as a teenage performer but soon gravitated to backstage, where he says the first thing he did “of any real substance” in theatre was as a lighting designer.
“I haven't trained, I haven't done the Toi Whakaari route, you know. I'm a genuine amateur.”
But he also knew he wanted to “be in charge” and that meant moving into administration.
Jonathan Bielski with playwright and actress Katie Wolfe at the opening of her The Haka Party Incident in March. Photo: ATC/Jinki Cambronero.
Coming to Auckland in the mid 1990s, he worked first at the St James Theatre, then for the management company handling the Aotea Centre, Town Hall and The Civic.
Australia beckoned in 2002 and Bielski worked at the Sydney Opera House for 13 years. Returning in 2016, he joined the Auckland Theatre Company for the first time - six months with the team working to open the new waterfront theatre.
“And while I was home, [Auckland Arts Festival Artistic Director] Carla van Zon decided to retire so I applied for the job there and took over from her - if in any way it's possible to take over from such a legend.
“But you know, I inhabited the office. Perhaps I shouldn't say I took over, but I was the next one in!”
It was when he was coming to the end of his three years with the Festival that the ATC CEO job came up and he successfully applied.
But it has been a tenure disrupted by waves of COVID and the strategic restructure of the company which culminated in the decision to combine the roles of Artistic Director and CEO.
“I put my hand up for that and here I am now, running the show on my own as it were.”
In a statement announcing the appointment, ATC Chair Vivien Sutherland Bridgwater said Bielski was the standout among a number of high-calibre candidates.
“Jonathan pitched a new way of leading the Company the Board considered apt for our times.”
“It's very generous of her to say that,” responds Bielski.
“What my pitch was, as a non-artist leading an arts company, that what I would really see my role as is a sort of impresario of the company.
“I'm not going to be on the floor directing the plays. That's not what I bring to the company, but I do know how to make it work. And I do how to lead organisations, to build networks and bring people together.”
Bielski says a theatre company with Auckland its name needs to be relevant to Aucklanders although it cannot be all things to all people all the time.
“I’ve often thought that’s actually the definition of nothing. If you're all things to all people all of the time you literally aren’t anything at all.
“You have to have a point of view as a cultural organisation; at the moment that point of view is mine but over time, that needs to change - many other perspectives need to come in.”
Bielski takes on the new role at a time when COVID has again thrown a huge spanner in the works.
Jonathan Bielski speaks at the opening of Michelle Law's Single Asian Female in April. Photo: ATC/Jinki Cambronero.
Although the company has drawn up a full programme for next year, starting - pandemic willing - in February, it has been able to produce nothing since August.
“When the most recent COVID outbreak happened in Auckland, we were standing in the green room about to do the first preview of a new play by Gary Henderson called Things That Matter,” says Bielski.
“The cast had finished their final dress rehearsal, they were in their costumes and make-up and they were about to go up and do their warm-ups, and it was all over. And that show’s never been seen.”
They also lost a remount of Katie Wolfe's The Haka Party Incident and the final production of the year, Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.
“It's been a very sad end of the year for us,” says Bielski.
“The Haka Party Incident is going to the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts in March and then once we see how next year settles down, that production of Katie Wolfe’s will have another life at some point.
“It's probably got quite a bit of potential to tour New Zealand and the world.”
Things That Matter will also be back at some point.
“We just don't know when and how we'll do it, but we haven’t let it go.”
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