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Not All Fun & Games - Children's Theatre Fight For Survival

28 Mar 2024

One of the most established and respected names in Aotearoa's performing arts scene aimed at youth gives a raw, honest appraisal of where the genre is at and why it needs help.

Creativity is for anyone - at any stage of life. But in the vast majority of circumstances, the initial spark starts when we're young.

The imagination of youth knows no bounds, but it needs to be fueled to be truly unleashed. 

One of Aotearoa's most respected sources of performing arts created with children and families in mind is Tim Bray, through his self-titled theatre company. Established and well-regarded since 1991 - and awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for services to children and theatre - even he finds keeping the light on for the tamariki of Aotearoa a difficult assignment.

With his peers in children's theatre slowly falling by the wayside - unable to navigate past the never-ending hurdles of the cost-of-living crisis, escalating operational costs and funding cuts -  Bray has taken matters into his own hands with the Theatre for All Appeal - a plea for solidarity in preserving the transformative power of theatre for children and teenagers.

Tim Bray Theatre Company's commitment to making theatre accessible has seen initiatives like NZSL performances and Sensory Relaxed experiences added to its repertoire, to create an inclusive environment where every child feels valued.

The Big Idea asked Tim Bray why he believes children-focused theatre in NZ is in the state that it's in, and why it's so important to fight for this genre of performance. 

 

I've just turned 60 and for my entire career, children-focused theatre in New Zealand has been the extremely poor cousin to theatre for adults. 

Even now - after 33 years of our theatre company and charity - it's a nail-biting ride through each year as we slowly gather together one million dollars in funding from many, many piecemeal applications. And funding right now, for all charities across the country, is under pressure in the tough economic climate as charities need more assistance with increased costs but funding overall is declining. For example, we have just heard that we will receive $10k from Lottery Community Grants in 2024 when we had been receiving $50k.

Out of 81 investment clients that Creative New Zealand (CNZ) has in its Kahikatea and Tōtara client stable, just one is solely focused on children and that is Storylines (Kahikatea) which is focused on literature for children. 

The only other CNZ client dedicated to children was Capital E National Theatre for Children but that closed at the end of 2023.

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Tim Bray. Photo: Supplied.

I'm not sure why, as a country and performing arts industry, we think that children should not be deemed as important as adults when it comes to the arts? Especially when adult performing arts companies are always looking to fill their seats with people! 

That, though, is not the reason why I create theatre for children (to build future audiences) - I do what I do because I believe children need top-quality arts experiences just as much as adults do.

Perhaps it's because people perceive creating work for children is somehow cheaper to do? But our theatre company has the same overheads as one that is creating work for adults. Rehearsal rooms, actors, set/costume/lighting designers, venue hire, royalties, lighting hire, advertisements, insurances, accounting, audit etc - they all cost exactly the same, yet we can only charge family or school-friendly prices. 

Creating and presenting performing arts experiences for children should be far better funded than for adults for that reason alone.

Perhaps it's because people perceive that children are less discerning or don't know quality when they see it? 

Let me tell you - if you aren't engaging a child, they will soon tell you by wriggling in their seats, standing up, running in the aisle or even loudly saying "I'm bored". Imagine if adults did the same at a show that wasn't engaging or poorly produced. 

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The Great Piractical Rumbustification. Photo: Supplied.

Creating top-quality and engaging work for children is hard. 

Perhaps it's because people perceive children as not important? But how can we raise intelligent, empathetic, questioning, creative, socially engaged adults of the future if we don't invest in our younger generations? 

We are going to need a lot of creative thinkers in the future to help solve the problems in the world - the performing arts help inspire creative thinking in the children that will become not only our future artists but also our future scientists, economists, engineers, biologists etc.

Children need and deserve quality arts experiences as much as adults. I still have vivid and indelible memories of the shows I saw at Mercury Theatre, Central Theatre, His Majesty's when I was a child. 

Children need to be inspired, have their imaginations teased and magnified, helped to make sense of the world, themselves and human relationships through stories or the power of music and dance. Children deserve a good laugh, like to feel moved, enjoy a shiver of fright, revel in a great story, and be moved by a sad tale just as much as adults do. 

 

If you want to support Tim Bray's Theatre for All Appeal, click here.