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Surviving The Axe - An Insider's Guide

21 Dec 2023

Victoria University of Wellington's theatre department went from facing cuts to winning awards for its successful advocacy in 2023 - Dr James Wenley offers insight into the positive steps organisations under pressure can take.

It’s the week before Christmas, and the theatre programme at Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington is a hive of creative activity. 

59 Undergraduate students taking our summer theatre course are performing 14 original works, created over the past six weeks. Postgraduate MFA students are rehearsing for the debut of their graduating shows for the Six Degrees Festival at BATS Theatre early in the new year. These are students with stories to tell, using theatre to hone their skills in collaboration, communication and creative expression; learning the critical theory, and putting it into practice in their own work. 

This activity was thrown into doubt in the middle of this year when university management proposed deep cuts to theatre as part of cost-savings across Victoria University of Wellington. We had to rapidly mobilise a full creative advocacy campaign to #saveVUWtheatre and ensure that future students could continue to access high-quality theatre education at our universities. 

The #saveVUWtheatre campaign was a rollercoaster ride with an uncertain destination, but in the end, the collective effort of students, staff and the community helped secure the future of the Theatre Programme. 

As we announced on our social channels, “Theatre remains a standalone, critical AND practical programme at Te Herenga Waka. The Theatre programme will not merge with English Literature, maintaining our 50+ year legacy as a distinct discipline. We will continue to offer our popular undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, including our industry-leading MFA. The Decision Panel listened to feedback from students, staff and the wider community about the importance of balancing both theory and practice in our teaching and learning, and we will continue our proven critical and practice-led approach. We remain tremendously grateful for your support.” 

Theatre was saved! 

So how did we do it and what did we learn? 

The Big Idea helped us ring the alarm bells for the arts community: I shared the news about the proposed cuts to the theatre programme and the dire impact that this would have on our wider performing arts ecology. I put the cuts into a wider context involving the erosion of tertiary performing arts courses over the past decade - this wasn’t an issue isolated to just our university. On other platforms, Dr Nicola Hyland discussed what the cuts would do to theatre, and Professor David O’Donnell wrote about the contribution New Zealand’s oldest theatre programme has made to the arts in Wellington, Aotearoa and beyond over its 50+ year history. 

Our existing social media channels were diverted and renamed to support the #saveVUWtheatre campaign. We knew we needed clear and direct messaging, so we boiled down our call to action into a few key points. Theatre administrator Katie Hill worked with graphic designer and MFA student India Worsnop to create shareable infographics and content. Maintaining a google doc also proved crucial for the campaign: a central place where supporters could learn what was happening, and what they could do to help. 

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The success of the Stop the Cuts campaign in Auckland, reversing proposed budget cuts to arts and culture, gave us hope and inspiration. Creative New Zealand’s (CNZ) guide for arts advocates, ‘Changing the story on arts, culture and creativity in Aotearoa’, was an important resource, reminding us not just to focus on the crisis, but lead with our strengths and aspirations – what we do, and why it is so valued. 

That’s where our community came in. 

Dr Kerryn Palmer reached out to alumni, collecting over 130 testimonies from people who had studied theatre at Vic from 1970 till today. Kerryn shared the highlights with The Big Ideademonstrating the value of studying theatre at university. Here was the evidence of what you can do with a theatre degree, with graduates crediting the training with opening doors to all sorts of careers: not only in theatre, television, and film, but media, law, and even the United Nations. 

We’ve now got an amazing resource of graduate profiles gathered through the campaign, which will be useful beyond crisis mode – although also shows the worth of having testimonials to hand.

Just like a theatre production, the #saveVUWtheatre campaign also involved a great deal of unseen work behind-the-scenes. Dr Sarah Thomasson, Dr Nicola Hyland and Professor David O’Donnell led the creation of a counter proposal, offering alternative solutions to save money and generate revenue without drastically cutting the programme. 

It was challenging and exhausting rolling out a full-time public advocacy campaign whilst continuing our research and teaching – the very activities we were fighting to preserve. 

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We were only able to keep going by continuing to pass the baton between us as our energy surged and waned. Alumni also jumped in, amplifying our message further with opinion pieces by James Ladanyi on The Big IdeaEmma MacguireAustin Harrison and University of Auckland Drama Associate Professor Emma Willis

And then there were our theatre students, who made zines and posters and organised rallies, panels and submissions. They constructed a coffin and costumed themselves in mourning blacks for the Students Against Cuts Funeral March for Tertiary education, weeping and wailing as they marched to parliament. 

The #saveVUWtheatre campaign culminated in a feature story with TVNZ’s Sunday programme, screened days before final decisions were made.  Theatre was used as a case study illustrating the wider crisis in our university system, with renowned graduate Robyn Malcolm a drawcard and leading the coverage, calling the proposed cuts “insulting to the arts community of Aotearoa.”

University management was flooded with emails and submissions from supporters advocating for the programme. In September, we had an outcome: key aspects of the original proposal had been reversed, and theatre was continuing as a standalone programme.

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James Wenley (centre) with the #saveVUWTheatre team at the Wellington Theatre Awards. Photo: Lewis Ferris.

We were honoured to receive the 'Guardians of the Future' Community Award at the 2023 Wellington Theatre Awards for the #saveVUWtheatre campaign: “They galvanised teams of students, alumni and concerned public - compiling testimonials, wrote submissions, and took over social media with their robust campaign AND against all the odds, they won. Now VUW theatre can heal and go forward with new strength.”

Hundreds of people took part in the #saveVUWtheatre campaign. We were invigorated by the community support, and couldn’t have done it without everyone who took the time to share what theatre at Te Herenga Waka meant to them. 

2023 has been a tough year for people working in the tertiary sector. Despite some jobs and programmes saved, Victoria University of Wellington confirmed 140 redundancies and the closure of six programmes

In the theatre programme, our beloved Professor David O’Donnell took voluntary redundancy to help secure the future of the theatre programme. It has been heartening to see David receive high-profile recognition for his immense contribution to theatre in Aotearoa. David is a 2024 Kiwibank Local Hero Medallist and received the Mayoral Award for Significant Contribution to Theatre at the recent Wellington Theatre Awards

The citation for David’s Local Hero award sums up why he is such a legend: “For over forty years, Professor David O’Donnell has worked in New Zealand theatre as a director, actor and dramaturg. An exceptional educator, David is one of those remarkable and unique teachers who engages, inspires and encourages – sharing his vast knowledge and passion for theatre with unfettered generosity. He has an international reputation for his research and commentary on New Zealand theatre, as well as his scholarship on contemporary plays from Oceania… He’s a true treasure to the New Zealand theatre community, and his contribution is deeply valued."

Accepting the Mayoral Award, David delivered an impassioned sermon about the value of theatre – members of the audience responding with calls of “preach”. 

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David O'Donnell. Photo: Supplied.

He told the crowd: “I truly believe that theatre has made a strong contribution to the culture and history of Aotearoa New Zealand. As a young actor, I was in love with Shakespeare, Ibsen and Pinter but the plays that really electrified the theatre were those that reflected the country and the culture I grew up in. Plays like Wednesday to Come by Renée, Foreskin’s Lament by Greg McGee, Waiora by Hone Kouka and Dawn Raids by Oscar Kightley. 

"In these plays, I welled up with emotion, I recognised the experiences of my parents, my relations, my school friends, my neighbours. I was motivated by these plays to think deeply about the history of Aotearoa, the cultures of Aotearoa, to question the cliches about national identity.

"Because we experience it live and in a group, theatre excels at enabling us to see other points of view, at empathizing with our fellow human beings, at understanding the great issues of the time, or figuring out solutions.”

David pointed to the sell-out productions of The Haka Party Incident and Prima Facie in Wellington this year as proving that “not only that theatre is still relevant, but that high-quality professional theatre is still one of the most powerful forms for exploring some of the most challenging social issues of our times.

"For these reasons, I truly believe that the study of theatre belongs in New Zealand schools, polytechs, drama schools and universities.”

David urged us to “to keep lobbying our politicians and our educational institutions to maintain and build our strengths in the arts, to value creativity and imagination as real skills– not soft skills - that are vital for the future.”

As we end the year the wider picture for tertiary education in New Zealand remains challenging - with cuts at Victoria, Massey and Otago and uncertainty around the future of Te Pūkenga.

The arts remain vulnerable in New Zealand's education system. Following David O'Donnell’s lead, we need to keep advocating for the importance of creative arts education across all levels of learning. 

Through the #saveVUWtheatre campaign, our arts community helped us demonstrate the value of theatre at our universities and the power of collective advocacy action.

VUW’s theatre programme is open for enrollment for 2024 in our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, including our MFA programme.  

Theatre and performance lives at Te Herenga Waka!