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"Unforgivable Attack" - Latest Blow In Gutting Of NZ Theatre Education

22 Jun 2023

The cuts set to ravage Victoria University of Wellington continue an alarming trend for Aotearoa's tertiary theatre education.  James Wenley explains the impact it will make and why it matters.

Theatre students perform in Hell School_ The Musical at Hannah Playhouse for NZ Fringe 2023. Directed by James Wenley. Photo Credit Alex Rabina.jpg
Theatre students perform in Hell School_ The Musical at Hannah Playhouse for NZ Fringe 2023. Directed by James Wenley. Photo: Alex Rabina.

James Wenley is a lecturer in theatre at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington and is the New Zealand representative for the Australasian Association for Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies.  Wenley is a passionate advocate for the arts - and outlines to The Big Idea what the news of impending cuts at his Univerity - and to his department - really means.


Can theatre change the world?  

That’s the question we explored in Theatre for Change, a course I teach at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington. 

Our third-year students studied how theatre can provide people with hope and healing, researched the benefits of theatre programmes in prisons and how drama therapy can support mental health, and created a theatre-in-education workshop that they took to a local high school. 

Our students will tell you from experience: theatre changes lives. 

Change is coming to Vic’s theatre programme – change for the worse. 

Our programme is one of many being slashed as part of a desperate proposal to get Vic out of a $30 million hole. The theatre programme will be cut by more than half – our team of 10 shrinking to 4 full time roles (3 academics, 1 technician) and folded into a reduced English Literatures and Creative Communication programme. 

This will wind the clock back to 2000 - the last time Vic theatre had a staff of this size. Back then, we had no first-year courses, nothing for postgraduates. We now have a dynamic range of courses at all levels and our MFA postgrads regularly work alongside industry professionals. 

All of this is at risk – the cuts will undo over 20 years of growth overnight. 

Theatre for Change students rehearse in the Hunter Council Chambers.png
Theatre for Change students rehearse in the Hunter Council Chambers. Photo: Supplied.

Slippery slope

The impending destruction of Vic’s theatre programme as we know it is the latest sad chapter in a tale of cuts that have critically weakened tertiary performing arts education in New Zealand. 

Canterbury University abandoned its theatre and film studies programme following the earthquakes. The provider behind Auckland’s Pacific Institute of Performing Arts (PIPA) went into liquidation out of the blue in 2017. Many PIPA students transferred to Manukau Institute of Technology, but its performing arts programmes were also subsequently shut down. Parts of Unitec’s Bachelor Performing & Screen Arts were suspended in 2019 and budgets have remained tight. Unitec (Auckland), Whitireia/Te Auaha’s performing arts programmes (Wellington), and NASDA’s musical theatre programme (Christchurch) face an uncertain future, amalgamated under the debt-burdened and jobs-shedding mega polytechnic Te Pūkenga. 

I fear for the Theatre Studies Programme at Otago University, with deep cuts threatened across the entire university. The University of Auckland, where I studied, is down to two permanent Drama staff, and a still-empty space where the demolished Maidment Theatre used to stand. 

Massey University students take theatre under the guise of Expressive Arts, but theatre’s presence at Massey’s Palmerston North campus has quietly disappeared. The University of Waikato has a modest theatre offering. 

Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School - led by Vic theatre grad Tanea Heke - holds on as a vital pou for the performing arts sector. 

The system sets us up as competitors, but students should be able to access to theatre studies and training across the country. We need strong university theatre education – a balance of theory and practical, with an opportunity for students to enrich their learning by studying theatre alongside other subjects. 

In the words of the late Phill Mann, who founded drama studies at Vic in 1970, our students “share the pleasure of creative work” and become “informed audiences and skilled performers.”

Crucial breeding ground

Our national performing arts sector is in recovery mode following the ravages of the pandemic and experiencing a skills shortage of specialist arts workers. Vic’s theatre programme is an important pipeline to the industry: recent graduates are in demand as producers, production managers, designers, and technicians, and can be seen on the stages of NZ Fringe and Kia Mau Festival. 

The Cyranoid - THEA 301 Production 2023 - Directed by Nicola Hyland..jpg
The Cyranoid - THEA 301 Production 2023 - Directed by Nicola Hyland. Photo: Supplied.

Our graduates include Taika Waititi, Erik Thompson, Simon Bennett, Tandi Wright and Eleanor Bishop - and we have a proud history of theatre companies like Binge Culture, Trick of the Light, and Red Scare emerging from our programme. 

But you’ll also find our theatre graduates everywhere – law, education, media, NGOs - even the UN. Theatre students become expert in collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, communication - transferrable skills required to navigate the uncertainties of work in the 21st Century. 

Theatre and other threatened programmes at Victoria like music, languages and education, are being cut because universities have been starved of Government investment

By law, universities are unable to breach their debt ceiling. And so, costs – AKA people – have to be reduced. It’s a brutal numbers game, overlooking the wider value offered by our programmes. 

Theatre isn’t losing money at Vic, we’re just not making enough to satisfy the decision makers. Nor is there any shortage of students who want to study theatre – the fact our numbers are only down a nudge through the pandemic should be cause for celebration. 

James Wenley in Studio 77.jpg

Staff/student ratio is a particularly inappropriate measure to use for disciplines like theatre and music that value practical kanohi ki te kanohi learning. The cuts are a blunt response to a short-term financial challenge that will lead to long-term pain, and a generation of students will lose access to vital courses and programmes. 

The cuts should cause concern for Wellington City Council - undermining the council’s Aho Tini 2030 Arts, Culture & Creativity strategy and aspirations to retain Wellington’s cultural capital status. 

The cuts should cause concern for Minster for Arts, Culture and Heritage Carmel Sepuloni, with a knock-on impact for our national performing arts sector. 

Ministers Hipkins, Robertson, and Tinetti should be concerned too - the cuts represent an unforgivable attack on arts, education and research in New Zealand. 

I know our theatre graduates can change the world: but only if theatre education in New Zealand is given a fighting chance.