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When funding fails

19 Aug 2019
After months of waiting, the CNZ funding decisions are out and for some it’s a bitter pill to swallow. Ben Crowder opens up on how it feels and moving forward.

Anyone who has met Ben Crowder or experienced his work is left in no doubt of his most enduring qualities; enthusiasm and optimism.

His imprint on the New Zealand theatre scene has been undeniable and indefatigable for more than two decades. As one of two artistic directors of Nightsong, alongside the man he considers “the greatest theatre-maker and writer in the country” in Carl Bland, Ben has built a critically acclaimed reputation with an innovative and energetic approach to his work, never afraid to break with convention.

But his usual unwavering buoyancy has been well and truly tested in recent weeks. It’s rare to hear Ben use the word “devastating” to describe any part of his professional career.

The announcement of the most recent Creative New Zealand (CNZ) funding cycle was always going to come with its share of disappointments.  But few rejections could have been as raw as Nightsong’s.

The pathway to here

The pair’s collaboration began back in 2003 after Ben jumped at the opportunity to work with Carl and his late partner Peta Rutter, “the most exciting people around as far as I was concerned.”  

After receiving funding support along the way on a project-by-project basis, by 2014 the duo approached CNZ to look at their next steps.

 “We’ve been making big-scale shows that are very successful, people really like them, they’ve been at the New Zealand Festival. But the reality is we’re not paying ourselves, we’re overworked and we’re not sure how we can continue,” Ben explains.

“We came to CNZ and said this is our scenario, what are our options? They came back and said your pathway is Kahikatea.”

Toi Uru Kahikatea, also known as the Arts Development Investment Programme, provides ongoing funding over several years to artists, art practitioners and organisations to support continuous activity and ongoing infrastructure. The concept of being an investment client with repeatable funding certainly made sense to Ben and Carl, as did the initial advice of waiting for the next cycle to get their ducks in a row. 

“It’s never an easy process,” outlines Ben. “You need to have a trust board and financial systems in place, revenue development plans, business plans.

It’s an interesting departure from having full control, actually giving up some of that governance of your own vision to other people. We have a fantastic board but it’s still like letting your children leave home.”

Despite taking the steps required, a change in advisors from CNZ also came with a change of advice that they needed another year. Hoping the virtue of patience would pay off, it came as a “shock” when they were told in 2016 that “our application couldn’t be better, but they (CNZ) were unable to fund it because of the size of the contestable pool of money. We got the feedback that theatre is an art form that’s well represented. It was really disappointing.”

Nightsong never let the exhaustive and often emotional process stymie their on-stage ambitions. They continued working throughout via the project funding model, including debuting Te Pō to acclaim in 2016 and as Ben explains “still working in a full-time capacity, not necessarily a paid capacity.”

Another hammer blow was landed just months later when Nightsong were told they were no longer eligible to be a Kahikatea client, understandably frustrating after being invited to consider it in the first place.

“It was pretty devastating, to be honest, and very surprising,” Ben expresses before a long pause. “There was talk about whether we should carry on this pathway, there was a robust discussion.”

Still from 360 by Nightsong - photo by Victor Staaf.

But when a CNZ grant offered to them to help take the steps required in their perceived weaknesses (“which were never artistic”) saw them invest many more months of work into getting their dream across the line. Anyone who has been through the process of funding applications sings from this same hymn sheet. “These applications are incredible beasts. They’re multi-layered large pieces of work,” Ben recounts.

But it appeared all that effort had paid off. At the end of 2017, Nightsong were advised they were once again considered eligible for the Kahikatea category and in August of last year, their grant was finally accepted for 2019, “slightly underfunded, which is normal.”

After years of anticipation and meticulous planning, they moved swiftly. While Carl and Ben had to put themselves on a .75 wage for the first time in their careers, Nightsong was growing with the addition of a General Manager/Producer as they set about preparing for the next funding application; to set up a national tour and other development steps outlined in their new partnership with CNZ.

Devastation and disinvestment

But that trademark infectious optimism was stopped dead in its tracks just a few weeks ago, after being called to a meeting with CNZ.

“We were told we were being disinvested or transitioned off the Kahikatea programme. We were not successful in our application, they felt we did not meet CNZ’s new strategy well enough.”

This news was delivered on the same day Nightsong was due to deliver its very first report on their first six months under the programme. “I guess we feel we haven’t had any opportunity to fit into this level of funding, to prove our worth,” Ben reveals.

“No one had flagged there was a risk (of being transitioned off the programme). Traditionally it’s been quite difficult to be moved off this type of funding. My understanding is there are normally engagement and notice periods, they (CNZ) work hard to keep you on it and help you succeed.

“As an organisation, we thought the worse-case scenario is we wouldn’t get a funding increase.”

This unexpected dagger to their organisation was delivered at the same time as rehearsals were underway for their bold new show and first major work under that funding, Mr Red Light, which runs at Auckland’s Herald Theatre from August 30 to September 22.

 “I’ve never felt this before, but for a few days I thought I might be dreaming.”

Ben’s state of shock was soon replaced with a sense of guilt and responsibility. “People have made commitments, financial and otherwise with their lives.”

Carl Bland - image provided.

Life imitates art  

Their new reality now suddenly sits in the ‘life imitating art’ category of undesired irony mirroring their latest production, a dark comedy centred around someone who has incredibly bad luck, played out in a pie shop hostage situation.

“I’ve been working on this play for about three years, but the words in Mr Red Light have never felt so resonant as in the last three weeks.” Ben muses.

“There are some great lines in the play about shit raining down on you, being surrounded by shit, waist-deep in shit. At one stage the guy shouts ‘I don’t understand anything about my life’.

“There are times where all of us go ‘I don’t understand a fucking thing about my life, how I got here, why I’m here, what’s going on?’ It does become a story about how key people in your life can touch you in a certain way.

I understood all those concepts and thoughts, but they’ve been hitting home more strongly in the last few weeks.

‘I think all good art has a lot of truth in it, they are stories that are important and worth telling. It’s what I love about Carl’s writing, we can transform some of the audiences’ view.”

Still from 360 by Nightsong - photo by Victor Staaf.

Won’t wave the white flag  

There is no question these are challenging times for a long under-resourced sector.

Funding of the arts has been under a negative spotlight across the Tasman, with around 250 small to medium organisations in Australia hit by a word not normally in their vocabulary – defunding. Reports suggest there is a $7 million shortfall that has some predicting a crisis for the industry.

But Ben is discovering first-hand that those involved on our shores are refusing to wave the white flag and surrender meekly.

“We are very committed artists to our chosen artform that is theatre. We are unsure how we’re going to be moving forward from here, but we are very determined.

“We’ve had an enormous amount of support offered to us – financial, other ways of assisting, people have actually emailed and said ‘can I give you money?’” he laughs incredulously.

“I believe some supporters are intending to create a crowdfunded Boosted campaign which is not necessarily going to be… a silver bullet solution for us.”  

Ben is encouraging those who want to help to spread the word of the show, stating it’s the work that matters most.  

“I’d say we’re fighting,” Ben declares with resolve.” Fighting not necessarily in a negative way, we’re trying to fight positively and find new ways of going. I do believe what we do is important… I think it’s worth fighting for, it’s worth trying to find a pathway and that pathway is going to be unclear now for a while.”

The intensity in Ben’s voice begins to rise. “We are tenacious. Look, we’ve done extraordinary things in the past, we did the first show co-commissioned between New Zealand and Auckland festivals, that’s never been done before. We’ve come up with quite entrepreneurial plans and ways of doing things.

“We’re touring to six centres, including five in the South Island (Oamaru, Dunedin, Wanaka, Nelson and Blenheim, with Tauranga the other North Island offering), working in collaboration with Tour-Makers which is a national touring agency,” he continues. “I guess we’re going to have to build those partnerships and enjoy being a little less of an organisation and less institutional, which is what we’ve been pushed and encouraged to be, and go back to something more anarchic and let the work speak for itself.

Nightsong isn’t throwing their toys from the cot about their predicament either. Instead, they’re moving swiftly back to the negotiating table to map their new course.

“We are looking forward to engaging with Creative NZ, we are meeting (this week) to talk about potential pathways as a project funded company and how that may look.”

Reaching out to support

After working as a director, actor and teacher to countless students over the years, Ben’s reach in the national theatre world is deep and long-lasting. So he’s well placed to answer the question of how art lovers and organisations can best show their support.

“If you’re someone who does like the sound of a show, whether that’s a show at the Basement or a show we’re putting on, actually make that leap,” he enthuses. “Get off the phone, turn off Netflix - not saying they’re not great places to be at certain times - but it is about human connection.

“I would encourage people to go and see things, go and do things. If they like them, tell other people.

“It’s not just about supporting us, it’s about supporting young artists and not necessarily asking them if they’ve been on Shortland Street or how they earn their money – (theatre) is a hard business and it does have value. I think New Zealand would be a sadder place…if we didn’t have artists bubbling away, building things.”

To quote another line from Mr Red Light, “Nobody likes a miserable joker.”

Ben, Carl and the Nightsong team refuse to fall into that trap.

Tickets for Nightsong’s Mr Red Light’s premiere season at the Herald Theatre (30 August-22 September) and other tour destinations is available here.