Ghost light, or, the week that wasn’t

A ghost light is a light left on inside a theatre that’s gone dark, usually sitting in the centre of the stage. Some say it’s to placate (or scare off) theatre ghosts, some say it’s to stop people falling in the orchestra pit in the dark; both are valid. (It is also the name of a now-closed Nelson theatre and a particularly nice hazy IPA.) Throughout the pandemic, theatres across the world have kept ghost lights burning as a promise that the theatre will re-open.

Aotearoa New Zealand’s snap lockdown at 11:59pm on Tuesday 17 August, which responded to the emergence of the delta variant in the community in Auckland, has again scuppered a significant amount of creative work. In Ōtautahi Christchurch this has included everything across the arts ecosystem: school shows and community competitions; professional and amateur productions; comedy and cabaret; workshops and training opportunities; touring shows; gigs and concerts; a little comedy festival; a big literary festival. It’s distressing, and stressful, and demoralising; cheery insta posts about resilience, #kiakaha, don’t really cut it. There are, in some fortunate cases, opportunities to restage or adapt, and for some there are financial safety nets from the government and funding bodies. But that doesn’t fix the shock and the grief.

Performance work might culminate in an event, the ‘thing itself’, but it is also the product of months, years and decades of graft – of brainstorming and workshopping work, going down rabbit holes and working back from dead ends, training and building professional capacity, developing and testing ideas, nurturing relationships with artists and producers, building trust with audiences and funders, supporting students, trying and failing and trying again. Most of this is either unpaid, or underpaid. So when work is postponed or cancelled, beyond the financials, we also lose tangible evidence – ‘measurable outcomes’ – of the sheer relentless and often invisible work of creative practice.

This ‘week that wasn’t’, an alternate vision a time not spent in lockdown, is a small attempt to celebrate that work: to acknowledge that it exists, to honour the artists who have lost out, and to try to keep a little light on, for a little while. Thanks to those who shared their experiences with me on social media.

This week at Little Andromeda, Auckland drag queen Anita Wig’lit wiggled her way through an outstanding run of shows to a congregation of devotees and converts, all holding onto drinks (alcoholic and otherwise) in various violent shades of pink. Days later theatre owner Michael Bell, while overseeing the schedule of New Zealand Playhouse’s touring production Rumpelstiltskin, is still sweeping up stray glitter and sequins, like Cinderella separating peas from ash. A rough gig – but that additional sparkle added a dreamlike quality to sold out improv show Perfuct Storm.

The Court Theatre‘s expressive mainstage production of Frankenstein asked audiences to face their inner monster. The Youth Company embraced their inner mad scientists, workshopping and devising new work. Scared Scriptless made stuff up for a late-night audience, as they have been doing for 30+ years.

NASDA students not helping to bring Shelley’s monstrous progeny to life performed in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the terrific Broadway comedy. It’s a show that’s right in NASDA’s sweet spot, and it was an outright s-u-c-c-e-s-s.

Community theatre thrived. Elmwood PlayersArray ’21 offered short plays, live music, and generous platters. The University of Canterbury Drama Society prepared for their 100th anniversary. High school productions filled high school auditoriums, and students demolished their NCEA credits, because the arts in their various forms are and should remain a key part of the curriculum. Dancers passed their exams. Cashmere High School’s rendition of The Crucible amply demonstrated that mass hysteria is best put to use within McCarthyist allegory, and not the toilet paper aisles of the local Countdown. Community and school groups performed in the regional finals of Theatrefest, a long-running national theatre competition that offers a rare opportunity for groups, outside of the professional and educational realms, to come together. Adjudicators offered thoughtful commentary, and long-suffering administrators saw the fruits of endless organising. Everybody won.

Around the city people attended classes and workshops offered by generous professionals with decades of experience. They stomped the floor with Zen Zen Zo, nurtured spontaneity (at the Court Theatre) and imagination (at Lyttelton Arts Factory), and twisted themselves into shapes with Movement Art Practice. People shared sweat and breath. Artists developed their practice and shared their knowledge by working with rangitahi; community groups benefited from the expertise of people who’ve trained and travelled and returned home; professional organisations offered opportunities to the grassroots.

Corporate gigs ran all week, offering essential itinerant employment to freelance professionals, who balance dozens of lines of income like spinning plates. Everyone hit their KPIs. The punters were respectful, appreciative, and not at all overly tipsy, and human resources congratulated themselves on their contribution to people and culture.

Other, less tethered stories lurked in the corners, at late night poetry readings in whisky bars, in glittery queer cabaret. The mythical Unicorn insinuated himself into the corner of an intimate jazz club and pinned down stories like wayward butterflies. Sir Ernest Rutherford skulked round the The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora, celebrating his 150th birthday and showing locals round his old haunts, looking for all the world like Pat from the Parnell Croquet Club.

There was, of course, music. Amongst the usual, rich slate of gigs, music lessons and evening and lunchtime concerts, The Big Sing Secondary Schools’ Choral Festival was held in Christchurch for the first time in a very long time. Hundreds of students made good use of the Town Hall’s glorious spatial and acoustic properties, warming the concrete and roughcast. Cubbin Theatre, believing that everyone deserves quality theatre and music, prepared concerts for the youngest and (honestly) best of audiences, under-5s and their caregivers.

For those who wanted a laugh, Good Times Comedy Club staged a great little line up of stand up and comedy at the Good People Comedy Festival. It was small but mighty, featuring comedians from throughout Aotearoa and offering space to to emerging local talent, including a return performance of one of the best shows to be staged in Christchurch last year. Local fresh meat prepped for RAW; chop chop.

But the biggest event of the week was WORD Christchurch, a festival of books, storytelling and ideas, that staged 86 events across five days. It opened with the sensory site-specific performance installation Te Piki o Tāwhaki: The Ascent of Tāwhaki, featuring master storyteller Joseph Hullen (Ngāi Tūāhuriri / Ngāti Hinematua), taonga puoro virtuoso Ariana Tikao (Ngāi Tahu), and multidisciplinary storyteller and busiest wahine in Ōtautahi Juanita Hepi (Kāi Tahu, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāi Tukairangi). Audiences lined the beautiful, vertiginous central stairwell at Tūranga to hear and watch the story of Tāwhaki, who climbed to the heavens to seek celestial knowledge. Throughout the week there were launches, panels, galas, poetry nights, pop ups, concerts, talks, workshops, cabaret, collaborations between musicians and authors. 40% of the shows were free. It was an international affair in a time of restriction: writers were beamed in from around the world to an intimate pop up bar, Irish poets writing in Gaelic collaborated with those working in Te Reo. If you missed it, don’t worry – it’s returning in November.

This is a necessarily incomplete view, and – of course – does not account for all the hum of ‘business as usual’. There were quizzes, theatre school open days, meetings, auditions, rehearsals, costume fittings, agenda revisions, pack ins, pack outs, coffee dates, last drinks. Administrators got their CNZ funding applications in as soon as the round opened. Everyone went to bed satisfied and hopeful.

So, all in all, a normal week.

Image credit – Jon Ellwood, via Wikimedia Commons.

3 thoughts on “Ghost light, or, the week that wasn’t”

  1. Wow. What an incredible city. It’s hard to read all of this and know what hasn’t happened due to lockdown and how many people in our arts community have been affected. All of those unseen hours of mahi aroha that didn’t come to fruition this time around. We also have to mention all the energy that goes into ‘undoing’ an event. Love to everyone who has spend a vast majority of their lockdown undoing, rescheduling and navigating uncertainty. You are all amazing. On the flip-side, it is amazing to read this article and to know the breadth of what is on offer at any given time in Ōtautahi. I knew the city was vibrant, I had no idea just to what extent! Thank you Erin for this illumination. Arohanui everyone!


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