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Avoiding an Arts Festival flop

  • January 21st, 2014

Still spare tickets for the Wellington Rugby Sevens 2014!

Signs that the passion is ebbing have attracted surprisingly little comment, given how much our city has invested in keeping the Sevens. Are we not puffed with pride in the unique carnival it has become? Did we not have the insider's smugness about our ability to get tickets, given the huge unsatisfied demand in the recent past (and special measures to discourage scalping).

Whatever our feelings, the spare ticket phenomenon should be driving Wellington local government to some soul searching.When government routinely offers bread and circuses, but they've ceased to excite the citizenry, what comes next?

Low attendances at Phoenix matches have inflamed Gareth Morgan. It is not just the team's unpredictability. Stadium attendances for non-test rugby have plummeted. Until recently, part of the fun of living here was the certainty that without prior arrangement you'd meet friends at the Stadium. When we all stay home ot watch, TV coverage shows the emptiness.

My private market focus group gave early warnings of this loss of interest. It is merely my work colleagues, clients and friends, in discussion at morning tea or in cafes. They are reasonably spread in age, gender and interests. They're no longer spontaneously talking about anything much at the Stadium. For them at least the buzz has gone. The reasons are not necessarily discontent, or any problem that the promoters can easily fix. It is just 'been there, done that'. Many other things compete for time and money.

That same 'focus group' suggests WOW still has good years ahead of it. But it is signalling problems for this year's Wellington International Arts Festival.

Without any inside information, I predict that it will struggle to break even.

When I raised the issue with a group of friends only one out of seven had any firm plans to make bookings. I contrast that with the intense anticipation and excitement of a decade ago.

But another friend had a solution. The Festival programme is a glossy hard sell document that applauds alike both inspirational genius and self indulgent tosh (often political and social preachifying). Instead the organisers need sophisticated dating site software. It would ask (or know) what you had liked in the past, and what you definitely did not like, and recommend among the offerings accordingly.

Reflecting on why I have yet to book despite regarding it as a civic duty (when it should be just eagerness for pleasure) I realise that my reservations lie in a reluctance to again be the sucker for hype. Even making allowances for common arty breathlessness the descriptions are often less informative than real estate blurbs.

 I like theatre and dance. I routinely attend Circa. I've found some Festival performances enrapturing. But the blurbs rarely give sufficient warning of the acts I will want to walk out of 15 minutes after they start.

Sure – there are code words that give some warning ('complex', 'daring', 'confounding', 'challenging' and so on) but they are sometimes used also of brilliant stuff. I want to feel that the Festival organisers are neutral, or at least acknowledge obligations to us, the audience, even if their primary loyalties lie with the artists. We the market need to feel that the organisers are at least not knowingly complicit with the pseuds and dreary folk and second raters. In particular I want to be warned off those who see us as their moral inferiors, there to be bored, mulcted and instructed by their juvenilia, with entertainment coming last.

A suitably objective booking information system could restore that trust in the organisers.

I like Craig Brown's (the Daily Mail book critic) resolution of his conflicts of interest between authors and readers, in favour of readers.

"The best critics do not worry about what the author might think. That would be like a detective worrying about what a suspect might think. Instead they treat the reader as an intelligent friend, and describe the book as honestly and as entertainingly as possible. And if that process requires back-up in the form of a handy tool, then bring on the hatchet"



  • Kiwiwit
  • January 21st, 2014
  • 9:05 pm

Stephen, the problem with the Festival of the Arts this time is not general waning interest, it is a crap programme. My wife and I have always got the programme early and rushed to book the half dozen ‘must see’ acts before booking additional not-so-critical acts later on, usually ending up with at least a dozen events over the two weeks of the Festival. This time we saw only one act that we were even mildly interested in seeing, and that was at such an poor venue we decided to give it a miss. The rest of it is high-brow crap.

  • Pat McCarthy
  • January 22nd, 2014
  • 8:47 am

On the good news side there is a cracker murder mystery with a world premiere Feb 7-th to 10th at Whitireia Theatre called Immaculate Deception. Stephen Franks even has a cameo appearance on the final night

  • Stephen
  • January 22nd, 2014
  • 2:16 pm

Are you JP and Kiwiwit sure that the difference is in the line-up quality, and not in your own cut-off point? You may be right, but in my experience some of the most rewarding experiences at Festivals have been quite unexpected. The descriptions are just not useful enough.

  • paul scott
  • January 22nd, 2014
  • 7:21 pm

haha dudes , do you want to come to Christchurch for the Buskers show,I pick you up at the airport dudes much fun, why would anyone live in wellington

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