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The next stage for Downstage Theatre

More than just a cosmetic refresh, Wellington's Downstage Theatre has gone the full monty in its new incarnation

More than just a cosmetic refresh, Wellington's Downstage Theatre has gone the full monty in its new incarnation. 

Rare indeed is the project that delivers on schedule. But Wellington’s Downstage Theatre can boast that its rebrand, unveiled to the public on March 9, achieved just that.

Downstage adopted a new business model back in 2008 after its Creative New Zealand funding was nearly halved – one in which independent artists retain rights to their shows (rather than a production the theatre owns and discards after a one-off season), while Downstage provides a venue, technical equipment and marketing and production services. It’s a model gaining traction around the world, director Hilary Beaton says, and it’s only a matter of time before it’s widely established here.

With that “seismic” shift under its belt, it was high time the theatre’s image evolved likewise, reflecting the operational changes in its brand.

“It’s clear that Downstage now has evolved,” says marketing manager Aaron Alexander. “It’s a different beast to what it was 10 years ago and it was really important that this wasn’t a brush up, a cosmetic refresh.”

In boiling down the organisation’s key beliefs, they came up with three simple statements: “Art is good”, “Being out is fun” and “I am curious”.

With help from The Church – known for its support for the creative community through the likes of Semi-Permanent and We Can Create – Downstage hit go on a full refresh, “leaping ahead” from its 1990s logo and what Beaton deems the traditional red velvet, gold gilt aesthetic.

Its slick new identity echoes that of the recently overhauled Auckland Art Gallery’s, featuring geometric shapes and strong hues of red, white and grey.

The theatre, the Hannah Playhouse, is a bit of an architectural icon in itself, laughs Alexander: “It has no right angles.” But it’s seen as a work of art in its own right, something that sits nicely with the company.

Beaton says The Church was an ideal design partner, having also demonstrated increased ticket sales with previous clients. And according to Paul Soong, managing director at The Church, Downstage was an equally outstanding client.

“What excited us most was the evolution that Downstage has gone through and the ability to tell that story,” he says. “It’s great to have a client that is comfortable about being uncomfortable. That’s a pretty exciting place to start from.”

Downstage’s history is one of continual progression. It was born as a café, with theatre taking place in a small corner. It then became a theatre/restaurant, before a fresh incarnation as a full-blown production company.

But today’s environment is worlds away from the one Downstage was established in 48 years ago as Wellington’s first professional theatre, Beaton says. Between festivals for film, fashion and all manner of creative pursuits, and the likes of the Rugby World Cup, there’s a smorgasbord of entertainment options.

“We’ve had to look at what it is we’re actually offering. Wellington is really well serviced by theatres and theatre companies. In Auckland you have Auckland Theatre Company and Silo as the two major theatres. Here we have five or six – it’s a very saturated market.”

Soong says Downstage plays a vital role in New Zealand’s arts sector.

“It becomes a place you can build a career as an artist. There are not many theatrical organisations where you can do that.”

Partnering with independent theatre makers means Downstage patrons always get the freshest there is to offer, according to Beaton.

“We’re not just sitting in the silo and then deciding what we will produce.”

Alexander admits that “when you bring something totally new into the mix it will polarise people”.

“But I think that’s going to be a good thing. The goal is to create something that will have impact.”

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