Against the odds, Q Theatre turns five

Does the Q Theatre pass the taxi driver test?

Q Theatre Fifth Birthday Party
Friday, September 2, 7.30pm
Q Theatre, Barfoot & Thompson Lounge
321 Queen St, Auckland

Q Theatre is an anomaly of sorts. While originally standing for Queen Street (Auckland), Q could also stand for Question, Quest or Quirky. 

More than just a theatre, its multi-faceted identity is the reason for its success in reaching its fifth birthday. And yet, its identity is still mired in mystery.

“You do the old taxi driver test of saying: ‘take me to Q Theatre,’ and it used to be, ‘oh, I’ve no idea where that is!’” says chief executive James Wilson.

Not only have people misunderstood where it is, they’ve also misunderstood what Q Theatre does. “If anything, within the first five years, we’ve not told our own story well. As we’ve been building the business, a lot of people will say it's a place next to the Town Hall, so it must be run by council. And it’s not.” Q Theatre is independently owned and operated.

While Q Theatre is home to lauded performers and creatives ranging from poet Sam Hunt to musician Scribe and visual artists such as Lisa Reihana, the word ‘theatre’ is only part of Q’s narrative. Part social profit restaurant, part bar and café (aptly named Citizen Q, as a nod to the history of the Citizens Advice Bureau building in which it's located) Q Theatre also houses its own in-house ticketing system and is an incubator for fledgeling artists through its Matchbox programme.

Navigating the choppy New Zealand arts scene is James Wilson, a softly spoken Englishman whose ambition and tenacious vision belie his calm demeanour. Having trained as a theatre director at the UK's Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance, he started his professional career at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Mr Wilson moved on to the Lyric Hammersmith before working at the Tate Modern where he met his Kiwi wife and has lived in New Zealand for almost 12 years. 

“I’d been lucky. I’d worked for organisations that had really built a connection between artist and audience that was really about longevity than any particular show. So people went to the Lyric or the Orange Tree because they had a familiarity with that venue. They knew what the venue stood for and they trusted it.”

It’s this kind of public trust and rapport that the chief executive has tried to establish since Q’s inception in 2011.

Part of Q’s success, it seems, comes down to its ability to “hold difference.” Whether it’s a horse burlesque show or a tragic Samoan story, the diversity of Auckland and the various stories it holds as a city is important to Q’s “experimental” makeup.

“I’ve been here on nights when the NZ Trio has been playing in the Loft studio but there might be a hip hop dance contest in the Rangatira auditorium. And out here in the bar is where the different audiences of those two forms meet.”

Q Theatre, as Mr Wilson describes, is a “year-round festival with a bunch of different types of performances and if someone comes and sees Auckland Theatre Company’s main stage production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and picks up a flyer for Leilani, discovering a brand new Pacific theatre company, that’s gotta be a great result.”

Dancing this "really tricky line” of mainstream and fringe is a balancing act but one that’s become integral to Q’s audience because it “keeps creating reasons to come back to Q – you’re never sure what you’re going to see next. It’s a conscious decision to be diverse.”

But while diversity and independence are essential to Q Theatre’s identity and success, the traits are both a drawcard and a difficulty.

On the one hand, their self-sufficiency allows them freedom and nimbleness to operate without certain restraints, “My KPIs don’t say I must include a particular number of works,” Mr Wilson comments.

It also pushes Q to be flexible and creative in how it uses space and organisation. “There’s a lot that goes on here. The building relies on us being active and it’s the utilisation of space that drives the model.”

On the other hand, navigating the arts world as an independent organisation is not easy. “The arts is a hard business. There are ups and downs. I started my career in a place that had greater volumes of people and a much stronger base of arts funding. But over here, the landscape is fragile.”

The fragility Mr Wilson refers to stems from gaming funding. A number of theatre companies have closed over the years because of funding issues.

“Most of the companies that come through here will have Creative New Zealand (CNZ) funding. It’s all dependent on lotteries. So if Lotto is doing well, then CNZ does too, and the arts do well.”

Although it’s “wonderful" the funds exist, he says it’s also easy to see “how quickly any change, any vulnerability in Lotto funding” affects an arts organisation – for better or worse.

“I have funds and grants from the Lion Foundation for the past few years. Most arts companies use gaming funds but there’s a sinking lid on gaming funds and new gambling which socially I support and agree with, but it’s leaving quite a hole for the arts, sports, heritage and a whole range of sectors. So if government and gaming trust funding is not a growth fund, where else are we going to get it?”

Q’s answer to surviving the precarious funding world is to look inward. An independently owned and operated performing arts venue, Q generates 75% of its revenue through venue hire, sponsorship, in-house ticketing, hospitality and commercial hire. The profits going directly back into the arts.

“It’s an organisation using public funding but doesn’t rely on it. We’re constantly looking at attendance levels and seeking new supporters. The biggest challenge is the resilience and the energy required to do that. It asks a lot of our staff and board of directors.”

However, Q Theatre’s independence is not without important partnerships and sponsorships. Apart from notable members of the arts community such as John and Jo Gow, others like Barfoot & Thompson also support the theatre.

"The reason they support Q is because it wins them business. They’re all about making Auckland a more exciting, more amazing place to live so [they bring their] clients, and have a great night. Or it might be a way of rewarding staff or connecting to other businesses.”

It’s this kind of connection between business and the arts Mr Wilson hopes to develop over the next few years. “I’ve seen really successful business and arts partnerships overseas on a different scale from what we have here.”

At the same time, cultivating partnerships between Q and various stakeholders is also crucial, a task Mr Wilson takes upon himself to implement. “I try to make sure I’m not tucked away in the office downstairs. I’m up and around the business quite a lot. My typical week mostly consists of listening to stakeholders, the company, funders, council, and making sure I get a sense of what all are saying about Q and then how to find a way to balance their different needs.”

Aside from collaborations with financial backers, the final piece in the partnership puzzle for Q Theatre lies in its joint venture programme, Matchbox, with emerging artists. Done on a risk-share basis, Matchbox is Q’s intervention to guide fledgeling companies into the professional side of the arts world.

“We select usually between three and five companies [per year] to work with. They come through a contestable programme and are asked to pitch ideas for our Loft space. As part of the process, they have to articulate what it is about their practice or business they want to grow. Where’s their learning edge? How do they want to stretch? What do they need to change to be able to come back and use the venue as a hirer on their own terms?”

Rather than a handout, Matchbox is a hand up.

“We might think the art is awesome, the story important and it needs to be told, but whilst their artistic practice may be flourishing maybe, their business nous hasn’t grown at the same rate. So we look at how to work with them on things like market development, publicity and marketing strategies. All of the 'behind the scenes' side of art.”

Open book
Perhaps Q’s most striking feature of the Matchbox process is its transparency.

“We open our books and show the incoming company the true costs of running this operation and ask them to do the same for their work. We then talk about sales strategy and forecasting the level of audience they expect, or their revenue streams, or what result that’s going to create and then we agree on a split-point. So perhaps we say they don’t pay for the hiring costs. It's going to be a risk, but we expect to see a return through box-office.”

The results are not only great for the emerging artists, but also for Q Theatre itself. “It’s amazing for me to see what happens internally when it’s defined as a partnership as opposed to a landlord-tenant situation.

"All staff have to buy into this project and everyone’s clear we’re working for a shared outcome and so for me, joint-venturing and risk sharing is not just about changing the financial outcome. The outcome is more likely to be better because everybody is focused on the goal of the project," says Mr Wilson.

The future
With more than 530 performances in 2015, an independent streak and tonnes of ambition, Q ’s future is looking bright. Its success in reaching a fifth birthday is due to the sum of its many parts.

Still, Mr Wilson urges art lovers to flock not only to Q Theatre but to other performance centres. Staying connected is key, “You have to see the latest kids cutting their teeth in the Basement or the international work Auckland Live is bringing through.

“If you’re a ratepayer walking past Q Theatre and you know the council is supporting the venue, you’ve got to see it open and alive. There’s no good in it being closed up.”

As for the next five years, Mr Wilson hopes the results of the old taxi driver test will eventually change, “people might one day say, ‘where’s the Town Hall? Oh, it’s next to Q Theatre!’ But I think we’ve got a way to go yet.”

Tune into NBR Radio’s Sunday Business with Andrew Patterson on Sunday morning, for analysis and feature-length interviews.

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