Not to be: Shakespeare festival funding pulled over ‘canon of imperialism’

Relevance of event in New Zealand schools is questioned by country’s art council

New Zealand’s arts council has pulled funding for a Shakespeare festival that has been running in secondary schools for roughly three decades after questioning its relevance to the country and because it focuses on “a canon of imperialism”.

Every year, the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand runs the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare festival — a secondary school competition where students perform excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays.

Students are given the scope to direct, compose music, perform and create sets and costumes for their show. It has been a popular event, with more than 120,000 high school students from more than half the country’s secondary schools having participated in the festival since its inception.

The festival regularly secures about $30,000 (€17,400) a year from the government’s arts funding body — Creative New Zealand. But this year, the council has decided to pull the money.


In the funding assessment document, the advisory panel said that while the festival has strong youth engagement, and a positive impact on participants, it “did not demonstrate the relevance to the contemporary art context of Aotearoa in this time and place and landscape”.

The board signalled concerns that the organisation was “quite paternalistic” and that the genre was “located within a canon of imperialism and missed the opportunity to create a living curriculum and show relevance”.

One assessor said the application made them “question whether a singular focus on an Elizabethan playwright is most relevant for a decolonising Aotearoa in the 2020s and beyond”.

The board felt the centre did not offer a strong proposal compared with other groups seeking funding.

The centre’s chief executive, Dawn Sanders, said the organisation was dismayed by the decision.

“Creative New Zealand say it is irrelevant to modern day New Zealand — the opposite is true,” she said. “We’re dealing with what people are thinking, the human psyche, competition, jealousy, misogyny and so many things that are totally relevant.”

Ms Sanders said it was “totally wrong” the funding assessors had made assumptions about relevance within the festival, adding that a huge number of students were Māori, Pasifika and other ethnic minorities who regularly adapted Shakespeare’s works in new and culturally meaningful ways.

“Over 76 per cent of the plays are student-directed, so we are also producing young leaders and thinkers,” she said.

The festival will continue without the funding, which represented roughly 10 per cent of its overall costs, but the money will need to be found elsewhere, Sanders said.

Speaking to Re:News, senior theatre lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, Nicola Hyland, who is of Te Atihaunui-a-Pāpārangi, Ngāti Hauiti descent, said she recognised the poetry and storytelling of Shakespeare but believed he was over-represented in the country.

British colonisers used Shakespeare’s works as an example of how people should act, Ms Hyland said. “It would be a massive, awesome act of decolonisation if we discovered our own stories first and discovered Shakespeare afterwards.

“Wouldn’t it be great if young people could come home and say, ‘Hey, Mum, Dad, I just found this story and it’s really similar to Hinemoa and Tūtānekai. It’s Romeo and Juliet’.” — Guardian