Steve Thomas is focused on bringing the arts to some of the remotest parts of Aotearoa, with the Arts On Tour Trust. Following Arts On Tour's shows, performers are asked to give feedback on their favourite venues. Their top 2019 choices have just been announced as:
- Best overall venue (Top Gig) – 4th Wall Theatre, New Plymouth
(For hospitality, technical assistance, promotional and social media support, general vibe).
- Manaakitanga (Hospitality) Award – Daisy Sawyers, Reefton
- Best Theatre Venue – Expressions Whirinaki, Upper Hutt
- Best Music Venue – The Laboratory, Lincoln
- Best Individual Community Presenter – Heather McPherson, Bannockburn
Congrats to all the winners! Below, Dominic Hoey chats to Steve Thomas about his mission to take the arts to Aotearoa's most picturesque places.
Remote and risky
For the past 25 years, Welsh poet, promoter and raconteur Steve Thomas has been bringing New Zealand artists to some of the most remote parts of the country. From household names like Don McGlashan and Marlon Williams to lesser known artists, over 200 acts have hit the road under Arts on Tour’s banner.
The Arts on Tour team pays the artists a fee, sorts out promotion and logistics and allows them to play venues which would normally be too risky to add to a touring schedule. Destinations include places like Okarito's Donovan’s Store or the RSA Pavilion on Stewart Island, where Steve says “attendance often outnumbers the population of the settlement.”
Steve says it’s always been about more than just putting on great gigs. “The arts supports and encourages community wellbeing. Artists coming in from outside provide a stimulus and carry stories both to and from tiny Aotearoa towns.”
Learning on the road
Steve arrived in New Zealand in 1974 as a touring poet. After the tour was complete he decided to stay, and in 1980, along with Dunedin musician John Gibson and Fortune Theatre lighting designer Tony Rabbit, set up a show called The Tupperware Party. The show’s success led to them taking it on the road, where Steve learned about marketing and practical touring issues.
After a stint as the first director of the Nelson Arts Festival in 1983, he became a tour manager with the Southern Regional Arts Council. It was here that the seeds for Arts on Tour were sown.
Hopetoun Brown. Supplied.
Tall tales of touring
Having toured with so many artists around the country over the last 25 years, it’s fair to assume Steve has some stories. “I could write a book,” he says, before listing off a series of notable events including car crashes, earthquakes and “finding the landlord roaming the Hari Hari Hotel corridors with a shotgun, on the When the Cats Been Spayed Tour, about to confront f***wits in the carpark.”
I ask Steve if there’s any acts that have stood out for him. “The favourite act is usually the last one,” he says, but points to Don McGlashan’s Songs from the Front Lawn performance at the Punakaiki Visitor Centre and Philip Dadson’s From Scratch performance in Westport among the highlights.
Readers interested in hearing more stories from the road and seeing Arts on Tour in action should check out the Bill Morris documentary, Central to the Soul, which was part of this year’s DocEdge fest. The film features acts like Hopetoun Brown, Adam McGrath and Helen Webby as they tour around Otago.
Bumper year ahead
When applications opened in April, and they’re flooded with potential acts. In 2018 they had 40 artists apply for 10 spaces. When choosing who to select, Steve says it’s a matter of assessing availability, price, market appeal and balance of genres to include music, theatre, literature and dance.
Anthonie Tonnon. Supplied.
2020 is set to be another busy year for Arts On Tour, with nine acts from various genres set to traverse the country. These include Arts on Tour regular poet/comedian Penny Ashton who’ll be teaming up with actor Lori Dungey and classical musician Robbie Ellis for Austen Found: The Undiscovered Musicals of Jane Austen. Musician Anthonie Tonnon is bringing his show Rail Land to the provinces, described as “a journey through song and story of New Zealand’s on again off again love affair with passenger rail.” Arts on Tour favourites Hopetoun Brown and internationally-renowned percussion group, From Scratch, will also be hitting the road.
Despite Arts on Tour starting to become a New Zealand institution, Steve isn’t letting its success go to his head.
“The brand awareness has never been higher, especially since the success of Central to the Soul. It’s time to rebrand and go underground again,” he jokes.