Arts in 2021: The big productions and festivals coming to Auckland

Arts in 2021: The big productions and festivals coming to Auckland


After a year that saw Broadway and the West End face a seemingly never-ending curtain call, local audiences can rest assured that the pandemic won’t stop Auckland artists from putting on a show this year.

While the Level 4 lockdown in March sent a seismic jolt through the country’s artistic community, cancelling dozens of shows and festivals and forcing numerous venues to shut their doors for months on end, theatre and arts organisers are hoping 2021 will deliver a better performance.

In the first half of the year alone, Aucklanders will be able to enjoy live comedy, catch up with their favourite local authors, and experience a plethora of theatre, dance and music spread across a broad-range of festivals that are making a comeback after being forced to take the last year off.

For the Auckland Theatre Company, 2020 saw them only stage two of the shows they’d originally planned to do. Despite that set back, they’ve announced a full season right through until November, with hopes that all six shows they have programmed will make it to the stage.

ATC chief executive Jonathan Bielski said that they contemplated a different approach from their usual modus operandi of announcing a full season at once, but when it came time to make a firm decision, it felt like the right move.

“We had doubts that we could do it, but our desire was to have a confident statement that we were returning to the stage in a way that was familiar for our artists and our audiences.”

Smaller theatre company Silo Theatre saw the pandemic as a chance to try something new. They have four shows scheduled for 2021, but there are no firm dates. Most of the shows will debut in the latter half of the year, as the company waits to see how the pandemic unfolds at the start of the year.

Artistic director Sophie Roberts said that the Defence Force cluster in early November during their season of Every Brilliant Thing showed that the pandemic can change on a dime, and they did not want to be tied down to a packed programme set in stone.

She said they had long wanted to try something new in terms of delivering their work, and their 2021 season became their chance to experiment.

“From an artistic point of view, there’s a lot of positive things to come out of this situation to make everyone look at the status quo and ask ‘why are we doing it that way, can we try something new? This feels like a great opportunity to try new things,” Roberts said.

The March lockdown and the resulting mass-cancellations was “heartbreaking”, she said, and they wanted to avoid that as much as possible.

Avoiding that pain means many other organisations are developing contingency plans that have fast become a necessity. The Comedy Festival has plans to hold socially-distanced shows should the country return to Level 2, while the Pride Festival has developed a guide to help producers plan for the event of Level 4.

The ATC was one of the first in the country to pivot under lockdown, staging a socially-distanced version of The Seagull over Zoom and filming cancelled production The Master Builder.

Bielski said that while they have not announced any back-up plans yet, they have recognised the importance of making those plans. Any show that has to be cancelled will provide artists with an opportunity to do something else digitally, while the opportunity to do something similar to The Seagull remains on the cards.

“What we’re learning is what we need to do is have a fertile ground where those things can emerge and grow rapidly, and be open to the idea of grasping opportunities as they arise.”

The big events in the first half of 2021:

Auckland Arts Festival

Bouncing back from a truncated festival last March, the AAF returns with over 70 shows scheduled across Auckland between March 4 and 21. The festival always covers a diverse blend of music, theatre, art and dance, and this year is no exception, with close to a third of the shows free of charge to open the festival up to more people than ever.

Key highlights include a series of events marking 50 years since the Polynesian Panthers, including exhibition The Dawn Raids – Educate to Liberate. Che Fu celebrates 20 years since the release of his second album, Navigator, with a special concert at the Auckland Town Hall. The Town Hall will also serve as the setting for the Legacy Vogue Ball, bringing South Auckland ballroom culture to the heart of the CBD.

Family events include The Griegol from Trick of the Light Theatre, and an Auckland-centric retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk incorporating the Sky Tower.And as well as being one of the few festivals in the world of this scale, AAF will also host a number of world premieres, including Pasifika play Tropical Love Birds and Subtle Dances from new dance company BalletCollective Aotearoa.

The lack of international acts means the festival will be taking over the Civic Theatre, with the unique opportunity to flip the perspective – putting the audience on the stage, while performers will be placed on a specially erected platform over the seats. The Civic Club will combine comedy – including chat show The Love Hour with Tom Sainsbury – music, with a line-up featuring Julia Deans, Anna Coddington and French for Rabbits, and cabaret, with special highlight Heavenly Bodies seeing acrobats and circus performers utilising the historic Civic to its full potential.

More info at

Pride Festival

There is no shortage of cultural events to be found at Auckland Pride, perhaps the biggest festival in the country celebrating the rainbow communities. The festival, running from February 3 to 28, has expanded to a four-week event for the first time in order to fit in as many events as possible and spotlight every area of the community.

The Pride Gala will include a number of the artistic highlights from the festival on February 4, before the multitude of events get their chance to shine. Cabaret show Night of the Queer and literary festival Same Same But Different return – with the latter festival-within-a-festival free for the first time.

On the theatrical side of things, Tom Sainsbury and Jason Smith’s comedic musical Gays in Space from the 2018 festival returns for a limited run. Other new works include Let’s Get Loco! and Over My Dead Body: Uninvited at Q Theatre and HEtheyShe and I Wanna Be Mark Wahlberg at Basement Theatre, just a small section of the 45 events currently announced.

More info at

NZ Opera

Opera fans have plenty to savour this year, with the country’s largest opera company planning a number of tours after being silent for much of 2020. Things kick off with a family friendly Summer of Opera tour, which will bring some of the country’s best artists to Glover Park in St Heliers for an outdoor extravaganza.

NZ Opera follows that up in March with the world premiere of Ihitai ‘Avei’a – Star Navigator, which tells the story of Tahitian star navigator Tupaia, who sailed with James Cook in 1769. The original piece features songs by Tim Finn and will be performed for just two shows only.

And Mozart’s classic The Marriage of Figaro, originally scheduled for 2020, will finally reach the stage in June, giving fans their long awaited taste of one of the beloved composer’s most popular pieces.

More info at

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra

The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, one of the biggest arts companies in the country, was also one of the first to pivot during lockdown, going digital to perform a number of shows that racked up millions of views. Now they are back together with a packed season for 2021, including 12 performances in their Premier Season, with the first four – Nordic Fire, Enduring Spirit, The Romantic and Rediscovery – coming before July.

Live concerts continue to be a big trend, and the APO has several at the start of the year, including returning to the world of David Attenborough with Blue Planet II Live, while fans of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. can enjoy the Australasian live-concert premiere of the 80s classic at the Auckland Arts Festival.

Local soul singer Louis Baker will join the APO on stage on February 11 for a special one-off show. The APO will also be taking to the Town Hall stage during the AAF for Shoulder to Shoulder, a special event celebrating female composers for International Women’s Day.

More info at

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

The NZSO is back to touring in 2021, and will be presenting a variety of shows designed to bring live music back to city centres and towns across the country. The Setting Up Camp series will see the NZSO slow things down and spend more time in different parts of the country, stopping in Auckland in June 9 – 11 with Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, which features dances from the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Other concert highlights coming to Auckland as part of the NZSO’s Podium SeriesincludesLa Valse , The Firebird, Buzzard, Symphonie Fantastique, Dreamtime.

More info can be found at

Auckland Theatre Company

The big ensembles that the ATC normally bring together are on hold for 2021 at least, with most shows set to spotlight smaller casts and more intimate plots. Kicking things off is Two Ladies, starring Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Anna Jullienne as the American and French first ladies locked in conversation on the sidelines of an international event.

The Haka Party Incident, originally intended to be staged in 2020, will now debut during the Auckland Arts Festival, telling the story of the 1979 confrontation between activist group He Taua and engineering students at the University of Auckland rehearsing a mock haka.

Following in May will be the local debut of Single Asian Female by Australian playwright Michelle Law, telling the story of a Chinese immigrant trying to keep her family and restaurant together.

In the middle of the year, Kiwi acting legend Michael Hurst takes to the stage with the ATC once again for The Life of Galileo. The play about the Italian astronomer whose findings were strongly opposed in the 17th century is being pitched as being uncomfortably relevant in the 21st century.

More info at

International Comedy Festival

One of the first festivals forced to cancel due to the lockdown, the International Comedy Festival hopes to have us roaring in our seats again this May – though expect it to be a lot more local this year. The festival is scheduled to run from May 4 to 23, and like many festivals, local comedians will make up the bulk of the programme this year – though there is room for international comedians should borders reopen before then.

The line-up won’t be fully announced until February, but the Comedy Gala will be back in both Auckland and Wellington to kick off the festival, with a smorgasbord of Kiwi talent set to be on show.

The 2020 Billy T Award nominees – celebrating the best rising talent on the comedy scene – have been carried over, so expect to see Brynley Stent, Lana Walters, James Mustapic and Josh Davies contend for the prestigious title.

More info at

Other highlights:

Visiting comedians – No international comedians have visited New Zealand for nine months now, but that is quickly about to change. UK comic Russell Howard will be the very first international comedian to visit, his Respite tour stopping in Auckland on January 23. He will be followed by recent Strictly Come Dancing winner Bill Bailey, who is heading our way with En Route to Normal, which comes to Auckland on March 23-24. And Aussie favourite Chopper is back after a year away and having to reschedule twice, his nationwide The Silencer tour playing two nights in Auckland on March 12-13.

Auckland Writers Festival – No line-up has been announced yet, but the AWF will be back in Auckland from May 11 to 16.

Royal New Zealand Ballet – The ballet goes national in early 2021 with the Tutus on Tour show, before returning to Auckland in May with the return of their beloved production, Giselle.

Fringe Festival – The celebration of independent theatre is going bigger than ever next year, featuring 100 shows spread across the entire city. Running from February 14 to March 6, this year’s festival will also take shows out to the suburbs for the first time. The full programme is due on January 14.

Jersey Boys – The beloved Broadway musical on the life and songs of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons hits the Civic Theatre from April 17, from the same company that recently brought Les Miserables and Mary Poppins to the theatre.

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