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The man who's making sure performing artists are seen in the regions

On the road: this year’s Arts on Tour acts include Penny Ashton’s Olive Copperbottom. Photo/Philip Merry

For 35 years, Steve Thomas has been at the helm of Arts On Tour, taking musical and theatrical acts to out-of-the-way places from Kaitaia to Stewart Island.

What’s a Welshman with a middling psychology degree doing taking our performing arts to provincial New Zealand? Pretty much what he’s always dreamt of.

Since October 1984, Steve Thomas has been at the helm of Arts On Tour, taking musical and theatrical acts to out-of-the-way places from Kaitaia to Stewart Island. During that time, the Christchurch-based poet and performer has toured everything from Six Volts to the Nairobi Trio, Margaret Mahy to Marlon Williams.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Born in Wales in 1950, Thomas grew up in the shadow of war: he remembers seeing barrage balloons from his backyard, remnants of the war, “so I think I grew up with a sense of foreboding”.

Happily, that feeling was balanced by a measure of good fortune. “Throughout my life, there’s been a certain amount of luck, although, if I had any ambition as a boy, it was to be an airline pilot. I went as far as going for an interview as a student at BOAC [the British Overseas Airways Corporation, the national carrier until the 1970s]. They asked if I was good at maths or physics. ‘Not really,’ I replied. And they said they didn’t think I’d make a very good pilot.”

Thomas ended up instead at London’s Brunel University, studying psychology, criminology and sociology, with a sideline in bus conducting, “two dings for go, one ding for stop”.

Steve Thomas. Photo/Di Forbes

Graduating with an unremarkable second-class honours degree, Thomas did nothing with his qualification, because what really fired his imagination was writing and performing poetry.

In 1974, he went to Canada with a musician friend and worked in the Arctic as a general dogsbody for a mining company. There he ate whale with Inuit – well before it was frowned on – and, when his friend said he was going to New Zealand, Thomas decided to go, too.

Their first gig in Godzone was picking up dags in a shearing shed near Middlemarch. “All these shearers in their black singlets was a complete and utter culture shock – not just that these guys worked so hard, but that the sheep were quite roughly handled.”

Pretty soon the pair were in Dunedin where the music scene was just kicking off. “I love music. Music is my religion. And in 1978 I became part of a street theatre group called Axolotl, a bunch of really crazy creatives making music and theatre. This is before Flying Nun, back when Shayne Carter had a band called Bored Games and he’d turn up at our venue in his school shorts.”

This year’s Arts on Tour acts include Michael Hurst in No Holds Bard. Photo/Robert Catto

A major turning point came when he was shoulder-tapped by the New Zealand Student Arts Council. “They picked me and John Gibson for a national tour, doing poetry and music. It was a great success and it changed my life.”

Yet more luck – the rickety backbone of many creative careers – came in 1983 when, as part of a government Temporary Employment Project (TEP), Thomas became the director of the Nelson Arts Festival. It paid little more than the dole, but the TEP scheme helped move creative people off the benefit by giving them meaningful work that could lead to more lucrative roles.

The festival was a huge success: the new Opposition leader, David Lange, was in the street parade and the Topp Twins were pitted against the “pacifist warfare” organisation Alf’s Imperial Army. It was, by Thomas’ own admission, “a complete and utter fiasco”.

A job as touring manager with the Southern Regional Arts Council came next. “I was given a three-month contract essentially to create the job, to research the region’s network of community arts councils and find out what they wanted. And they said they’d like a variety of acts, something other than pianists or chamber music. To see and hear something different. And that was the beginning of Arts on Tour.”

This year’s Arts on Tour acts include Adam McGrath & the Roaring Days. Photo/Aimee Cane

Arts endeavours always struggle to make ends meet, so how does it stay afloat? Arts on Tour, which became a charitable trust in 2005, is supported by Creative NZ and charitable and community trusts; ticket sales provide about 40% of revenue.

“We’re pretty tight for funds. It’s always a challenge meeting the demand with limited resources.” Demand remains strong both from touring artists and venues, he says. “But the secret of good touring is just like good painting: you’re reliant on good preparation.”

It plays at 60 venues around the country, ranging from 40-seaters to 400-seat theatres. “This year we had 40 artists apply for just 10 places. There is so much talent in New Zealand.”

And the future for Thomas, who’s two years shy of 70? “I think a graduated retirement is how you’d describe it. That way I can move back into my creative side. I’m not quitting, more like stepping back, sharing the load a little.”

For details of Arts on Tours’ itinerary, click here.

This article was first published in the July 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.