Jacinda Ardern backs school Shakespeare programme dubbed ‘imperialist’ by New Zealand funding body

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New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern has spoken in support of a popular Shakespeare festival for children after a funding body described it as being part of “a canon of imperialism”.

The scheme, said to have involved some 120,000 students – including the current prime minister – across more than half of the schools in New Zealand, has been running for close to 30 years.

It is run by the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand, which has received roughly 10 per cent of the budget of Creative New Zealand, the country’s arts council, for the past decade.

But last month the government agency decided not to renew funding for the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival, an annual event which sees around 4,600 young people participate in 24 regional festivals each year.

The education events enable secondary school students to act, direct, make costumes or create a soundtrack, and often the plays are set in contemporary times or have different takes on the originals written by William Shakespeare four centuries ago.

However, the Creative New Zeland panel concluded that the Shakespeare centre “seems quite paternalistic” and said its funding proposal “did not demonstrate the relevance to the contemporary art context”.

It argued that the scheme asks too much of busy schools, fails to show relevance to “the contemporary art context”, and relies on a genre “located within a canon of imperialism”.

The chief executive of the Shakespeare centre, Dawn Sanders, described the panel’s initial rejection last month, which remained in place after a crisis meeting on Friday, as having blindsided her, saying: “I was gobsmacked and disgusted.”

Ms Ardern was also among those to take issue with the decision, saying: “I was a participant in Shakespeare In Schools. I thought it was a great programme.

“There’s often a limited range of things that kids who are interested in drama and speech and debate have opportunities to engage with other schools. And I was one of those kids. And so I would like to continue to see other kids have those opportunities.”

The prime minister said that the decision was not “indicative of a culture war in New Zealand”, adding that the funding decision was out of the government’s hands. While Creative New Zealand is funded by taxpayers, it is run independently.

Ms Ardern said that many of the students involved in the festivals had become professionals in theatre or film, while others had utilised associated skills in other jobs, such as lawyers who were better able to argue their cases, or doctors who developed a more engaging bedside manner.

The PM chose not to answer a question on which Shakespearean role she had played as a student, fearing that such a disclosure could become a distraction as she said: “I might just leave out the details for now.”

In its 11-page rejection note, one arts council assessor said the centre had “proved the ongoing value” of its regional and national Shakespeare competition model.

But they added: “The application does make me reflect on the ongoing relevance of Shakespeare, and question whether a singular focus on an Elizabethan playwright is most relevant for a decolonising Aotearoa in the 2020s and beyond.”

Ms Sanders vowed to try to find alternative funding for the festival, and said that people had already donated thousands of dollars via online crowdfunding since the dispute became public.

Additional reporting by AP

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