Jackson flies to Bats Theatre's rescue

Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh have bought experimental Wellington theatre Bats.
Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh have bought experimental Wellington theatre Bats.

Sir Peter Jackson has stepped in with a cheque at the last minute to save the tiny Bats Theatre, which has nurtured many of New Zealand's big acting names.

The non-profit, charitable company that runs the 84-seat theatre in Kent Tce, Wellington, had a month left to move out of its home of 32 years, come up with funds to buy the building or close, after its long-term landlord decided to sell.

Bats board chairwoman Victoria Spackman said Jackson and partner Fran Walsh stepped in at the last minute and bought the building.

Sir Peter Jackson
Sir Peter Jackson

"I was absolutely thrilled."

They would keep the theatre on as a tenant at similar rent, and make it a permanent home, Ms Spackman said. She had spoken to Ms Walsh, who said she and Jackson were big fans of the theatre and recognised its importance to Wellington's artistic creativity. Bret McKenzie, Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Michael Galvin, Robyn Malcolm, Tim Balme and many more well-known faces performed there early in their careers.

Ms Walsh said in a statement last night that Bats was "an incredibly supportive environment for up-and-coming writers, directors, musicians and actors".

"We feel its unique voice is worth preserving and protecting and we look forward to refurbishing the theatre and enhancing the performance space."

Jackson said he and Ms Walsh were extremely fond of the theatre. "Wellington has been good to us and we wanted to give something back."

The three-storey 1923 building was offered for sale earlier this year by its previous owner, the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, for $1.19 million.

The Bats board was faced with the difficult choice of moving to another building or fundraising to buy the existing one.

"The generosity of Peter and Fran has solved an extremely difficult problem for us," Ms Spackman said.

"Bats is totally identified with its Kent Terrace location."

The theatre originated with the Bats Theatre Company, founded in 1976 by Rodney Bane and David Austin. "Bats'' was an acronym for "Bane Austin Theatre Society''.

The company produced its own plays and first performed in the building in 1977, then known as Unity Theatre.  It became the company's permanent home in 1978 and the venue renamed Bats Theatre in 1979.

The company produced plays in the theatre until 1984, when it was taken over by Simon Bennett - now an acclaimed director of televisions shows including Outrageous Fortune and Shortland Street  - and Simon Elson.

With the exception of its annual Stab theatre season, the theatre, which has five full time staff, mounts productions by other companies.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the company was started by Simon Bennett and Simon Elson.

Related story:

The stars who shined through Bats Theatre

The Dominion Post