Bold plans for a capital Broadway

Bold plans for Courtenay Place

KATIE CHAPMAN
Last updated 05:00 12/06/2014
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RED CARPET ATMOSPHERE: The St James Theatre.

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Encasing Wellington's Opera House in glass is part of a new vision that could help transform one end of Courtenay Place into a mini-Broadway.

The idea, along with red-carpet events and pop-up bars, features in a vision Positively Wellington Venues has outlined to owner Wellington City Council.

The "amazing glass case" around the 100-year-old Opera House could double as a mini-museum for costumes and theatre paraphernalia, as well as creating an underground laneways bar.

Down the road at the St James, PWV wants to create a red-carpet atmosphere with box office windows opening on to the street and a "Cabaret on Courtenay" zone with "quirky lounges and pop-up bars and restaurants".

The work on the Opera House would be part of strengthening work required to bring it up to a safe standard, chief executive Glenys Coughlan said.

Roger Shand, of architecture firm Shand Shelton, is working on the Opera House idea with PWV and said the aim was to try to increase the use of the building when strengthening work was done.

The glass-case idea was based on a box used inside Shed 6 for strengthening, but putting the structure on the outside instead.

Glass would allow the historic facade of the "grand old lady" to be visible while also creating more space that could be used to display old costumes and sets, and create more function areas.

"We're giving a new dress to the old dame," he said.

Both he and Coughlan said it was too early to put a price tag on the concept, but the aim would be to get a cost for the strengthening and make that money go as far as possible.

Council building resilience manager Neville Brown said the last cost estimate for strengthening the Opera House was about $6 million four years ago, but it would be higher now.

Plans for strengthening would be assessed in the coming months, and it was important to get the most out of the money.

"While we're doing work like that, we should think about the use of the building."

Coughlan hoped to see the project completed within five years, and said there was also an option to use space underneath the Opera House by creating a bar.

That would help add to the creation of a theatre precinct that would include opening up the front of the St James for red carpet events and creating pop-up bar and restaurant experiences, helping to create an atmosphere similar to overseas theatre districts such as Broadway. "When you look at great theatre districts, it is that combination of great restaurants and bars."

Mayor Celia Wade-Brown said it was great to see an "ambitious plan", but it would have to be weighed against other priorities in the venues area, such as a planned hotel and convention centre. "It's a long way off those decisions, but I applaud them for thinking, literally in this case, outside the box."

Any funding would be considered as part of the long-term plan next year.

Performance and exhibitions director Helen Glengarry said enhancing the venues would help cement Wellington's position as a destination for touring acts, with Lunchbox Theatrical Productions - which brought Annie to town and will put on The Sound of Music later this year - now committed to bringing two shows a year for three years.

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- The Dominion Post

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