Town's theatre brought back to life

20:02, Dec 30 2013
Russ Standing
STAGE RIGHT: Russ Standing is the final of five nominees for the 2013 Taranaki Daily News Person of the Year award. The theatre stalwart has played a leading role in restoring the Hawera Memorial Theatre to its former glory. 

Rain flooded on to the stage night after night as Russ Standing tried his hardest to direct a Broadway musical in Hawera.

The rain poured from the ceiling of the town's Memorial Theatre, creating a small indoor waterfall that was not needed, nor wanted for his 2009 production of Oliver!

To add to the frustration the power to the theatre's meagre six stage lights kept tripping and unless the gas main was turned off natural gas leaked into a musty and mouldy green room.

The theatre was a hovel, he said.

Now, three years on, the 73-year-old sits on a luxurious velvet seat in a well lit and dry auditorium, shyly filling the air with talk of how the entertainment centre again came to be the hub of the town.

His production of the The Wizard of Oz relaunched the complex in June, leaving the audience raving about the refurbished building.


The theatre stalwart is modest about his involvement in bringing the complex back to life, saying the $220,000 refurbishment is a credit to the community.

However, it was Standing who saw the need for the refurbishment, set up the trust and drove the campaign to raise the funds for the community asset, owned by the South Taranaki District Council.

In contrast to 2009 when Standing's Oliver! was the only event on at the dilapidated complex, the restored theatre is now abuzz with bookings.

After the season of the The Wizard of Oz ended, the Royal New Zealand Ballet returned to the Hawera stage, as did the Patea Maori Club.

"For the first time in a long time there is actually somewhere for the community to go and watch shows, as well as somewhere for them to perform and rehearse and learn," he said.

"We almost have more on than we can handle now."

In 2009 Standing, arguably Hawera's top director, came back to the stage to direct Oliver! after a break that spanned almost a decade.

The past president of Hawera Repertory was stunned when he walked into the 333-seat auditorium of the building.

"It was heartbreaking.

"We had wonderful years when Les Miserables and Evita were staged here and it was so disappointing to see it in such disrepair," he said.

The team pulled together and got through Oliver!, reminding themselves the show must go on, even if the theatre was littered with buckets of water.

"After that I knew I had to get this back to being a popular, functioning, community venue."

Standing called on his fellow thespians, formed a trust called the Hawera Memorial Theatre Friends and set about raising the funds to repair the building.

It took the them 18 months to raise $220,000, which came from grants, community trusts, charities and variety shows.

That money has gone towards repairing the building and upgrading the equipment and technology.

As well as $70,000 worth of stage lighting the theatre now has a new set of black drapes, a seating row for wheelchairs and a full stage cyclorama, on to which images can be projected.

Standing, who has been involved with close to 90 productions in South Taranaki, says the theatre and its technology are now a true community asset.

"The reason why the theatre was not being used was because it was in disrepair. But because no one was using it, people didn't want to spend money doing it up.

"It was a double-edged sword.

"Now schools and community groups come in here and use the theatre with all of the facilities free for rehearsals and workshops. It helps to develop the talents and skills of our local people," he said.

Standing, who was born in England and moved to New Zealand in 1958, acknowledges there is still more work to be done but he is pleased to see so many people enjoying the venue again.

"It's been returned to the community and the community have wrapped themselves around it," he said.


Hawera Memorial Theatre's Russ Standing is the final of five nominees for the 2013 Taranaki Daily News Person of the Year award.

Taranaki Daily News interviewed each of the finalists. The winner is announced tomorrow

Taranaki Daily News