Real value in theatre

SARAH NATHAN
Last updated 09:59 13/02/2013
Founders theatre
FAIRFAX NZ

"Restore Founders to be the premier space it was intended to be and support The Meteor to flourish with community theatre," - Sarah Nathan.

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OPINION: The Hamilton Theatre Review report has arrived and, to many, the recommendations are not surprising: upgrade Founders; gift The Meteor to a suitable trust to be run as a community theatre; sell Clarence St.

The city theatres that now lie at the Hamilton City Council's mercy, ended up in the position they are in today for varying reasons.

Founders is the council's only planned theatre. Since its visionary establishment in 1962, the facility has enjoyed cursory refurbishments and upgrades. Despite an impressive 50-year theatrical and civic schedule, the 1250-seat venue has suffered from variable acoustics, climate-control challenges and a backstage that is like something out of the 1960s. The stage itself is not large enough to host a professional ballet company.

The Meteor was originally built as a soft-drink manufacturing plant in the 1950s and has been used as a roller-skating rink and used-car auction house. The council bought it in 1995 and the Hamilton Community Arts Council developed the dilapidated site into a "black-box" theatre. On the whiff of an oily rag, it rapidly grew into a flourishing and vibrant venue for accessible and original theatre in Hamilton.

Eventually, because of the arts council's financial woes, the city council took over its running. In 2009, the council initiated a promising upgrade, hailed to transform The Meteor into "New Zealand's pre-eminent performance and creative facility".

Sadly, plans ground to a halt after the completion of just the first stage - a repaired roof and the now swanky upstairs office space leased by Soda Inc.

The theatre itself remains untouched and desperately in need of structural reinforcement and earthquake proofing, not to mention its lack of changing rooms, backstage toilets or showers and a lighting grid that is barely sufficient to illuminate a preschoolers' pantomime.

Despite its woeful state, The Meteor remains renowned as New Zealand's largest and most adaptable black-box theatre.

Its flexibility means it has hosted a brilliant, diverse range of theatrical performances in Hamilton over the years.

Similarly, Clarence St Theatre came from community initiative. The Hamilton Operatic Society completed the theatre in 1987 but, again, it was picked up by the council in 1997 for $1 plus a portion of the operatic society's then unmanageable debt.

The council subsequently invested in new seating and gave the foyer a good makeover. The 500-seat theatre continued to be a workable mid-sized venue, but its high cost to hire meant the local community used it least of all the theatres.

Despite their steadily increasing shabby-chic charm, the council continued to charge top dollar for its theatre hire. In a "told you so" moment, the new report confirms what we suspected all along - in a survey looking at venues throughout Australasia, it was determined, "Hamilton Theatres are among the most expensive venues of those assessed, but without the commensurate level of quality".

The report says that a consolidation of the theatres will save $845,000 a year in running costs, and over 10 years save the council $8.7 million. Additionally, there are capital gains to be had from the sale of Clarence St Theatre. So when asking whether Founders is worth $15.7m (over 10 years, mind you), it is, in fact, not far off a cost-neutral exercise in the long term.

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Yet, the Founders upgrade alone will not come even close to catering for the cultural and performing arts needs of our city. Hamilton needs, at minimum for now, a smaller-scale theatre that is flexible, intimate, affordable, dynamic and accessible at the grass roots end of our community's creativity.

Fortunately, the timing is perfect for that community to step up and take back the theatre reins. For the first time ever, the full gamut of theatrical groups in Hamilton is working in unison and a knowledgeable team is ready to pick up the management of the black-box format Meteor. It understands what it takes to get the theatrical economic model right and, with the support of the community, it can create an affordable theatre space that supports exciting new and emerging professional talent, akin to Bats Theatre in Wellington.

It is well established that theatres offer a crucial contribution to the creative landscape of any city. Good arts infrastructure and a city's arts reputation plays a part in how people choose where they want to live. Theatre enables more social cohesion and higher civic engagement. Theatres are spaces where our stories are told, histories are shared and imaginations are nurtured.

So yes, Hamilton, do invest in theatre. It is time and it is long overdue. Restore Founders to be the premier space it was intended to be and support The Meteor to flourish with community theatre. Sell Clarence St if that's what must be, but first ensure we are 100 per cent certain that it is the right thing to do from both a fiscal and cultural perspective, lest we irreversibly loose another part of what has made Hamilton a colourful, creative and soulful place to live.

Sarah Nathan is chief executive of Creative Waikato.

- Waikato

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