Planned theatre sale no laughing matter

04:05, Jul 23 2013
Ralph Hotere
The mural's bright colours were controversial in its day.
Ralph Hotere
Hotere with the controversial Founders Theatre mural he completed for the Hamilton City Council in 1973. This photo taken in August 1973.

It made me sad to hear that Hamilton City Council is planning to sell The Meteor, a venue I performed at a lot when I was starting out as a comedian, learning what made people laugh (or, more honestly, learning what didn't make people laugh).

Young people interested in the arts need support, and money, and enthusiasm, but most of all they need a real stage.

The Meteor provided that for me and for the random collection of musicians, actors and, um, conceptual artists I was pleased to be knocking about with in the 90s. My first Meteor gig was at a "performance cafe", a euphemistic term for the occasional parade of weirdoes who would get up in turn to do their thing in front of a mostly appreciative audience of friends, family and brave members of the public.

Jesse Mulligan
NOT LAUGHING: Jesse Mulligan learned his comedic craft at The Meteor.

I was the stand-up comedian, sandwiched between an alcoholic pianist and an experimental beneficiary, whose act involved being naked inside a large opaque sort of balloon and moving carefully from one side of the stage to the other. Sadly, the balloon popped about 30 seconds in. Instead of a mystical few minutes of thought-provoking performance art, the audience got a skinny white guy shrieking and running off stage with his hands covering his genitals.

My comedy set went OK, but I was a little shaken from an encounter I'd had a few minutes earlier backstage: "Could I borrow your guitar for a couple of minutes at the end of my act?" I'd asked one of the musos, explaining that the organisers wanted me to sing a humorous happy birthday song to somebody in the crowd.

"I don't know mate, could I borrow your girlfriend for a couple of minutes?" the guy replied angrily.


Meteor Theatre
WORTH SAVING: The Meteor, and the people who use it, give Hamilton personality, difference and colour, says Mulligan.

"I'll have to think about it," I replied, although I was pretty sure his question was rhetorical. Learning the rules backstage can be just as hard as learning the roles onstage, but you'll never do it if you don't have somewhere to give it a go. The Meteor gave a whole generation of performers like me a place to be a part of the theatre world.

The Meteor, and the people who use it, give Hamilton personality, difference and colour. A city can't buy those things, although plenty try. When making decisions about interesting assets like The Meteor, HCC's guiding principle should be "What wouldn't Palmerston North do?"

I went and watched my friend Matt Shirley's first play at The Meteor. He'd written it himself, cast the actors, directed the thing . . . it wasn't his fault that Princess Diana's funeral fell on opening night. Plenty of people came to watch anyway, and it was good, funny and raw. He didn't make any money out of that play, but he learnt a lot about telling a story, developing characters, bringing them to life.

Last month Matt's first novel was published by Random House in London, under his pen name M Suddain - he's weeks away from becoming one of the most famous New Zealand authors in the world. If it's true that mastery requires 10,000 hours of practice, I reckon Matt did at least 8000 of his working for nothing in Hamilton, in places like The Meteor.

Did Kimbra ever perform at The Meteor? I don't know (I've sort of been feuding with Kimbra ever since she became Hillcrest High's most famous student, just as I was about to claim the title). All I know is that Hamilton's next Kimbra will have one less place to find her starpower if The Meteor goes.

There is still hope. A group of Meteor supporters, representing many of the excellent Hamilton theatre organisations, are proposing an alternative plan, where The Meteor is gifted to a community trust and turned into a creative hub. A hub! Do you know how many other cities would kill to have this sort of creative heart in their central city?

The friends of The Meteor are close, but they need your love. Actually they need your "like". Please find them on Facebook and click the button.

Hamilton is a cool, special and interesting city, but to remain that way it needs the cool, special and interesting people like you to be on the right side of issues like this one.