Dunedin theatre reports

Artbeat column no 438 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 2 March 2009

So now we have three theatre reports. In addition to the city council’s two on a suggested mid-sized full-facility theatre we now have Octa’s on the Mayfair. This was commissioned by the Dunedin Opera Company, the owner of the building. It looks at the state and use of the theatre and outlines a costed plan for its regeneration.  A city council committee is pondering the first two reports. Now, I understand, it has this too. It has solicited comment on the first two from various people, including your columnist. Paper is piling up, but useful paper. The options need exploring.

It needs to be repeated - because the reports show a continuing lack of clarity - that what needs consideration is a particular kind of theatre. There are auditoriums, such as the Town Hall, but that’s not the type. There are what might be called “end stage theatres”, such as the Fortune and the Globe, but that isn’t either. There are also community halls, again another matter.

The type needing thought are theatres with a proscenium arch, a flytower, wings, an orchestra pit and dressing rooms, key characteristics for performing opera, ballet and certain kinds of drama. Such venues aren’t suitable for concerts and other kinds of performance. I think they are most usefully termed “full-facility theatres” to avoid repeating the characteristics. The background is: Dunedin has just three venues of this sort.

One is the city-owned 1800 seat Regent. Another is the Dunedin Opera Company’s 407 seat Mayfair. The third is the privately owned Sammy’s, formerly His Majesty’s, with a capacity of about 1,000. At present the latter isn’t much used for the kinds of performances the others accommodate.

The question originally posed was whether Dunedin needs an 800 seat full-facility theatre. This was slightly changed in the commissioning of the city’s reports which define “mid-sized” as 550-800 seats. The change is significant: it brings the range closer to the existing Mayfair’s.

Ms Nicola Robb, an arts consultant, was commissioned to look at need which she achieved by surveying various provider-groups in and out of Dunedin. From this she concluded there is a need not catered for by the Regent or the Mayfair.

The second was commissioned from Deloitte, a firm of accountants and business advisers. It estimated the cost of building such a venue on a greenfield city-owned site at between $11,825,000 and $34,800,000. This huge range arises from looking at building significantly different sized facilities to lower or higher standards. The lowest price for a greenfield 800 seat theatre is $17,200,000. Deloitte estimated the net cost to the city of operating it as potentially as high as $500,000 p.a.  This is based on the assumption its use would reflect some national average of 130 days p.a. Deloitte’s report also said Ms Robb’s had surveyed only performers, not attendees and this needs to be done.

This is a misperception because Ms Robb’s report actually surveyed performance providers, not performers. The only way of surveying likely numbers of attendees is by surveying the groups Ms Robb did. They are the people who best know needs and likely attendances at different sized venues. In the absence of a specific proposal the results are fairly hypothetical.

Octa’s report on the Mayfair shows that in 2008 it was in use 170 days compared with an average for the Regent of 90 days p.a. It also draws a parallel with the Coronation Hall Mosgiel which has 356 seats and may thus seem comparable to the Mayfair. But the Mosgiel hall is not a full-facility theatre. The report compares the Mayfair’s and the Regent’s charges, the Regent’s being far higher. There are 20 local and 10 touring groups using the Mayfair. The report points to strengths and weaknesses of the existing building complex and describes a five-stage plan of improvements. The first would cost $1,550,000, mostly to meet regulatory requirements. The whole cost of the five stages might be $7,350,000. At p.19 it suggests an upgraded Mayfair could meet most of the needs identified in the council report.

I think this is doubtful. As I mentioned, the council changed the initial question about the need for an 800 seat theatre to one for a theatre of from 550 to 800 seats. The Octa report (p.41) gamely envisages “potentially” increasing the Mayfair’s seating capacity as part of stage 5 while noting the ability to do that, or a business case for it, have not really been investigated.

If you go back to the Robb report it’s clear what’s missing is a theatre distinctly bigger than the Mayfair and smaller than the Regent. The need is there. The impact on the Mayfair of providing for it is less clear. The real costs also remain murky. We should now look at more specific proposals, including buying and upgrading Sammy’s.


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