Mid-size theatre still issue

Artbeat column no 448 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 18 May 2009

What is the price of having an artistically vibrant city? Quite a lot. After fifty hours of hearing public submissions the city council met last Tuesday and gave some indications of its thoughts on arts spending. These are not final decisions but they carry some weight. They add up to plenty of money and show a council mindful of the arts. But they fall short of what is really needed and include some wishful thinking.

It was decided to favour the Fortune Theatre’s request for an additional $50,000. It may be in the form of a $25,000 extra grant and a similar reduction in the rent it pays the city for its building. This is good. The Mayor Peter Chin noted Creative New Zealand gives much more than the city. Furthermore, the whole idea of the city’s taking over the building – to which I was party many years ago – was in order to relieve the Fortune of the burden of maintaining it itself.

The Blue Oyster, the city’s experimental art space, is being favourably considered for a one-off $8,000 grant. Councillor Michael Guest described it as “a jewel in the cultural crown of Dunedin”. (ODT 31/5/09) So it is and it’s good to hear that acknowledgement. It too receives more from Creative New Zealand, $87,000 last year, so the city is still only a minor supporter. (ODT 14/5/09) There was also $35,000 indicated for operating the Mayfair, which would continue like amounts voted before.

More surprisingly support was indicated for $4.7m for the Regent Theatre’s major upgrade of the building and controversially, $30,000 for further investigation of ways of meeting the need for an 800 seat full-facility theatre. That is controversial because now it is being suggested (again) it could be done inside the Regent.

The city’s list of capital projects is historically long, expensive and unpopular. The main object of concern is the stadium, not these other projects, but I note the council’s willingness to contemplate another significant capital expenditure in such a climate, this one in the arts. The nod towards the Regent was a surprise because while it has long been known it seeking something like $9.8m for its upgrade it had made no approach to the council, until now. It says something for its people’s clout that it has met with this success.

I support the grant and the upgrade but not the idea that the Regent can be made to do duty for the 800 seat theatre. I was asked about this idea when making my own submission to the council and said then that this wouldn’t work.

I have spoken to professionals, inside the Regent and the Mayfair, and elsewhere, and they recognise the need for a midsize venue - in addition to, not instead of - the 1,800 seat Regent and 400 seat Mayfair, and also that it can’t realistically be provided by shrinking the Regent or stretching the Mayfair.

That didn’t stop the Mayfair’s board making just that suggestion in connection with its genuine need for a $7m redevelopment plan, or now the Regent Trust with its pitch for help with its upgrade. Put such ideas in front of a beleaguered funding body of people who aren’t professionals in the specifics of the matter and you will get – delighted uptake at what seems like a wonderfully cheap solution. Unfortunately it isn’t.

The suggestion, apparently, is to reduce the area of the stage by hanging curtains inside it and to similarly reduce the space in the auditorium. This means the space is not acoustically reduced and sitting or performing inside a tent doesn’t really give you an intimate theatre experience but something more like theatre-in-a-tent. That’s without considering what’s to be done about adapting lighting, scenery and orchestra provision and entirely overlooks the fact, identified in a recent report, that often all three venues will be needed at the same time, not to mention the additional costs to users.

Councillor Andrew Noone was reported saying the Regent Theatre was the likely home for a mid-sized theatre, as “no other theatre fits the bill.” (ODT 13/5/09). With respect, the Regent Theatre doesn’t fit the bill – it’s far too large – and there is another building in Dunedin which does.

This is Sammy’s, the nightclub owned by Mr Sammy Chin, formerly His Majesty’s Theatre and still with its fly tower, orchestra pit, proscenium arch and an audience capacity around 1,000.

In my submission I asked the council to put in the list of possible capital projects $5m towards the Mayfair’s upgrade and $10m for a mid-sized theatre, with the recommendation they talk to Mr. Chin. I support the $4.7m for the Regent but it won’t provide the mid-sized theatre. The $30,000 new report should look at upgrading Sammy’s. We’re looking at the next ten years. The need is older than that.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times  http://www.otagodailytimes.co.nz