Dunedin like living in a 19th-century Russian novel

Artbeat column no 462 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 30.11.2009
Somebody once said living in Dunedin is like living in a 19thC Russian novel. So it is. The promise of a better future extends to a distant horizon while the people who should be planning to get us there bicker about leaks in the conservatory - and peasants lurch alarmingly outside the windows. The latest city report on theatres is an excellent example.

On the bright side it does support overdue work on the Regent and at last grapples with the necessity of upgrading the Mayfair. But it fails to acknowledge the need for a mid-sized theatre. Instead it tries to say there isn’t one.

This is head-in-the-sand stuff because we are talking about what should be in the ten-year plan and the gap in our provision has been plain for years. The background of course is the stadium and the fact the city is now fiscally committed over its gumboots.

The report maintains there aren’t any mid-sized theatres in the three big centres. This is despite the fact its own table (p.35) acknowledges the existence of the Sky City Theatre in Auckland. Somehow the authors also failed to notice the existence of the Wellington Opera House and the James Hay Theatre in Christchurch. No matter. There is a survey of theatre-goers which supposedly tells us, very clearly, there is no demand.

Seventy-seven people offered their opinions which is statistically insignificant. But also, it’s like asking, “What size shop do you like shopping in? Big like a supermarket, small like a boutique, or in the middle, like, say, a bookshop?” Oddly enough you don’t get very informative answers.

Providers, not customers, know the logistics. They are the people who know what’s a practical space for offering their services. As the Nikki Robb report already showed, in Dunedin, there is a gap in the mid-sized range. For certain kinds of show that’s what’s required. There isn’t one here so they don’t happen. “Dickens Women” and “The Dentist’s Chair” are just two examples.

The latest report also focused on a new facility on a greenfield site, which of course is ideal but also the most expensive alternative. Well, hello, there isn’t enough money left to consider such an option. Instead there’s the old His Majesty’s, now Sammy’s, in Crawford Street.

This wasn’t properly examined. It didn’t feature at all in the report while the greenfield option did. There was a site visit which left participants thinking wrongly there is no service vehicle access. There has since been the plea it’s a leasehold title, which it is. But that wasn’t a problem for the stadium. Sammy’s is a purpose-designed, full-facility, proscenium theatre with a seating capacity of 900-1,000 and bags of atmosphere. It’s Dunedin’s very good luck it has such an alternative.

And the preferred option retains the fantasy of temporarily re-configuring the Regent to 800 seats – with curtains.

It is easy to think the report was commissioned to kill the idea that we need - and could have - a mid-sized theatre.

Perhaps it wasn’t. But behind all this is an inability to recognise times change. That what was good enough before is no longer sufficient. In 1980 the Regent was converted from a cinema to a theatre producing a facility as functionally effective as a new, purpose-designed building. But live theatre now demands more. Also, live theatre is on a roll and developing in different forms and sizes. If Dunedin is to have credibility as a place with a vibrant theatre scene it has to come to terms with these uncomfortable facts. Postponing acting on their implications into the inter-generational future is not an answer.

There is a separate but related question, about providing a mid-sized auditorium for musical performances. This can’t be combined with a mid-sized full-facility theatre for practical reasons. (One is the acoustic effect of a flytower.) The old Concert Chamber provided it but what should be done now? With a seating capacity of 400 The Glenroy is smaller than the Concert Chamber was  - and will get smaller still with the Dunedin Centre’s redevelopment. The Town Hall at 2,800 is a large venue. So how do we fill the gap?

As it happens it is possible to use Knox Church, St Paul’s Cathedral and First Church for the purpose. I was talking about this with Dean Hollebon and others after the Collegiate Orchestra’s performance in Knox Church two weeks ago. They seat about 1,000 and in varying degrees are suitable for the performance of live music. Of course their primary use is for church services but there are several and they do meet the basic physical requirements. We can probably continue to rely on them.

But the mid-sized theatre is another matter. We should be planning to do something by 2019, not in the great hereafter.

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