One mid-sized Dunedin theatre fits the bill

Artbeat column no 463 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 14.12.2009

There have been bright and dark spots in the arts scene this year and there are issues which still need attention.

Beloved opened at the public art gallery on Friday night, a major collection show to mark the institution’s 125th anniversary and I recommend it. The gallery’s holdings are outstanding in New Zealand, notably its overseas art, but its New Zealanders are also impressive. They include some of the most beautiful and powerful works made in this country.

The gallery’s long and sometimes checkered career is documented, and needed bringing up to date since the last major review in 1990. The institution’s story is not only instructive it can be reassuring too.

We all know Dunedin was New Zealand’s first real city and that since that irruption in the 19th century it has had a long period of relative demographic decline. Yet the gallery continued to prosper, generally, illustrating the fact that in the arts, the city can still be a major player.

This year we’ve seen a set back for the art school which is a matter of continuing concern. There is also reason to focus on the prospects of the Blue Oyster, our test bed public space, not because it’s in decline but because such a facility is vital for the health of our visual arts.

In the performing arts it is worth recalling and acknowledging that the city council is committed to upgrading the Town Hall, our largest auditorium and is set to provide substantial assistance to upgrading the Regent and the Mayfair, respectively our large and small full facility theatres. Readers know I think provision should also be made for a mid-sized facility – at least in the ten-year future. Since this column last appeared there’s been an article and a letter taking the discussion further.

Dave Howell made the suggestion of converting the Garrison Hall in Dowling Street to provide a mid-sized theatre. (ODT 8/12/09) It’s the handsome stone building occupied by Natural History New Zealand which is now vacating it for larger premises. This idea has been raised with me before and the hall at one time was a venue for live performances – and also for very early movie screenings. It is centrally located and an attractive building, but unfortunately it wouldn’t work.

As its name suggests it was built as a hall, not as a theatre, and lacks the necessary features. There’s no proscenium, orchestra pit or fly tower and its service vehicle access is diabolical, given what’s required. To build the proscenium, pit and tower would be expensive and would leave you with an auditorium with a seating capacity significantly less than 800, the target size. But getting a B-train, a large articulated truck, near the rear of the building on Burlington Street would virtually require the closure of the street. The Garrison Hall is worth considering, but when you do, it’s clear it wouldn’t really serve the purpose.

Sam Carroll, the present manager of Sammy’s, the old His Majesty’s theatre, published an article questioning the suggestion that venue might do instead. (ODT 1/12/09.) Mr Carroll pointed out at present it is used for live musical and other performances, as “an inflatable activity centre” and it provides “a safe place for Dunedin youth to meet and socialise”, all on a commercial basis. This is undoubtedly true and to do this it needs to have the ground floor of the auditorium free of fixed chairs and flat. Mr Carroll was concerned that if Sammy’s was converted to a mid-size theatre these other activities would become homeless.

 I spoke to Mr Carroll, and others, and I don’t think that’s a problem. Given the notional suggested budget of $10 million it would be possible to have moveable raked seating for the ground floor. This would enable the continuing use of the venue for its present programmes while providing the missing need for the mid-sized theatre.  Mr Carroll had also been concerned that capacity in its present configuration, 700, was too small for the purpose. But the 800 figure is only a target and 700 would be fine. In any case, in different configurations, Sammy’s is capable of seating more.

It is highly significant that Sammy’s not only exists, with a proscenium, fly tower and orchestra pit – not to mention good vehicle access from Vogel Street – it is also in regular use and at present self-supporting. That is despite the existence of the Mayfair and the Regent with which it sometimes competes.

This shows that the concern that the mid-sized facility wouldn’t be used is misplaced. With Sammy’s present uses retained, and new ones from the providers seeking a mid-sized theatre, this would not be a mostly idle facility. The need is there. Sammy’s could meet it. Mr Carroll has shown it wouldn’t be idle.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times