by Raewyn Whyte
A brand new purpose-designed 350 seat flexiform theatre for downtown Auckland is a step closer with Auckland City Council ‘s decision to commit $3million towards the project’s development over the next three years.
The establishment of the new theatre is the major goal of the New Theatre Initiative (NTi), an industry-based incorporated society formed in 2000 by theatre and dance practitioners who felt an urgent need for a venue to meet their particular requirements. First and foremost, they wanted a replacement for the Watershed Theatre, which in 1997 had lost its lease toAmerica’s Cup-fuelled developments on the waterfront. The Watershed had been a flexible and affordable 240 seat, industry-led venue with a great bar and a basement studio, presenting mostly new works in dance and theatre, and a place where the industry gathered. Its loss was keenly felt by performers and audience alike.
But a larger vision was also animating the fledgeling organisation. Their dream was to build a world-class theatre with complete flexibility in staging and seating, with programming which would present innovative New Zealand works of the highest standards. And they wanted the new theatre to have sound governance, effective management, a solid financial base, inclusive programming, an audience development focus, and a really good bar and restaurant where people could meet and feel at home.
Achieving the vision
In the four years since NTi was formed, considerable work has been done towards making this larger vision a reality.
International best practice for the governance, management and sustainability of venues of this kind has been investigated and a structure drawn up. Industry and planning requirements have been clarified through consultation; architectural concept development and associated feasibility studies completed. Financial modelling and business case development have been closely scrutinised and tested, and NTi has a clear understanding of just what is needed to get the theatre up and keep it running sustainably.
Filling the Market Gap
The new theatre is much needed in Auckland. There is a lively and rapidly expanding community of independent professional practitioners creating new works in theatre, dance, physical theatre and fusion formats, often in collaboration with cross-disciplinary colleagues from design, film/video and time-based arts. The sector is fed by a steady stream of recent graduates from performing arts degree programmes at the city’s tertiary institutes — in particular by dance, acting, directing/writing and film graduates from UNITEC, theatre and directing/writing graduates from Auckland University.
With a critical mass of independent practitioners creating and producing new work, it is often impossible to secure a desired venue for a planned season, let alone find an available space which is both affordable and has total flexibility of staging and seating for non-proscenium arch presentation.
Though the city has a number of theatres and performance venues, there are none between the 165 seat Herald Theatre and the 456 seat Maidment Theatre. The smaller venues tend to be solidly booked, making it particularly difficult for the latest wave of new practitioners to break in, and multi-use venues such as Auckland University’s SCAPA and Maidment Theatre must give priority to institutional users. In the city’s larger and more available venues such as Sky City Theatre, even a three-night season is beyond the reach of most independent budgets. The most popular theatre venues are scheduled as much as two years in advance, so independents are competing for performance space against established companies and senior practitioners with significant experience. On top of that, alternate venues such as halls, nightclubs, galleries and streetscapes, require technical equipment and seating to be provided by the hirer, creating a high probability of financial loss.
A handful of intimately sized niche venues seating less than 120 have been developed since the Watershed closed. These venues are rapidly making their mark on the local scene and thanks to the combination of niche programming and steadily increasing audiences, venue sustainability is improving. Auckland audiences can now enjoy raw and intimate theatre at the Silo, improvised performances and TheatreSports at The Covert, comedy at the Classic, and contemporary dance and youth performances at The Auckland Performing Arts Centre (TAPAC). As these niche audiences grow, so does the need for greater seating capacity, making the new venue more needed more than ever.
Queen Street location
The new theatre will occupy a block of Council land which adjoins the Town Hall and runs between Queen Street and Greys Avenue, currently holding the Pigeons Building and the disused Rikka building. Fronting onto Queen Street, and facing out to Greys Avenue, with a walkway joining the two streets, the theatre will be an access point for the Aotea Quarter, a cluster of buildings which includes the Silo, the Classic, The Herald, the ASB Theatre and The Civic.
The next step for NTi is fundraising – with an immediate target of $1.5m by June 2005, and a further $5 million before the theatre can open. If you have $5million to spend, or would like to get involved with this project, please contact Justin Lewis – firstname.lastname@example.org.