Michael Hurst: Arts in Auckland - a matter of attitude

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The Auckland City Council released $200,000 to Q Theatre last week to secure resource consent for their proposed new venue in Queen St. This will allow Q to approach the Government for further funding, and, in my view, was a good and timely decision on the part of the council. Thank heavens.

It meant Q was effectively thrown a lifeline. But now, once again, the organisation must prove itself as a worthy, necessary project which will enhance this "international city" of ours and contribute greatly to its cultural life for decades to come.

One providing a platform for the burgeoning performing arts scene in Auckland. And employment for hundreds of actors, dancers, musicians, singers, stage managers, crew and front-of-house staff. And also for technicians, composers, designers, builders, producers, directors, choreographers, costume makers, props makers, accountants and safety officers (plus on-site training for all of the above). As well as entertainment for the thousands of people in the city who love theatre, dance, musicals, comedy, cabaret, opera and concerts.

This is the case Q Theatre has been putting before council for 10 years. It is the case that the Watershed Theatre put before the council in the early 90s, and the same case that Theatre Corporate put in the mid-80s.

Notwithstanding that all of the reports on the venue situation in Auckland over the past 20 years have recommended the same things, it seems another report is necessary.

Go figure.

In the meantime, costs increase, and performance companies disappear for lack of space to actually perform in. Audiences wonder why the various venues we have to use are either too cramped, too hot, have no parking, no air-conditioning, no bar, bad seats, no decent facilities or are just plain hard to be in.

I'm sure I am not the only one who left that rather gruelling council meeting last week relieved and grateful that Q Theatre was still a going concern, yet strangely unable to feel any real sense of elation. In fact, what I felt was thoroughly told off and put in my place.

When Mayor Banks told us that he thought the motion for the release of the $200,000 (less than a third of what had been committed previously) would be successful, it was as if he were talking to a bunch of naughty kids who were trying to perpetrate some kind of wickedness upon the city.

Or were going to run off and immediately spend the money on flimsy and extravagance only to return later begging for more and bringing with us a packed house of celebrities and "much loved ex-mayors" (his words) to try and win the day again.

It's not as if we suddenly woke up one day and said, "We want a theatre." We are at this point because of the decisions made (or not made) by various councils and individuals over the past two to three decades.

There was the decision to get rid of His Majesty's Theatre; the decision to let Theatre Corporate go; the decision to let the Mercury Theatre go; the decision to let the Watershed Theatre go; and the decision not to build a real drama theatre in the Aotea Centre but to make do with what became The Herald.

Or the decision to spend a fortune on restoring the Civic and turning it into a live venue which few local groups can afford to use, and the decision to let the St James slowly deteriorate by using it as a dance party venue. Then most recently the decision by the University of Auckland to review the use of the Maidment Theatre, potentially removing the only real drama venue we have left.

Performing arts groups are subject to extreme financial scrutiny. Companies must account for every cent they spend, argue strongly and convincingly for grants, run tight budgets, make savings wherever possible and be fiscally responsible - while, at the same time, being creatively brilliant and making strong, sexy, innovative work.

Q Theatre was, and is, thoroughly prepared for this project. In fact, it has taken almost 10 years of research, planning, cajoling and fundraising, along with thousands of hours of volunteer work, to get to where it is today.

Supporting Q Theatre is an investment in the cultural life of this city. It will provide ongoing support for performing arts groups, showcasing our fantastic talent in a funky, cool, attractive, comfortable, well-appointed theatre that we can all be proud of.

So rather than begrudging the financial support, I would have thought that Mayor Banks and his council would be thrilled with this project. Not only does it provide for the next generation and bring a thriving venue into their designated "entertainment precinct". Not only does it enhance this "international" city and bring both local and tourist dollars into the city, but it has landed almost fully formed in the their laps and, for once, it is a chance to get it right!

So having made this "hard" decision, back it up! Don't just wave a big "woe betide you if you fail" stick - be generous about it. Help it along. Support it. Make sure it comes to something and doesn't get relegated yet again, returning to plague us in another 10 years when it dawns on the council that the people who arrive at our new Ocean Liner Terminal at Queen's Wharf have nowhere to go and nothing to see, and that all we have to offer them as local culture is a bunch of bars down at the Viaduct Basin.

It's a matter of attitude.

[Note: The proposed Q Theatre is a flexible performing arts venue of 350 to 460 seats behind the Auckland Town Hall, as well as a 100-seat studio and rehearsal space.]

* Michael Hurst is an Auckland actor and director

- NZ Herald

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