Small Auckland theatre inspires Kowloon

By Dionne Christian

A Hong Kong representative admires Auckland’s culture.
The West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre is open for artists to perform xiqu.
The West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre is open for artists to perform xiqu.

One of the largest cultural hubs to be developed in the world could be influenced by one of Auckland's smallest theatres, The Basement.

Low Kee Hong, head of Artistic Development for Performing Arts at the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong, visited Wellington during the New Zealand Festival then headed north for the Auckland Arts Festival.

As well as watching local festival productions, Mr Low, the former general manager of the Singapore Arts Festival, wanted to learn more about the country's independent theatre scene and how emerging performance-makers and audiences are developed and supported.

He met the Basement's programming and artistic development manager, Gabrielle Vincent, to discuss development programmes and took in some of its shows, including Virginia Frankovich's immersive theatre piece Car where the audience - just six for each show - travelled around central Auckland in two cars.

"A lot of people want to go to places like Edinburgh, but I am interested to see what's going on in our own region," he says. "I'm looking at the broader picture of creating sustainable working relationships across the Asia-Pacific region because the reality is, in the arts world, everybody's budgets are limited so we have to find new ways of collaborating and working in partnership.

"It's not just about buying a show [to be performed in Hong Kong] because that's a one off and not sustainable; it's about how can we learn from one another and how we bring artists from the next generation together. It's about looking for ways to become stronger."

Excited by the Basement's range of initiatives, he says it's vital for performing arts organisations to be agile and respond to the ways younger performers make work and what diverse audiences want to see.

West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre.
West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre.

Venues at the 40-hectare West Kowloon Cultural District, on the reclaimed harbour-front, will include 17 new music, performing and visual arts centres. Construction is well under way on the M+ museum of modern art, focusing on 20th and 21st century art, design and architecture; the Lyric Theatre complex which incorporates a 1450 proscenium-arch theatre, a 600-seat medium theatre and a 250-seat studio space; a 15,000-seat Arena with an Expo Centre below and the Xiqu (Chinese Opera) centre to preserve and reinvent Cantonese opera and other Chinese traditional theatre.

Arts education facilities will be incorporated, while 23-hectares of public space, including a park and two-kilometre waterfront promenade, will provide a venue for outdoor concerts and performances, exhibitions and events. A section, Nursery Park, is already open and used for regular outdoor events.

"We had 10,000 people coming through ... we decided we had to increase the frequency of events from once a month to every fortnight," says Mr Low.

The West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre has also proved popular. Launched in 2012, the traditional bamboo theatre, completely re-designed and built from scratch each year, is for established and emerging artists to perform xiqu.

"There has been a lack of theatre spaces and Hong Kong has not had a new museum for visual arts," says Mr Low, adding that the new Guangzhou"Shenzhen"Hong Kong Express Rail Link (XRL) will connect China's capital Beijing with Hong Kong via Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

"Every day, 100,000 people will disembark and, yes, many of them might want to visit Louis Vuitton or Gucci but now they'll have the chance to include a show."

- Weekend magazine

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