Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

ASB Waterfront Theatre: a phoenix rises from the ashes

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Herald arts editor Dionne Christian describes theatre's genesis
Patrick Mafileo, a performer with Southern Steel with Harry Sills from Billy Elliot The Musical at today's theatre opening. Photo/Doug Sherring
Patrick Mafileo, a performer with Southern Steel with Harry Sills from Billy Elliot The Musical at today's theatre opening. Photo/Doug Sherring

Some 23 years ago, I sat in a make-shift office with actor Simon Prast and listened to him explain his "vision" for a new Auckland Theatre Company.

The year before - 1992 - Prast and a host of other actors had been turfed out of the Mercury Theatre as they prepared to go on stage in a play titled - ironically - Glorious Ruins.

As Prast points out in a piece written for ATC's 2016/17 Season Brochure, Auckland was getting a reputation: "Not long before, Theatre Corporate had closed and in the dead of night, His Majesty's had been demolished. The jokes came thick and fast. Q: What is the difference between Auckland and yoghurt? A: At least yoghurt supports living culture."

Prast was something of a household name thanks to a starring role as playboy Alistair Redfern in TV's Gloss and obviously, having a profile helped with his new venture. He had a law degree, too, and knew about the importance of setting up sound structures so established a limited liability company overseen by a governing trust board.

Read: Curtain raised today

All these years later, I still recall Prast talking about how a "phoenix would rise from the ashes of the Mercury" and how he - for one - was determined Auckland would have more culture than a yoghurt pottle.

I noted he said one of the problems with the Mercury was the cost of the theatre building itself; well, he declared, Auckland had other venues and a theatre company didn't necessarily need its own place to stage its shows.

So ATC started at the Watershed Theatre, a former warehouse on Auckland's yet-to-be-developed Viaduct Harbour, with two New Zealand plays: Lovelock's Dream Run and Daughters of Heaven. They were sponsored by Smokefree New Zealand; Prast chain-smoked throughout our interview.

In the next few years, two things quickly became apparent. Firstly, Aucklanders liked going to the theatre - ATC shows are now attended by around 80,000 people every year - and secondly, it was difficult for a burgeoning theatre company to manage without its own theatre.

Prast left in 2003, having built ATC into one of the country's most successful arts organisations with an education unit and a literary wing to commission and support the writing of new NZ plays. By 2010, ATC was the New Zealand's largest theatre company and desperately needed a home of its own. It was the only professional theatre company in Australasia without its own venue.

"Aucklanders liked going to the theatre"
Dionne Christian

For a team led by ATC's general manager Lester McGrath, it was a Herculean effort to raise the $36 million needed for the purpose-built space - let's not forget there was a global financial crisis in the midst of it all. Even, two years ago, when on a rainy Monday night, I went to the Wynyard Quarter site and saw the plans unveiled, I still couldn't believe it was going to happen.

And now it has. This morning, I joined around 200 others to hear Auckland Mayor Len Brown declare the ASB Waterfront Theatre open and, I admit, had a tear in my eye: phoenixes can rise from ashes.

In the next few years, the world will continue to change rapidly; we're hearing a large percentage of existing jobs will disappear but there is much talk that the "creative industries" will bring new opportunities. No matter what, we will always need a place to tell our stories.

Read: Curtain raised on Auckland's newest theatre

A new state-of-the-art, world-class 668-seat theatre, built as a public-private partnership, shows faith in the uncertain future and provides somewhere - to quote Prast again - which is a "place of aspiration and inspiration, employment and enjoyment".

After the morning's formalities, I spoke briefly with Prast about how he felt and we talked about two youngsters, Harry Sills, 11, and Patrick Mafileo, 9, who performed during the opening ceremony. Harry is playing Billy Elliot in ATC's end-of-year production; Patrick is a budding cornet player in his father's brass band.

"Those youngsters will grow up knowing only this, it will be a normal part of their lives and that's how it should be," says Prast.

- NZ Herald

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Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

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