Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Go Basement Team Planet

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Charlie McDermott, Sam Snedden and Sophie Henderson.
Charlie McDermott, Sam Snedden and Sophie Henderson.

Performing for four of his fellow Basement Theatre workers and a journalist, irrepressible general manager Charlie McDermott lets slip that they all have Captain Planet cartoon personas: fire, wind, earth, water, heart.

"I can't believe that came out!" cries programming manager Sophie Henderson, whose element (heart) will please aspiring theatre-makers thinking of pitching work (be quick, 2014 is already half-full).

But McDermott can't help himself; his bright-spark monologues are 100 per cent fire: "We're actors - sometimes we get a bit silly."

Operations manager Sam Snedden is earth, like he's the sensible one, but maybe the reference is his earthy talk.

"Look guys, this isn't blowing my skirt up," he reckons he told Auckland Theatre Company when they nervously asked if their youth show could use the whole Basement building. "Of course you can!"

I wanted to know how the Planeteers' first year of risk-share has gone; with Creative New Zealand backing, the Basement now keeps 20 per cent of the box-office takings rather than charging a flat fee per night. Theatre-makers no longer need fear a big rent bill if their show doesn't do so well.

The crew are pleased: risk-share has meant fewer cancellations, more dance and a wider variety of producers, including more Wellingtonians. Snort improv $5 Fridays have proven immensely popular.

I was going to grumble that they'd broken their promised ticket price ceiling of $25 once or twice, but McDermott disarmed me by pointing out they're no longer charging that hated bugbear, booking fees. They're industry leaders, right there.

Other numbers are also good. They took in double the forecast ticket and bar revenue, which was lucky as they spent too much money redecorating the foyer.

"It was a wake-up call - awesome, as in awe-inspiring," says Snedden.

Thanks to the biennial Fringe Festival, 30,000 bums will have sat on Basement seats this year by the time the charmingly titled Christmas show, Suck my Dickens, ends - up from 25,000 last year.

They've reached their targets of 80 per cent New Zealand work, 80 per cent emerging artists (including established actors becoming new directors and the like) and 60 per cent premieres.

Those last two targets make for mixed quality - if shows don't occasionally bomb, the team is doing something wrong, playing it too safe. "We love failure, as long as you've risked something," says Henderson.

They're keen to look after their "community" so we keep coming back, even if what's on stage isn't always perfect. To this end, they're planning to soundproof and air-condition the studio (yes!), to do more live director's commentaries and pop-up dining, set up a seasonal brochure/art poster and a million other things.

Next year's programme includes plays by Fiona Samuel and Gary Henderson, puppetry and physical theatre, the celebrated Northland Youth Theatre and my favourite Wellington originals, Binge Culture. A Sam Brooks piece called Driving in Cars with Mostly Straight Boys will be staged in a car in the carpark in February.

Brooks put on three plays this year and watching him grow was "the biggest buzz of 2013", says Henderson. Go Team Planet.

- NZ Herald

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