Theatre opening is a dream come true

By Dionne Christian

The main auditorium at Q has a European courtyard-style design which allows the seats to be removed completely. Photo / Greg Bowker
The main auditorium at Q has a European courtyard-style design which allows the seats to be removed completely. Photo / Greg Bowker

It's the stuff of theatre legend. When William Shakespeare and his friends were devising their own shows, theatre was cheap and spectators let the actors know whether they thought they were getting their pennies' worth.

They jeered, they called out to characters, they threw rotten fruit. While today's theatregoers are more well-behaved, the cast of Raising the Titanics experienced a taste of history when they performed at the Dargaville Town Hall.

Actor Wesley Dowdell says three men opted to stand at the back of the hall, beers in hand, so they could beat a hasty retreat if the sellout performance wasn't their thing. But they were quickly captivated, yelling out suggestions to the characters and singing along. So how did the cast, unaccustomed to such reactions, feel?

"I loved it because it showed how engrossed everyone was and that they loved it, too," says Dowdell, who played Outrageous Fortune's Aaron Spiller.

Now Raising the Titanics is set to make history. The show ends a nationwide tour as the first main bill production at Auckland's new theatre, Q, and those behind the production couldn't be more thrilled that a "little theatre company" has that honour.

Tainui Tukiwaho's theatre company SmackBang produced the show, described as a feel-good comedy with songs.

"We're really excited and happy to open Q. As a little theatre company, it's particularly exciting to be part of the history of a place that will exist for many years into the future," says Tukiwaho.

Q already has quite a past. It is the first purpose-built theatre in central Auckland since the Aotea Centre opened in 1990. The $22 million theatre seats up to 460 in its main auditorium, Rangatira (weaver of people), and 120 in its studio space, Loft.

While Q includes some of the most high-tech features to be found in contemporary performance spaces, the auditorium harks back to theatres of old with a European courtyard-style design. Its seats can be removed completely or go from one layout to another in just a few hours.

It's a dream come true for Auckland performing artists and fans. In 1996, Auckland theatre makers and goers got a nasty Christmas surprise when they were told the Watershed Theatre was closing to make way for development on the Viaduct Basin.

The venue, in the old Turners and Growers warehouse, was a focal point for Auckland's performing arts community, particularly after the closure of the Mercury Theatre in 1992.

The search began immediately for a new home when the Watershed shut. It looked as if a new venue would be found when, in 1997, Auckland City Council commissioned a study of performing arts venues and confirmed the city lacked a central 350-450-seat flexi-form venue.

The following year, the council sought a design brief for the space but declared it would not own or run the venue. They were leaving it up to the industry - and that meant the industry had to find the money.

It took a decade of fundraising, lobbying and promoting the project before decisions were made to proceed with the new theatre. The Pidgeon Building, next to the Auckland Town Hall, at 305 Queen St, was chosen as the preferred site.

Built in the 1920s as a showroom and warehouse for the No Deposit Piano Company, the building had been the headquarters of Pidgeon Tyre Distributors, the Auckland Citizens Advice Bureau and the Wallace Art Collection.

In 2007, Cheshire Architects was commissioned to design the new theatre but before construction started, an 11th-hour funding drama threatened to bring the curtain down. In 2008, Auckland City Council, concerned about Q's rising costs, announced they were reviewing a $9.2 million grant for the venue.

The arts community mobilised again with a further round of lobbying and public meetings. They won and construction started in 2009 with funding from private donors, Auckland City Council, the Lotteries Grants Board and the ASB Trust.

Q opens its doors to the public from 11am tomorrow. The free open day will give Aucklanders their first glimpse inside the new venue and give them a taste of some of the performances planned. Visitors will be taken on a walking tour through the building with vignette performances and "unexpected encounters" at every turn.

Performer Eve Gordon hopes they will be as stunned as she was. Gordon's aerial theatre company The Dust Palace unveils Q's studio space, Loft, where historic features have been melded with the modern.

When Gordon saw the room, she wanted to create a show specifically for it.

The result is Venus Is, inspired by some of history's most famous erotic literature and incorporating physical and aerial theatre, dance and song.

Performance

What: Q theatre open day

Where and when: Q theatre, 305 Queen St, tomorrow, 11am-4pm

What: Raising the Titanics

Where and when: Rangatira - Q theatre, September 7-17

What: Venus Is

Where and when: Loft - Q theatre, September 7-17

- NZ Herald

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