Despite the New Zealand arts sector being devastated by Covid-19, a new theatre is being built in central Christchurch.

It had been a long battle for Little Andromeda director Michael Bell to get to this point. Bell campaigned hard for an alternative option for the city's planned Performing Arts Precinct, which was ultimately turned down by the Christchurch City Council in 2018 in favour of building a new Court Theatre.

He then got permission to build a temporary theatre on the same site using a large marquee and shipping containers before moving into an empty space in Antony Gough's Terrace development in central Christchurch.

After 11 months in that space Bell had to move, but he had just been offered a 10-year lease on a space next door.

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The new 100-seat Little Andromeda theatre being built. Photo / Logan Church
The new 100-seat Little Andromeda theatre being built. Photo / Logan Church

When the NZ Herald visited walls separating a foyer, dressing rooms and the theatre were being built while the ceiling was being painted black. The old space was being packed down, with tiered seating soon to be moved out.

"Hopefully, this is the last time we have to set up a theatre and we can stay here permanently," said Bell.

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Bell said the theatre felt like it was "at home" there, with bars and restaurants on their doorstep.

But the move came as the sector faced serious challenges - Covid-19 lockdowns forced shows and productions to be cancelled or postponed across the country.

Less shows meant less sales, making it harder to pay artists and staff, especially after the wage subsidy finished.

A touring company run by Bell, New Zealand Playhouse, had planned on launching its 2020 schools tour when the first Covid-19 lockdown hit, putting those plans on hold. The company would usually perform to up to 150,000 children each year.

It scrambled to piece together a slimmed-down version of the tour after the lockdown finished but the return to alert level 2 meant that had to finish early.

"We were losing five grand a week," said Bell. "Often it is the performing artists themselves who lose out when shows get cancelled because artists are the ones on contracts."

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Figures from Creative NZ revealed it received 345 applications in Canterbury alone for an Emergency Relief Grant earlier this year, which covered loss of income between March 1 and June 30 due to Covid-19.

The grants covered all artforms including dance, literature, music, theatre, Pacific Art, and Māori Art.

Bell knew of many other small companies like his struggling due to Covid-19. But when asked why build a new theatre in the middle of so much turmoil, he said there was a big need in Christchurch with 50 performing arts groups using the space.

The theatre build would cost $200,000, with a third already raised. Bell hoped to be open ahead of summer as shows were already being planned.

The site of the Performing Arts Precinct in central Christchurch. Photo / Logan Church
The site of the Performing Arts Precinct in central Christchurch. Photo / Logan Church

Meanwhile, design work for the Christchurch City Council's Performing Arts Precinct development down the road was continuing as planned.

"The Covid-19 pandemic has not affected progress on the project but the design team has had to develop new ways of communicating with each other remotely," said the council's Brent Smith, Principal Adviser Citizens and Community.

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Concept designs for a new Court Theatre in the Performing Arts Precinct, being completed by Athfield Architects, were expected to be completed by December 2020.

The development, on which the council was spending $30m, included the construction of the new Court Theatre, a "public realm" area and landscaping. The Court Theatre was also fundraising $6m.

Demolition of the last pre-quake building on the site was also under way. Construction of the new Court Theatre was expected to begin in early 2022 and was due to open in late 2023.