It is the most unassuming of buildings.

Far from the spectacular Civic, with its 1920s oriental chic, or the contemporary Aotea, Q and Waterfront theatres, the Basement is about as nondescript as it comes. On the edge of a carpark, as if hidden from the city's main drag, the towering building barely looks up to code let alone the home of one of New Zealand's most important theatre outfits.

"It is the last place on earth you'd put a theatre," laughs Charlie McDermott.

Yet that's exactly what he did.

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When Silo Theatre left the building at the end of 2007, McDermott, who worked the bar alongside Michelle Blundell, Morgana O'Reilly and several other young actors, refused to let the space go.

They planned a summer of parties to sell off Silo's leftover alcohol but the first of those parties was so successful they had to restock in order to hold the other planned events. Those all-night raves paved the way for McDermott and co to take over the space, transforming it into the little theatre that could and has.

A decade on, it's at the heart of Auckland's theatre scene. There have been more than 600 shows performed there and some of our most recognisable performers — Rose Matafeo and Tom Sainsbury among them — have started out on one of the Basement's two stages.

It's also helped breed a generation of skilled backstage operators, now working on our main stages or overseas, as well as arts administrators, who take NZ shows global. Young playwrights, such as Sam Brooks and Julia Croft, and many of those writing for top-rating local TV shows started out writing and performing at The Basement.

It's a space where you might see a future household name make their debut as well as see half a car, a future prime minister or even Kim Dotcom take to the stage. The one constant has been the youthful energy and enthusiasm that birthed the theatre in the first place and led audiences to see a far greater range of entertainment.

Basement fan turned marketing manager Tim Blake, now just into his 30s, says it was the first time emerging cast and crews — the drama students from high school — could regularly see people their own age making their own shows.

"Most theatres had these very formal structures but The Basement was a lot of people around my age doing everything they could to make their show. It was very inspiring, amazing."

This month, The Basement celebrates that legacy with a series of anniversary events. They include Stranger Things, where 12 "creatives" are selected and paired with someone they don't know to work, for a fortnight, on making a five to 10-minute theatre short, and the Basement Playlist - excerpts from a Basement play, one for each of its 10 years, performed by original cast.

General manager Elise Sterback says it's a chance to take a breath and reflect on how far the theatre has come. Blake acknowledges the first 10 years have been about establishing and working in a survival mode.

"… really pushing and pushing just to get the arts to a place where it's noticed and appreciated."

"Pushing" is a sentiment shared by McDermott and Blundell, the original general and programming managers. The Basement was launched as a space for young artists to get a foot in the door without losing thousands of dollars in the process. That first year saw a 16-year-old Matafeo do stand-up, while the first theatre show was Tom Sainsbury's LUV.

But keeping it all alive involved years spent swimming upstream trying to stay afloat.

"Behind the scenes, we were little mice on wheels and we couldn't actually make anything better and fix problems," says McDermott. "We were the last people you would choose to run an arts organisation, but because we had these parties, we could run it as a theatre and all the stakeholders, like the [then Auckland City] council said they couldn't compete with that."

While they received some funding, money was practically non-existent and they lived from one funding proposal to the next. One such grant allowed them to hire actor Sam Snedden initially as bar manager but, in six years, he worked a multitude of jobs ending up as general manager.

Snedden led the charge to secure more stable funding, including Creative New Zealand's Toi Uru Kahikatea (arts development investment), which provides ongoing funding. Traditions were born out of necessity. The annual Christmas show, now a key staple on the theatre's calendar, started as a fundraiser to buy air conditioning.

"There would be 30 per cent of the audience who would not go to a show because it was too hot," Snedden laughs. "The number of times we had to call an ambulance and stop the show ... "

Establishing a board of trustees — McDermott calls it the theatre's "Obi-Wan Kenobi's" — helped significantly with management and the young team learned through repetition. Throughout it all, their main goal of nurturing talent remained the same.

"We had a philosophy of 'say yes to anything, unless your idea's shit'," Snedden says. "And even then, we quite often said yes."

That philosophy hasn't changed. "A bar, a theatre, a community" has long been the mantra and likely always will: "We do have a role to play, especially in relation to a certain type of work that is less commercial and really pushing the envelope in terms of culture and identity," Sterback says.

The theatre is now on steadier ground, with regular weekly and monthly events, ranging from spoken word poetry and monologues to improv and live music, alongside the constant turnover of blink-and-you-miss-them performances.

While this month is about celebrating the past, the team is focused on the future.

"Theatre has a reputation for being a medium that is only for a small demographic of our population, because we do not see a true representation of our country on our stages," current programming manager Gabrielle Vincent says.

Sterback wants to see a uniquely-Aotearoa artistic voice become easily recognised throughout our culture but suspects it will take another decade for that to happen.

"I think the shift is going to look less like a numbers game about getting artists into the industry," she adds, "and about a slightly more curated mission around what voices we want to elevate."

But where the Basement will be remains to be seen. It's in a block that needs earthquake strengthening at some point. The building may fall but the spirit never will.

"The beauty of the Basement, what we helped create and facilitate, is that it will never go away," McDermott says. "It is now embedded so strongly in the fabric of development and the community of the industry."

He thinks the theatre has grown beyond its current space and deserves a multi-purpose venue that caters to all types of artwork; Snedden believes there's room for a second Basement to exist in Auckland. Sterback, Blake and Vincent have similar visions but are focused on nurturing and growing the current space and community that has grown around it.

"We want it to remain open enough for newcomers to come in and feel a part of it. It always makes me really happy when people say they feel at home here. That's the experience we want everyone who comes through to have," Sterback says.

That is the one recurrent theme all interviewees seem to share. No matter who the performers are or what their work is; whether it is Polynesia vogue dancing or a Christmas show about disgruntled reindeer, the community has ensured The Basement's survival.

"It is a basement. It is a shitty basement of someone's shitty house, and that's the charm of it," McDermott says. "Even though it's completely impractical in some way, the energy it's created has kept it going. And there's just something really special about being there."

Basement Memories:

Tom Sainsbury:

"When we were advertising

LUV

, it was accidentally reported that we were part of Silo Theatre. Silo then promptly came, with an angle grinder or blowtorch or something, and brutally removed their name from the premises. I remember sparks flying everywhere and knew that the old guard was gone and now was the time of Basement.

"The Basement does incredible work that no one else in Auckland is doing. You can attend five nights a week and delve deep into artistic fringey-ness and always walk out with your brain firing. I've seen so many plays there now and my life is so much richer for the experience.

Dan Musgrove, who plays Lefty Munroe in Westside, arrived in Auckland and started making theatre at The Basement. Photo/Ted Baghurst
Dan Musgrove, who plays Lefty Munroe in Westside, arrived in Auckland and started making theatre at The Basement. Photo/Ted Baghurst

Dan Musgrove:

"The Basement is the most exciting space for new and developmental work in Auckland. It hums. The fact that so much can happen in such a confined space and all in one night makes for a festive energy. And it's all about the performance. You can get super close to the actors, which is always great, unless they haven't washed their costumes, which can happen. It opens you up to a whole creative community. Whether you're attending as an audience member, making work to perform in the space, or helping out at the box office or bar, these spaces create new inspiration and accidental and well-planned collaborations."

Morgana O'Reilly, has starred in TV and films in Australia and NZ, after starting professional theatre at the Basement. Photo/Doug Sherring
Morgana O'Reilly, has starred in TV and films in Australia and NZ, after starting professional theatre at the Basement. Photo/Doug Sherring

Morgana O'Reilly:

"I remember Charlie talking about this grand plan. He wanted to use the space and the bar after our beloved Silo had moved on. So we riffed on that. There was a group of us working in and around The Silo at the time, we were all throwing in ideas on what this crazy place could and should be. While an audience was in the theatre watching a show, we would sit around throwing ideas for names and events about.

Favourite memories? So many! Too many! Working the bar while we hosted a silent disco was a weird thing. I remember walking through the dance floor, clearing glasses, but there being no music, just shuffling and the odd 'whoop' coming from the crowd.

Go have a drink and watch a show that will make you laugh, or vomit, or cry, or be bored and make you think you hate theatre. Whatever your response, good — it'll make you have one. And if you're there on a lucky night, a dance party might break out..."

Lowdown
What: The Basement turns 10 — Stranger Things, October 24; The Basement Playlists, October 26; Ghosts of the Basement Halloween Party, October 27
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