Is it a hangover from the Spingboks tour? Musician Anthonie Tonnon considers the way live performance venues have changed.
A couple of years ago, I was at the merchandise desk after a show in Dunedin, when I met Dr Ian Griffin, director of the Ōtāgo Museum. We had a brief conversation and he asked me if I'd consider performing at the museum.
When I turned up at Ōtāgo Museum a couple of weeks later, Griffin introduced me to producer Oana Jones and animator Andrew Charlton and together they took me into a dome-shaped room that was 6m in diameter, with only 48 seats, all positioned at 30-degree angles. They fired up two projectors, one at either side and started bringing up incredible images of Saturn and its rings and a slow "fly-through" of distant nebulae.
It wasn't at all what I'd expected but, during the next few months, I found myself returning to the planetarium to design a show that could work in such a space. It brought up all kinds of questions: How do you make a show when the angles of the seats mean people aren't always looking at the performer? How does a non-traditional space affect the atmosphere? And how on earth do you make a 48-seat show financially viable?
But the limited space also had advantages. A visually immersive show needs to be only so long, so we could have an audience arrive just before 7pm and leave an hour later, just as the crowd for the second show was arriving. And harnessing the power of a modern planetarium meant we could design a stadium-worthy light show with the intimacy of an underground folk gig.
During the years I've performed in all kinds of spaces, though this was definitely the strangest. What I've noticed is that every venue changes the behaviour of the crowd and the performer.
Like many musicians, I started in bar venues and still consider these home turf. My first was The Backstage, a 250-person room in Dunedin, set up on two levels with a great view of the band from the upper level by the bar. Despite the tight pack upstairs, the downstairs dance floor was always the last space to fill. I came to realise this "semi-circle of insecurity" was a consistent pattern in large venues.
It's the performer's job to realise what makes their crowd uncomfortable, then try to solve or anticipate the problem. I sometimes ask an audience to make wave motions with their hands, pretend they're on a boat and take three steps forward. But a much easier method is to fill the would-be empty space with tables and chairs.
Another method is to play smaller bars. In my early 20s, my venues of choice in Dunedin were Inch Bar and Mou Very – places that comfortably fitted 10-15 people and uncomfortably 35. I didn't need to hire a sound system and by the end of gig often knew the names of the entire audience. Really small venues seem to be endemic to Dunedin but I later found an Auckland equivalent in Grey Lynn's Freida Margolis.
When I first moved to Auckland, my home base became the Wine Cellar, the famous red-lit den of songwriting with a capacity of 77. The Wine Cellar is one of those rare venues with "walk-ups" – a bar cool enough and well-situated enough that a few curious punters will wander toward the music room and consider handing over cash to hear live music.
I was amazed to see Steve Abel at my first gig in Auckland, unmistakable in his black suit, beard and top knot. At my third gig there, I opened for a songwriter named Hollie Fullbrook, who had recently decided to call her project Tiny Ruins. She astounded the room. Almost every Wine Cellar regular has a memory of seeing a great songwriter at one of those early "crossroads" moments.
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The Wine Cellar also has an unexpectedly important asset – a curfew. Because louder shows need to start next door at Whammy Bar, you can guarantee that music will start before 9pm and finish by 10.30pm. Wine Cellar and Whammy Bar and many other venues have worked hard to standardise playing times in the past decade. But throughout the time I've been performing, dependable timing has been a battle.
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It wasn't always this way. As a long-time Dunedin sound engineer once told me, gigs in the 1980s started at 8pm sharp because bars closed at 10pm. That meant the audience turned up sober, watched two bands and then retreated to a house party, where they debated the merits of the show they'd just seen.
Somewhere in my lifetime, as antiquated closing hours were lifted, rock and roll shows drifted later and later, even though the ticket might still say 8.30pm. Audiences started to doubt the time on the ticket, so had a couple of drinks at home first, while bands waited later for their friends to arrive and so the night went.
Lately, I've been playing in more traditional theatres and it's amazing how this changes the dynamic. If the ticket says 7.30pm, the audience turns up at 7.15. At a theatre there's a weight of tradition that ensures we turn up on time.
It's a performer's job to solve the problem. I often wonder, what would make me trust the door time? A few years ago, Wellington music venue Puppies started printing set times on posters and sticking to them. It seemed to have a flow-on effect. On my annual Rail Land tour, audience members all take the same train to the venue, which also neatly defines the start time.
Playing in theatres has also made me notice the contrast in the way we approach licensing. A number of theatre venues have a licence that allows young people to come to shows without a legal guardian, while also allowing adults to buy alcohol. It works beautifully and I wish we could offer this licence to more dedicated music venues. Why do we feel theatres and music venues are so different?
There's still a lingering perception that music venues are places where bad things happen. I grew up imagining venues as places with crate bottles of Lion Red, pool tables and televisions with the rugby on at one end, a stage at the other – and a tense, male energy, fuelled by alcohol.
But take a look at our main centres and you'll find that these places rarely exist anymore. Venues are now bespoke institutions, just as you won't find a TV in a music venue, nor will you find a band stage in a sports bar.
I have a theory that the divide between sports and music bars is a hangover from the 1981 Springboks rugby tour. Back then you had to choose a side – and most musicians found themselves in opposition to rugby fans. The wounds from that conflict still mark our behaviour and sub-groups and I wonder if it slowly killed our sports-music bars.
It's true that some venues have work to do around alcohol, gender inclusivity and safety. But the potential is there to have a venue that is as much a comfortable and safe community space as any theatre.
There's been only one problem with a show in a planetarium – there are only three places in New Zealand where we can perform. But it so happened that Erica Sklenars, a friend of a friend, was doing some amazing, hologram-like work with projection mapping. I got in touch and we've used her skills to re-format the show into a multidimensional version for traditional theatre spaces. This month, we're at three regional arts festivals.
Whatever the space, preparing for a show is the same process of asking questions from the audience's perspective. Is this going to entertain the audience? Will they be at ease? Would I want to be at this gig? Within that answer lies all the answers.
A Synthesized Universe plays at Nelson Arts Festival on Thursday, October 24, and Tauranga Arts Festival on Friday, October 26. nelsonartsfestival.nz