Assurance on pro theatre in city

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Concerns aired . . . Members of Dunedin's theatre community listen as actor Rosella Hart addresses the Save the Fortune Theatre meeting, held at Allen Hall on Tuesday. PHOTO: JOHN COSGROVE

The future of professional theatre in Dunedin remains strong, despite last week’s abrupt closure of the Fortune Theatre.

That was the assurance given by Dunedin City Council community and culture committee chairman Aaron Hawkins at Tuesday’s Save the Fortune Theatre meeting.

About 50 people, including former Fortune Theatre trustees, city councillors, actors, academics, teachers, university students and high school pupils, attended the often passionate lunchtime meeting at Allen Hall, which was organised by University of Otago third-year theatre studies student Sarah Latta.

Beginning the meeting, Ms Latta read a statement from Fortune Theatre Trust chairwoman Haley van Leeuwen, which highlighted the board’s reasons for the closure.

These included an unsustainable high-fixed-cost, low-return business model, an ongoing decline in the number of seats sold, lack of accessibility for older patrons and funding issues.

Cr Hawkins told the meeting the past 10 days had been a “rough time” for the local theatre community, but emphasised that the end of the Fortune Theatre would not be the death of professional theatre in Dunedin.

The council had gained a commitment from Creative NZ that it would continue to set aside the $500,000 it had granted to the Fortune each year for future theatre projects in the city, Cr Hawkins said.

The council’s own contribution to the theatre, which had been $95,000 this year, was scheduled to be discussed during the council’s 10-year plan deliberations, he said.

“We will also be looking at what the arts infrastructure looks like across the city .. wherever people are producing and performing work,” Cr Hawkins said.

While that work could take several years, the council was keen to work in partnership with Creative NZ to ensure shows of a professional standard continued to be produced in Dunedin, Cr Hawkins said.

Actor Rosella Hart said it was important to acknowledge there was unlikely to be “a really quick fix”, but a conversation needed to be started about a long-term sustainable model for theatre in Dunedin.

By contrast, former chairwoman of the Fortune Theatre Trust Dame Elizabeth Hanan said she was “gobsmacked” at the theatre’s closure and described the move as “reprehensible”.

She asked why the board had not publicly called for community help instead.

Describing talk of adapting Sammy’s into a community arts venue as “pie in the sky”, Dame Elizabeth said a solution was needed urgently.

“We had a playbill that was set up for this year, so what is wrong with looking at venues where that playbill can be staged?” she said.

“We have the expertise in Dunedin to do it.”

Logan Park High School drama teacher Christine Colbert spoke of the impact the closure would have on drama programmes in the city’s high schools, and called for the annual meeting of the theatre to be held this month.

“The board has made some blunders, and has to answer some questions.”

Professional theatre in New Zealand had always needed extra funding support, she said.

“Why didn’t they try and get the community involved?”

Former Fortune Theatre technician Lyndsay Gordon said there had been a real lack of investment in performance spaces in the city, which was becoming a health and safety issue.

“We need to ditch the Sammy’s idea and move to a new, purpose-built facility with large and small spaces for rehearsals and productions.”

Any further discussions on the issues needed to involve people with expertise in theatre services, he said.