Fortune closure shock for arts

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The demise of the Fortune Theatre has been described as “like a death in the family”, as the Dunedin arts community reels in shock.

On Tuesday, the Fortune Theatre Trust board announced the immediate closure of the theatre, saying it “could not continue to run under its current business model and premises”.

The closure has left many in the Dunedin theatre community distraught, from actors and directors whose association with the Fortune dates back decades, to youngsters studying theatre at the city’s high schools.

Since the closure, the Dunedin City Council has approached Creative New Zealand about a study looking at the opportunities for Dunedin’s performing arts, Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull said.

This would also consider the role of the former Sammy’s building.

“Live theatre is an essential part of Dunedin’s vibrant arts scene,” he said.

The theatre community will hold a Save the Fortune Theatre public meeting next week.

Dunedin drama teachers have expressed deep concern over the impact of the closure on their pupils and the loss of pathways into the theatre for University of Otago students through collaborative productions such as Punk Rock (2016) and last year’s Into the Woods and Twelfth Night

Associate professor Lisa Warrington, a former Fortune Theatre associate director and director of more than 35 productions there, said she had regarded it as her theatre “home” since 1981.

“It’s had a history to be proud of, and I hope that we can find a way forward,” she said.

Theatre lecturer and professional actor Hilary Halba has appeared in more than 20 productions at the Fortune since 1984. She said the closure was a “terrible blow”.

In a Unesco City of Literature, with a highly rated university and strong arts scene, it was “shameful” for the only professional theatre to be closed, Ms Halba said.

The Dunedin Theatre Reviewers’ Collective, which hosts the annual Dunedin Theatre Awards, was shocked and dismayed by the announcement that the Fortune Theatre had closed.

“Without the Fortune, the city’s cultural life will be severely diminished,” spokeswoman Barbara Frame said.

“This sudden news is like a death in the family, and we are sad for the hard-working, gifted staff whose dedication has made the theatre such a great asset to the city and the region.”

The collective was cautiously optimistic that professional theatre could again be a feature of Dunedin life, if the city’s wealth of acting talent and arts expertise could be brought together in a sustainable way, Mrs Frame said.

Regent Theatre Trust chairwoman Alison Cunningham said anyone with even a passing interest in the arts and cultural life would be hoping the situation could be resolved quickly and the Fortune Theatre “reborn”.

“Affordable access to wonderful work like An Iliad or last year’s That Bloody Womanis a crucial part of our vibrant city and simply must be retained,” she said.

Fortune Theatre trust chairwoman Haley van Leeuwen said the future of the Fortune Theatre trust would be discussed at a general meeting later this month.

She expressed a wish that there could be a more collaborative community-based theatre venture in future.

“What is exciting is that the Dunedin City Council has an appetite for exploring this.”

Mr Cull said the council, Creative New Zealand and the Otago Community Trust had all been key financial supporters of the Fortune Theatre. The council had helped the theatre in the past with grants funding, including an $80,000 lifeline payment last year.

The Fortune Theatre Trust Board had submitted a proposal for future delivery of professional theatre in Dunedin to the council’s 10-year plan process, which would be considered when deliberations began on May 14, Mr Cull said.