Theatre of Fortune

Dunedin's Fortune Theatre is celebrating its 40th birthday this weekend. It has weathered ups and downs over the years, but is one of the few community theatres established in the 1970s that is still going strong. Charmian Smith takes a trip back through time.

The early days of the Fortune Theatre were exciting.

Nobody had any idea how professional theatre with continuous shows would go, said Shirley Kelly. She was in the first, and many subsequent Fortune productions.

The theatre was started by television producers Huntly Eliot, Murray Hutchinson and Alex Gilchrist and lecturer David Carnegie.

They managed to maintain their day jobs while staging back-to-back productions in the Otago Cine Club theatre in the Athenaeum building.

It was a tricky venue, Kelly remembers.

You went down the corridor with the women's toilets on the left, through the Athenaeum library on the right and to the little theatre beyond.

Actors shared a communal dressing room upstairs at the front of the building which they vacated at 7.25pm. It was locked behind them and they had to loiter among the bookshelves in the library trying to keep out of sight of the arriving audience.

''We had nowhere to wait to go on stage. There was a door in the back wall of the stage, but in the early days there was no way to get from stage right to stage left. You had to struggle past all the flats and curtains if your first entrance was from the other side of the stage. In one play Murray Hutchinson had to get from one side of the stage to the other and decided to crawl underneath. He arrived covered in cobwebs!'' she said.

''Everybody was enthusiastic the dream should come true, but a lot of people thought they were completely mad because of the demise of the Southern Theatre Trust and that it would never get off the ground.''

Otago had had professional theatre before with Bernard Esquilant and William Menlove's Southern Comedy Players.

They established the Playhouse theatre and toured from 1957-1968.

This was followed by the Southern Theatre Trust that folded in 1970.

The Globe Theatre, which is still going, had a professional director from its foundation in 1961 to 1973, but its actors were amateurs.

Kelly attributes much of the Fortune's early success to volunteers who ran the box office, organised suppers and helped with administration, and of course the audience.

Hilary Norris, who has appeared in more than 50 shows at the Fortune and also directed many, was one of the early supporters.

''There was lots of passion and people were happy to give their time,'' she said.

She and a friend, Susan Hubbard, helped out a couple of mornings a week and were later taken on full-time.

There were no drama schools in those days so they learned the craft on the job. She auditioned and appeared in Ibsen's A Doll's House in 1975.

They were paid $1.50 a performance but nothing for the rehearsals, she said. Often the payment was returned to the theatre along with donations from the public so the theatre could show community support as well as proving itself before it could get arts council funding.

However, the little 105-seat theatre was too small to be viable once a full-time acting company was established in 1977 so the theatre looked for new premises.

Emeritus professor Richard Norris, who was on the inaugural trust board formed at the time, said Roy Walker, who was in Dunedin supervising the building of the hospital and had been chairman of the Mercury Theatre in Auckland, was the driving force behind the move to the historic Trinity Methodist Church, which the theatre still occupies.

At first it leased the building but after a fire in 1979, bought it at a low price with the help of an interest-free loan from National Insurance, which had its head office in Dunedin at the time. When its head office moved north, it wrote the loan off.

The theatre would not have been able to manage with a mortgage, he said.

In the first few years particularly, the theatre did a lot of fundraising, subscription drives, fairs, auctions and raffles, including one for a flight to the Antarctic that happened to be the last one before the Erebus crash, he said.

''It's not easy keeping professional theatre going, especially with a small population. Over the years, each regime has been expected to grow the audience but it's still about the same proportion of the populace. I think the secret is the ability to constrain costs. The box office doesn't increase much except when you put the prices up. Crises happen when costs blow out,'' he said.

Trustee Peter Brown agrees. He has been associated with the theatre since 1993 when he joined the staff as marketing manager for three years. Since then he has been in the members society and on the board in 1999-2000, and again since 2006.

''To this day it is probably the happiest place I've ever worked in. Everything was done on the smell of an oily rag and you had to be creative without much budget. It was a great team under [artistic director] Campbell Thomas,'' he said.

Nevertheless, the core audience has stayed the same since Brown has been involved: ''45+, usually double income, well-educated professionals and the female makes the decision''.

But what is significant is that the theatre has continued to survive in a city that's lost a lot of its professional and management sector, which has been drifting north since the 1970s, he said.

''We often grapple with trying to increase our audience. In the years I've been involved, it's been between 20,000 and 30,000 people through the doors. If you get up near 30,000 you have a fantastic year; if you get down near 20,000 it's not so good,'' he said.

A rule of thumb, Brown learned from Campbell Thomas was that you needed three blockbusters each season to give you the freedom to do the creative, challenging, edgier stuff, and if you don't get those blockbusters you can be in trouble.

The theatre seems to go through cycles, and during a crisis in 2009-10 the board had to take emergency steps to save it. It wasn't the first time it had happened, he said.

Karen Elliot was appointed interim manager to raise morale and restore credibility and with the help of the staff, its fortunes were turned around.

The theatre has had various types of management teams over the years, sometimes with an artistic direction committee, and once trying to manage it in conjunction with the Regent Theatre.

''The quality of the people you have in key positions is critical. I've seen different calibres of boards over the years and I think we've got a very good board now. Without the right calibre of person on your management team doing the day-to-day stuff and on the ground, particularly the artistic director leadership role, it's very hard to advance or thrive,'' he said.

For the past four years it has had both an artistic director, Lara Macgregor, and general manager, both of whom report to the board.

''The artistic director [needs] a clear idea of where they want to take the theatre, and for that person to be well-organised and prepared and passionate is critical.

''Coming along behind that is the administration, running the business and having a general manager who is able to pull all those threads together, support the artistic vision and sometimes challenge it in terms of financial things.

''They need to be able to work together but also have enough confidence in each other that they can challenge each other,'' he said.



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