Curtain falls but memory remains

Roger Hall at the Fortune Theatre in 1983. Photo: GerardO'Brien
Roger Hall at the Fortune Theatre in 1983. Photo: GerardO'Brien
The Fortune Theatre building in Stuart St, Dunedin. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
The Fortune Theatre building in Stuart St, Dunedin. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Hilary Norris and Barry Dorking in the 1989 production Woman in Mind. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Hilary Norris and Barry Dorking in the 1989 production Woman in Mind. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
The main stage area of the Fortune was destroyed by fire in 1979. Photo: ODT
The main stage area of the Fortune was destroyed by fire in 1979. Photo: ODT
Actors Geoffrey Heath (left) and Simon Marley-Jones clean spotlights damaged by smoke in the 1979...
Actors Geoffrey Heath (left) and Simon Marley-Jones clean spotlights damaged by smoke in the 1979 fire. Photo: ODT

The curtain has closed for Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre, after a shock announcement by the theatre trust. The Otago Daily Times looks back on the history of an institution which has weathered other financial storms, and asks what the future of theatre in the city might be.

The Fortune Theatre was created in 1974, when academic David Carnegie and television presenters Murray Hutchinson, Alex Gilchrist and Huntly Eliott pooled their resources to form a professional theatre company, putting in $100 each.

Now Emeritus Professor  of Theatre Studies at Victoria University, Prof Carnegie said the theatre was established  on "a wing and a prayer" and grew out of Dunedin’s bustling amateur theatrical scene.

It began in the Otago Cine Club at the Athenaeum, which could  seat only about 105 people and moved to the 329-seat former Trinity Methodist Church in Upper Stuart St,  in 1978.

The first play was a "safe" blue comedy and only required four actors.

A lot was riding on the first performance, and the company would have folded if it had not been a success, Prof Carnegie said. Fortunately, the theatre, established at the same time as many others, such as the Court Theatre in Christchurch, garnered good public support. In the early days, the University of Otago also helped out, for instance allowing the Fortune Theatre to borrow its Allen Hall stage lights.

Show-stopping productions

The theatre has staged more than 400 productions, from popular contemporary New Zealand works by Roger Hall to Shakespeare, and has been the training ground for various actors and directors who later made it on the national stage. Wellington-based stage and screen actress Hilary Norris performed at the theatre from 1975 to 2013 and holds the record for

the most  appearances at the Fortune.

She has appeared  in films including The Light Between Oceans . From the early days, Ms Norris said, the Fortune worked extremely hard to  attract  people from all sectors of  the community, with special shows for children. Maintenance of the church venue was a combined effort and the theatre troupe helped paint and repair it after the main stage was damaged by fire.

Highlights of her time there were performing in one-woman show Shirley Valentine twice, 10 years apart. The camaraderie was one of the best parts of working at the Fortune,  but despite everyone’s best efforts not everything went to plan. Among the memorable mishaps was an incident when a helium balloon given out during a Winnie the Pooh production got stuck in the rafters and descended during a sombre scene in The Diary of Anne Frank. During the history of the Fortune many talented artists were brought in from outside Dunedin,  among them renowned UK Shakespearean director the late John Russell Brown.

A series of unfortunate events

The closure of the Fortune Theatre is not the first time the company has run into financial strife.

Despite the move to a larger venue, and a string of popular plays, by the early 1980s it needed to be bailed out by charitable donations. In 1983 playwright Roger Hall returned to Dunedin and took over chairmanship of the trust board, and its fundraising efforts enabled the Fortune to keep going. Trust secretary and dramaturge Alister McDonald said there were actually three periods in the 1980s when the trust ran aground, and performances continued after restructuring.

After Campbell Thomas took over as artistic director in 1986, the situation stabilised and it remained fairly stable through the 1990s and 2000s.  From time to time, particularly in later years, Ms Norris felt the Fortune "lost touch with the community" and she speculated that could have contributed to its downfall.

"People weren’t as excited about it, really, in later years, which is a pity."

Mr McDonald said in the 2013 to 2016 seasons there was "a greater weighting towards drama" which was not as popular as comedy,  and "resulted in a series of deficits".

However, Mr McDonald said the financial collapse of the theatre was not solely due to dwindling audience numbers.

Last year  had been one of the most successful years in terms of drawing people to the theatre, with more than 20,000 coming through the doors.

The way the theatre was funded by Creative NZ was partly to blame, he thought.

"It has become progressively harder to make a funding case for Dunedin with its 120,000 population," he said.

Mr McDonald said with the growing popularity of drama as an NCEA subject, more high school pupils were  attending  performances, but only paying concession rates. The fact the Fortune’s core supporters were ageing and becoming senior citizens also meant less income from tickets.

Ghost stories

No great theatre is free from supernatural occurrences, and  there have long been rumours the Fortune is haunted by angry former parishioners of the church. Actors have complained of lights falling down, sinister voices heard offstage, and a strange presence on stage with them. 

Mr McDonald said he had worked many late nights alone cleaning up the theatre and did not believe in the ghost, but had been present in the 1980s when a superstitious fellow actor had brought in a Catholic priest to conduct an exorcism.

"If there is a ghost it shouldn’t be there any longer," he said.

The show must go on

The company now sees its future as the "theatre in residence" at a refurbished community performing arts hub in the former Sammy’s venue.

Prof Carnegie said while he was "devastated" to hear the Fortune had closed, he was confident theatre in Dunedin would continue.  Around the country different companies had made other models work for them, and not all companies had a venue of their own. He was, however, still firmly of the view it was best for a company to have a physical theatre.

It gave the enterprise a sense of stability and security.

"You can build up the infrastructure of the theatre. We need to have theatre accepted as an occupation, not just something that relies on the energy of people in their 20s."

When it came to the future of theatre, Prof Carnegie said the profession was in constant crisis.

In Europe, theatre was a more secure industry because it had more Government support.

In English-speaking countries the industry simply received less financial help, he said. America was in a different situation to New Zealand as theatre companies there relied on private donors. 

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