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Dunedin has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to establish a viable, well equipped and accessible theatre space, writes Ross Johnston.
The proposal from the Dunedin Theatre Network involving the Playhouse and Mayfair (ODT 30.04.22) is interesting as a concept — but I’m not convinced that it is the best alternative.
It certainly perfectly serves the needs of the theatres involved, but doesn’t necessarily best serve the needs of the city for a mid-sized flexible performance centre suitable for dance, theatre and music.
Some background. Along with Creative New Zealand, the Dunedin City Council came up with $300,000 to have a company with considerable international experience in theatre design and placement, Charcoalblue, check out where and how a mid-sized theatre might operate successfully in Dunedin. They evaluated 13 sites using a number of criteria.
Once a number of possible locations were removed from consideration by the DCC as being too expensive, Charcoalblue was asked to focus on two sites: a gutted and revamped Athenaeum Building and a revamped Mayfair.
Charcoalblue placed a lot of emphasis on the fact that a mid-sized performance centre located in the Athenaeum Building would add to the cultural and entertainment precinct already established in and near the Octagon — the Town Hall, the Glenroy, the Regent, the Library, the Art Gallery, a number of small performance spaces and three cinemas, all in close proximity. Hospitality is also active in the area, and parking buildings and the bus hub are close by.
Charcoalblue were asked by the DCC to develop a design indicating what might be achieved within the framework of the Athenaeum Building. The resulting floor plans, elevations and visuals depict an interesting flexible performance space — though to date these plans have yet to be presented to the citizens of Dunedin for their consideration.
The Charcoalblue report was more dubious about a revamped Mayfair on the basis of a much higher estimated capital cost — due to the dampness in the basement, transport issues and the amount of work required to establish a new lively cultural precinct in the area. They were also concerned that, once revamped, significant additional investment would be needed to make it truly functional. It only outranked the Athenaeum option on one count — heritage value.
While there are elements of the network’s overall plan where location is not critical, it is critical for a mid-sized performance centre. The offer by the developer to create a writer’s centre in the Athenaeum as part of the network’s plan is both significant and generous. But a writer’s centre does not need a central location — it might work perfectly well in a revamped Sammy's for example. The location of a performance centre, on the other hand, is critical and it seems that the Athenaeum site may be highly appropriate.
The input from local theatres is to be welcomed in this discussion but I believe other voices need to be heard, specifically companies from outside Dunedin that want to tour mid-sized shows here, those locally based groups interested in creating a professional theatre or dance company and the co-funder of the Charcoalblue study, Creative New Zealand. What do they consider most appropriate for the city as a result of the Charcoalblue report?
At the moment we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to establish a viable, well equipped, accessible, mid-sized performance space that gels with our current performance infrastructure and enhances our status as a City of Literature.
The Dunedin Theatre Network discussion document doesn’t seem to me to achieve that end successfully.
- Ross Johnston is a semi-retired local actor, director and producer.