Dave Armstrong is a Wellington-based playwright and satirist.
OPINION: I was delighted to visit the beautiful refurbished and earthquake-strengthened interior of St James’s Theater last week.
While the council is receiving record satisfaction ratings, the refurbishment of St James is something they have done well. Yes, it took a little longer and cost a little more than expected – but not a blowout. Unfortunately, the current inflationary environment has seen this become the norm.
My earliest memories of the St James were as a child when it was a movie theatre. But it is as a theater that the “grande dame” (why is a theater named James called “her”?) is remembered. At the official opening last Thursday, every speaker had fond memories of stunning performances there – often during the Aotearoa Arts Festival.
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My personal favorites include Pina Bausch’s incredible Rite of Spring, a dance performance that included monks from the Shaolin Temple and a Russian theater play that used magnificent large puppets acting autocratically as members of the local bourgeoisie looked on from ornate side boxes. For me, this brilliantly highlighted the close ties between Putin’s thugs and the “civilized” Russian oligarchs.
The interior of the theater is exquisite, with new decorations and never-before-seen features. The colors are a bit garish, which I think matches the style of 1912 – the year it was built.
So, are these buildings – with their increasingly expensive seismic reinforcement bills – worth it? Given that St James and our town hall are older than almost all living humans, I would say yes. And both are loved by performers for their acoustics.
But aren’t these expensive-to-maintain buildings examples of Pākehā colonialism, and are they just flattery to the artistic elite? Maybe, but tell that to the three sold-out audiences who enjoyed Teeks’ recent concerts with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, many of whom were Maori if the reaction to Teeks’ appeal to the people of his turangawaewae of Hokianga is something to do by.
And tell that to kaumātua Rangimoana Taylor, who spoke at the opener about the incredible impact of her first visit to the St James. Taylor, who pursued a career in the performing arts, said as a child he couldn’t believe there were theaters in the world as big or beautiful as the St James.
Like many Wellington venues, the St James is with us today thanks to dedicated agitators who saved the theater in the 1990s. The St James is said to have ghosts, but it’s the specter of Rogernomics that almost destroyed it.
Kerridge Odeon, a predominantly New Zealand company, sold the theatre, and it ended up being owned by the Chase Corporation – a corporate raider that boomed in the 1980s until the stock market crash of 1987 – who planned to demolish it. Luckily a dedicated group of Wellingtonians saved the theater from destruction and persuaded the council to buy it – thank you guys – which they did in 1993.
Even though I think we should celebrate Saint James, why is it so hard to save performance space in a city that many like to call the nation’s arts capital?
City Hall was nearly demolished in the 1970s and, again, it was only a dedicated band of agitators who managed to save it. The Embassy Theater has faced all sorts of challenges and, thanks to its dedicated Friends, has overcome them. The BATS Theater has seen some of the country’s best-known artists appear on its stage, but it was only a generous donation from Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh that kept it afloat.
Our magnificent Opera also had its moments. It was owned by State Insurance, but when that company was privatized during Rogernomics and became privately owned, its future was uncertain. Since then it has come under the control of the council and has been reinforced against earthquakes to the required level.
Circa Theater recently had a renovation request turned down by council and the Hannah Playhouse, once busy every night of the week, appears to be dormant. Hopefully something will happen there soon.
Not all performance spaces were so lucky. As Kate Harcourt pointed out Thursday night via her daughter Miranda, Broadcasting House, which had studios with brilliant acoustics, was demolished for a parliamentary office block that was never built. The sad empty space that now stands there should be renamed McKinnon’s Mistake after former Deputy Prime Minister Don McKinnon who signed Broadcasting House’s death warrant.
It’s a shame that in a city that uses the performing arts as a tourist attraction, many art lovers have had to spend so much time simply preventing performance spaces from being demolished. There’s been a lot of discussion over the past few weeks about whether we’re still the capital of the arts or the coolest little capital.
I don’t get involved in such brand arguments, but what is true is that with the reopening of the magnificent St James, Wellington has become a bit artier and a bit cooler.
- This column has been changed to reflect that Kerridge Odeon was primarily New Zealand owned. (Modified July 5, 1:05 p.m.)