Originally published by the Otago Daily Times, May 22 2018
The Dunedin — and Otago — theatre community deserve a candid explanation of why the Fortune Theatre has been forced to close, writes Lily Kay Ross.
The Fortune Theatre is not history. It is a place with history, and it is surely a part of our city’s history. But its lifeblood is still pulsing in the veins of the local artists, practitioners, volunteers, and theatre-goers who are grieving and in shock at what Dunedin has just lost.
But what exactly has been lost? The Fortune Theatre is a space and a company, but it is also a community, made up of talented and passionate individuals. We collaborate because we believe in professional theatre. We are still here.
The future of the Fortune, as a company and as a space, remains uncertain. But the Fortune is still very much present. Playwright and dramaturg Emily Duncan has minced no words in noting that there is a need for transparency and a detailed account of what led us here.
The Dunedin – and Otago – theatre community deserve a candid explanation around what has occurred in order to realise the next iteration of professional theatre in Dunedin.
Now is a time of mourning and taking stock. It is also a time of action. Playbills are set, countless of hours have been poured into programming and education on which our wider community relies. It will take solidarity to resist the impending erasure of diverse efforts by the skilled and dedicated practitioners who worked with the Fortune. Over the coming months, venues and funding will be needed to make sure professional theatre stays alive in Dunedin until a long term solution can be instated.
The immediate risk is that people will leave; that talent will drain from this City of Literature in search of more viable opportunities. We can’t risk that.
Director Jordan Dickson and I have had a number of conversations about the need for and possibility of keeping Dunedin’s professional theatre alive while developing long-term solutions.
An ideal solution would be to extend the Fortune Theatre’s expiration date by about a year – to see through the already scheduled events. The funding from Creative New Zealand is there, and the DCC has indicated a willingness to provide funds. Our town has the staff and expertise. It would be a way to dissipate some of the shock.
A thriving future for theatre in Dunedin will take some creative thinking and consideration of modern models that work, including profit sharing models. We need a new theatre, built for purpose. We need to think about how multi-purpose spaces, including live-work spaces and business ventures, can promote greater community involvement in local theatre, and contribute to the vitality of theatre spaces.
A central location is essential for accessibility. Perhaps Sammy’s and the old Fortune Theatre site, as well as other historic venues in town, could be revamped and put to use in a creative, community-based coalition. Such revamping would take funds from the DCC, and a wise investment could render Dunedin a creative destination for creatives and their supporters.
The Tannery Arts Center, in Santa Cruz California, offers a potential pathway that I’m especially excited about. They offer low-income, state-sponsored housing for proven artists, who pay a range of rental fees based on their income. The live-work environment is an unrivalled method for community building, with events, friendships, collaborations, and word-of-mouth support helping artists to expand their audiences and inspire their work. The Tannery offers 100 units, which house up to three people (including many families), and offer an on-site gallery as well as a 182-seat theatre.
Part of our conundrum is that the arts are in tension with the interests and values of neoliberal capitalism – its obsession with bottom lines and profits, and its reluctance to provide safety nets. What theatre offers is nourishment for the soul, not the pocket book. At its best, it will always present stories and ideas that challenge norms and ask viewers to think in new ways, to empathise with others whose experience is outside their own. To support theatre takes more than good business sense: it takes community and governmental support. Any self-reflective society has an ethical obligation to foster creative output.
What happens next sits on the shoulders of the Dunedin community. Whether or not you attend professional theatre, our city’s culture thrives with it. We would not be the same city without it. Now is a time to voice support for theatre. There are coalitions and teams in the works aiming to brainstorm and figure long term solutions to the Fortune closure. Young people are especially vital to this process – we need innovation and new ideas that speak to young people in a fast changing world.
Meanwhile, the lifeblood of the Fortune is still pulsing. Wellsprings of talent and knowledge dwell inside hundreds of people in this city; we are still here and still fighting for the future of Fortune and its legacy. We cannot do it alone. We want – and need – you to join us.
Lily Kay Ross is a PhD student in gender studies at the University of Otago and carries a Masters in Divinity from Harvard University. She also writes plays, novellas, nonfiction and memoirs, and co-hosts Your Friendly Neighbourhood Feminists on Radio1.