The following is a reproduction of Jess Soutar Barron’s article which appeared in Issue 46 of Bay Buzz magazine. You can read the article in full here.

Earthquake strengthening shut the Hawke’s Bay Opera House and Arts Precinct in mid-2014. Through the ensuing metamorphosis, what is emerging is more fit-for-purpose, more exciting and interesting, more useful and usable than its earlier version ever was.

The closure shocked the community, causing consternation and speculation, and biting a hole in the pockets of surrounding businesses. Now the project is in the home-stretch, due to open by this time next year.

What will arise will look familiar – even the same in parts – but two prongs of thinking mean it will be vastly different in its operations and outputs. 

From a bricks-and-mortar perspective, the chunks of real estate making up the precinct will be woven together by laneways, creating spaces that fulfil the call for a 21st century build to be a vital conduit between people’s home and work lives. 

Creating spaces within cityscapes that let people meet up and enjoy each other’s company is good for a community’s wellbeing. From a CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) point-of-view a space is safer for all if it’s easier to occupy by everyone, rather than just the raggle-taggle few who lurk ‘after hours’.

Harder to quantify is the opportunity for the newly-opened facility to be an active participant in the arts, as collaborator, commissioner, and contributor to cultural works. Creating a physical and emotional hub for creativity seems a lofty goal but speaks directly to a growing understanding of what a cultural centre should be in the 21st century. 

It’s a long way from the hall-for-hire model of the previous incarnation.

New memories

Alison Banks, HDC’s group manager for Community Facilities and Programmes, is heading up the project. She’s acutely aware of the historic importance of the buildings but is committed to ensuring what happens inside the spaces is anything but old-fashioned. 

“We’re doing something very different and very new,” says Alison, “This is innovative and a chance to be brave.” 

Consultation with the community brought a wave of nostalgia for the Opera House, but also a call for its heritage value to be balanced by ensuring a bright future as a well-used venue. 

This thinking has been spurred on by Hawke’s Bay’s existing youth performing arts offering, including Project Prima Volta, National Youth Drama School, NZ Singing School, Takitimu Performing Arts School, and a multitude of dance, music and drama programmes. Ensuring the reopened precinct serves these programmes and enables youth access to the arts is an important motivator.

“This is a place where new memories will be made,” says Alison. “Youth want a place to be proud of, a place to come back to.”

A working group that helped envision what Opera House 2.0 could be, considered the feel of the place rather than the look. Alison explains: “Their thinking was based around emotions and focused on local community and then visitors. First let’s make sure the community has ownership, that’s the only way it’ll work.”

This means the precinct needs adaptable, accessible, affordable spaces, providing opportunities for everyone in the community to experience arts and culture. “People have seen it as elite, but I want it to be a place that no matter their background, people have an opportunity to be part of it,” says Alison.

Beyond bricks and mortar

With one year left on the build, there’s plenty of ‘bricks and mortar’ still to do for the core team of 65 builders working on site. There’s also a growing team of Opera House employees working in the background to ensure once the building is ready so too is a programme of events and partnerships with which to fill it.

The new facility will be focused on the needs of community, from hospitality to community spaces, and in this last year of works the community is being asked to get involved through a public awareness campaign.

“All Together Now” will help people understand the future potential of that quarter of Hastings, what spaces will be on offer, what combination of commercial, cultural and community will make up the precinct. As walls, barricades and hurricane fencing come down, laneways and new spaces will emerge, and the community will see possibilities unfold. 

Much of that hidden potential lies in the Municipal Building. Originally council chambers, the Municipal houses the Assembly Room at its heart – with its impressive sprung dance floor – and a labyrinth of interconnecting rooms. On the ground floor – for many years a furniture shop – there’s the opportunity for flexible spaces that offer themselves to a range of uses and users from corporates to creatives to community. 

From the outside, one of the biggest changes is the Plaza. Constructed as part of the 2007 rebuild, the Plaza was an open space with a retractable awning and a defunct fountain. Now it will be enclosed with a permanent roof. In its early incarnation it had limited use; the new iteration is planned to be far more usable by a wider range of groups. 

“There were so many opportunities we missed out on because the Plaza was limited, now it’ll see more action!” says Alison. “It’ll be warm, secure, with better access.” 

The Plaza feeds into the Cushing Foyer that will remain as it was. From there the Theatre foyer has been opened up and brought back to its ‘original majesty’ rather than the enclosed space created during the 2000s rebuild. Moving from the theatre to the Municipal Building is where change will be particularly apparent through laneways and changes in the ground floor.

The business of ‘show business’

In the past few years, the Opera House has been a sleeping beauty amidst new shops, bars and restaurants, opened by people gambling on Hastings as a fresh and funky place to be. 

Alison Banks is looking forward to the precinct waking up and getting involved in this vitality. “If we do this right it’ll be part of many developments in the city that help bring the city alive. It’s already started and we know we can bring value.”

Rather than being another inner-city business, the Opera House is central to its vibrancy. It’s not just that it’s a home for arts and culture, there’s potential too for engaging young people to get involved … not just in the arts but also in adjunct offerings like hospitality and backstage action like tech, as well as front-of-house. 

Since its closure there’s been much conversation happening around what the Opera House complex could be in the future. Money sourced for the rebuild swings predominantly off the need for EQ strengthening; but users, those working in arts and culture, the Working Group and the general public have all expressed a need for something more.

“We’re covered when it comes to EQ strengthening, but we need to find funds to help us deliver what the community’s asked for,” explains Alison. “We thought once the building work was done it would be same old same old, but the community doesn’t want that.”

The Working Group, set up in 2017, came to the same conclusion: creating opportunities to use the available bricks-and-mortar in as many ways as possible for as many people as possible was the priority. The solution was to find a happy mix between commercial and community, with both bringing life and contributing to the success of each other.

Having people move through the space, on a daily basis, is what Opera House manager Megan Peacock Coyle is excited about. 

“People bring life to a building. They might come to a café or be heading to a class or be making a piece of theatre work. We want the place to be buzzing with a whole range of different people. That’s what breathes life into a place.” 

Megan explains the move from ‘what was’ to ‘what could be’. 

“It’s about changing the vision from ‘building’ to ‘audience’,” she explains. 

“Audience is community, it makes up everyone. It’s about how we then nurture that audience so we can see the social value of the arts. That’s the heart and soul of what we’re doing.”

This move from hall-for-hire to 21st century community hub means having a wide view on who ‘audience’ is, and how a facility can be an active participant in a healthy cultural sector.

“Hawke’s Bay can be a leader in how we celebrate, nurture, grow and connect people to their identity,” says Megan. “It gives us an ability to tell our stories. We get high-quality national companies coming here and telling theirs, but we have vibrant stories of our own and we deserve to share them.”

Practical manifestations of this new way of thinking may see the Opera House commissioning work, or proactively engaging theatre makers and performers, as well as ‘buying in’ shows from other places.

“We have to be thinking outwardly towards our community and partnering with them to present work,” she explains. “Programming is essential to ensuring diversity. We need to give people opportunities to see a range of work, and specifically work that represents and reflects the community we live in.”

This move beyond the initial EQ-only focus means, for Alison Banks, it’s more important than ever to loop in community.

“We really need to reach out to the community and ask them to get involved in making these extra elements happen,” she says, citing three main reasons to bring in funds for things like laneways, public art, community spaces. 

“From a build point-of-view they are ‘nice-to-have’, but really they are the life blood, they are what makes this a great place to spend time in.”

Also, central and local government funding needs proof of community commitment to raising funds. Thirdly, when the public contributes to a project they are more inclined to use it once it’s open. They feel ownership for it, literally and figuratively.

People need people

With the momentum for adding extra elements to the rebuild coming from the community, the potential of future spaces informs an ongoing dialogue among Hawke’s Bay’s performing arts sector. 

Puti Lancaster has taken the theatre scene by storm over the last few years with site-specific, place-based work telling hyperlocal stories from Heretaunga. It’s been a highlight of arts festivals around NZ and received high praise from audiences and industry. For her, making work isn’t simply reliant on facilities but grows more from a sense of comradery and companionship. 

“I make work in any place that holds stories; what’s most important is that relationship between space, story and people,” Puti says. 

Puti’s work is impressive and innovative on a national level and Hawke’s Bay benefits from having makers of her calibre living and working here. As much as having the right team is central to the way she works, having space in which to create is important too.

“It’s about being in relationship with that space, it’s another collaborator.” Puti reinforces the importance of the Opera House’s central positioning in the heart of Hastings. She too would like to see the precinct take on a more active role in the arts.

“I’d love to be commissioned to make a work! It might be cheeky but it’s about time we were asked.”

Realising the potential of the Opera House is seen by Puti as essential to a thriving future for the arts here, not just a ‘nice-to-have’.

“That’s what the service of theatre is, to grow us as people. We’re figuring that out all the time, how theatre can be of service. That’s the value of theatre, the huge spiritual work of stories,” explains Puti. “We’re talking directly to parts of the human condition, telling our stories is part of what it is to be human.”

Theatre maker and educator Ken Keys’ ongoing and active relationship with the Opera House goes back further than just about any other practitioner in Hawke’s Bay.

Ken set up the original performing arts programme housed at the OH through the 90s in conjunction with EIT. He established and still sits on the board of the National Youth Drama School, now in its 27th year. He was a member of the Working Group.

“The world of performing arts in Hawke’s Bay has changed in the last two decades,” says Ken. “The change in thinking is that performing arts isn’t just frippery, it’s intrinsic to the heart and soul of the community. Having a facility for expression may sound a cliché but in reality it’s as vital to what a community needs as roads and parks,” says Ken.

“The closure was double-edged. It was tragic, but without it the rethink wouldn’t have happened. We have this opportunity to think about the Opera House and Municipal Building as an integrated venue, alive with – and for – community. That whole area should be buzzing with activity.”

Ken is currently working on a theatre piece with local playwright Pauline Hayes. In the middle of rehearsals (in cramped spaces all over town) they agree having a central home for performing arts would have practical as well as cultural benefits.

Pauline has been making theatre in Hawke’s Bay for years; her work is now being exported to other parts of the country. She’s pragmatic about what artists need beyond the feel-good. “To be honest, we need a big fat space that’s heavily subsidised for emerging artists who have no access to funds.”

“There’s no facility for emerging artists to make work, and you don’t get money from Creative New Zealand to get started so you do need a community facility. It becomes a feeder for making work and lifting it onto a national stage.”

Ken says the wrap-around infrastructure is as important as the space. “It’s not just a venue, it’s supportive and experienced people who can mentor and be a catalyst for getting local work off the ground.”

Pauline sees much unexplored possibility here. “The talent that exists in the Bay but is untapped is world-class. We’re not a rural outpost. We have what’s needed to create a performing arts centre that’s first-rate.” 

Bricks and mortar are important but it’s the invisible ‘other’ that makes the real difference. “Creatives make work anyway,” says Pauline. “What’s hard is connecting. But if you’ve got a central place, people know where to go and they gravitate towards that place.”

“The talent here is tremendous,” agrees Ken. “It’s a whole dynamic that exists here. Work creates work, people need people. That’s what the Opera House should be about.”