Mercury Theatre and the Auckland Venue Problem

Outside the Mercury Theatre

Got a spare $3 million? Buy a theatre – it’s a steal! 

 
Supports gather for the Mercury Rising Campaign

On Saturday I joined the flash mob photoshoot for Mercury Rising – a grassroots campaign aiming to ensure that the Mercury Theatre, the oldest surviving theatre in Auckland, is reclaimed as a performing arts venue. It drew attention to the potential opportunities for an increased and needed range of venues in Auckland, and the very real dangers of losing them….

Visitors always comment about how beautiful Auckland’s Civic Theatre. The ‘Mighty’ Civic is the crown jewel in Auckland’s performing arts venues, entertaining audiences since 1929, and helped by a major restoration in 1999. Together with the Town Hall, it is one of the few venues with a sense of continuity and history. It has a distinct character, a real beauty, and its magnificent interior heightens even the schlockiest of musical theatre performed on its stage. It even, people claim, has its own theatre Ghost.

 More recent theatres can’t begin to compete… Aotea Centre’s ASB Theatre (1990), despite holding some brilliant personal memories performing in Children’s Theatre, is rather dreary, and they never quite got the acoustics right (Silo’s recent upgrade of its little sister Herald Theatre however improved that one no end) . The Maidment Theatre (1976) does its job, but lacks a certain aesthetic something. Sky City Theatre (1996), now lost as a venue, was fairly non-descript. And The Basement (1998), formerly Silo Theatre, has its own unique charm, so no complaints that there, and despite its many limitations, it’s just what it needs to be.

 And that’s it. Our major performing arts venues in central Auckland right now. Q Theatre, opening at the end of the year, brings some fresh hope to the situation. But it doesn’t solve the problem that Auckland has a deficit of theatre venues. I’ll go further – we have a deficit of theatre venues with character.

It is a travesty then, that the future of two such venues, that have character by the bucket-load, is very much in the air. The fate of the beautiful St James, shut down after a fire, hangs on an Auckland Convention Centre bid by The Edge. And the Mercury Theatre, lost for a time after the theatre company went bust, has tantalisingly re-emerged as a theatre venue with performances scheduled as part of the upcoming Auckland Festival (and it is rumored, the Comedy Festival). But it’s up for sale, and not all potential suitors are interested in it as a theatre venue.

I am certainly not alone in my opinion that these two heritage buildings need to be saved, they need to be seen, and they need to continue to serve audiences and the Auckland performing arts community.

Richard Howard believes this strongly. The organiser of the Mercury Rising Campaign, he concluded that one man’s letters to the council would never be as powerful as mass force, so organised a ‘flash mob’ photoshoot yesterday outside the theatre to raise awareness. 

A good many showed up, and there was a real depth of feeling amongst the crowd that the Mercury was a very special theatre indeed. Many had seen performances there, some had been part of the company that performed there. One actress had been part of the final show to perform there. “What happened?” Richard joked. 

THE MERCURY  

Outside the Mercury Theatre

Mercury was opened as The King’s Theatre in 1910 and was designed for live performance, but used primarily then for cinema screenings; as it was pointed out the venue had been entertaining Aucklanders for 100 years or so – Impressive! The K Road heritage website provides a good history, and tells us it went through many name changes – “The Prince Edward Theatre, The Prince of Wales, The King Edward and eventually the Playhouse”. In 1962 the Mercury Theatre Company moved in. Mercury was before my time, but I had heard much about the glory days of the Mercury Theatre Company. The company folded in the early 90s, and had been used since by owners the Equippers Church for their services. 

Equippers have grown too big for the Mercury… they now rent the Town Hall for their Sunday services. Mercury Theatre is on the market, and for $3 million it’s a bargain. Compare that with St James: $11 million  to buy and $50 million to restore, $26.9 million for a new ATC venue,  or the $21million for Q Theatre. Its small change. The theatre is ready to go and in working order, comes with its own theatre ghost too (I’m told!) and during its time Equippers carried out extensive restoration work. There would need to be expenditure in the future for the upkeep, and strengthening work for earthquake resistance, but it’s still much smaller sums then the other projects. So why haven’t Council snapped it up already? It sure would look great alongside The Edge’s other theatre venues. 

The previous council, before the Super City transition, didn’t want to touch it. The new council are determining their Arts Strategy, which is already juggling many interests – the loud call to revive the St James, Auckland Theatre Company want their own theatre on the waterfront, and the millions that have just spent on building the new Q Theatre – so where would the Mercury Theatre fit in all of this? 

THE ‘OTHER’ VENUES 

The case for the St James is compelling. I was fortunate to see a number of productions there before it was moth-balled in 2004 after a fire ripped through the building and it was deemed unsafe. It’s a grand, utterly beautiful theatre… sure, you did have to squish into tightly packed seats, and go down an awful lot of stairs to get to the toilets, but there was nothing else like it, has an amazing history of performances spanning 82 years, and was dubbed “the theatre perfect” for a reason. Thanks to Bob Kerridge, and a lengthy campaign in the NZ Herald last year, there is a general consensus that is a venue that needs to see acts on its stage once more. As Brian Rudman says, “Auckland needs a 1300-seat lyric theatre to host drama, opera and ballet, shows that currently risk getting lost in the oversized 2200-plus ASB Theatre and Civic auditoriums. “ The Edge included it in its proposal for an Auckland Convention Centre; in exchange for turning ASB Theatre into the said convention centre, they’ll restore the St James and make it one of their major performing arts venues for theatre, opera and ballet. I can’t think of a better solution. Everyone still anxiously waits for the Government’s decision. 

Auckland Theatre Company have been gunning for their own venue for some time. And fair enough. Like ladies of the night they have had to whore themselves out to the whims of a number Pimp theatres. Maidment has been a dependable home, but a few years back there were noises from the University about wanting to use it more for their needs. Sky City Theatre, home to their populist Roger Hall and end-of-year musicals , decided they wanted  to turn it into a sports theatre. (A SPORTS theatre!? Philistines!) They ingeniously compromised by flying in the Spiegeltent to the Viaduct for Cabaret last year, but they had to battle noise from competing party ships and viaduct girls. This year there is no end of year musical, though they are making use of the Civic Theatre for the first time, and a bonus production at Q Theatre. They have a proposal with ASB Bank to build a 600 seat theatre alongside their new buildings in Wynyard Quarter on the waterfront – a great marriage of arts and commerce, and the council are supportive in theory. ATC took a look at Mercury but found its backstage area inadequate and limiting for some of the types of productions they wish to stage. They definitely have a case for their own theatre. 

Q Theatre, after a mammoth planning fundraising mission since its origins in 1996 are finally opening in September this year. A 350-450 flexi-form theatre, they are well suited to providing for the needs of established and emerging local theatre companies desperate for places to stage their work. 

THE CASE FOR MERCURY 

So with these venues possibly coming on line, is the Mercury needed? Richard Howard says an emphatic yes. It is needed now, and it is need in the future. He sees the venue being used for many different genres – theatre, dance, live music. It can be used by for festivals and by local and international companies.  He hopes to attract the council and philanthropists large and small to buy the theatre.  

The Mercury Theatre is gorgeous. 650 seats with a stalls and balcony that look like will give you great views of the large stage.  I’m lucky enough to be teching for one of the shows in the Auckland Festival using the Theatre, and I cannot wait to see the theatre in action. 

Bruce Hopkins chatted to me and a colleague about Auckland’s appalling heritage record when it came to these things, mentioning the heart-breaking destruction of His Majesty’s Theatre. These venues are important. 

In an ideal theatre world we could have it all – The St James restored, a home for Auckland Theatre Company, and the Mercury Theatre active again. But with a Council that doesn’t have open pockets, and competing priorities, the reality is that this dream is not assured. 

All I know is, it would be tragic if the Mercury was lost once again from the performing arts. 

—————————– 

The email for the Mercury Rising campaign is mercuryrising@gmail.com 

Also of interest: 

Hamish Keith writes about the destruction of Auckland’s theatre heritage and please for the revival of the Mercury in a Guest Article in The Herald

Richard Howard writes about the importance of the Mercury for the Gay Scene at the time on Gay NZ.

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