SCENE BY JAMES: So now we know what’s happening with the Maidment Theatre

by James Wenley

Taken today - the Maidment Theatre is not long for this world.

[RIP Maidment]

The sign outside that has been outside the Maidment all year: "Maidment Theatre is closed until further notice"
The sign outside that has been outside the Maidment all year: “Maidment Theatre is closed until further notice”

In his update to staff, the University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon announced today that the Maidment Theatre is to “be closed permanently and eventually demolished”.

Opened in 1976, the Maidment had been closed indefinitely since December 2015 after it was deemed an earthquake risk. Until today, the university had been silent on its future. McCutcheon’s internal email was a very low-key way of announcing a decision that has huge implications for Auckland’s performing arts scene.

The news is balanced with the promise that “should the Capital Expenditure Committee approve the recommendation”, they “will commit to building a new performing arts facility to meet the teaching, research and service requirements of the University”. They would aim “to create a facility that meets the needs of the University across as wide a range as possible of the relevant disciplines (e.g. theatre, music, and dance) as well as University public events”.

So, the University goes in-house for their performing arts facility, and Auckland’s art community loses an important performance space.

View of the Maidment Foyer
View of the Maidment Foyer

What was special about the Maidment was that one week you could go see a professional touring company, the next you could go to the Medical Revue. It was a commitment to the value of bringing the arts to the University grounds, and growing the next generation of artists and arts appreciators.

The VC advised seismic strengthening of the Maidment would have cost $16million+, and concluded “that it is not a cost-effective option to proceed with a seismic strengthening and general upgrade of the Maidment”.

There is no estimate of how much the new performing facility would cost.

For me, the key sentence in McCutcheon’s email is that “the upgrade would not address the fact that the Theatre is no longer fit for purpose”. Translation: having a theatre space, with professional companies bringing culture to the University of Auckland, does not fit the University’s strategic purpose.

The Maidment has been fit for purpose for theatre, dance and other performing disciplines since 1976. That won’t have changed because the complex needs earthquake strengthening.

Certainly, with the opening of Auckland Theatre Company’s Waterfront Theatre, the Maidment would no longer be able to reply on their main hirers (ATC must be extra grateful their theatre opened when it did). However, as Auckland’s population continues to grow, and we continue to recognise the vital need for arts in this city, the industry needs more theatres, not less.

Musgrove Stage Door
Musgrove Stage Door

The Maidment sits on prime uni real-estate – adjoining the Quad at the heart of the University. There you’ll already find many commercial tenants paying rent to the uni and selling their wares to the students. It’s telling that the uni aren’t looking to build the proposed Performing Arts Complex on the same site as the Maidment. For that, they’re looking at sectors 200 (where the Arts and HSB buildings are) and 400 (Engineering area). The Maidment land is valuable, and no doubt the ability to put that to commercial use would play into the decision to demolish the building completely.

And so, the arts industry loses another space for hire, and a key part of our city’s heritage and history. As arts commentator Hamish Keith tweeted, “what is the Auckland disease that drives it to attack and destroy theatres – relentless, endless”.

The news of the Maidment’s demolition has particular poignancy for the students past and present that have passed through the Maidment complex.

As well as the 448 seat Maidment theatre, we are also losing the 100 seat Musgrove Studio. On a personal level, this breaks my heart. Like many drama students at Auckland Uni, it was where I cut my teeth, putting on productions and learning the brutal realities (and pleasures!) of box office and art. As an affordable venue, this was a vital stop for smaller professional companies. For student groups like Stage Two Productions (now Stray Theatre Company) and the German Drama Club, this was an essential venue, empowering what the University of Auckland is often criticised for lacking – student community and culture.

The Musgrove Studio doors are a sad sight.
The Musgrove Studio doors are a sad sight.

Attention turns now to the proposed performing arts facility. McCutcheon advises they are establishing a “working party of experts drawn from across the University to consider what those various needs are and whether/how they might be provided through a single Performing Arts Centre.”  This will be by Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Strategic Engagement) Professor Jenny Dixon, with “representatives from the Faculties which encompass the relevant disciplines as well as from the Faculty of Education, Campus Life and Property Services, and our Maori and Pacific communities, will be included.” I note there is no commitment to the inclusion of a student voice in this working party.

It is my hope that student access will be put front and centre for this facility, available for student performing arts groups to use, not just for university events. If not, it certainly won’t be fit for purpose.

When I broke this story on Twitter, a number of people shared their reactions. Here are some responses:

@rachelanneTV : So many friendships, amazing memories and moments of absolute wonder at the @MaidmentTheatre. Such a shame to have to say goodbye.

@nataliebraid: what a loss for students and the wider arts community! Will hold them to the commitment for a new facility

@ristki: Very sad times. Can’t believe this.

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