The Bruce Mason Centre celebrates the 25th anniversary of its opening this month. But there were times it seemed it would never happen. It’s 37 years since the North Shore theatre project was initiated through North Shore Operatic Society and other community arts groups, and nearly 30 years since North Shore City Council, taking over from Takapuna City Council, agreed to the Promenade site for development of a theatre and pledged $3 million towards construction costs. The saga of its development, if not lost in the mists of time, has faded from community memory as those who drove the project for so long to ensure its success have aged or moved out of the area. Christine Young looks back at what was involved.
The drive to develop the theatre was led by the North Shore Theatre and Conference Centre Trust (NSTCC), which was formed in 1984. The first sod was turned nearly 11 years later in 1995, and around the same time nine individuals from diverse business, community and arts backgrounds were appointed by Council to the Bruce Mason Centre Board of Management Trust to run the theatre, replacing the NSCCT.
In June 1996, just 15 months after construction started, the first performance in the new centre took place – the North Shore Competitions Choirs Festival – and in August the then-Governor General Sir Michael Hardie Boys officially opened the centre ahead of a performance of Takapuna playwright Bruce Mason’s solo play ‘End of the Golden Weather’.
Geoff Clews is a senior Auckland barrister specialising in tax and trusts matters. Outside his legal practice, and over almost 40 years, he has also been involved in the development, establishment and governance of three performing arts venues: The Rose Centre in Belmont, the Bruce Mason Centre in Takapuna and Q Theatre in Queen Street. His involvement in the Bruce Mason Centre development began in 1984 when he was president of Company Theatre (a community theatre group in Belmont) and a newly minted partner in a major law firm. For Company Theatre, Geoff had already been involved in the establishment of The Rose Centre and as feeling on the Shore built that something more than The PumpHouse and The Rose Centre was needed to foster the performing arts on the Shore, he was deputed to attend a public meeting to discuss the need for a larger-scale performing arts centre.
He missed that meeting because his twins (now aged 36) were being born, but his name was put forward “as someone who could help the cause”. Geoff found himself on the steering committee, doing the legal work to establish the NSCCT, and elected to chair it. Over the next 15 years the NSCCT lobbied, and then worked with, the North Shore City Council to establish what became the BMC.
“The NSTCCT was in every sense of the phrase a ‘community action group’,” Geoff notes. “It was made up of a wonderful group of people (many of whom have sadly passed away), who were all committed to the idea of creating an asset of lasting value for our community.”
“My role as Chair required me to with deal with politicians of all stripes,” he adds, “some of whom were supportive of the concept of an arts centre but many of whom were not (one mayor of the time wanted a supermarket to be built on the site where the BMC now stands). We had champions in Takapuna Mayor Wynn Hoadley and in North Shore Mayor George Gair, but there was sometimes real friction with others.”
Alongside fundraising and lobbying, the Trust, calling on the help of “true local experts”, had to become “experts on trends in theatre design, acoustics and the conferences and events industry…. The commitment of time was simply enormous. Over the 12 years before the BMC opened, I invested many thousands of hours and to this day I am grateful to my then law partners for their generosity in allowing me to pursue this effort.
“The shape of politics also gradually changed on the Shore to our advantage. The amalgamation of seven North Shore local authorities into a new city in 1989 meant that there was more of an acknowledgment that a city required a certain level of amenity in which venues such as a theatre and conference centre, and a stadium, had an important role to play. It is no coincidence that the BMC and North Harbour Stadium developed at about the same time – they were part of the Shore ‘growing up’,” says Geoff. “The arguments gradually changed from whether a performing arts centre should be built to where it should be located.”
The shape of politics may have changed – but funds were still needed. The NSCCT ran a fundraising effort that raised almost $10 million towards the construction budget (then one of the largest efforts of its type in New Zealand). Key contributors were Sir Steven Tindall and Canon NZ. Despite the success of the campaign, however, in the latter stages of construction “we were introduced to the painful process of ‘value management’ – what happens when you realise you don’t have enough money to have everything you thought you could”.
Having led the effort to establish a venue, Geoff then moved to leading a business start-up in the venue. “I helped establish a charitable entity to act as the BMC Management Board, with members appointed from Council and the community. This was an intricate job to ensure that the BMC could retain independence and not have to consolidate into the North Shore City finances.”
Geoff was also asked to chair that Board and he remained as Chair until 2009. By that time, he had left his law firm to practice as a barrister and had worked on and in the BMC for 25 years. “I felt it was time for someone else to take over.”
Community expectations of cheap access to the BMC were high. North Shore Council also had its own expectations of the BMC’s financial independence, and the Board walked the delicate tightrope of operating a commercial model and encouraging community access. Managing both sets of expectations was, says Geoff in what one suspects is masterly understatement, “a perennial challenge”.
The Board (and the NSCCT before it) benefited from the presence of experienced business people “like Graham Hitch, Dr Ian McPherson, and Gordon Lamont” and “the boundless energy of Angela Antony as well as many others”. With a comparatively modest but welcome annual operating grant from North Shore City, the Board consistently met the city’s financial expectations to be cash positive by each year-end. “We were amazed and somewhat envious of the level at which the operating deficits of Aotea Centre were subsidised by Auckland City.”
Geoff says the 13 years during which he led the BMC Management Board taught him “an enormous amount about the performing arts”. As the design became reality, “I felt huge satisfaction seeing how the Centre could change quickly, for example, from theatre mode to hosting a seated dinner for several hundred people. The intimacy of the auditorium continues to surprise me every time I take a seat there. It makes performances really proximate and tangible, and its acoustic quality is great. These were all objectives [the NSCCT] insisted on and got right.”
Of course, it wasn’t all about the arts. Innovative work by the Board established partnerships with various Shore establishments, such as the Spencer on Byron, to attract conference business and package show deals. “These are now par-for-the-course in the industry,” Geoff notes, “but were new then to Shore businesses. By the time I stood down from the BMC Board, to concentrate more on the development of Q Theatre in Auckland, we had a solid arts and conference business.”
In 2015, after almost 20 years of operation, the centre was honoured as the Medium Venue of the Year by the Entertainment Venues Association – “so it was still seen after that time as an innovative and flexible mid-range venue”.
“However, by 2014 I think two things had undermined the earlier business success of the BMC. First, the creation of the unitary Auckland Council meant that operating capital available to support the BMC became more of a problem. A Local Board could not independently support it as a priority in the way the former North Shore City had. Secondly, the competition from Aotea Centre, the Town Hall and the Civic became more intense. Under a single city, the arts venues in the central city were attracting the big names and events. Over time the BMC developed an unhappy reputation as presenting a diet of tribute bands and imported dance companies. This was unfair but the perception began to take hold, so that it became more difficult to attract shows and audiences.”
By 2014 the Centre faced a significant debt that the Auckland Council was not prepared to meet without governance of the Centre being brought under the wing of Auckland Live. Geoff remained involved – as a member of the Board of Regional Facilities Auckland (now part of Auckland Unlimited), which ran Auckland Live. While he was on the RFA Board, he watched closely how the BMC fitted into the business plan for Auckland Live. He stood down from the RFA board at the end of 2019, as required by Auckland Council, after his second term. While Geoff says some of the local oversight may have been lost in the transition to Auckland Council, he has “great confidence in Auckland Live to make the best possible use of the BMC for the benefit of Auckland as a whole”.
Geoff notes that in addition to the BMC playing a role as an important arts venue in the wider Auckland region it has also played a significant role as a civic venue, such as for graduation and naturalisation ceremonies, which aligns with the original idea that the venue should be a modern Town Hall for the Shore.
Some events on the Shore over the last 25 years, he adds, could not have happened without the BMC – such as those by professional arts companies, the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the NZSO and Auckland Philharmonia. “But I am not sure that it has become the hub of community performing arts that we envisaged. That may be because the balance between financial success and lower cost community access has been very difficult to achieve and the design requirements for financial success (such as seating numbers and stage size) mean that the ‘step up’ for community performers can be challenging.”
And despite its current success as a dedicated “variety” venue in the Auckland Live stable, there are still challenges to be faced, Geoff notes. “This is now an older public building and there is a need for ‘next generation’ thinking about how to prepare it, and use it, for the next 25 years.”
But for now, 25th anniversary celebrations take ‘Centre’ stage. The anniversary celebrations started with performances on 30 July and culminate over the weekend of 7-9 August. Key among these were Nightsong theatre company’s performances of ‘Te Pō’ – a play that had not previously been performed on the Shore but which centres around three characters searching for Bruce Mason – who (spoiler alert) is eventually found on Te Parenga – Bruce Mason’s fictionally titled but very recognisable [Takapuna] beach from his own play ‘End of the Golden Weather’.
One of the trustees of Nightsong is North Shore born and raised Rachel Antony, CEO of Greenstone Pictures, award winning television production company responsible for, among many other productions, ‘Vegas’, Dog Squad’, ‘Border Patrol’, and ‘Hudson & Halls A Love Story’.
She is delighted that Nightsong and ‘Te Pō’ are part of the Bruce Mason Centre celebrations. Daughter of the redoubtable Angela Antony, she grew up in a household “of endless meetings” as moves to get the new theatre were beginning. “I was only 11 when Mum first became determined to get a ‘proper’ theatre built on the Shore, to allow for productions of scale,” Rachel recalls. “The house was very regularly the venue for Board meetings for the steering committee, so I remember being relegated to my bedroom while the lounge was taken over with the group of hugely committed people who, over the dozen years it took to make the BMC a reality, became close to our whole family.
“I was 23 and living in London the year the theatre finally opened – so I missed the milestone of the opening! But in 2000, Dad [the late John Antony] directed the NSMT production of Les Miserables at ‘The Bruce’ and I was his production assistant, which was really special.”
Rachel’s early memories include “wreaking havoc backstage at rehearsals for shows (almost knocking over scenery by running where I shouldn’t, that kind of thing); being transfixed by the incredible performers in the musicals Dad was involved in and watching him craft a show; and Mum designing and sewing costumes.”
She was in several plays and musicals in her teens and twenties, but ultimately, she says, “I am a far better producer than I am a performer! Being surrounded by all that creativity as a kid undoubtedly influenced my choice of career though. I was really lucky to grow up in that world.
“I think it’s really special to have had this work staged at the Bruce Mason Centre while celebrating the centenary of his birth and the theatre’s quarter century; ‘Te Pō’ reunites characters from two of Bruce Mason’s most famous works – Detective Inspector Brett and Werihe Paku from ‘Awatea’, and Reverend Athol Sedgwick from ‘The Pohutakawa Tree’, who explore themes of grief, memory and the afterlife. It’s an extraordinary play,” she says.
(For those who missed the live performances at the end of July, that the play’s creators, writer Carl Bland and director Ben Crowder (from Nightsong) have just released a shortened version of Te Po which played on RNZ National in mid-July: https://www.rnz.co.nz/collections/dramas/audio/2018802277/te-po-by-carl-bland.)
Rachel believes that arts venues – large and small – play an important role in any community. “I hope Shore residents can appreciate how much aroha and dedicated, unpaid mahi went into creating the BMC. I love that it’s in the heart of Takapuna, directly connected to Bruce Mason’s beloved beach – and how lucky we New Zealanders are, in the time of Covid, to be able to go to live theatre and concerts.”
The Bruce Mason Centre marks its 25th anniversary until 9 August with Te Po kicking off the celebrations, followed by performances over the first week of August ranging from The Dust Palace's new family show ‘The Ice Cream is Melting!’ to an Auckland Dance Schools’ Showcase and Auckland Principal Brass Quintet’s performance as one of the BMC’s Morning Melodies programmes. See https://www.aucklandlive.co.nz/event/bruce-mason-centre-25th-birthday for details.