• James Bell in The PumpHouse theatre.
  • James Bell outside The PumpHouse.
  • James Bell in The PumpHouse theatre.

Securing the future of The PumpHouse

The PumpHouse Theatre was built on community passion and energy; it seems that its future might similarly rest on the actions and engagement of the North Shore community. With Covid wreaking havoc on The PumpHouse’s carefully curated – and very full – 2022 programme, and no Covid-related support from local or central government for performing arts venues like The PumpHouse, its financial sustainability is looking increasingly fragile. Manager James Bell is appealing to the community to consider what would be lost if The PumpHouse Theatre ceased to operate, and how it can be saved. Christine Young looks at the issue and some solutions.

“This year will be a challenge, and there is a real risk the PumpHouse will not survive,” James admits. “We would like people to join the Friends of The PumpHouse.” It may not seem that a mere $35 annual fee ($25 for seniors and students) would have enough impact, but as James says, there were 70,000 visits to The PumpHouse last year, 35,000 tickets were sold, and somewhere between five and six thousand people are actively involved in participating in the shows presented there each year. If just 1000 of those people joined The Friends, that’s $35,000 – and James says that would “make such a difference to what we could do”. That could be further bolstered if companies joined at the $100 per annum corporate membership rate.

“We’re happy to share information about our corporate supporters through our newsletters, and build their visibility in the community,” James says. Benefitz (publisher of Channel) has been a contributor, assisting with printing costs, for many years, he notes, but confesses it’s been a struggle to get beyond that. “We have 10,000 newsletter subscribers, all of whom have come along to see something at The PumpHouse, who have parked here, and who have no doubt visited shops in Takapuna. It is an invaluable connection, and we have a way [for businesses] to talk to these people.”

The community energy that led to the restoration of the disused water pumping station and its conversion into a vibrant theatre venue has sustained The PumpHouse Theatre for the past 40+ years. The Friends of The PumpHouse was formed in the 1970s, and the work of the original group is done. “We need a new group to join forces and show their support.”

James says that The PumpHouse, to some extent, has been a victim of its own success; in his eight years at the helm he has done a sterling job of building The PumpHouse into a sought-after venue that puts the needs of the artists or companies, and their audiences, at the forefront of what The PumpHouse does. He works with companies and producers (for example, through free workshops on creating the necessary health and safety plans) to support them to put on shows, and has reduced the up-front hire costs as far as possible to ensure that seasons at the PumpHouse, whatever the genre or audience appeal, have a strong chance of success.

The full programme, with virtually no “dark” periods (to use theatre parlance for nights when nothing is presented at the theatre) has meant that, with funding it receives, The PumpHouse has been self-sustaining. The PumpHouse refrained from applying for grants in the early stages of the pandemic as they felt others’ needs were greater.

Funding, community fundraising and corporate sponsorship have always been sought for specific projects, such as the soon-to-be-completed canopy to protect audiences in the courtyard between the theatre and the outdoor auditorium and toilet block. The PumpHouse has had ongoing support from Auckland Council – James says the Devonport-Takapuna Local Board has been "very supportive over the last couple of years and maintained funding levels when they could have cut arts funding".

But now funds are needed for sustenance and survival. Performances have been postponed, and from being fully booked for all of 2022 at the end of last year, James says there is now very little happening between now and the end of May – and perhaps longer. Some additional funding is available from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, but can only be sought if the venue is within six weeks of insolvency – and it’s contestable, so there’s no guarantee an application will succeed. Not something he’s keen to contemplate.

Instead, James has put his focus on encouraging the community to rally behind a venue that has no equal anywhere between Devonport and Orewa. He is also seeking funds through other channels. For example, The PumpHouse has had to put on more paid staff; he simply can’t rely on volunteers to implement the necessary Covid measures for when a show can go ahead. He’s working to identify companies to partner with The PumpHouse in supporting these additional staff costs – which could be up to $25,000 a year. He envisages a t-shirt for front of house staff that boldly displays the logo or message of the company that assists in this way. All 70,000 visitors to the PumpHouse would know which company was helping sustain a critical piece of the Shore’s cultural infrastructure. “People want to fund a show,” he laments, “and receive discounted or free tickets to invite guests. But as a venue for hire, we don’t promote shows, and we have no access to tickets.” These are the property – and responsibility – of the producer. “But we can promote the venue,” he says, “which is open to everyone.”

Without support, the eclectic range of performances on at The PumpHouse simply won’t happen, he says, and there is a danger that one of the original plans for the old pumping station, as a storage shed for rowing skiffs or kayaks, or worse, would become a reality.

Despite the challenges, James is proud of what he has achieved at The PumpHouse, and has a vision for how it can develop. He is particularly proud of the community engagement programme, which encompasses everything from the community Christmas carols, to volunteering, classes and workshops, to the popular creative talks – free to anyone to attend, where you have an opportunity to hear from talented local artists, writers and theatre practitioners.

James is certainly not letting the challenges facing The PumpHouse deter forward planning. Given the reputation of The PumpHouse as a venue for artists and producers, and a willing audience for a variety of theatre, dance and music performances, he expects there will be a return to a full programme of performances once Covid allows. He sees future growth potential in more community engagement; more classes and workshops, for example an adult version of the successful ‘Shakespeare in a Week’ programme that runs for students in the holidays; a playwriting challenge that starts on Friday evening, and involves 12 hours playwriting followed by 12 hours of rehearsal and a performance on Saturday evening. Exhausting, one suspects, but great fun, he assures us.

James has already developed strong relationships with key Asian theatre companies which put on vibrant new works, and which bring new audiences to the venue. He’d love to similarly develop Māori and Pasifika programming but admits The PumpHouse hasn’t had the necessary connections in the community to develop these. That too is for the future, as are big projects like refurbishment of the inside of the theatre, including new seats and carpet.

But for now his focus is on ensuring The PumpHouse sees Covid out, so that the performing arts community and their audiences can continue to enjoy local theatre in a local venue.

To join Friends of the PumpHouse, visit pumphouse.co.nz/join, click the appropriate button, or give Mags a call on 09 486 2386 to arrange payment over the phone.

The PumpHouse Theatre pumphouse.co.nz/

Killarney Park (off Manurere Avenue), Takapuna

Email: info@pumphouse.co.nz
Box Office: 09 489 8360

Administration: 09 486 2386