An appreciation of the city that’s forever changing, by Anna Rawhiti-Connell.
I secured my first job in Tāmaki Makaurau surrounded by human horse costumes, the Duchess of Malfi’s cloak and Caligula’s fur. My ticket to the city was granted after making three people laugh during an interview conducted in Auckland Theatre Company’s “wardrobe department” located on the second floor of 108 Quay St in Britomart.
I stuffed my Glassons cardigans into stripy plastic bags and drove up from Hamilton to start my job as partnerships coordinator for ATC in February 2006. The company occupied a heritage building pre the big Britomart do-up. It did not have a working lift. I lugged boxes of sponsor wine, complaining loudly, up and down flights of stairs between the office and the loading dock in the pigeon-shit-filled garage that is now home to the popular Italian eatery Amano. I backed a beat-up Ford Transit van into the wooden pillars that prop up the ceiling in there – and lied about it to the production manager – more times than you’ve had the pappardelle ragu.
I never wanted to live in Tāmaki Makaurau. An embarrassing journal entry made during an internship at the same company in 2001 reveals a high-minded naif who found the city to be “full of depressed people, who never smiled, mindlessly going to work”. I now recognise this as “being an adult”.
I fell in love with the city quickly the second time around and it has been my home ever since. The job was my first ticket and I have been collecting tickets ever since. I am a sentimental hoarder and have kept every ticket stub to every show and gig I’ve been to. Squashed into a red lunchbox is the story of my lively, rambunctious city that is now so very quiet. Theatre luvvie may be a derogatory term but it’s a badge I wear proudly and miss with a depth of feeling far greater than those who flippantly tear down the role of the arts in a city, as if it’s not oxygen to its blood.
By next Tuesday, the city’s theatres and live performance venues will have been dark, ghost lights burning, for 158 days since March 2020. One of the people I made laugh among the cloaks back in 2006 was Colin McColl. This year was his final year of artistic programming for ATC after an 18-year run and he was to direct and open Blithe Spirit on November 9. That has now been cancelled.
As Sam Brooks has outlined, the performing arts and events sectors are particularly vulnerable to the restrictions and uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Plights rise and fall quickly at the moment. A cause rallies and we send a tweet and then forget, moving onto the next. But in this, something of a love letter to my city at a time when we don’t just forget plights but parts of life as it once was, it’s worth remembering what makes a city come alive, especially as it lies somewhat dormant.
Every ticket in my red lunchbox is a fragment of the tale of my own transformation, shepherded by the roughest guiding hand, a city in a state of constant change. It is a story meted out over hundreds of nights of revelation and cultural education, soaked in the free sauvignon blanc that supplemented an arts administrator’s salary, dripping with the kind of gossip only revealed in the foyers of the city’s venues. A white woman’s eyes opened by FAFSWAG at The Basement. Eyes that cried for half an hour in the car park after Shane Bosher’s Angels in America at Q. Eyes that saw the shooting star on the Civic ceiling for the first time. Eyes met by cast members like Goretti Chadwick and Anapela Polataivao after the opening of Dave Armstrong’s adaptation of Sia Figiel’s fierce novel Where We Once Belonged, because we all knew they’d done something phenomenal. Eyes that kickstarted secret crushes on actors that I’ll never reveal.
Every ticket is also the tale of the city’s transformation, physical and cultural. Britomart is no longer home to ATC and its costumes. ATC moved to Dominion Road and the Waterfront Theatre. In its place, restaurants and bars – places to be seen – sprang up; places that have now wearily pivoted to pizza and picnics to stay afloat. Silo Theatre moved out of the Basement. Q Theatre rose up from the site of the old fleet services garage behind the town hall.
And the voices have changed. There isn’t just one theatre company in town but many, all serving different communities, often reframing stories we thought we knew or bringing entirely new truths to the stage. Characters that might have been token or nonexistent not only tread the mainstage but successfully front a two-week season. Questions are constantly asked by the sector about how to not only remain relevant to audiences but to reflect them. Year on year, over 15 years, I have been challenged to understand myself, others, this city and this country every time my ticket got taken at the door. I miss this. I miss being made to feel uncomfortable and, sometimes, unwelcome. I miss the bumping and jostling of people and ideas in live, real time. I miss slipping in to see a show anonymously because the city is big enough to hide in. I miss avoiding people in the foyer when I’m feeling anti-social because it’s not.
Right now, people are screaming online about division. Vaccine mandates and two classes of people. The funny thing is that this city I love has always been divided. The super city itself is a tenuous amalgamation of territorial authorities. The romantic notion of a melting pot of cultures melts away quickly on the lowest heat. I had never observed such obvious class differences and wealth disparity before coming here. In Hamilton, there would be no “North Shore influencer” parties to make observations on differential treatment in the media about.
There are places that feel like home to me here and places that don’t. Places where I feel welcome and places I know aren’t mine. A thousand people could write about what they love and miss about our restricted city and it would be different. A thousand people could write about the things they hate about it and not turn up a lot of similarities.
I love this about Tāmaki Makaurau. It is divided and different, and defiantly so. It’s unsettling and difficult, its challenges innumerous. But it grips all this tightly. Each of us holding our own Tāmaki Makaurau in our fist, individuals who will argue and fight and split and divide a thousand times over, but collectively work towards the goal of getting back to it. Back to theatres again so we can again witness the change that makes this place crackle. The loud noise about vaccinations will fade soon and we can get back to arguing about density and rail, and sitting uncomfortably in our own cultural soups, challenged by those laying down new tracks.
The soundtrack to my exploration of the city when I first arrived was PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. My car had a minidisc player and that album was lodged in there permanently. Literally stuck, jammed in tight. “The whores hustled and hustlers whored” for a full two years before that car became the property of Wilson Parking after a failure to pay multiple parking tickets on an arts administrator’s salary.
I drove into the city for the first time in two months the other week to collect takeaways from a Karangahape Road restaurant. I played that PJ Harvey album as I did. A view of the CBD became visible at the intersection of Waipa Street, Balmain and Mokoia roads. Rangitoto rose up from the harbour at the Highbury Bypass. Things that felt familiar seemed new again. For a very short moment it did feel like a rediscovery and a new ticket to rip. It is quiet now but soon, there will be new stories from the city, new stories from the sea.