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The arts debate in Dunedin. Photos: Toby Manhire. Image: Tina Tiller
The arts debate in Dunedin. Photos: Toby Manhire. Image: Tina Tiller

Local Elections 2022September 23, 2022

High drama and low farce as 11 audition to be Dunedin’s mayor

The arts debate in Dunedin. Photos: Toby Manhire. Image: Tina Tiller
The arts debate in Dunedin. Photos: Toby Manhire. Image: Tina Tiller

All the world’s a stage as the full cast of contenders in Ōtepoti put on a show. Toby Manhire joins the audience.

The theme was theatre, performance and art, and the hopefuls accordingly trod the boards. All 11 contenders for the Dunedin mayoralty gathered just off the Octagon at Te Whare o Rukutia for a forum hosted by theatre community group Stage South. The new space, run by the Dunedin Fringe Trust, is a glowing exception in a city worried for the future of its venues, with both the Fortune Theatre and live music shrine Sammy’s having closed in the last five years. 

It was a different sort of show on Tuesday night, but had you poked your head through the Princes Street door you might easily have mistaken the debate for a work of performance art. There was Mandy Mayhem Bullock, magenta hair tucked into a top hat, regaling the audience of three dozen or so with her big top background. “At your service, used to be in charge of a circus,” she said. 

There was current Ōtepoti councillor Sophie Barker, in a vivid pink blazer. “I grew up in a castle, but unlike Cinderella, I’m self-made,” she said. “I’m also a performing artist of more than 40 years, because I spent many years taking tours around and telling stories at Larnach Castle. So I get where you’re at.” 

There was incumbent mayor Aaron Hawkins, in a brown suit, tie and mask – N95, rather than tragicomic Greek. He did, however, acknowledge the “Sisyphean task” arts practitioners face in securing support from central and local funding bodies and “the toll the last two and a half years have taken on the arts and events industry”. He was polished and still, leaving the theatrics to a left eyebrow which could challenge Judith Collins’ for the title of most animated in New Zealand politics. 

Councillor Jules Radich said he was a man of business, a pragmatist. “I tend to come at the arts from a fairly practical point of view”, he said, though a shirt emblazoned with colourful birds pointed to a creative streak, and he out-gesticulated the competition to the extent that I briefly wondered whether someone else was doing his arms, Theatresports-style. 

Richard Seager appeared to be attempting a challenge of his own: could he include in his answer to almost any question disdain for either vaccine mandates or trans rights? He could. He was also, he said, related to Ngaio Marsh and the only candidate who had cycled to every campaign event. “I like to try my hand at a bit of poetry every now and then as well.”

There was Lee Vandervis – the unapologetically polarising councillor who beat Hawkins on first preferences in 2019 but lost out under STV. If drama is conflict, Vandervis is as thespian as it gets; he has repeatedly, angrily clashed with Hawkins, with the Otago Daily Times, and with his own council. In a departure from the usual tickets you hear about in local elections, Vandervis recently saw an epic, highly expensive court battle over a $12 parking fine end in rejection at New Zealand’s highest court. 

He brought stagecraft to Te Whare o Rukutia, too, in the form of a prop: a large whiteboard with the council’s debt trajectory charted in pen. And then, pantomime. “Excuse me, could you shift this?” interjected an audience member as he rose to his feet for an introductory statement. “It’s right in front of my face.” Vandervis would not shift his whiteboard, and he told her so. “No, it’s not right in front of your face and I’m not going to shift it. I put it there, you chose to sit in front of it, you could have sat anywhere else you like.” He had an excuse-me of his own. “Excuse me, if we can start now, and without interruption, I’d appreciate it, thank you.”

Lee Vandervis and his prop. (Photo: Toby Manhire)

He stared out at the stalls. “My name is Lee Vandervis. I’ve been a councillor for 15 years, but prior to that for 22 years I ran Vandervision Audio and Lighting.” Nodding at the equipment before him, he said: “To most people here this is a microphone. For me, it’s an SM58 on a short-boom K&M.” He later revealed he’d “put a system in Windsor Castle for the Queen – a big disco system”. 

The remaining dramatis personae included Carmen Houlahan, another sitting councillor and former publicist for a ska band, who questioned whether the arts got the investment to match their use in the city’s marketing, Jett Groshinski, a 19-year-old who self-described as the “youth candidate”, and David Milne, who was upbeat, bushy-tailed and at times looked as if he’d accidentally walked into the room, like the guy who was mistakenly put in a live BBC studio to talk about a legal battle in the music industry. “I love acting,” Milne said. “I love actors. So I’ve got a lot of great ideas for what you want.”

Pamela Tayor – whose official statement includes the sentence “God opposes UN, WHO, WEF, and Pharmacia’s depopulation agenda, sexual immorality and climate idolatry” – lent an avant garde air to proceedings, going straight for audience participation in the form of a “show of hands”. Specifically: “Put your hands up if you prefer 100 million for cycleways or 100 million for a waterfront renovation?” Only one person raised a hand. In fact he raised both, as if in surrender. 

But wait, that’s just 10. Where was the 11th? Hark, a lofty frame rises from the earth. A ghost? A Brechtian busting of the fourth wall? Actually it’s Bill Acklin, a councillor for three terms up to 2013. “Excuse me, dodgy knee,” he said. He didn’t want to squeeze his injured leg on the stage. But he was match fit intellectually, he assured us; with a background in entertainment, mostly music, he understood the needs of the performing arts.

The state of the arts

There was much talk through the night of something called Charcoalblue – not, despite my histrionic imagination, a southern kryptonite, but the international group commissioned to complete a performing arts feasibility study. The resulting, controversial report was panned by almost everyone on Tuesday night – with Vandervis arguing it was “essentially a jobs-for-the-boys report”, and a third of the $300,000 it cost might have been enough to give the the Fortune Theatre a lifeline. “The Charcoalblue ship has sailed,” said Mayhem Bullock. It was “a load of nonsense”, said Radich. Hawkins said he didn’t agree with its conclusions, but they should be “careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater” and could draw on “what was helpful” in the study.

“I haven’t read the Charcoalblue report. So I don’t think I can comment on the report itself,” said Groshinski. “I read the entire Charcoalblue report including all of the appendices and all of the consultation,” said Barker. “And one of the things that struck me was how the appendices and the consultation didn’t line up with the output. So that was very curious to me.” Progress had stalled since, she said, leaving people “feeling let down”, and she was determined to unstall it. 

Milne’s big plan was heritage tourism. “So I’m going to need your help to have people dress up in old fashioned costumes and have a house where tourists can go and step back in time,” he said. 

For a debate focused on the arts, there was a lot of cycleway talk. I lost count of the number of times Pamela Taylor cursed them. Her position in a nutshell: “What I’ll do as mayor is I would remove the $96.27 million for a cycleway around the Otago Peninsula and use 70 million of it for a new theatre thing.” Barker challenged arts practitioners to emulate their lycra cousins. “I urge you, like the cycle lobby do, to keep coming to us as council.”

What everyone seemed to agree on was that the city is starved of sufficient cultural infrastructure, in terms of venues and staffing. Mayhem Bullock said a mid-sized venue was a priority. Milne agreed. Acklin said he hoped both the Fortune and Sammy’s could be resurrected, but they did need to ask if they were the right size and in the right place. 

Raddich repeatedly observed a “disconnect” between the arts community and the council – without which the Fortune might have been saved. Seager wanted to see losses cut and Sammy’s sold. 

The problems the arts faced were typical of the rest of the city, Vandervis railed, the rotten fruit of “waste, secret undemocratic decisions, commercial incompetence, and a financially illiterate council”. The venue problem could be solved through use of the Mayfair Theatre, which its owners were willing to gift to the city. “You’re not going to like this,” he told the audience, but it could work as “a multi-use [venue] that will do theatre, music, and events”. That sounded good, said Mayhem Bullock, but the venue had accessibility issues. Her priority: “a purpose built space here in the city centre”.

Taylor had her own idea for what to do “in the short term” with the Fortune and Sammy’s while waiting for her waterfront project to be completed. Venues deemed unsafe owing to mould, earthquake risk and asbestos should “have the doors open and you can sign a piece of paper to say you waive any liability in case anything happens to your health while you’re in there”. 

Houlahan wanted council to get on and make decisions. “We’ve had too much red tape – too much talking and not enough action.” What they needed, said Barker, was better data to make decisions on. “Otherwise we’re just building castles in the air,” said the child of Larnach. 

For the sake of the arts and the city of the whole, said Hawkins to the visible fury of Vandervis and his whiteboard, the council he led was right to “reject the politics of austerity” and resist calls to “slash council budgets”.

Across almost two and a half hours – more a series of monologues than a dialogue – the candidates traversed issues including the role of heritage buildings, “the drunken cesspit” of the Octagon after dark, how to engage youth and retaining talent in the city. Milne said: “I do believe the young people are our future, for sure … Let’s get a YouTube podcast thing happening, incentivise that for them.”

Taylor persisted on a stage of her own. In response to a question about anchor arts organisations and multi-year funding, she said: “I’d like a list of all different sorts of entertainers and musicians and then to pay them for a particular performance. What I have in mind is, for example, that one day you go to the dinosaur playground and this person who knows how to make balloon animals, and they’re giving them out. And then another day, you go to the Octagon, and there’s somebody doing this music performance. And then you go to the university, and there’s a group of people performing music or an act in front of the students. And then you go to the other gardens, and you see that there’s somebody doing face painting. Getting a little fund for a whole lot of these little creative things.”

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