From a show in a backyard to a brick-and-mortar space in one of Auckland’s buzziest suburbs, No. 3 Theatre has blossomed in a few short years. Sam Brooks charts its journey.
At the bottom end of Dominion Road, past some of the best eateries in the city and the iconic Burger King, sits a building that looks very much like a bank. That’s probably because it used to be one. But today, that building is the home of No. 3 Theatre company, which puts on work created by the community of Auckland’s most diverse suburb, for the residents of that suburb.
The story of No. 3 Theatre doesn’t start in that old BNZ building, however. It starts at 3 Roseman Avenue.
Tanya Muagututi’a is, undoubtedly, a pillar of the theatre community, being one of the founding members of the legendary arts collective Pacific Underground, and having held many senior roles in festivals across the country, including Pasifika and Kia Mau. Although originally based in Christchurch, she was living in Mt Roskill around the time of the first Covid lockdowns.
On one of the daily walks that the government allocated to each of us, she ran into her old friend John Leach, founder of JLP (John Leach Productions, fittingly), one of the country’s leading companies for green-field festivals such as Auckland City Limits. He pointed out the house across the road, which was all boarded up and had been stickered for some time, with a “No. 3” painted on it. Both of them knew what that meant: it was about to be demolished.
The house, 3 Roseman Ave, has a history. It was where Toa Fraser filmed the acclaimed adaptation of his play No. 2, about a Fijian matriarch taking control of a family she believes has gone awry. It put Mt Roskill on the international map, and arguably remains the most famous depiction of the suburb. Roseman Ave also happened to be part of Kāinga Ora’s “Roskill South” development, which aims to replace 260 existing state houses with 920 healthy homes, with a third of those being state houses.
During this conversation, Muagututi’a learned that Leach had been especially vocal to Kāinga Ora about the house’s demolition, and both of them wanted to figure out whether something could actually be done to save it. “Initially we were talking about activations in the house, but then we settled on maybe just getting some mementos from the house, just something to acknowledge that it has providence,” she says.
The solution eventually revealed itself: they should turn it into a theatre.
By the time Kāinga Ora almost literally had the diggers at the gates later in 2020, Leach had won enough of the agency’s trust to get them to stop.
A “theatre company” is a nebulous label. Some are charitable trusts with boards and structures to adhere to, others loose collectives of people who just want to work together, and others literally one person running a Facebook page. Although No. 3 Theatre is now an established charitable trust, at this point, it was more of a loose collective heading in the same direction.
The idea initially received funding from the Ministry of Social Development through the Flexi-Wage subsidy, to pay 18 young locals a wage for 30 hours a week, for 26 weeks, to create a show. From there, Leach and Muagututi’a decided this show would be a devised one – working without a set script but creating a show collaboratively – that reflected the neighbourhood, and it would be made by Mt Roskill’s youth.
“It would be their way to say goodbye to their neighbourhood, to farewell it,” she says. The show’s name? Love to Say Goodbye.
The show ended up being developed at No. 5, just down the road, to be performed in the backyard of No. 3. A true community show, through and through. It focused on the philosophy shift around housing in Mt Roskill, from an emphasis on single family homes to higher-density accommodation. (This focus on housing extends to their more recent work, Welcome Home, focusing on people who have come to the suburb to live in the new homes.)
An initial approach to the Auckland Arts Festival for a partnership went nowhere, but the show was already in motion, regardless of whether they supported it or not. “We knew that it was something they couldn’t really put money behind, but we still thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if they could pick us up?’,” Muagututi’a says.
However, it just so happened that the team were doing some readings of plays, one of which was Oscar Kightley’s Dawn Raids, to coincide with the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Polynesian Panthers. The reasoning behind this was not just to honour the Panthers, but to give the kids something to sink their teeth into, alongside devising a new work.
That was what got No. 3 Theatre into the Auckland Arts Festival in the end, as the festival had also planned to honour the Polynesian Panthers with an exhibition. A planned production of Dawn Raids had fallen through, and a play reading was a middle ground between something the Arts Festival could support, while also providing a platform for this new company and their new show. Both went ahead, with the support of the festival.
Most of that initial audience for these shows were kids from the neighbourhood, who were going through a similar upheaval to the characters in Dawn Raids. “While we were doing that play, there were families literally moving out of the neighbourhood,” Muagututi’a says. “Some of those kids had been there for 20 years, others for four years, being moved from one state home to another state home.
“I think those kids were really brave,” Muagututi’a, who now serves as the artistic director of No. 3, reflects. “They didn’t really know us, they sort of knew me but had no idea who Johnny [Leach] was. They didn’t know what they were walking into, or what the show would be like, but they had enough interest to at least take part.”
Alas, the dream of using No. 3 itself as a theatre wasn’t fulfilled. Through that initial season, they weren’t even allowed into the building due to asbestos, and it was torn down after those initial performances of Long Way to Say Goodbye. Since then, the company has exclusively performed work for the public outside, including in the nearby May Road School fields.
Neither Muaguatuti’a nor Leach were deterred, though. In late 2020, the pair successfully applied for a massive injection of funding ($827,000) for the company through the Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s Innovation Fund to develop Welcome Home, an “annual place-making artistic project” created by and for the people of Mt Roskill. Through that fund they were able not only to develop this project but secure the theatre and pay the young people, ranging from their late teens to their early 20s, involved with No. 3 a subsidised wage. This allows them to work on whatever creative endeavours they like part-time, including devising and rehearsing shows or even simply upskilling themselves.
One of those artists is Jonjon Cowley-Lupo, who also worked as an assistant costume designer on the Auckland Theatre Company production of Dawn Raids (co-directed by Muagututi’a). For Cowley-Lupo, the work they create is “intrinsically Roskill”. “Even though we’re telling our own individual stories, it’s more about sharing the rich culture and the history of the place,” they say.
“We see this as a launchpad for artists that are specifically here in Roskill,” Cowley-Lupo adds. “A place that moulds yourself as an artist, whether it’s as a performer, a musician, a costume designer. It’s a hub to enhance all of your talents, whatever they may be.”
Netane Tauki’uvea, another artist supported by the company (who was also an ensemble member in ATC’s Dawn Raids), is confident that the company actually being based in Roskill allows them to think deeper about their stories. “A lot of the stories we tell are real personal, but they always end up leading back to our community,” he says. “Having this space that’s for local artists makes it easier for those artists to tell their stories, whatever they may be.”
In June, the company moved into the bank at the bottom end of Dominion Road. For the last few months, artists involved with No. 3 have been putting on showcases fortnightly, with their friends and family as audiences, so they can test their work.
“It’s all about them having stage time without having to be enrolled in some theatre programme somewhere else,” Muagututi’a says. “Just put up your pieces, invite some people in, make a night of it.
“The older ones, like myself, we just help with how we can get some more money for them!”
The model that has worked for this company isn’t a unique one. Down in Wellington, Barbarian Productions have formed a similar hub at the Vogelmorn Bowling Club that has not just supported countless artists, but reinvigorated an entire suburb. “What excites me is the potential for No. 3 to make artistic, transformational change across New Zealand, with what we’re doing here in Roskill,” Cowley-Lupo says. “We’ve set up a space and let people know how viable this industry is and how important it is to support artists in their own homes.”
But for Muagututi’a, the most important thing for the company is for the young artists involved to realise their creative dreams, working through sustainable models. “I’ve just been encouraging them to speak up, to use the platform to say who they are, what they wanna do and what their dreams are,” she says. “I remember when I was in my early 20s, and we were doing the same thing with Pacific Underground, just finding our feet.
“They get to do that too now.”