The Fortune Theatre has been based in a former church on the corner of Moray Place and Stuart St in central Dunedin for more than 40 years. Photo: Google Maps / Radio NZ

‘A sad day for Dunedin theatre’: Roger Hall on the sudden closure of the Fortune

Yesterday came the shock news that Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre had closed after 44 years and more than 400 productions. Playwright Roger Hall, who lived in Dunedin for 20 years and had close ties with the Fortune, looks back at the theatre’s decades-long struggle to stay afloat.

Ah the Fortune. The tantrums, the dramas, the jealousies, the in-fighting – and that was just the board meetings.

It’s a line I’ve used before and not just for The Fortune. While everyone feels sorry for all those who have lost their jobs, I also have considerable sympathy for the board, who will have tried everything they could to stave off what possibly was inevitable. As Dickens observed, when expenditure exceeds income the result is misery.

In the USA, to be on the board of the opera, the art gallery or the theatre is something to be devoutly wished for. (In Frasier, Niles longed to be on the board of the Seattle Opera to enhance his social standing.) But here, for many arts institutions, it’s something to be avoided. Go to an AGM at your peril, or you’ll find yourself manning a metaphorical cake stall for years.

Reader, I have been there.

In 1983, I returned to Dunedin after 15 months overseas to find things at The Fortune were in a bad way. The board had sacked the artistic director and, to save money, decided  to run the theatre without one (akin to a basketball team without a bench coach which, indeed, the Otago team did for a time with equally disastrous results).

Some time later the board called it quits, and gave actors their notice (ten minutes before they were about to go on stage – charming).

After an angry public meeting, I was made chairman of the board, on the grounds that  I had a high profile in the town and was publically linked with the theatre. It was not a role I had sought.

It was a thankless task (as it is almost everywhere for whatever board). The priority as ever was fund raising. Previously Fortune had had art auctions. During my time, we had two celebrity memorabilia auctions; two series of midwinter Sunday afternoon lectures (more popular than most plays), and persuaded Bob Jones to run a ‘buying shares’ seminar, which he generously did despite his avowed lack of interest in theatre – indeed he gave one of the winter lectures for no fee. Another board member ran a massive raffle with cars as prizes. All this enabled us to do little more financially than tread water.

Dunedin is a tough town to run a theatre in. It has a relatively small population of under 120,000, plus a university student population that finds its theatre entertainment on campus. I once asked a student if they had ever been to The Fortune. “No. What do you do there? And what do you wear?”

It’s an even harder place to raise money in. A key factor is the flight of head offices north over the years. Who can you go to for sponsorhip? Cadbury’s used to get dozens of letters daily from numerous organisations asking for money. There was no one else. (And now Cadbury’s has gone, too).

But could The Fortune have done better? Yes.

The founder directors, Alex Gilchrist and Murray Hutchinson, knew what Dunedin audiences would enjoy, and no director since has matched their success rate. They not only picked more winners than other directors, they also did a lot more main shows. In addition, no school holiday went by without a twice-daily show for children where grateful mothers could drop their offspring for an hour while they popped along to Arthur Barnett’s. Plus additional smaller shows jammed in when possible. Thus a lot more money came in through the box office.

(Of course actors were paid less then and were required to multitask. You might not have a part in a production but it didn’t mean you couldn’t work elsewhere in the theatre, from set-building to wardrobe.)

Other directors came and went, several put on plays that were artistic successes but predictable box-office failures. Several had their own agendas, and one (whom we didn’t want because we knew there would be trouble, was foisted on us by the then Minister for the Arts) acted as though he was at a hugely subsidised German theatre. More than one director, possibly the present one, inherited a hospital pass.

Dunedin is a conservative town (that votes Labour). My standard joke was that in Dunedin no one went to a play unless they’d seen it before. The word “Premiere” or, even worse, “World Premiere”, acted more as a deterrent than an attraction.

You have to know your audience. Alison Quigan knew it at Palmerston North (two-thirds of Dunedin’s population) where she ran the Centrepoint Theatre for 18 years. Elric Hooper at The Court knew what Christchurch audiences wanted and stayed there for more than 20.

There may indeed be a case for a new model for Dunedin theatre, but whatever happens it should not be taken as a template for theatres elsewhere. Theatre in this country is active as never before, both in number of productions throughout the country and the increasing percentage of New Zealand shows.

Attendance at the theatre is higher than that of any sport apart from rugby union. But in general neither politicians nor the general public are aware of it or take any pride in it. It’s why New Zealand Theatre Month is happening in September.

Meanwhile, it is a sad day for Dunedin theatre and all those involved. But, as they say, the show must go on. And it will.

The Fortune closed on May 1st, but this time the mayday call came too late. And had been heard once too often.


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