Tonight, on the first day of spring and the last night of The Black Rider, we have something to celebrate: Free Theatre's birthday in The Gym. On 1 September 2014 we officially began working in The Gym towards our very first Ubu Night on 5 September. Our tenure in The Gym was only to be two years, with the original plan for the space to be a restaurant and for Free Theatre to take up other residence in the Arts Centre. With original collaborators Arts Circus, we pitched the idea of a flexible contemporary performance space to the Arts Centre and set about implementing a light-touch fit-out with support from Christchurch City Council, Rata Foundation and Creative New Zealand. While the support for the fit-out was relatively modest, Stuart Lloyd-Harris designed and implemented an exemplary 'black box' that has allowed for a diversity of events to take place in the Arts Centre, from Free Theatre's central New Works and Education Programme that is designed specifically to exploit and showcase what is possible in this beautiful space, to festivals such as the Christchurch Arts Festival and the Jazz and Blues Festival, as well as a diversity of arts, community, corporate and private events. It is inevitable (especially with limited funding) that there are limitations to the space. However, this also leads to innovative ways of developing new work and unusual experiences for audiences. Over the three years we've been operating, local, national and international artists who don't necessarily know our situation, rave about The Gym, it's ambience and acoustics, it's sense of place in a city struggling to remember, and its inspiration for work of the future. We are proud of what has been achieved and even more so about what is on the cards in the next few years given the collaborations we have initiated thus far.
It can be frustrating as we struggle to survive to hear the constant wrangling over big building projects like the proposed performing arts precinct ($45 mil for the Court; $18mil for a 'black box') and other spaces emerging that we are being asked to contribute to as presenters even though we have stated our preferred situation - an inspiring space to develop and present new work. It is not that we wouldn't present elsewhere - obviously this is something we have done a lot over the years - but often the planners and funders look at it from the conventional venue manager's point of view that assumes pre-existing work based around conventional commercial returns. Consider, for example, the vitally important Christchurch Arts Festival, which currently directs its funding towards importing work from elsewhere with little to no support towards fostering local artists - this is a model that desperately needs to change, if we're serious about developing an exciting, engaging city that encourages talent to stay and contribute, and attracts high quality contemporary artists to come here and work with us. Festival directors need to foster artists to take risks towards distinctive new work. Currently, they shape and direct what work is produced with exponentially shrinking ideas of what they think will please their established audience - this breeds mediocrity, at best. As this established audience gets tired of the same old festival fare, visionary new ideas are required to nurture new work that energises established audiences and builds new ones. There are ample examples of great festivals already doing this and others that have transitioned in response to social, economic, political and environmental change. They build their foundations around local artists as well as curating international artists to collaborate with locals.
Despite the frustration and fatigue that sets in as we fight endlessly for an artist-led space that has more than proven its value despite chronic underfunding and attempts to dismiss it on the way to big, new shiny venues of yesteryear, we are extremely grateful and inspired by the support we have received. There is the support already mentioned from CCC, CNZ and the ever-consistent Rata Foundation, as well as champions that got us started and have kept us going, including ZNO (Jason Mill), Duncan Cotterill (Paul Calder), Kendons (Lance Edmonds and Kate Bennett) and Steel and Tube. We've developed wonderful friendships with Cassels and Sons and Black Estate Wines and we're pleased to be in a neighbourhood with businesses that include Zen Sushi, The Curator's Deli, Bunsen and our earliest, dearest pioneer friends at Canterbury Cheesemongers and Cookin with Gas/Astro Lounge. There are many others that have supported particular projects (for example Phantom have been incredible with The Black Rider), and of course, there are the audiences, old and new, that come to experience the work, expecting to be challenged with something different, and take the time to let us know that this is valued - this kind of support is valued beyond measure.
Most of all, we're driven by the artists that come to work with Free Theatre and an Arts Centre management that supports this work to continue. Christchurch is blessed with remarkable artists across a range of disciplines that continue to produce work that fuels a distinctive New Zealand culture. These are people driven not by money nor fame (if they are, then FT is a terrible choice) but the need to create work that speaks to the time and place - a desire to engage with the community we live in out of a dissatisfaction with the world as it is. Our aim is to keep providing outlets for this dissatisfaction to be expressed in conversation with the community towards hope and change. We know this desire is shared by the Arts Centre who signalled bold aims when they signed us up as the first arts-practice tenancy in 2014 and have continued to make it possible for us to work in this important, vital site that straddles the city's past and future. To everyone at the Arts Centre, and especially the inspirational André Lovatt: we continue to build programmes, collaborations and networks towards new work that supports your aims for the Arts Centre to be a special place for the city. With your support, friendship and partnership, we look forward to the future.
Early days and the first Ubu Night