With demand for a new, alternative theatre growing in the early 80s, and successful early productions under Peter Falkenberg, the newly formed group decided to build its own theatre in the Arts Centre. They took up the lease of an old lecture space in the Physics block of the Arts Centre and set about building a small 91 seat theatre, everyone contributing to construction costs including expensive soundproofing. Consisting mostly of staff and students from Canterbury University, the Free Theatre group became well known for a series of adventurous performances in the new space and surrounds, including outdoor performances in the North and South quads (near what was Annie's Restaurant), the former student union building (which became the Dux de Lux) and in the basement under the old Library. The basement area (later known as Nibelheim) became hugely popular for a series of Dada-inspired cabarets that saw the space and quads jam-packed with a diverse range of people, many of them identifying as non theatre-goers. The popularity of the new theatre and these events did raise the ire of private residents that had recently also moved into the Arts Centre – an initiative by Arts Centre management to raise funds for the cash-strapped trust. This led to a court case to evict Free Theatre from the Arts Centre that the judge eventually threw out on the grounds that the trust deed of the Arts Centre explicitly referred to this as a space for artists and art, not for private residents.
The production was, I felt at the time, even more meaningful than the one I had seen at the Kammerspiele in Munich and gave me an incentive to make theatre in this country. On the other hand, the excellent lead actress that met me during a Court production in Christchurch later did not seem to find any more challenging work in New Zealand that would have made her stay and shared stories about the season of Big and Little, where on one night the three audience members present applauded a rat that run across the stage upstaging the actors.
Peter Falkenberg, Dramaturg
Most memorably, I played several roles in the four-hour-long production of Botho Strauss's Big and Little a visionary production inspired by Taylor's study trips to Germany. This was one of the first productions of this post-modern, existentialist epic outside of Germany and it demonstrated, not for the first time, Downstage being ahead of its time, a genuine leader in the arts in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
David O’Donnell, actor in production