As a former Chair of the Arts Centre of Christchurch Trust Board, I see Free Theatre’s operation in the former Boys’ High, later University of Canterbury Gymnasium, as being what the Art Centre is all about. As a heritage professional, I consider that it also showcases a fantastic reuse of a one of this city’s significant heritage buildings.
Jenny May (ONZM)
The Arts Centre
Free Theatre has a long relationship with the Arts Centre of Christchurch. In 1982 the founding members of Free Theatre built the Free Theatre in the old History Lecture Theatre off Rolleston Ave (later called the University Theatre) and operated there until the Earthquakes in February 2011. Explore the numerous productions that were performed here in our Archive. After the Earthquakes Free Theatre continued to create work in different spaces including St Mary's Church (The Earthquake in Chile), The Tannery (Hereafter), the Spiegel Tent (The Soldier's Tale), Jack Mann Studios (I Sing the Body Electric) and the streets of Christchurch (Canterbury Tales).
The Gym 2014-2018
In 2014, the Arts Centre, under the leadership of André Lovatt, offered Free Theatre and partners the Arts Circus the first arts practice tenancy in the post-quake Arts Centre. Originally, the gymnasium of Christchurch Boys High, the building became the home of the Academy Cinema when the university moved to Ilam. Post-earthquakes, the building was stripped back to its original form and strengthened for contemporary use. As the resident company in "The Gym", Free Theatre installed a high quality fit-out for contemporary performance and in it ran a hugely successful New Works and Education Programme including the popular Ubu Nights, and major productions such as Kafka's Amerika and The Black Rider. Around these Free Theatre works, the space was programmed for festivals and events. The Gym was an exciting destination, presenting dynamic new work that was unique to Christchurch but reminiscent of cutting-edge contemporary arts spots in city’s known for a thriving cultural scene and social life. The Gym drew together artists from different disciplines and diverse audiences, young and old, responding to and imagining a new contemporary Christchurch.
Unfortunately, Free Theatre's tenancy in the Gym in the Arts Centre was terminated by the Trust Board in June 2018. While the company will always look for opportunities to return to the Arts Centre, it is now looking for a new home, if you can help please let us let us know!
The Old Boy’s High Gymnasium was designed in Gothic Revival style by architects Collins and Harman. The gymnasium, which also served as a theatre and assembly hall, opened in 1908. Restoration and repair of the Gymnasium included the strengthening of foundations and roof structures, the construction of new reinforced concrete shear walls, bracing of the clerestory roof-light and general repair to masonry. The exterior as much as possible, was been restored to its original appearance and the interior reflects the large singular interior volume for which the building was originally designed. Notably, the original gymnasium floor was restored and served as an integral part of the contemporary performance space. The Gym is a Category 1 Heritage building.
Read more about our use of Space and Design here.
As cultural life in Christchurch has slowly re-established itself in the post-quake years, Free Theatre's tenure at The Gym has provided a totally unique multi-purpose performance venue that has no equivalent in the city. It's brilliant to have a performance venue surrounded by the all-too-rare heritage of Christchurch's past, while looking to the future in terms of its facilities and the vision of the fine folks at the Free Theatre.
James Milne (Lawrence Arabia)
James Milne (Lawrence Arabia)