29 Mar 2016

For Hamilton, the show can't go on

5:15 am on 29 March 2016

The sudden closure of Hamilton's major performance centre has caught the local arts community off-guard, and they are not happy.

The Founders Theatre closed its doors giving no notice to shows already booked at the venue, and causing the cancellation of at least one major stage show so far.

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The Founders theatre faces an uncertain future. Photo: Supplied

It is likely to stay shut for a number of years until a decision is made on its future.

The Founders Theatre was officially opened on 17 November 1962 by the then mayor of Hamilton, Denis Rogers.

Speaking at the opening, Dr Rogers described it as a magnificent structure.

"In surroundings that will soon be unsurpassed in beauty and one which will enable the arts, for which it is designed to remain alive."

Now, 54 years later, the once magnificent structure is in a sorry state.

The fly tower is deemed dangerous and there are other problems including questions on whether the theatre meets current earthquake codes.

Sean Murray who heads the council department looking after the theatre said while there had been regular maintenance over the years, the venue had to, at some stage, come to the end its useful life.

"At some stage ..... especially when you are talking about a specialist property like a theatre, you have to hit a great big ticket item and that is when the shock comes in and that is when it can be a very challenging process to go through."

The Hamilton Operatic Society has been a big user of the Founders, holding a major production every year. This year it was to be Mary Poppins, but the plug got pulled at the very last moment.

Chair of the society Fiona Bradley said the news was devastating.

"To have it suddenly not go ahead was a huge blow, not only to us organising it, but to our cast members who quite distraught on the night when I told them."

Another keen supporter of the Founders Theatre are four dance studios in the city.

Lynne Gabolinsky from the Directions School of Dance holds a performance for all her students at the end of each year there.

"It's the only venue in Hamilton big enough to house all of our students back stage, so that is the main reason, plus I just want the students to have that theatre experience which you get at the Founders."

Creative Waikato looks after the local arts community.

Chief executive Sarah Nathan believed that the council over the years had not been particularly focused on arts infrastructure and because of that, the Founders had suffered.

"You just have to look at the ladies toilets and there is no hot water and all of the tiling in the original toilets from the 1960's. You wouldn't find that in many other regionally significant cultural centres in New Zealand," she said

Ms Nathan said the loss of the Founders left a cultural void in the heart of the city.

Mr Murray from the council said there were options available.

"Rather than spend $20 million on a refurbishment, should we spend 50-plus million on building a brand new facility? And I think that is the key question the Hamilton community has to ask itself in terms of the future for Founders, so there are definitely options there."

The public gets its chance to have its say on the future of the Founders at a city council meeting this Thursday.