New Zealand: The Basement

The story of The Basement theatre, Auckland’s well-regarded underground fringe performance venue, has been a refreshingly inspiring and uplifting one since the space was taken over by a group of ambitious local performers six years ago. Mark Powell reports

Occupying a bijou plot on the tree-lined city centre thoroughfare of Greys Avenue, The Basement was formerly the home of Silo Theatre, one of Auckland’s leading contemporary performance companies. When Silo moved and Auckland City Council decided to put the newly vacant space up for tender in 2008, a handful of actors banded together to keep it open for a few months, aiming to sell any leftover bar stock while throwing a few memorable send-off parties.

However, it soon became clear that the fairly ad hoc rotation of gigs and club nights programmed during this period was bringing in audiences. Using this model as a basis for paying the rent, the interim management team resumed staging theatre shows in between, opening the doors to any company or performer with a solid idea and a passion for making it happen. Auckland’s fringe performers suddenly had an affordable new independent theatre space at their disposal.

Implementing some minor but much-needed DIY improvements to the building and its technical resources has since helped the team to secure financial backing from the council’s Arts Alive programme, set at NZD400,000 (€253,000) for 2014-15. The performing arts funding scheme is open to professional arts projects taking place in the Central Business District (CBD).

Audience at the Basement

With New Zealand’s burgeoning independent performance scene increasingly congregating around The Basement, a charitable trust was formed to help steer the venue behind the scenes. Headed by teacher and theatremaker Michele Hine, the trust is now fully shored up with an accountant, a lawyer and a business expert on board. As well as providing crucial structure and leadership insight, this also makes The Basement eligible for further subsidies from ASB Community Trust, Wallace Arts Trust, and New Zealand’s Pub Charity.

Newly united behind a coherent and cohesive strategic plan to drive the growing organisation through to 2017, the current management team – consisting of programming and development supervisor Sophie Henderson, community marketing manager Elise Sterback, and head of operations Sam Snedden – is looking ahead to an immediate future that, all too rarely for fringe venues in urban centres, looks to be both artistically exciting and reasonably financially stable.

The Basement’s current and future programming clearly reflects the diversity and innovation at the core of its vision. Its upcoming Christmas show, for example, will see a rotating cast of approximately 50 New Zealand comedians, stage and small-screen actors join together to present a raucous and semi-improvised ‘festive murder mystery’. It also provides a good opportunity for the management team to show they can pitch smart with seasonal group bookings, too: as well as offering discounted group rates and adjustable show times for corporate hires, a range of inventive packaged extras even includes the offer to lightly customise the show by adding the odd line of personalised dialogue or giving an audience member a brief onstage cameo.

Young and Hungry

Community outreach and development work is also playing an increasingly central role in The Basement’s annual programming: showcases co-organised with Auckland youth arts institution Young & Hungry, for example, aim to pair a broad range of young people with a variety of experienced directors and mentors. This leads to the creation of new performance pieces addressing issues relevant to the group, which are then staged at The Basement and other site-specific venues. The most recent Young & Hungry call-out saw over 125 young participants apply for cast and crew roles, and more work in this area is already planned for 2015.

Add to this a growing list of high-profile collaborations with artistically vibrant New Zealand companies like Silo, Theatre Beating and Auckland Theatre Company, as well as Australia’s Ride On Theatre and the UK’s Frantic Assembly, and it’s easy to see why forthcoming shows are creating a pleasing level of social media buzz for the venue. Its current show, The Blind Date Project, captures audience imaginations by blurring lines between the in-house bar and theatre spaces, creating a performance in which the beginning, the ending and the even cast members aren’t always as easily identifiable as traditional audiences might expect.

The Blind Date Project

The key factor underpinning and allowing for all this innovation stems from a recent rebuild of the venue’s core operating model: the risk-share agreement. With backing secured from Creative New Zealand to fund a nurturing, artist-focussed approach for the next three years, The Basement no longer has to operate on a standard venue hire system. Instead of the performers paying a flat fee for the space and relying on box office to recoup their own costs (bearing the full brunt of any shortfall in ticket sales), they’re simply charged a percentage of box office income. In short, if a show makes no money, it’s The Basement’s subsidy that absorbs the blow rather than the visiting artists.

This effectively means that performers can afford to stage more experimental or niche work, while the venue is freed up to pursue a more daring programming approach without risk of sales-related cancellations. This is clearly helping The Basement to further develop its reputation as a pioneering force on the national fringe theatre scene – a reputation that looks firmly set to continue growing into 2015 and beyond.