Forty years is an accomplishment for any business, and for Centrepoint Theatre this accomplishment has become a reality. Artistic Director Jeff Kingsford- Brown and Box Office Manager Vanessa Barnes reflect on Centrepoint’s history and what it is that makes this theatre so special.
First opened in 1974, Centrepoint remains the only professional theatre outside the four major New Zealand centres. It continues to offer quality entertainment to the
hundreds of people who come through its doors.
The theatre’s Artistic Director, Jeff Kingsford-Brown, has made an effort to remain in touch with Centrepoint’s origins and happily tells the story of how it began. “At that time there was a feeling that people wanted to see themselves on the stage, and they wanted to express their culture. There were these little theatres popping up around the country and Palmerston North and Centrepoint was part of that movement, not just in theatre, but in art and culture generally.”
“It was a very different scene in many ways, it was just faltering steps. They didn’t receive any funding from central government, it was all local money, so it was tough. They were doing it professionally, even though there was no training ground. They were doing it the best
This passion is what sustained an early Centrepoint, and it remains the lifeblood of this now thriving theatre. Vanessa Barnes, Centrepoint’s Box Office Manager, is a perfect representative of this. Vanessa is a longstanding Centrepoint fixture, having been “roped into helping out” when she was in high school and now, years later, has never left and works full time with the theatre.
My job is to make sure that those people’s one shot is the best experience possible.
One of the keys to Centrepoint’s success, in Vanessa’s mind, is its focus on telling the stories of New Zealand’s multicultural community. “We do Pasifika plays and we have more focus on the Kiwi playwrights. Last year we did Two Fish and a Scoop, which was about a Chinese New Zealander and a British New Zealander, so that’s not your average story. We are trying to reflect all the different people within the community and then trying to draw those people to the theatre.”
However, audience attendance is not limited to performing good stories, and cultivating the right attitude is also vital in Jeff’s and Vanessa’s minds. “The thing that Centrepoint prides itself on is that we are quite welcoming, we’ve got quite a… it sounds really cheesy but a family vibe,” laughs Vanessa.
“We don’t want to be intimidating and we don’t want people to think that you have to be posh, or that it’s for your grandparents. Really our target audiences is everybody. We want everyone to come and see Kiwi theatre.”
“It is something we have worked consciously on creating, breaking down that barrier of ‘theatre is something you have to dress up for’, that you have to have a lot of money for. We want everyone to give it a go, especially young people.”
Theatre for a younger audience was also the inspiration for Centrepoint’s secondary theatre, The Dark Room, which was started in 2007. “At the time there was a group of people working here at Centrepoint who were younger and very much focused on wanting to have theatre that they would go and see.” The first Dark Room was “set up in the back of the theatre, in what is actually our rehearsal room”, but in its current form it is located across the road in a space provided by Te Manawa. The Dark Room has developed into something “slightly more risky and alternative”, and now regularly hosts new emerging artists and various performance groups.
Great effort goes into ensuring that the experience of these artists is an enjoyable one, as Centrepoint is “often giving them their first chance at a proper professional gig”. “Part of our brief is to use emerging artists in a meaningful way – actors, designers, directors occasionally,” explains Jeff.
Actors often comment that, when joining Centrepoint, they feel like they have been welcomed into a living room
“It is up to us, it’s our responsibility to make sure they have as good a time as they can, quite apart from the work,” adds Vanessa. “Actors often comment that, when joining Centrepoint, they feel like they have been welcomed into a living room, they like hanging out here.”
However, running a business that is entirely reliant on its talent does lend itself to some nerve-racking close calls. “Last year we had a group scheduled who suddenly pulled out, they were heading to Edinburgh or Toronto. Then you have holes in your programme suddenly,” says Jeff.
“It’s just the nature of theatre, it happens with actors as well,” says Vanessa. “You can have an actor all lined up and then they get offered another job, or get really sick, and then you have to get someone in at the very last minute. But the show always happens. It’s never not happened, in my time at least. Touch wood!”
While it is challenging, Vanessa is eager to point out the enjoyable aspects of their work, which she summarises as “ample opportunities to explore the theatre in all its weird glory”.
“I have to remind myself that we get to see both sides, and that we are quite privileged to get to see the magic happen. People who come to see it get one shot to see the play, and that’s it. That’s their night out, that’s their magical experience.
They don’t get the privilege to just pop their head into the rehearsal room. My job is to make sure that those people’s one shot is the best experience possible.”