Boom times at the Basement

by Elisabeth Easther / 27 August, 2015
As a show about Ernest Rutherford opens at Auckland’s Basement Theatre, Elisabeth Easther finds out how it became a test-bed for talent.

Basement Theatre
From left, the Basement’s Elise Sterback , Gabrielle Vincent and Sam Snedden: creating opportunities.

Auckland’s Basement Theatre could be described as a kind of laboratory where thespians conduct experiments in performing arts. More often than not, the results are entertaining, and on occasion they’re downright explosive.

Described by Metro as “the most eclectic, exciting cultural venue in town”, the Basement accepts applications from anyone who wants to put on a show. “We have so many submissions from people interested in working here,” says programme manager Gabrielle Vincent, “and we try to squeeze in as many shows as possible. For example, for our spring season, we had 45 submissions, but we could only take 27.”

The Basement board, not unlike at the legendary Bats Theatre in Wellington, encourages innovation and collaboration, making it a safe place for practitioners to take risks without going broke. Operations manager Sam Snedden, a beacon of optimism, explains that “this is the best time ever to be an independent creative professional; the opportunities to create content without being beholden to anyone are unparalleled. It’s a difficult environment economically, but there is a chance of doing something that goes global.”

“It’s affordable to produce a show with us,” adds Vincent. “We operate on a risk-share basis, taking 20% [plus GST] out of the box office at the back end, and that’s it – no other hidden venue costs, and we give technical and marketing assistance – mitigating financial risk to promote artistic risk.” Co-general manager Elise Sterback says, “As a venue, we’re a vital collaborator in the success of each show, and we help to create the feeling that it is possible to have a career in the arts.”

With such a disparate collection of productions – by the end of 2015, 120 plays will have been performed, on top of 200 individual events – the Basement recently rebranded to give all its shows a collective look in terms of marketing.

Over the past eight years the Basement has morphed from playing a relatively passive role as a venue for hire to actively nurturing talent. In keeping with the laboratory analogy, in 2014 it developed a scheme called Play Science. This initiative helps develop a range of projects to a professional standard by pairing emerging artists with experienced dramaturgs; shows can be mounted without teams having to rely solely on the goodwill of their producer’s mates.

“It’s critical to a healthy creative ecology to have investment at both ends of the food chain. If you only feed the top end,” Snedden warns, “the whole thing will eventually fall over.”

Coincidentally, the latest production to be cultured in the Petri dish of Play Science is a play about science. Ernest Rutherford – Everyone Can Science is a comedic account of the life of arguably New Zealand’s best-known scientist, most famous for splitting the atom. Created and performed by comedian/actor Nic Sampson, head writer on TV3’s Jono and Ben, the play came from an idea that germinated as part of the now defunct late-night television show U Late. Sampson fondly remembers the show as being somewhere comedians were given licence to do anything, no matter how anarchic.

“There was this one segment called Kiwi Heroes where we improvised various characters. I did Sam Neill and AJ Hackett, but it was Ernest Rutherford people really responded to. At one point I hosted a show as Rutherford. It was set in the early 1900s and I just kept building more and more bits onto it, and as his fictitious backstory grew, it turned into a play.”

The show isn’t really about science, he says. “My version of him probably isn’t that close to the real Rutherford, it’s more of a homage, but what I really enjoyed is his unbridled passion for what he does.”

The play takes the form of a lecture delivered to a group of university students, and although loosely based on Rutherford’s life, there’s a good sprinkling of fiction to make it all stick. The creative outcome is for the audience to feel they’ve really met and interacted with Rutherford, bringing him to life beyond his lusciously moustached presence on our hundred dollar bill while capturing the adventurous spirit of a scientific giant.

“I found him to be affable and enthusiastic, a real embodiment of the Kiwi spirit of No 8 wire. He didn’t care for accolades, he just liked figuring things out.”

The play is made up of about 70% scripted material and 30% improvised interaction, so be warned there will be some audience participation. “Some people will be asked to join me on stage, but it’s very gentle and there’s no wrong thing anyone can do, and hopefully by the end of it, the audience will feel like they’ve split the atom, too.”

Ka boom.

Ernest Rutherford – Everyone Can Science, Basement Theatre, Auckland, September 8-19.

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