You’d expect the managers of local arts/community centres to work together, collaborate on ideas, and share resources. Two of the Shore’s arts/venue managers have taken collaboration further over the last few months as they’ve worked together on a production of Macbeth, one as Macbeth and the other as the producer of the show. Christine Young met with them to find out how it happened – and about their work at Lake House Arts Centre in Takapuna and The Rose Centre in Belmont.
It was evident before our interview began that Grae Burton, manager at Lake House Arts, and Geoff Allen, operations manager at The Rose Centre were good mates: the gentle and not-so-gentle ribbing and the easy laughter made it clear that this would be a relaxed interview. I hadn’t banked on the questions I’d prepared going as far off track as they appeared to be initially. But perhaps I should have known. Grae and Geoff are both experienced in the arts and theatre worlds, as actors, writers and directors – why would they relinquish a stage, however small, to a mere writer?
They did, eventually, and a picture emerged of two passionate, committed and versatile arts professionals, who have juggled multiple roles for most of their careers. Let’s start with Geoff Allen.
Geoff is well-known to North Shore locals for his work in theatre and with North Shore youth. He started his career at Elam, studying painting and photography. Fortuitously, there was a girl he “really liked” who he followed to Artspace in Ponsonby. There, he took art and later acting classes and was surrounded by a burgeoning theatre scene. Simon Prast was at the New Independent Theatre, an Auckland drama group formed in the early 1960s to encourage theatrical activities based on plays written by New Zealanders. Just a little further along K Road was the Mercury Theatre, and around the corner, newcomer Theatre Corporate. How could he not be seduced into theatre?
To brutally summarise a career littered with writing and live theatre credits, with film acting thrown in to boot, Geoff went on to found Galatea Theatre (with Gina Timberlake) and Devonport Drama. He has written, directed, and produced a number of plays presented by Galatea, Devonport Drama and other theatre groups. Several of these have been at The Rose Centre, where, in early July this year, he stepped into (horrors!) an “office job”. What possessed him? We’ll get to that later…
Similarly condensing an illustrious career in theatre and film, Grae Burton is an accomplished actor. His first love has always been theatre, and applied his management skills to theatre and his passion for art. He’s created his own shows, appeared in many well-regarded tv series and films and ran The Independent Theatre and Arts Centre in Nelson, with its 160-seat cinema, a theatre, wardrobe hire and its own theatre company, for three years. Four years ago, he returned to Auckland to take up the Lake House Arts role, and has juggled this with screen acting roles and commitment to his family. (He has an eight-year-old and four-year-old.) There’s been little time for acting as he’s worked with the Lake House board to streamline and develop programmes, processes and administration – as well as substantially building the numbers visiting the Lake House for classes,r exhibitions and events.
Unsurprisingly, Geoff and Grae met in the theatre world – Grae auditioned for Speed Daters, a comedy written by Geoff Allen and presented by Galatea Theatre. Speed Daters premiered in 2011, before doing several seasons around Auckland, including at The Rose Centre) over the next two years. (Grae also met his wife through this production, but that’s another story.)
Like Geoff, Grae has presented his own work – most notably a single-hander called Coffee with Eelco, about Eelco Boswijk, who established the first real coffee house in New Zealand in Nelson in 1961, was also the first patron of World of Wearable Arts, and a great supporter of the arts.
“We’ve collaborated a lot through theatre,” says Geoff. “For our penance we’ve ended up as administrators in the arts!”
Not that either of them regrets that for a minute. Geoff says he was nearly tempted into management about eight years ago. But now felt the “right time’ to take the helm at The Rose Centre, as a new board reinvigorates the centre. He’s spent the last three years building (structurally and conceptually) Pitt Street Theatre, a theatre space in the old Pitt Street Methodist Church hall just off K Road. “I felt this would be a continuation, but I would be paid,” he jokes. “I still have the energy to do it, and I’ve worked with youth and children so I feel connected to that. And it’s a challenge; I’ve never worked in an office before.”
He and the others in the team, Tasha Wehrle(who looks after bookings) and Hannah Catterall(who’s responsible for community development and pulled together the recent highly successful Matariki programme) are looking forward to constructing a programme that balances events and programmes initiated by The Rose Centre, with activities initiated by the community spurred on by special rates for local groups to hire or use the centre.
At present though, he sighs, there are “lots of compliances, and policies to develop”.
And he’s taken on the role of producer for Macbeth at the Pitt Street Theatre September Shakespeare season. He’s in charge of budgets, sets, auditions, rehearsals – everything that brings the show to the stage, except the creative vision, which is the director’s domain. He could also have directed; he has directed plays for others and for himself. In fact, he started out as a director and subsequently got into writing and producing.
Grae’s ability to audition for Macbeth is the result of the hard yards he’s put in on compliance and policies, he says. “I haven’t had time to think about stepping back on stage…. But I started to realise that Lake House Arts is running smoothly.” The centre has had a 30% increase in participation and attendance at events (despite or because of Covid – he’s unsure), and art sales, which dipped during the 13 weeks of lockdown over the past 18 months, have rebounded “hugely”.
“We’re looking at around 80,000 people a year,” says Grae proudly. And with classes consistently full, he’s considering outreach classes in other venues and a new studio at Lake House Arts.
We didn’t discuss the possibility of where such classes might be, but there’s clearly a strong connection, not just with Geoff, but with other venues. Grae did a not-quite-impromptu performance of Coffee with Eelco at The Rose Centre between lockdowns last year, as a fundraiser for the centre, and has offered it to other centres. As a one-man show, it’s highly portable: “I can do it anywhere,” he says.
“Grae has incredible heart and generosity in giving his talent that way,” adds Geoff.
That was Grae’s last acting stint. Macbeth is the first time he’s been part of an ensemble cast in nine years.
“Grae has to step up to do this,” notes Geoff. “It’s like Hamlet. You’ve got to have a decent Macbeth.”
Grae modestly counters that he has the benefit of having played Macbeth a couple of times previously. “I have the basis of a good knowledge of the lines and an understanding of the story”. Director John Goudge, however, is not letting any of the cast, including Grae, reprise previous performances. The hardest thing for Grae has been “letting go of preconceived ideas as I’ve conceptualised and staged [Macbeth] more than once. It can be a challenge to realise someone else’s creative vision.” Since rehearsals started in June, he’s had to put in “hours and hours” of work.
It’s not only Grae’s but also the audience’s preconceived ideas that may “turned on their heads” by the approach the director is taking – it’s “darkly comic”, says Geoff.
“We’re not playing it for laughs,” Grae clarifies, “but it’s a twisted play and John is bringing out [that aspect].”
Macbeth by William Shakespeare, (New dates October 29th to November 12th), Pitt Street Theatre, 78 Pitt Street, Auckland. Director: John Goudge, producer: Geoff Allen; Macbeth: Grae Burton, Lady Macbeth: Catherine Falstie-Jensen.