Back in the day...
BATS Theatre is an intimate venue located in the former Manchester Unity Oddfellows building at 1 Kent Terrace in central Wellington.
The building itself has had a long and varied life, being built in 1923 for the Oddfellows Britannia Lodge. From 1944 to 1976 it was owned by The Savage Club, and used as a dance hall and venue for amateur theatre. From the 1940s until 1975 Unity Theatre staged productions at 1 Kent Terrace. The Unity Theatre was a society with a tradition of left-wing political affiliations and a penchant for work by obscure European dramatists. Unity had a strong core membership which went on and contributed to the growth and success of both Downstage and Circa Theatres.
From 1976 1 Kent Terrace was owned by The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, a fraternal society that originated in London’s Theatre district in the early 1800s. Originally comprised of stagehands and technicians, membership to the group became more open over the years.
From 1979 to 1988 the theatre was administered by the BATS Incorporated Society. The Buffaloes used the upper floors of the building for their Lodge Room, games room and offices, while BATS occupied only the performance space at the rear of the ground floor.
BATS is an acronym for the Bane and Austin Touring Society, named after Rodney Bane and David Austin, BATS’ original founding members. BATS began as a prolific amateur theatre company, producing school tours and shows, achieving a string of main-bill successes. In the early 80′s however, commitment waned and BATS Theatre simply became a venue for hire, administered by BATS Incorporated.
During these years, BATS became the home for New Zealand Drama School productions and was used by a number of different co-operatives. In spite of its shabby cult status, neglect and a lack of funds meant that BATS was deteriorating rapidly.
To hear more about BATS' incredible beginnings, listen to this great interview with Ken Duncum, recorded by Radio New Zealand in conjunction with the release of the anthology, BATS Plays, a collection of seminal plays produced at BATS in the eighties and nineties and co-written with Rebecca Rodden which you can buy here
Building a new BATS
In 1988, while in his last year of drama school, Simon Bennett became aware of the BATS predicament. After many a drunken night spent with Simon Elson while working on King Lear, together they formulated a proposal to save BATS Theatre. Operating as NOMIS productions (Simon spelt backwards), the two Simon’s negotiated a lease from BATS Inc. and from November 1988 until April 1989 they worked organising sponsorship, money, materials, redesigning and rebuilding the foyer, stripping back and redecorating the auditorium, redesigning the access ways, cleaning up and redecorating backstage and lobbying all the right people for support.
Their policy for BATS was to rekindle the popularity and accessibility of theatre for young people and to provide a venue, a training ground and a way in for young people struggling to forge careers in the difficult world of professional theatre. These aims were achieved by:
Keeping ticket prices for students on a par with cinema admission and video hire rates.
Programming the theatre with entertainment value as a priority
Ensuring a consistently high standard of work
Keeping the doors open for young theatre practitioners.
Promoting the theatre along the lines of ‘cheap but good’ entertainment
BATS Theatre reopened as a professional venue on 1st April 1989. The opening shows were Baby with the Bathwater by Christopher Durang directed by Guy Boyce and JISM by Ken Duncum and Rebecca Rodden, directed by Simon Bennett.
Simon Bennett quickly discovered that theatre management and directing are mutually exclusive occupations. He resigned from the active management of BATS in May that year to pursue a career in directing, leaving it in the hands of Simon Elson.
Simon ran BATS for a year maintaining its high profile and ensuring a string of successful productions that somehow allowed him to balance the books without substantial external funding. During that year BATS hosted Simon’s brain-child The BATS Fringe Fest which grew into today’s New Zealand Fringe Festival; the biggest Fringe in the country with a rapidly growing international reputation.
Burning the house down
On 16th April 1990, just one year after BATS opened, fire raged through the backstage at 5.15am killing the theatre cat Cyclops who died of smoke inhalation. The fire started through an electrical fault in old wiring and left walls charred damaging dressing rooms and the auditorium. The Visitor by Full of Piranhas dance company was due to open the night of the fire and thousands of dollars worth of tailor-made costumes and props for the show had been destroyed.
On 13th May 1990 a variety concert at the St James Theatre was organised to raise funds to put BATS back on its feet. The concert was called Got A Light? and included such luminaries as the Topp Twins, Paul Holmes, Lynn of Tawa, The Six Volts, Gary McCormick, When the Cats Been Spayed, Kate Harcourt, Alice Fraser, Te Rakau Hua O Te Wau Tapu, Helen Moulder, Full of Piranhas and many other celebrities and theatre practitioners, all giving their time for free.
Wellington companies came to the rescue too, donating labour and materials for the rebuilding project. Circa and the Depot held benefit shows at Downstage Theatre. The Wellington City Council made the St James available for the concert. It attracted 1100 people and raised $22,000.00. Phoenix the new BATS cat was presented by Fran Wilde.
BATS reopened on 14th June with Ken Duncum’s Blue Sky Boys directed by Simon Bennett and starring Tim Balme and Michael Galvin.
BATS spreads its wings
In 1999 BATS took over the lease of the two small spaces on either side of the BATS foyer. Roy’s, the old fish n’ chippy, became home to the BATS office and what was previously Don’s Car Insurance Office was magically transformed into The Pit Bar, which was fondly referred to as Wellington’s smallest bar.
Since 1991 BATS Theatre has been managed by a growing number of full time staff, with the help of a broad base of contract workers and volunteers. Many ex-BATS staff have gone on to key and creative positions in the Arts industry. And with the help of Creative New Zealand BATS has introduced other new initiatives, such as the revolutionary annual STAB commission and the Young and Hungry Festival of New Works.
Over the years STAB has evolved from a fund that supported multiple new works into a commission for a single ambitious show and STAB Lab, a separate development fund focussed on developing an innovative new idea without the requirement to present a finished show.
Many innovative and memorable new works have sprung out of STAB including Apollo 13: Mission Control, Demeter’s Dark Ride, Sniper, Live at Six, Pandemic and WATCH.
In 2011, BATS landlords for 22 years, the Buffaloes, placed the BATS building on the market. Faced with the unprecedented opportunity of securing the long-term future of the theatre at 1 Kent Terrace, the BATS staff and Board rallied to build financial support for purchasing the building, but given the extremely limited timeframe it looked as though it wasn’t going to be possible to raise the required amount.
At the eleventh hour, celebrated filmmakers Sir Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh stepped in, offering to purchase the building and issue BATS with a long term lease.
BATS: Out of Site
At the beginning of 2013 BATS moved to a temporary location upstairs on the corner of Cuba and Dixon Streets while the 1 Kent Terrace landlords undertook a massive earthquake strengthening and renovation project on the 80+ year old building.
After a mad dash to find a temporary space the former infamous “Big Kumara” student bar (previously Barney’s and Bojangle’s) was transformed in a matter of weeks into a pop-up studio theatre of 74 seats and a grungy bar space which was dubbed Understudy.
Despite limited funds for renovation, which made for a cold and at times leaky experience, the venue thrived. In 20 months “out of site” BATS presented 139 shows across both the theatre and bar space and welcoming over 40,000 audience members through the doors.
Flying BATS Home
In April of 2014, shortly after the theatre's 25th birthday, BATS launched a public Fly BATS Home fundraising campaign, kicking the project off with a campaign launch concert at Shed 6 on Wellington’s waterfront with musical support from Fly My Pretties and Flight of the Conchords.
Over the subsequent months BATS received phenomenal support from the community, trusts and other donors which helped cover the cost of the theatre-specific elements of the renovated building, including updated technical equipment and furnishings. Over $600,000 was raised including $32,500 crowd-funded from the community.
The refurbishment undertaken by the Wellington Film Properties Trust was extensive, and many changes were made in keeping with the art deco style of the building. A back staircase was added to the building, allowing access between the old Buffaloes Lodge Room (now The Heyday Dome) and BATS dressing rooms. A new stained glass dome tops off the central stairwell, and the central corridor on the building’s ground floor was opened up into a roomier bar space.
On 22 November 2014 BATS reopened at its original 1 Kent Terrace home which has been beautifully refurbished and now offers three performance spaces, a renovated bar and foyer, and shiny new backstage, dressing room, kitchen, Green Room and office facilities.
2015 was BATS busiest year ever; presenting 102 seasons made by more than 1000 artists across three performance spaces.
Despite the huge changes and oppertunities presented by the refurbished building the fundamental philosophy of BATS has stayed true to its original ambitions.
BATS constantly seeks to build a new young audience for theatre by presenting diverse, relevant and challenging theatre. BATS focuses on being accessible for both its audience and incoming theatre companies, giving support to developing arts practitioners and new New Zealand work.