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By Jarrod• 20 Nov 2014
In 2011, the future of BATS Theatre was uncertain. Their long-standing landlords, The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, were selling up, meaning BATS could have been out on the street.
At the eleventh hour, however, a pair of saviours came to BATS’ rescue. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh bought the building which had been the theatre’s home for more than 20 years. That would seem generous enough - but they’ve now gone several steps further, undertaking an extensive refurbishment of the 1920s structure, the results of which - if you were at all familiar with the old space - are quite literally breathtaking.
BATS has been operating out of a temporary site on Cuba Street for almost two years while 1 Kent Terrace has been getting its art deco-inspired makeover. The old Big Kumara was a little rough around the edges - much like the old BATS, really - but it certainly had its charms, including a much-expanded bar space. One look at the new place, though, will make you forget that Out-of-Site (and the Understudy bar) ever existed.
It’s really as close as you can get to a purpose-built theatre space (or spaces, really - there are three working theatres in there now, with the potential for all to operate simultaneously) within an existing building. It’s been lovingly reappointed throughout - from the box office, through to the dressing rooms, to the toilets. The main theatre is superficially similar to how it was before, albeit with a much improved seating block (and overall much better accessibility), but the changes to the entranceway are seriously impressive. When you walk through BATS’ front door, you’ll step directly into the wide-open space of Lumen, the theatre’s new lobby bar. Taking up the spaces formerly occupied by the Pit Bar, the production offices and the narrow old entrance hallway, Lumen is expansive and welcoming, and I’m very much looking forward to having a drink there.
With such a transformation having taken place, it’s only fitting that things are kicking off with an ambitious new production. WATCH is the STAB commission for 2014, and it’s been devised specifically to make use of BATS’ new spaces. Tackling the subject of ubiquitous surveillance - highly topical in this post-Snowden era - it promises to be something quite extraordinary. It seems appropriate, too, that WATCH is being presented by my accomplice, a theatre company who are veterans of both the old theatre, and of the Out-of-Site space.
The most heartening thing of all, though, is that despite the new look BATS retains its commitment to grassroots theatre. Tickets will remain affordable to audiences, and the use of the theatre will remain affordable to practitioners - and now, with three theatre spaces in the building, there’ll be more opportunities for both audience and practitioners than ever before.
Pretty exciting times for theatre in Wellington, I reckon.