How ‘Amateurs’ helped raise millions for new venue.

How ‘Amateurs’  helped raise millions for new venue.

A toast to the the Variety Theatre Ashburton New Zealand on its 50th anniversary.

The town of Ashburton, one hour south of Christchurch, has a population of just 26,000.

Yet just a few years ago its members spearheaded a fundraising drive to build a magnificent 500 seat theatre which cost 7.5 million dollars.

Margaret Jackson, a founding member of the theatre company, reports.

The Mid-Canterbury Operatic Society was formed on 11 October 1960 after a meeting convened by the Mayor. And so, the society was born. In 1966 it changed its name to  the Ashburton Operatic Society. The society’s first production in May 1961 was The Boyfriend. Since then, Variety Theatre Ashburton has staged over 75 shows.

The company’s home, the local picture theatre, known locally as The Regent, had many drawbacks. Backstage mayhem with crowded dressing rooms was part of the fun of preparing to go on stage. Various other means were used for extra dressing rooms, like tents, buses and a large truck to house properties. Not so good for our company on cold winter nights! 

All those decades of treading the boards took its toll. The old Regent Theatre was deteriorating fast and it looked like demolition was on the cards. 

In 1993 the Ashburton Operatic Society put in a successful bid to purchase the Regent. It paid $61,000 for the land, and associated equipment. The next step was to form a Theatre Trust, and a group called Friends of the Regent Theatre (FORT) was formed to raise funds for the upgrade. It cost us a further $70,000 to paint, re-roof and sound and heat insulate the building. The money was raised from The Lotteries Board, Liquor Licencing Trust, a local bank and our theatre company.

Sadly, after 13 years of various touring shows and a great variety of local productions, once again the Regent had deteriorated and this time it was beyond any upgrading.

In 2004 an ambitious plan to build a $4.7million town hall and performing arts centre on the site of the Regent Theatre was unveiled. The Ashburton community got stuck in and began to fundraise in any way possible.

The cost of the theatre increased to about $7.5million.

Over the years a huge amount of fundraising was taken on by the Society, but the most ambitious was a project to raise the $100,000 the Society set as their target towards the final figure required. 

Six of our members worked tirelessly and got the whole town involved for what seemed, at the time, an impossible task. 

Project 101 was born. Volunteers helped build two townhouses. They were sold at auction and enabled us to donate not $100,000 but $200,000 to the  Performing Arts Theatre Trust.

They became known as “The Houses The Town Built”.

In 2007 the Ashburton Trust Event Centre opened.

The scope of the new theatre has allowed more diverse entertainment. With the use of a fly tower, much more sophisticated staging is possible and for our 2009 show we were finally able to stage a truly memorable production of Les Miserables.

All the tiered seating in the auditorium provides a perfect view of the stage. We have had many people who have experienced live theatre for the first time and have come back again and again to view local productions and enjoy the diversity of touring companies.

While the Centre is built on land that we gifted for the purpose of building a theatre, Variety Theatre Ashburton does not own the theatre complex. We were one of the many groups who fundraised for many years to contribute towards the building costs, and have to hire it, just like anyone else.

On the weekend of 14 – 16 May, 2010, Variety Theatre Ashburton celebrated 50 years as a musical theatre company. As part of the celebrations we staged a compilation of songs from musicals called Salute to Broadway

Judging from the many standing ovations during the season, the trip down memory lane was well received.

It was a time to celebrate the triumphs and ‘tragedies.’

There have probably been many of these moments that have stayed backstage, but one or two like the one in 1970’s Desert Song can be mentioned.

The leading tenor, while singing with the chorus, lost his top set of teeth which flew out of his mouth and skidded across the stage, stopping near another member who put out his bare foot and gently slid the teeth back to the owner amidst stifled laughter from the orchestra pit.

Another time the orchestra was again in the flying path as a dancer’s shoe flew off and landed among them.

The pianist in a song and dance show was another victim when a large paper scene on the wall slowly fell down and covered her while she was accompanying the singer on stage.

In another show, a male performer lost his skirt in an African number and carried on singing and dancing without so much as a blink.

Possibly the only time the show nearly didn’t go on was our production of Annie Get Your Gun in 1991.  A cracked beam over the stage area of the Regent Theatre was observed  just days before going on stage. After a lot of soul searching an outstanding crew managed to shift the entire production in 48 hours to the Tinwald Memorial Hall. Even with the added stress of sorting out bookings etc, the old adage “the show must go on” was proved there and then with a very successful season.

There are many people who have given volunteer service to the Society over many years and a society like ours couldn’t function without them.  However, three members have been nominated by the society and have received the honour of a Merit Award from Musical Theatre New Zealand. Mona Reddecliffe (1993), Alan McQuarters (1999), and Margaret Jackson (2005).  These members have been involved in every production for the past 50 years.  Mona (now Patron) in administration (30 years on committee) and backstage, Alan in the Orchestra, backstage and, a key figure in the Performing Arts Theatre Trust. Margaret on stage, administration (30 years on committee), director, choreographer and compiler of song and dance shows.

At our 50th anniversary production Salute to Broadway a count was made of the number of families involved on stage, backstage and front of house.  There were something like 26 families, with many having three generations involved.  Surely augurs well for our next 50 years!

Originally published in the November / December 2010 edition of Stage Whispers.


Images (From Top): The Event Centre, The Boyfriend (1961), Life Member Margaret Jackson, Mona Redecliffe (Patron) and Alan McQuarters (Life Member, both founding members of Ashburton Operatic Society) arrive at Salute to Broadway in style. and Salute to Broadway 2010 - 50thJubilee Production.