Rising From The Rubble.
Christchurch’s historic Isaac Theatre Royal re-opened in mid November after being dark for almost four years. Four earthquakes above 6 on the Richter scale forced the theatre trust, which owns the theatre, into an almost complete re-build. But theatre manager Neil Cox explained to David Spicer that the new Royal will be even more glorious than the old, built in 1908.
We came through the first earthquake in September 2010 pretty well. There was some superficial damage but we were out of action for only a month.
Then came the significant aftershocks. One on Boxing Day 2010, then February 2011 was a whole different story. It shook the whole city. The major damage that happened then was that the new part of the theatre rebuilt in 2005 (which was the backstage) separated from the old part of the building (at the front).
An analogy is if you built an extension on your house, the weakest part is the join between the old and the new. So the two buildings moved independently. A lot of brickwork around the proscenium arch collapsed into the building.
Of course there was calamity all over the city and the theatre was in the locked down zone for many months.
The building was saved from collapsing entirely by strengthening we did in 1999 when we put a ‘skeleton’ inside. This secured 100-year-old parts made of masonry, and plaster work constructed out of horse hair, limestone and vegetable fibres.
Did you consider gluing the old and new part of the theatre together?
We did, but there were two more significant quakes in June 2011 and finally 23rd December 2011, the last working day before Christmas. That was a game changer as it came from a different direction. It put pressure on two side walls of the auditorium. The trusses that were supporting our famous dome and ceiling work were suddenly under threat. Certain parts of the building became unsafe to go into.
That was the end of the line for the old theatre. It was pointless trying to save it or repair it. We did a big salvage operation in the first part of 2012 and emergency work to pin the facade to the building.
Deconstruction was a huge engineering process. The most valuable part of the heritage of the theatre was the ceiling which has an original 1908 hand painted canvass on a 12 metre dome. There are scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream hand painted on canvas and sheets glued onto the dome. When you walk it the theatre it is awe inspiring. To have lost that was not an option. There are gold gildings all around it and is the most the most significant piece of art of that size in Australasia. It was quite a spectacle to bring it down safely then wrap it in plastic and store it in the fly tower.
We also decided to salvage the sweeping marble staircase, doors, lead light windows and the façade whilst we re-created a lot of the plasterwork.
A big crane came and ate the theatre away. The auditorium was deconstructed first. It was sawn down vertically. We propped up the facade with shipping containers. It left a huge gap between the stage and the front of the building.
We had to excavate under the façade to shore up the foundations to meet stringent new earthquake building codes.
The team who worked on it say it was one of the most challenging projects they have ever worked on to knit the old and new fabric.
All up it cost $40 million New Zealand. We were insured for 25, raised another 13 and borrowed two million.
There are also a lot of enhancements. We now have an elevator, a hydraulic stage extension for symphony orchestras, a whole new rehearsal or performance space and a new foyer for the Grand Circle. Where before we had quite a pokey foyer, now the movement of people is so much improved.
We started taking bookings a year back and now have six weeks of ballet, school, symphony and local productions commencing from mid-November to test the new facilities.
We also sold 2000 tickets for next year’s season of The Phantom of the Opera just a few days after they were released.
Next year is the busiest period we have ever had and we are struggling to find three or four consecutive days for producers.
We now also have bookings until 2020 and as we have made it cinema capable this includes New Zealand international Film Festival every August.
We still need to continue fundraising to minimise the loan but we are much better off than a lot of council buildings, which were under insured.
So how safe is the theatre now if the big one comes again?
It is now 100 % earthquake proof. Seven and above is no problem. There is so much steel and concrete wedding each floor to each other. In fact the engineers say if there is another earthquake in Christchurch the Isaac Theatre is the place they would want to be.
Originally published in the November / December 2014 edition of Stage Whispers.