On February 22nd 2011 an earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand. It destroyed many buildings, rendered many more unsafe. 185 people lost their lives. The Government declared a state of emergency.
Now it’s May 2014.
I’m here as the guy who introduced two bad-boys of theatre to each other. Philip Aldridge and Joe Graves. Their contact has resulted in two Chinese/New Zealand collaborations.
Some of the centre of Christchurch looks like a recent combat zone. Big metal shipping containers are stacked three or four high and three or four wide, and used to buttress surviving walls.
Turn a corner and a whole block has been razed where sometimes the residual gravel has been neatly raked, or maybe grass grows wild. There are plastic traffic cones everywhere, half the roads are temporarily one-way. Traffic is slow.
Among many buildings cordoned off is the old Arts Centre which housed The Court Theatre. No one is allowed in. The engineers say it’s unsafe. Inside the set for the play that was on when the quake struck, still stands. All office equipment, all lighting, all technical equipment, files, desks, books, pens and pencils are just as they were. All untouched for 3 years and 3 months.
After the earthquake the Court Theatre was at risk of closing its doors forever. I’m proud to tell you that my friend and sometime fellow actor Philip Aldridge steered a transformation. These days he is Chief Executive at The Court. He found a premises in a suburb close enough to the centre. It was an old grain shed. He persuaded Dame Maggie Smith to lend her name and support to the fundraising effort and The Court re-opened in The Shed, its temporary home in mid December of the same year in which the quake hit.
Here’s the new box office. Shows what you can do with a bit of paint and a shipping container.
The interior of The Shed now houses a large workshop for set construction, a wardrobe, a green room, a large rehearsal room, a 350 seat auditorium, a foyer with a second informal performance space. Those ubiquitous shipping containers with bright paint now supply the coffee bar, the bar, the loos, and behind the scenes, there’s a gaggle of containers for offices.
In its new home the theatre is doing what theatre does. It supports the micro-economy locally when patrons buy coffees or drinks in the high street. It circulates cash in the incidental spend that comes with theatre-going—childcare, gas (petrol as they call it in N.Z.), dinner, and so forth.
I’ve written about Joe Graves at length in my book, An Actor Walks into China, so it seems right to tell a story about Philip Aldridge.
We were on a mildly unglamorous tour of Toad of Toad Hall up and down the U.K. One week we pitched up in Liverpool. By a theatrical mishap we were booked to play a 10 a.m. show in The Liverpool Empire. The Liverpool Empire seats 2,500. It was a Saturday morning. There were 108 (including kids and parents) in the massive auditorium. They were a tough group.
Philip, a splendid Toad, entered and gave it his usual bright optimism, “Hello Badger!” he enthused. Then he began a sotto voce monologue, “Lookatthat. Go-ontakealook. Goodisn’t it? Whaddyathinkofthat?”
From the other side of the vast stage I saw there was something on his lapel, so I crossed over to take a look. “SeewhatImean? Howaboutthat? Notexpectingthatwereyou?” whispered Toad, unheard by the audience who were about a quarter mile away, but perfectly audible to me.
Imagine my surprise when I perceived a three-dimensional representation of two toads engaged in the physical act of love.
It gets better.
The tableau of the two small toads on the lapel was connected to a squeeze bulb, and every time Philip, the big toad, manipulated it, there was action.
I don’t remember laughing as much on or off any stage before or since. Laughing uncontrollably in the middle of a show is not (technically) something you’re supposed to do. It was however, the moment I knew we’d be friends for life.
My point is, a man who can turn a badly hungover rainy Saturday morning in an outsize theatre in one of England’s biggest industrial ports into an incident that still makes me laugh 25 years later, well that’s the sort of bloke you want when you’ve got to fix up a temporary theatre in a stricken city at the other end of the world, paint some shipping containers bright red, and then go on to sell more than a quarter of a million tickets in two years.
I’m now playing Peter Quince in the second Chinese/New Zealand theatrical collaboration. This is ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ with 7 Chinese actors (working in English, Shakespearean English).
The rest of the cast are Kiwi/Aussie with an American director (Joe Graves) putting together a 16th century British classic, set in Athens, Greece.