Tauranga’s About to Blow its Own Trumpet
Tauranga’s About to Blow its Own Trumpet
New Manager at Baycourt Theatre
by Jenny Barrett.
‘Ten dollar’ Tauranga is leaving behind its dubious reputation for stinginess, swathes of retirees, and its designation as a cultural wasteland following a 60% vote against a museum. A fresh face has landed at Tauranga’s Baycourt Community and Art Centre, and he’s got plans.
New Baycourt Manager James Wilson is a familiar name to many in the arts due to his role in the rise of Q Theatre, firstly as Producer and later as CEO. Now Q Theatre is seven years old and firmly established at the heart of Auckland’s creative scene, James felt it was time for a break. “I needed a breather, so I took two or three months off and edited my LinkedIn page to read ‘Independent Arts Consultant’, but it was not to be!”
His plans were scuppered when unexpectedly the Manager’s position at Baycourt came up, “I had worked closely with Megan Peacock Coyle, the then Manager, when we co-chaired the Performing Arts Network of New Zealand (PANNZ) so I was familiar with the venue.”
He set about researching the role. “I hadn’t realised that Tauranga had such extensive creative networks. With the huge population growth, younger and more diverse people moving into the area, I think Tauranga is at a tipping point. It is an exciting time and arts and culture are starting to be valued very highly.”
That wasn’t all that attracted James. At a time where Councils are often under fire, James has a refreshing view of Tauranga City Council,
“What really impressed me was the commitment to arts and culture by the Council. And I have to admit after running Q Theatre as a charitable trust and spending a lot of time and energy on fund raising, it is quite refreshing to have access to some resources!”
On September 3rd, James took his place amongst a long standing team of committed individuals. “Whatever the venue, ultimately it comes down to how good the staff are, and I am part of an amazing team who really care about what they do.”
The very morning of the interview, James had been celebrating the custodian’s twenty year anniversary, and the ticketing manager’s twenty year anniversary is coming up soon. “When you are on tour it is really important to have a team at the venue who will support you and look after you, and the team at Baycourt are there for every group.”
James has spent the first six weeks in the job getting out and meeting as many people as possible in the community, helped by Creative Bay of Plenty, “They provide a map of all the artists, writers and musicians. I’m trying to understand the networks and see how we can all work together. I have had a lot of cups of coffee!”
The caffeine excesses have been worth it, providing him with ample food for thought, “Baycourt is part of a wider strategy at Council and I have to think what does Council support mean not just for Baycourt but for the arts community? How best can we leverage it?”
James considers himself to be in a fortunate position, “A lot of the hard work has been done for me. I have been very lucky to follow in the footsteps of Megan who has done a great job of lifting the perception of Baycourt and it has become an important stop on the national touring circuit.
“Our programme is packed for the next year so whilst a high level of utilisation is important, I want to focus on growing our audience reach.” And he’s looking to Baycourt’s community work to find his audiences of the future. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Tauranga has the highest number of dance schools in the country and we seem to host them all,” he chuckles.
And there’s more, “We had 200 kids on stage singing as part of the Primary Schools Choir Festival, and then there was the Friends of Baycourt Piano Open Day, where literally anyone can book a fifteen minute spot on our Steinway and play on stage under the spotlights and bring their own audience.”
James laments that he talks to so many people who remember performing here or are still performing, yet don’t come to watch shows themselves, “I see one of my main challenges to be building the connections between the community who come here to sing, dance, act or play an instrument, or to watch their own family and friends performing, and the visiting artists.”
James is looking to the NZ Dance Company for inspiration, “Six months in advance of
a performance they visit the region, go to dance schools and do some really valuable promotion. But not every tour has those kind of resources and I see the team at Baycourt fulfilling that role and brokering on behalf of the tour groups.”
He uses the Atamira Dance Company, a contemporary Maori dance theatre group, as an example of how he wants the venue to work with and on behalf of the artists, “It is their first visit to Tauranga and we know that they won’t sell out this time but we want to support them, get them known and talked about, ready for next time.”
He has seen what the TSB Showplace team in New Plymouth has achieved, “They have taken on some of the risk on behalf of the artists and invested in audience development and resources and it has paid dividends.”
From the outset of James’ career, he has had a passion for connecting emerging artists with audiences, cutting his teeth in New Zealand with the Massive Theatre Company who work with 15 to 25 year olds, creating new theatre with these young actors, directors and writers. He fully intends to continue to grind this axe in Tauranga, relishing events such as the recent Final of the International Youth Silent Film Festival (IYSFF) NZ Nationals, in which young film makers were tasked with making a short silent film to different scores created especially for the festival.
The finalist’s films were screened at Baycourt with sound tracks performed live by the composer Nathan Avakian who flew in from New York to play Baycourt’s 1927 Wurlitzer Theatre Organ.
“We’re also looking at contemporary bands such as the Carnivorous Plant Society who can play the Wurlitzer, and incorporate it into their acts. We want to really showcase this magnificent instrument. I’m sure the Wurlitzer will resonate with those who are in to Steampunk as well. There are so many ways it could be used.”
Alongside trying to connect the local community with touring acts, and particularly with emerging artists, James is leaping into the local debate on whether a larger performing arts space is required in Tauranga,
“A lot of New Zealand work that is touring is ideally suited to our 580 seat venue, but larger international acts require more seating, but not quite the stadium-sized venue out at the ASB Arena.
“There is a gap in Tauranga which other cities are filling: Rotorua with the re-vamped Howard Morrison Centre and Hamilton’s new Waikato Regional Theatre due to open in 2022.”
James has ideas about how to stimulate the interesting conversations to be had, “I see Baycourt as a place where you can explore solutions. Whilst at Q Theatre we brought over Andy Field, a UK artist, who ran workshops over three weeks taking Auckland children to the highest places in town and asking them what they saw and what they could imagine in the city of the future.
“I’d love to initiate something like that and involve young people in the conversation.”
Finally, James strongly believes that Tauranga needs to start blowing its own trumpet, “We need to believe in ourselves. Tauranga has a lot to offer the arts and we need to get the word out.
“I’ve just been to visit the ‘Black Box Experimental Space’ set up at 16th Ave Theatre, a small stage where new writers, musicians or actors can be as creative as they want. That is just one example of so many exciting things that are happening across the city.”
James offers anyone an invite to come and have a look, “Contact me and I’ll organise to show you around and take you back stage and you can see what an asset we have.”
He’s a bit like a kid in a lolly shop, about to pull together an amazing pick and mix selection. Watch out audiences in Tauranga, and New Zealand, for what might soon be coming out of this supposed cultural wasteland.