The Fest Test: Dom Rd is Bending

At the Balmoral Bowling Club with Auckland Theatre Company
Pavarotti's arrival: Adam Gardiner and Laurel Devenie
The bouncers go all strange at Pav on Dom
Guided along Dominion Road Stories
One of many unusual guides in Eat Walk Talk
Ninjas down an alleyway in Eat Walk Talk
Street dancing Asian Dominion Road styles
Auckland Theatre Company is now based on Dominion Road and for two years they've been making friends in their new hood.

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The latest Auckland Arts Festival blog from Mark Amery

Saturday morning and I head west, first stop UNITEC in Point Chevalier to present on the public art programme I co-direct, Letting Space, at the morning session of a symposium associated with the Rosebank Road project.

This project is about art as an agent of change with communities and businesses.

Aucklanders can look forward to a public art series next weekend which takes them across the isthmus that Rosebank Road traverses, to see temporary artworks that work with locals to look back at the area's rich history and work towards the area's future health. The programme is exciting in the way art has been embedded in location.

It's a beautiful thing then, as someone engaged with both the visual and performing arts, to find myself moving from a visual arts based  programme out west to one just up the road that looks to achieve some similar objectives, yet whose producers are the theatrical establishment. These worlds are so institutionally disconnected (and for no good reason have different audiences) yet suddenly they've never been closer.

Auckland Theatre Company is now based on Dominion Road and for two years they've been making friends in their new hood. With their festival programme they've had the guts and vision to step outside the black box and use theatre to engage with their local community, and us with it. They are building important bridges. It was heartening to see their staff at all levels out amongst it in their blue production t-shirts guiding us through the experience.

As Rosebank Road provides an art walk through an industrial area this coming weekend, Dominion Road Stories this weekend required you to walk a short patch of the Dom, with the odd theatrical intervention on your way between a diverse programme of performances. I hope they do it again - a weekend was not long enough.

First show up is Bowled Over at the Balmoral Bowling Club. Ah the bowling club: that Pakeha bastion of suburban community relaxation and lifestyle. All over the country, student radio and other hip groups have been recognizing for a while their great social facilities and the nostalgic 50s chic of the game. Now theatre is finally in on it. There's a few games on when we arrive at the Balmoral club.

This is a delightful marriage of community groups  and professional theatre company. The cast under Ben Crowder's energetic direction are ATC's senior citizens performance group Marvellous, and they aint half bad. Mixed in there somewhere are members of the club itself. When I arrive the ticket taker announces to me that she ate one of the props (chocolate). Rule number one taught at drama school: don't eat the props.

The professional/community relationship here is no drop-in number. ATC have moved in just down the road and the club has become a rehearsal and party venue for them. The main plot line of the bowling club - facing closure due to by-laws, a membership drop and council backhanders - would seem a little trite if it wasn't so close to the truth. I recently attended a fish and chip and bowl evening at the Mornington Bowling Club Wellington where the land is owned by the council and faces return to them if the club can't expand their membership.

This however is farce, written well with lots of crackling jokes by Kathyrn Burnett. There's also a natural tension here: you watch hoping none of the elderly cast get injured or suffer a heart attack. They play to this gleefully. At various points a  mobility scooter goes whizzing out the door and off down the club deck. You really do worry for the driver's safety.  This aside, it's all rather charming.

After a great cheap lunch of hot and spicy noodles on the Dom we queue up for Pav on Dom at the APO rehearsal rooms. Inspired by the real life event when Pavarotti came to rehearse, the cast have devised a revelry that doesn't outstay it's welcome. The show begins, hilariously, on the pavement with the actors taking roles as we await Pavarotti's arrival, and then watch his disappearance. Laurel Devenie and Adam Gardiner anchor it all beautifully and we all get to sing, drink champers and sing. Like Bowled Over it doesn't pretend to be deep, but touches nicely off the venue's history.

So far the programme hasn't strayed far from ATC's white middle class heartland, so I'm impressed by the inclusion of the excellent Walk Eat Talk, a guided tour of Dominion Road's Chinese and other Asian hangouts. Like En Route we don headsets and MP3 players but here are guided by performers along the way, first visiting the fascinating restaurants along the road, hearing the owners stories and coming to understand the distinctions. Beautifully researched and presented, this is a show for a Pakeha audience, revealing the richness of what's under our noses. It will likely to lead to many returning to savour more dumplings. Highlights include youth dance routines down a back alley, fortune cookies from a hole in the wall, and a visit to a two-storied Mah Jong parlour, where a family introduce us to the culture of the game. We finish with a beautiful short meal together and getting to stick our heads in the mouth of a dragon.

The show could develop further in it's narrative cohesion and the depth in which it explores the experience with us, and yet it remains one of the standout hours of my week in Auckland, opening my eyes and mouth that much wider.

I just have time to pop over the road to Potters Park for the opening dance performances of family picnic Come Dancing, before heading into town for the premiere of play Hui. As a jazz orchestra swing, compere Mark Hadlow physically points out the dance halls that made this area of Auckland once dance central. The number of heads nodding in recognition is itself moving, and then when, after dancing, Candi Lane talks of growing up in Balmoral (where she still lives) and what it gave her there's a genuinely effecting moment of connection. A sense of recognition of home and place on a bigger stage for the crowd.

As I walk back up Dominion Road I pass a crowd of elderly men in tuxedos with their wives in ball gowns on their arms. The past and present have come together and are dancing.

Visual arts columnist Mark Amery returns to his roots and relives his youth as an 'arts festival junkie' to bring us blogs from Auckland Arts Festival.

"There will, I hope, be no regurgitated media pap from me. Rather a roving diary of shows and exhibitions across the city, with more than a few personal asides thrown in."

Written by

Mark Amery

16 Mar 2013

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.

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