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$$ IMG_0877 (Before the strengthening)

BATS and the Buf­falo Hall in 1989

$$ 1989007 (Simon Bennett)

Simon Ben­nett in the BATS bar











‘The black box’. A small, dark room tucked away at the back of a build­ing that housed a strange group known as the Roy­al Antedi­lu­vi­an Order of Buf­fa­loes. Its walls were chalky black and always smelt like they’d been freshly painted but were still cracked and peel­ing. The operator’s booth was so small it boarded on being a war crime. The seats were secured by the most tenu­ous of meas­ures and sit­ting down too hard would cause the entire row to rock.

Blue Sky Boys by Ken Duncum. BATS Theatre, Wellington 1990

Blue Sky Boys by Ken Duncum. BATS Theatre, Wel­ling­ton 1990

Back­stage was no bet­ter. The car­pet was thread­bare, bulbs were on their last legs, props from old shows cluttered the entrances and exits. On any giv­en pro­duc­tion you were likely to encounter a giant penis or the severed rear end of a horse lurk­ing backstage.

It was mad­ness. Won­der­ful, unadul­ter­ated mad­ness. And it shaped the lives and careers of so many New Zea­l­and per­formers, writers, dir­ect­ors and pro­du­cers. Yes, it was a black box where no light could find pur­chase, but BATS was an incub­at­or of talent.

Anthony McCarten, one of the co-authors of the Kiwi play Ladies’ Night, was one of these bods. Nowadays he’s play­ing on a much big­ger stage: his screen­play about the life of Steph­en Hawk­ing, The The­ory of Everything, is soon to hit the big screen.

Yes, I remem­ber it well; that some­what haunted little theatre beneath a spooky free­ma­sons’ tab­er­nacle where a cobbled-togeth­er man­age­ment of volun­teers (bar one salar­ied man­ager) would, for a slice of the box office, open their doors to your the­at­ric­al ideas, no mat­ter how whacky or whim­sic­al. It was Wellington’s Off-Off-Off Broad­way and, giv­en that Wel­ling­ton is very Off-Off-Off-Off New York, then we need to employ a great many Offs here to accur­ately describe its place in the world scene. But it was avail­able. You could not take that away from it. It had a stage, seats, lights, a fire exit and a bar — and what more really does any thespi­an require?”


$$ 12th NIGHT011 (John Leigh, Cameron Rhodes, David Geary)

john Leigh, Camer­on Rhodes and Dav­id Geary in Twelfth Night (1989)

$$ Conquest047 (Robyn Malcolm)

pub­li­city photo for Con­quest of the South Pole (1990) star­ring Robyn Malcolm

$$ BSB041 (Emily Perkins)

Emily Per­kins in Blue Sky Boys (1989)













BATS was raw, dirty and often strangely access­ible in its inac­cess­ib­il­ity. Cal Wilson, Kiwi comedi­an extraordin­aire who has gone on to star on such shows as QI with Steph­en Fry, has fond memor­ies of BATS.

I remem­ber a Toby Man­hire play in which Duncan Sarkies recor­ded him­self hav­ing half a con­ver­sa­tion,” recounts Wilson, “then played the tape back onto a TV onstage, and had the oth­er half of the con­ver­sa­tion with him­self. I can’t remem­ber how it ended, only that his recor­ded self humi­li­ated his live self, and that it blew my mind.”

That same Duncan Sarkies has gone on to become a respec­ted and lauded writer of stage, screen and lit­er­at­ure — just one of the many tal­en­ted folks who got a kick­start onstage at BATS. The theatre also staged many of his first plays. Toa Fraser’s play No. 2 (per­formed by the sen­sa­tion­al Madeline Sami) went on to become the film that star­ted his impress­ive career as a film director.

Steven Sin­clair, film­maker and cred­ited screen­writer on some less­er-known art­house films called Lord of the Rings, also has fond memories.

My first pro­duc­tion at BATS Theatre was in 1989. The Sex Fiend, co-writ­ten with Danny Mul­her­on, who also starred, and dir­ec­ted by Duncan Smith, is a sev­en-door farce and satire on polit­ic­al pos­tur­ing. The show sold out and trans­ferred to the Opera House for three nights. Listen­er review­er Denis Welch wrote he almost fell out of his seat he laughed so much, and called it the fun­ni­est New Zea­l­and com­edy he had ever seen. Ah, such heady times!”

In fact, when you start to look at some of the names that began the early years of their career on this stage, it becomes fright­en­ingly extens­ive. Kerry Fox and Robyn Mal­colm star­ted here before tak­ing their tal­ent to the world.

The Humourbeasts, fea­tur­ing Taika Wai­titi and Jemaine Clem­ent, stalked this stage — an insane show brim­ming with invent­ive ideas and humour. You stumbled out onto the street after­wards with the feel­ing you had just been assaul­ted by a geni­us armed with a brick.

$$ JISM001 (Kerry Fox and Emma Robinson)

Kerry Fox and Emma Robin­son in Jism (1989)

I remem­ber sit­ting at the BATS bar with five oth­ers when two guys came in with gui­tars, sat down at the barstools and star­ted play­ing. It was almost like sit­ting in someone’s lounge while they strummed away at a party. I think they were called Flight of the Conchords from memory. I won­der if they’re still around? They were pretty good.

With the highs also came the lows. Once at BATS I was one of two people in the audi­ence. The oth­er audi­ence mem­ber left and then the six people on stage star­ted arguing wheth­er they should con­tin­ue per­form­ing to one per­son. The ensu­ing shout­ing match was bet­ter than any­thing from their script. This was the pure joy of BATS: it was a place that served up pro­duc­tions without dis­crim­in­a­tion. Tri­umph and tragedy. With most theatres a flop could mean cer­tain death, but at BATS it didn’t mat­ter — the audi­ence still returned, hungry for more.

Pip Hall, daugh­ter of play­wright Roger Hall and an out­stand­ing play­wright in her own right, sums BATS up: “I love the vibe, the inclus­ive nature of the place. That any­thing and everything was pos­sible. So many dif­fer­ent shows and prac­ti­tion­ers. It was so vibrant and alive. It seemed to hum 24 hours a day. A place for risk-tak­ing — for suc­cess and fail­ure and the import­ance of both. Hanging at the bar, talk­ing theatre and life and shit to all hours. It’s more than a theatre, it’s a community.”

BATS is more than just a theatre — it’s a cul­ture. It all came about, not by design, but by a strange but­ter­fly effect that began, as these things so often do, with young, bright-eyed ideal­ists. Rather than being named after a noc­turn­al creature that haunts the night (which seems so fit­ting), BATS star­ted its life as B.A.T.S., which stands for Bane and Aus­tin Tour­ing Soci­ety — named for Rod­ney Bane and Dav­id Aus­tin, the god­fath­ers of BATS if you will. So how did it all start? Was it around a smoky table littered with glasses of wine and playbills?

It prob­ably was,” chuckles Bane. “Both of us smoked in those days, and drank wine. We decided to form our own com­pany to pro­duce plays that we wanted to do and to be in, and not be restric­ted by com­mit­tees, or the nar­row cast­ing choices that pre­vailed, espe­cially around a young brown chap from the UK like myself!”

In 1979, the first year of BATS at Kent Ter­race, they staged 11 plays, some­times hav­ing two plays in rehears­al at the same time as one on the boards. In those days, the ‘T’ in BATS stood for touring.

Dav­id and I did tour those first shows — up as far as Otaki!” Bane explains. “We even earned a ban notice from the loc­al vicar who didn’t appre­ci­ate the con­tent — one play was about an alco­hol­ic, the oth­er about a can­ni­bal­ist­ic gay! The T for Tour­ing even­tu­ally got changed — not so you’d notice — to T for Theatre.”

In 1989, the reins of BATS would even­tu­ally be taken over by anoth­er couple of young men frus­trated at the theatre estab­lish­ment. Simon Ben­nett and Simon Elson had col­lab­or­ated on an acclaimed Sum­mer Shakespeare pro­duc­tion of King Lear in 1988 and were determ­ined to find a ven­ue where young theatre-makers such as them­selves could get their pro­fes­sion­al start. They pro­posed to take over the lease of the ven­ue and run it as a theatre by — and for — young people, a mani­festo the theatre still maintains.

Ben­nett has gone on to be an estab­lished — and bloody good — dir­ect­or of film, TV and cinema. “I knew BATS theatre as a ven­ue for many years,” he explains. “I was actu­ally in a play when I was ten years old when it was the ven­ue for Unity Theatre. My fath­er was dir­ect­ing and I walked in and played the viol­in on stage in the first scene. Then I used to sleep for the rest of the even­ing in the props room under the stairs.”

&& Seascape with Shark and Dancer (Tina Regtien & Cliff Curtis) copy

Tina Reg­tien and Cliff Curtis in a pub­li­city photo for Sea­scape With Sharks and Dan­cer (1990)

But what spurred the two Simons to take on such a burden?

It came from a shared idea about what theatre ought to be and an inab­il­ity to get the kind of work we wanted to see hap­pen­ing,” accord­ing to Ben­nett. “Simon Elson and I spent a lot of time talk­ing and drink­ing and plan­ning and brain­storm­ing and doing the whole ‘what if’ kind of thing. Then I got the oppor­tun­ity between my first and second year at drama school to dir­ect the Sum­mer Shakespeare at Vic­tor­ia Uni­ver­sity. Simon Elson was light­ing designer/sound design­er oper­at­or. We had wrecked cars in the quad with micro­phones hid­den in them so you could bash the cars up and the sound would rever­ber­ate Pink Floyd-like around the quad­ra­phon­ic sound sys­tem. Simon made chan­deliers out of smashed bottles hanging from bicycle wheels. It was a full-on tech­nic­al show and it was heaps of fun. And we decided we wanted to do more of this kind of thing.”

Dav­id Geary, the play­wright respons­ible for works as diverse as Goth­ic But Staunch and Pack of Girls, sums up BATS in his own unique, won­der­ful, poet­ic style…

BATS — You were my crazy 80’s Gothy girlfriend.

Basic black, Doc Martens, chain-smoking Drum rol­lies, and chug­ging down Macs Ale till you spewed out the Fire Exit to the applause of the fire­men next door. Scoff­ing down fish ’n’ chips and L&P in a pre-beef­cake cal­en­dar world. You became my drama school. Lit­er­ally, after the NZ Drama School in Vivi­an Street went up in smoke when their mas­sage par­lour neigh­bours had a ‘sus­pi­cious’ fire.”

Some­times stars can burn a little too bright and BATS future almost went up in flames, lit­er­ally, in 1990. A fire left the walls charred and thou­sands of dol­lars worth of props and equip­ment went up in smoke. A vari­ety con­cert at the St James Theatre helped raise funds to give BATS back its wings. True to form, the con­cert rejoiced in the sub­vers­ive name Got a Light.

Wel­ling­ton busi­nesses came to the res­cue too, donat­ing labour and mater­i­als for the rebuild­ing pro­ject. Even ‘rival’ theatres Circa and the Depot came to the party and held bene­fit shows at Down­stage Theatre.

It’s also prudent to acknow­ledge the involve­ment of Dav­id Suisted. He’s an account­ant, not a showy artist like the rest of these char­ac­ters, but without his intel­li­gence, for­ward-think­ing and street smarts, BATS theatre would not be around today. The same is true of the many, many people who have gone unmen­tioned in this piece, but to name them all would take up the entire magazine.

BATS is an endur­ing force. This was proven, once again, when faced with clos­ure as the age­ing Buf­fa­loes faced the thin­ning of their herd and decided to put the build­ing up for sale in 2011. Prop­erty developers began circ­ling like money-hungry sharks keen to, no doubt, level the build­ing and put up anoth­er Gold Coast-style monstrosity.

To the res­cue came Vic­tor­ia Spack­man, cur­rent CEO of Gib­son Group and chair of the BATS board, who, as irony would have it, once appeared at age 14 as Goldilocks in one of Bane and Austin’s pan­to­mime pro­duc­tions. She, with the back­ing of the BATS board, con­tac­ted Sir Peter Jack­son and asked if he would help. He looked at the deal and, like Goldilocks, decided it was just right. Many of Jack­son and his part­ner Fran Walsh’s friends and con­tem­por­ar­ies star­ted at BATS and I’m sure, back in the day, he and Walsh have enjoyed more than a few even­ings in the audi­ence at the black box.

The future of BATS is secure. Thank you Peter and Fran. Thank you Rod­ney and Dav­id. Thank you Simon and Simon. BATS owes its life and con­tin­ued exist­ence to the dream­ers and the outsiders.

&& Taika copy

Taika Cohen (aka Wai­titi) in the BATS foy­er approx 2002

&& LSTNT1 (Tim Balme) copy

Tim Balme in Let’s Spend the Night Togeth­er by Anthony McCarten (1993)












I think it’s only fit­ting that we leave the last words to the people who helped shape BATS and whom, in return, it shaped.

My endur­ing hope is that BATS will stay true to its roots and mis­sion,” con­cludes Simon Ben­nett. “To be the unpre­ten­tious little risk-tak­ing theatre that focuses on new work, and stays access­ible to audi­ences and prac­ti­tion­ers alike. As long as it man­ages to do this, I fully expect BATS to still be going strong in anoth­er 25 years!”

It’s a huge part of the Wel­ling­ton theatre scene,” says Rod­ney Bane. “Some­thing Dav­id and I are proud of. We still seem to have that kind of ‘wow’ asso­ci­ated with our names as the founders of such an icon­ic ‘brand’.”

My deep­est grat­it­ude lies in the many happy nights I simply came to the place and for a pit­tance watched oth­er people’s won­der­ful work,” remin­isces Anthony McCarten. “Cab­aret, satire, farce, fash­ion, laughter and tears flooded that little square stage, and while not the vasty fields of France that Shakespeare summoned, it was ours, all ours, and was all the bet­ter for it.”

In a won­der­ful piece of cyc­lic storytelling, one of the old guard, Steph­en Sin­clair, is actu­ally return­ing to the fold. “I’m cur­rently talk­ing to BATS at the moment about put­ting on a sea­son of my latest play,” he explains. “So, this is a rela­tion­ship span­ning 25 years. So far. BATS is one of those resources that empowers the artist. If the estab­lished theatres don’t want to know you, screw ’em! With the help of BATS you can take your des­tiny in your own hands. Viva la BATS!”

The final words, how­ever, go to Dav­id Geary. His response to my ques­tions was pure poetry, show­ing off in a way that only a writer can…

I loved you, BATS baby. You were my sanc­tu­ary, my school, a petri dish, a place to find my tribe, a home. I hope you find more lov­ers, and remain a muse to us all.”

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