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The Court Theatre rises from the rubble

Eleanor Cater, FINZ

FINZ NewzViewz, Issue 101

The Court Theatre (affectionately known as 'The Court') is NZ's largest and oldest professional theatre company, founded in 1971. It had been housed in the heart of Christchurch's Arts Centre since 1976.

After the earthquake in September 2010, The Court Theatre resumed performances as quickly as possible and remained committed to its home in the Arts Centre. However, the more destructive quake of 22 February 2011 caused major damage to the Arts Centre and The Court had no option but to relocate. It had to leave its home of thirty-five years.

The Court was suddenly, and brutally, without a home. Their subsequent fundraising success, says Chief Executive Philip Aldridge, came largely because they were "first out of the blocks" in terms of launching a fundraising campaign. "It was a year of unmitigated bad news and we had a good news story to tell, which kept us at the forefront of people's thoughts. Our fundraising campaign was driven by a great story; we found that people wanted to be associated with something that was such a positive step for Christchurch."

So what was their success story? They built a new theatre in an old building in 17 weeks and opened before 2011 had come to an end. In 10 months they had raised a staggering $5.2 million.

Extraordinarily it was this very theatre that was the first facility to be rebuilt in a devastated city. Philip laughs, "Well, disaster. After World War II, in Warsaw, Poland, the first thing to be rebuilt as a theatre the Teatr Polski. It was said at the time this was because the Polish love to perform, to sing and laugh together, even though many people wondered why this would be the first priority when their city was on the ground. The same went for Christchurch. I suppose there is something primeval about coming together to laugh and hear stories. It didn't seem to matter either that it was in a grungy old shed!"

So how did they do it, $5.2m in 10 months? "In the main it was through substantial donations (including a major one from the Prim Minister's Fund, which was established after the erthquake). Creative New Zealand, the Arts Council, changed its constitution to allow a capital donation to be made and there were other major donations from Pub Charity and the Canterbury Community Trust. There were also a myriad of people helping us with lots of smaller donations, there was a huge range of donors really," said Philip.

The donations came predominantly from within Canterbury, including through a very successful initiative called 'Host', where people hosted their friends and contacts for a social event and sent all proceeds to The Court. "Administratively this was very successful as other people did all the work and sent the money to us. It was also a success in that it connected us with over 2,000 people. We tried to get to every event to speak and thank the people that were supporting us," said Philip.

One universal lesson Philip says the whole experience brought home was the power of saying thank you. "The first people we showed the new facility to were the supporter's group and a wonderful man pushed an envelope into my hand. He said, "That's for you, you wrote to me." I replied "Oh, you must have given us a donation, thank you" and hes sad "Yes, but you wrote to me, in your writing!" His brother also gave me an envelope. I opened the envelopes later and they both contained a cheque for ten thousand dollars each." Philip later checked who these supporters were and found that they had previously bought a ticket to a show and topped it up with a few dollars. "It was extraordinary; we received an extra twenty thousand dollars just by saying thank you!"

Philip doesn't doubt that they were lucky in a sense that a culture of giving was so predominant at the time, but he also says that planning was key. "We had a plan, we had a vision, we had something tangible. We had a fantastic and a terrible story of a city down on its knees and we recognised really early on that it was all about the story (and we are good at telling stories), so what other people might call a PR campaign came relatively easy to us."

The Court turns over $6 million per year. $1 million of that comes from Creative New Zealand and the rest from sponsorships, grants, and ticket sales. They have established a Foundation to focus on Fundraising for the future, including attracting major gifts and bequests.

Philip sees The Court's position as being quite different from those of other arts-based organisations. "As well as a wide range of plays and musicals we run a large education programme and have a troupe of improvisers. We cover a huge range of genre, which is an entirely different dynamic, say, to a ballet company. We can be populist alongside producing classical work, we can do new work along with children's theatre." But, he says, this broad range can be a double-edged sword. "It means we have a very wide-ranging base of support but equally we don't receive the high-end of philanthropic support that classical music, ballet, or opera might attract."

Philip, however, sees this diversity as an opportunity too. "Because we have so many different products we have the opportunity to sell a range of different things to different audiences, and sponsors. We have to look broadly at our fundraising strategy because of these widely varying supporters."

Philip Aldridge, Chief Executive of The Court Theatre, is an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to theatre and is the Canterbury Chairman of BNZ. Philip has acted in over 50 productions in the United Kingdom and has appeared in numerous performances at The Court Theatre. His television credits are many and include appearances on The Bill, Boon, Silent Witness, Emmerdale, Eastenders, the comedy revue KYTV, and a remake of The Blood Donor.

The Court Theatre rises from the rubble



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