Grand Opening

Grand Opening

6-8 March 2020 / 
Toitoi, Hastings / 
By Bridie Freeman

This collaboration between Barbarian Productions and local Hawke’s Bay creatives is the funnest way to get a handle on newly opened Toitoi, Hawke’s Bay’s Arts and Event Centre. An interactive tour, we discover, through the unexpected. Not least our splendid host Jamie as we’ve never seen him before, in elegant turquoise drag, spiffy purple hair.

Today the entrance to the Opera House is officiously closed off (for health & safety) but luckily head usher Eileen quizzes us – wink wink – on workmen’s lunches, hustles us into high-viz vests and hard hats, and whisks us past the red tape. Only to thrust us in the path of a legendary, ghostly Red Lady. “Don’t look her in the eye,” we’re warned as she rushes us screaming at the top of her lungs. Doors slam, just.  

Instead, we’re shown commissioned art works on foyer walls. Watch an artist “alive and happening right now” sketch with real pencils and paint.

We “make like a waka”, flow on through the expansive new, greywacke Heretaunga Function space, over the old stream bed of the Mākirikiri. Discard safety to make ‘glimpses of home’. We learn how to fold paper into tiny houses, which we place on the floor at Ātea-a-Rangi – a canopy of blue string ringed by river stones – a growing installation: wishes for home, this home of art. Unwittingly we have shifted from consumers to creators.

In the ticketing office poor Thomas Scott is sweeping the floor, ticket stubs and sweetie wrappers. He leans on his broom to tell us his story but the usher ushes us through – no time to listen, sorry Thomas – and out into the street, around to the unsung backend of the building. Where Ali from the Alley is singing opera so it’s not as unsung as all that. She teaches us the basics of operatic gesture – “you hold your dead rat and you fling your rat from you” – and how to throw flowers at a diva.

At the HBOH Scene Dock Access there’s a lot of smoke, panicked firemen emerge with hoses, load us up with objects: paper parasols, brass goblets, bells. Vampires wail from a window. We form a single file, we’re a well-managed crowd but simultaneously co-conspirators as we squeeze between the scaffolding and in through a back door with our hands full of rescued props. There’s a band in Rūma Rima, hullabaloo in the hall, a major general reciting lines in Dressing Room 3. Duke Maddox of Hastings, ‘The Fighting Person’, challenges one of us with his gloved fist; Ian nimble in defence with a giant jandal.

It’s quiet, still in the dark scene access. Old black and white photos projected on high brick walls and pictures of posters “that – fun fact – sadly burnt in a fire”. We could have lingered in the archives but time is pressing and they’re awaiting us in the wings. Make up, wigs, costume, a charismatic actress who directs. And before we know it, rouged, bewigged, bejewelled, the curtains have opened and we are singing what we had for breakfast into the dazzling lights. “The audience loves you. Leave them wanting more, never less. Take with you your talents, leave our belongings.” Such sage advice. The ghost of William Shakespeare regales us from the gods.

From the front seats the story of the Mākirikiri, this place, our water, plays out in the orchestra pit, as shimmering light, the wending and winding back in of string. A moment of stillness before the curtains raise on the next ‘performers’; red light floods plush opera boxes. We have earnt the role of audience, give in return applause as newly minted arts aficionados.

Head usher Eileen explains the ways she’s been working on her customer service. We give feedback, rate her in the foyer, debrief over a generous glass (insulated, reusable plastic) of red. It’s been a laugh, a blast, a fabulous experience. And we’re all the wiser for it.

Grand Opening theatrical tours of Toitoi are running this weekend 7 & 8 March. You can book here.

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