News | 2 September 2022

Stage is set for iconic Hannah Playhouse to re-open

Wellington City Council and the Hannah Playhouse Trust are collaborating to re-open the iconic venue as an affordable theatre space for the development of the professional performing arts sector in the city.

Close up shot of the Hannah Playhouse in Courtenay Place

Through Council’s Aho Tini 2030 Arts, Culture and Creativity Strategy consultation last year, the creative sector made clear its concern about the significant lack of access to specialist development and performance spaces in Wellington.  
 
A key focus area in the strategy is on connecting artists with spaces and improving affordability and accessibility of venues. 
 
Council’s Head of Creative Capital Gisella Carr says the Hannah is the ideal venue to achieve this goal and is brilliantly located in Courtenay Place’s entertainment district. 
 
“It’s a space beautifully designed for intimate performances, and it is beloved by artists and Wellington performance-goers alike. It was a generous gift of Sheilah Winn to the City decades ago, and a gift that still has relevance today. The sector has been concerned about the Hannah being out of commission, so we are excited to bring it back.   
 
“In reopening the Hannah, we’re interested in how a specialist performance space can help artists develop, as well as showcase, great work. Theatre laboratories are a known development tool across the world, and we will be welcoming actors, directors, choreographers, dancers, musicians, composers, literary performers as well as the City’s arts organisations to consider how the Hannah might be of interest to them.”   
 
Chair of the Hannah Playhouse Trust, Murray Lynch, says the Trust is delighted to be in collaboration with the Wellington City Council to reactivate the Hannah.   
 
“As custodians of Sheilah Winn’s original vision, we are fully committed to placing the theatre in the service of the arts sector. As part of the collaboration, the Trust will invest in infrastructure that will allow the Playhouse to return to a flexible space. It starts with upgrading the seating in the first year of the pilot programme.”  
 
Wellington City Council will be taking on the pilot programme for an initial three years, and will contribute $200,000 per annum to the theatre’s operating costs, ensuring the space is an affordable option for creative sector users.   

Archives NZ image by G Simpson from 1978 - view of Hannah Playhouse on Courtenay Place
Hannah Playhouse 1978 Credit Archives New Zealand Photographer G Simpson ref B13789

The Hannah Playhouse Trust will provide technical infrastructure and undertake upgrades to restore flexibility to the performance space over the three-year programme.  
 
The Council and the Trust wish to keep the theatre affordable and those using the Hannah will pay hireage fees based on a sliding scale to assist access for independent and local artists.  
 
Currently, the Trust and the Council are working through an MOU and lease arrangements, but it is anticipated the Hannah will re-open in October, and Footnote New Zealand Dance is booked to use the space in November this year.  
 
Brian Wood, General Manager of Footnote New Zealand Dance says they are delighted to once again be performing at The Hannah Playhouse. 
 
“We are excited to be part of working within this performance laboratory space. This year we are presenting ChoreoCo, a new experimental contemporary dance work by Choreographer Elijah Kennar and his five emerging dancers chosen from our professional development workshop Choreolab.”  
 
A statement from the Board of Toi o Taraika Arts Wellington, which represents over 70 members from individual artists to organisations, says: “Wellingtonians agree that creative people and cultural activity is part of what makes Wellington a place where people want to live, work and visit.  
 
“Like any sector, the creative sector needs affordable infrastructure such as venues - and too many have been inaccessible to Pōneke-based artists as they are closed or too expensive. Any initiative that opens up venues for artists and practitioners in a time when space is at a premium and the cost of making and living has risen sharply is welcomed by Arts Wellington.  
 
“After the theatre has been closed for a number of years, we are encouraged by the potential of this project to unlock access to the Hannah Playhouse, as engagement between the Aho Tini team and the performing arts sector gets underway.” 
 
Jonathan Hendry Bats Theatre Chief Executive says: “As close neighbours we look forward to exploring synergies between both spaces to help strengthen pathways and opportunities for our incredible local artists.” 
 
The space will be open for sector bookings from next year, for more information contact Stephen Blackburn at Stephen.Blackburn@wcc.govt.nz.   

History of the Hannah Playhouse 

The Downstage Theatre company was formed in 1964 and originally presented at Victoria University Memorial theatre and the Paramount Theatre in Courtenay Place.  

Harry Seresin negotiated a lease in the Walkabout coffee bar situated on the current Hannah Playhouse site.  

The company later took over the building and the upper storey became an adaptable theatre restaurant.  

The Hannah Playhouse Trust was formed in 1968. The Trust’s purpose is to encourage, foster, and promote the performing arts for the benefit of the Wellington community, through provision of a theatre venue which was built on the site of the Walkabout.  

This was enabled by a very generous gift from Sheilah Winn of $300,000, the Hannah Playhouse was named after her maternal family who had founded the Hannah shoe company.  

The brutalist design of the building by architect James Beard has won several awards including The New Zealand Institution of Architects Award in 1978, and the Award for Enduring Architecture in 2006.