Revamped hub ready to rock
Joel McGuiness. Picture: David Bailey

A former Bunbury boy, who won't be named, once said the South West Highway was the best thing to come out of our State's "second city" and he took a one-way trip north on it as soon as he could.

Bunbury has grown and matured as a regional city in the decades since that cruel put-down was made. And the exodus is no longer one way. More people are settling in Bunbury from Perth and the east coast, attracted by work, cheaper housing, the sea-and-tree-change lifestyle and the evolving cafe and cultural scene.

As demographer Bernard Salt noted recently, three times as many Gen-Y 25 to 35-year-olds are settling in Bunbury compared with a decade ago, helping make the city of 60,000 people one of the fastest-growing in Australia.

Joel McGuinness is a case in point. Raised in Nannup and Denmark, the 2004 WAAPA graduate and former trapeze artist worked on large-scale events in Europe and the US for several years before going on to manage Brisbane's world-renowned Circa troupe.

After a stint running the Walkington Theatre and the inaugural Red Earth Arts Festival in Karratha, McGuinness moved to Bunbury three years ago at a critical time for the city's main live entertainment venue.

The Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre, on the "three-waters" peninsula between the Indian Ocean, Koombana Bay and the Leschenault Inlet, has been positioning itself as an arts and social hub next to the emerging cappuccino strip.

Backed by a $12.4 million revamp, with $7.5 million from Royalties for Regions and the rest from the Bunbury City Council and a community fundraising drive, the new-look BREC is open for business as a key venue in the national touring circuit. Expanded foyers, new function rooms, catering facilities and a versatile 240-seat performance space called The Cube have been added to a refurbished 810-seat main theatre, Stage One.

As McGuinness explains, the BREC must work to attract new audiences and promote arts and culture as an added incentive for people to settle in Bunbury and a lure for holiday-makers who would otherwise belt along the bypass to Margaret River and beyond.

Providing new facilities is not enough on its own, he says. Build it and they may come - for a while - but the secret to sustainable success and avoiding the plight of the white elephant lies with making the venue hum with activity long after the thrill of the new has passed.

It's an issue that also confronts the Perth Theatre Trust, which wants to attract more people into venues such as the State Theatre Centre, Perth Concert Hall and Albany Entertainment Centre.

Taking a leaf out of the book of innovative American theatre director Diane Paulus, McGuiness wants to break down the "edifice syndrome" that intimidates many potential audience members. Rejecting the notion of dumbing things down to be popular, he says people should come to the theatre to be challenged, entertained and to have fun, not because they feel it is good for them.

That takes imaginative programming, space activation and marketing to make the venue a social place where the FOMO factor (fear of missing out) will help drive attendances up. The signs were encouraging when a BREC event to launch The Cube's first shows this month attracted 70 per cent first-time visitors with a mix of live music, DJs, Mexican theme night, arcade games, table-tennis and a pop-up cocktail bar.

"Our biggest challenge for developing new audiences is ownership of that space," McGuinness says. "The first step is getting people to feel comfortable in coming along. The social driver of all your friends being there and it's going to be fun - I'm trying to translate that idea to the performing arts."

This approach does not mean trying to convert people into liking opera and ballet but getting them into the venue with events such as rock-music workshops, comedy-and-pizza nights and youth computer-gaming sessions on the main stage, he says. For some people, that can be the start of an eye-opening journey through a wider range of programming.

The diverse offerings over the next few months include The 13-Storey Treehouse next week, a triple bill from the Australian Ballet's Dancer's Company, Swamp Juice, the Soweto Gospel Choir, John Waters' Looking Through a Glass Onion, the CineFest Oz Film festival and Circa's Wunderkammer.

As a board member of the Australian Performing Arts Centres Association, McGuinness is thinking nationally and acting locally, plugging into the touring circuit through the ongoing Playing Australia scheme and the new WA Boost regional performing arts touring fund, which offers grants totalling $1 million over three years.

For all the innovative thinking about ways to attract and retain new audiences, it is crucial not to alienate regular theatre-goers, he says.

The new-look BREC will be opened formally by Premier Colin Barnett on Friday, followed by a Grand Opening Community Concert on Saturday hosted by proud Bunbury girl and Sunrise morning TV show host Natalie Barr.

Owned by the City of Bunbury and run by an independent board as a not-for-profit organisation, the venue is tapping the growing business tourism market to generate a large proportion of its $2 million annual turnover.

McGuinness says revenue from conventions and other functions helps subsidise the art but he is cautious about taking on too much of this business.

"We need to be aware that we are an arts and culture centre first and foremost."

Details: bunburyentertainment.com.

The West Australian

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