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The hidden headaches of keeping Powerhouse in suspended animation

Culture

From lights and leaks to problems with possums, possible poltergeists and plumbing – keeping Brisbane’s historic Powerhouse  flowing smoothly and ready to reopen after its forced shutdown in March has been a tall order.

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Due to its multiple spaces and the fact it is ordinarily used by a variety of artists, community members and patrons, the Brisbane Powerhouse building was specifically designed so visitors and staff would all contribute to its regular maintenance.

“For example, audiences using the bathrooms during performance intervals keep the water and sewage lines flowing, the artists using our back-of-house dressing room facilities can alert us to any issues there and our excellent sound and lighting crew are our eyes and ears as they run their regular and constant laps around the building,” Brisbane Powerhouse technical director Naomi Gordon said.

“Not doing all of those things actually have really serious effects for the actual infrastructure and the maintenance of the general building itself.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of the building for an extended period for the first time in its 20-year history as an arts and cultural space, Gordon has been tasked with helping co-ordinate its maintenance.

“We literally had thousands of patrons in our precinct, all kind of in the one space, for the Brisbane Comedy Festival and over the course of one weekend, we went from everything to nothing,” Gordon told InQueensland. “When something like this happens,  you just turn your hand to doing what needs to get done.”

Gordon estimated it took about 70 hours a week to keep the building in a proper state of maintenance to ensure it would be ready to reopen when the easing of social restrictions allows.

“I guess we’re finding our feet when it comes to understanding exactly what could possibly happen, but what could possibly go wrong in a space like the Powerhouse?” Gordon joked.

“She’s got always sort of secrets, some of which we’ve always been really aware of and some of them we just have never had any visibility on.”

Gordon said she and her team had created a 22-page maintenance checklist comprised of more than 500 items that took several hours a day to complete.

Some of the tasks include flushing every toilet and running every tap in the venue once a day to ensure the plumbing system does not back up; riding every lift and stopping at every level; turning on all lights, including stage lights; running the airconditioning to check vents and maintain air quality; and regularly checking the kitchens’ gas lines.

Some of the less-mundane maintenance tasks have included scaling the 14m-high roof after rain to inspect for storm damage and leaks, and a regular search for a persistent possum determined to make a home for itself at the Powerhouse.

An empty Powerhouse Theatre. (Photo: supplied)

“The possum has been coming in every day, to the point where the team have actually named it,” Gordon said. “His name is Pascal but we have actually recently found out Pascal is a female, because she is pregnant. On a daily basis, the team is making sure that a small family of possums is now not making a permanent home in our building.

Gordon said “a couple of the team have actually become quite close to Pascal”, but she stressed that “we’re not certainly not encouraging her to stay” and still regularly move her on.

“But they are quite fond of doing the whole ‘where is Pascal?’ thing every night, to the point now that as we come down the stairs to do the rounds as part of our maintenance schedules, she actually comes out to say hi. Because she’s always there and she knows us.”

Gordon said there had also been reports from some staff members about the presence of a less-welcome presence in the empty building, with many convinced the building is haunted.

“There are a lot of people on staff – and I won’t name them – who won’t do certain, certain runs through the Powerhouse,” she said. “There are two doors in particular that are of particular, sort of, and there are two sections that many people won’t walk through if they do sort of feel like they’re alone in the Powerhouse.

“I’ve had multiple staff members tell me about seeing a woman who is in – I don’t know if it’s Edwardian clothing – near door two.

“The one that’s been heard the most often during the shutdown is children’s voices at night. I won’t attest to hearing them but many of my staff won’t be in the space by themselves at night, when we’re doing the powering-down cycle, just because from their perspective, it’s extremely creepy to hear children’s voices when there should not be anyone in the space at the time, and they know that there’s not because they’ve walked around the space and actually shut it all down themselves.”

Last month, Powerhouse artistic director Kris Stewart told InQueensland he was looking forward to engaging with Brisbane’s arts and cultural communities again as soon as it was safe and possible to do so.

“We don’t necessarily know how things are going to continually be eased after July so I’m trying not to have a fixed opinion on anything. What we don’t want to do is facing the world with this ‘we’re going to just stay closed’ mentality, we are a place that is trying to be as open as we can be,” Stewart said.

Gordon said she was similarly looking forward to the venue reopening, and wanted to reassure prospective visitors that she and her team were also doing everything they could to ensure a safe reopening.

“We’ve really been conscious about the cleaning, we’ve been conscious about this new kind of way that we will be welcoming people back into our space with their safety in mind, to make sure that they really know that as a brand, and as a space, an arts centre, they can really trust us,” she said.

“Every person that works at the Powerhouse has a true love and respect for that building and a real sense of passion to make sure that we keep it going.

“We’re an industry that’s based on bringing people together and it’s a space where people can see something that they won’t see anywhere else. We can’t wait to have a full crew back in the space, with the ushers and the front-of-house team and the foyers being busy again.”

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