National Theatres: New Zealand mainstages in 2017
It’s that time of year when nearly all our New Zealand mainstages have let us know what they’ve got in store for 2017. It’s always a bit exciting to see the fruits of creative developments, or a new Artistic Director’s first theatrical offering. So in a first for The Pantograph Punch, Theatre Editors Kate Prior, Adam Goodall and Sam Brooks decided to have a chat about 2017 mainstage theatre programming and what next year looks like on stage.
The theatres we’ve looked at are Auckland Theatre Company, Silo Theatre, Centrepoint Theatre, The Court Theatre and The Fortune Theatre. Unfortunately as they shall be announcing their 2017 programme next week, Circa Theatre wasn’t able to be included in time for publication.
Kate, Adam and Sam delve into each mainstage programme, politely disagree, and consider wider questions around risk, the political, and commercial and artistic relativity.
Kate Prior: So why don’t we start in the south of the country by looking at The Fortune Theatre’s programme which was just announced two weeks ago. It is of course new Artistic Director Jonathan Hendry’s first season, following Lara Macgregor’s tenure as AD. What is sticking out for you guys?
Sam Brooks: For me, the play that sticks out from Jonathan’s first season is My Dad’s Boy, which is a pretty significant punt on a new playwright in a season that seems full of pretty safe bets.
KP: Yeah that’s some exciting support of a young emerging playwright.
SB: Having seen that at BATS earlier this year, I can totally see why it fits into that programme. It’s a crowd-pleaser of a play, and one that I think speaks to a certain kind of New Zealander.
Adam Goodall: Speaks to and, in some ways, mythologises. The climactic moment of 'Dad's' arc is going to resonate pretty hard for a certain type of Southland male.
KP: It’s a two-hander about a father and son is that right?
SB: Three actors, a father and a son, and an actress playing a variety of roles.
KP: I think it’s important to note that while the subject matter may seem to be a clear ‘fit’ for Fortune Theatre season, I think the programming of any new New Zealand playwright which an audience is not familiar with is really exciting. I think Jonathan Hendry’s season, more than any other mainstage, contains the largest proportion of New Zealand work. Which is always a positive.
SB: I hadn’t thought of it like that! But looking at it, even though there’s only one New Zealand premiere in that list, yeah, it’s five New Zealand works out of seven.
KP: Yeah it’s a strong statement for a first season - that great amount of New Zealand content, but yes it’s one premiere of course; Ellie Smith’s One Perfect Moment.
AG: I've gotta agree with Sam here - even that one premiere sounds cut from pretty much the same cloth as a million other broad New Zealand comedies that play well with mainstage theatre demographics. One Perfect Moment might end up being surprising, but it's hard not to look at the programme as The Fortune trying to futureproof. Which I think is partly reflected in how many touring acts and partnerships have been incorporated into the main programme.
SB: It’s also great to see that kind of crossover between mainstages, though? It’s very common for New Zealand plays, even those produced by mainstages, to have one season and then be buried in university syllabuses and scene studies, and it’s exciting that something like Hudson and Halls will have a life two years after it premieres, and specifically THAT production of it.
KP: Yeah absolutely Sam.
AG: There are also other productions they've got on the cards - Pickle King, Dunstan Creek Seance, The Wholehearted - that aren't part of the main season. It is pretty surprising that a Roger Hall is seen as something you need to cost-share on, though.
KP: Hm, I think that collaboration between mainstage theatres is essential for sustainability and is of course actively encouraged by Creative New Zealand. I’m not sure futureproofing is a bad thing!
AG: Oh, I didn't mean to suggest it was. When I say it's surprising that a Roger Hall is being collaborated on between say Circa and The Fortune, I mean that's because it's a Roger Hall, not because it's futureproofing…
KP: Yes, it would be great to see theatres collaborating on new work more too, I think you’re right. You’d hope that cost-share would also mean risk-share, and with shared risk comes the opportunity to be a bit bolder.
AG: Yeah on something that isn't such a sure bet. This is absolutely coming from an idealistic point of view, though. Gotta keep afloat somehow.
KP: So because I love data, I’m just going to look at numbers in terms of inclusivity of playwrights voices in the 2017 programs. When I’m looking at NZ playwrights, I’m looking first at NZ work in general but then also premieres of new scripts, suggesting development by the respective theatre, as I think that’s important. I'm also only looking at work that's in the main programme, not the education/outreach sections. In that way:
The Fortune Theatre 2017
5 plays out of 7 New Zealand works (with one premiere)
Of those 5 New Zealand works:
Gender: 3 male playwrights / 1 female playwright / 1 male/female theatre-making team
Ethnicity: 100% Pākehā
Of the one new script:
Gender: 1 female
Ethnicity: 100% Pākehā
The musical geek inside me is very excited to see Jonathan Hendry’s version of Into the Woods, I have to say.
KP: Yes I think that’s a highlight.
AG: I reckon Jonathan’s programme is a strong continuation of what Lara Macgregor started. Looking back at her seasons, she came down pretty evenly between (predominantly Pākehā, predominantly male) New Zealand playwrights and interesting, off-kilter international choices.
KP: Yeah I was really interested in Lara’s choices especially for the downstairs studio space, which is of course always the riskier space. That space is now not part of The Fortune Theatre programming - it’s just the mainstage. And it’s great that The Fortune gets to benefit from these two recent New Zealand successes - one developed by independent practitioners with the subsequent support of Christchurch Arts Festival and The Court Theatre (That Bloody Woman) and one developed by Silo Theatre (Hudson and Halls).
It's a strong New Zealand statement for that part of the country. Even if it is a very white New Zealand statement
SB: I really loved Lara’s programmes - they always seemed to strike that very careful balance between programming risky international works that nobody else in the country seemed to programme, like Jumpy or Grounded, while still appealing to the Otago audience.
AG: Same here. If it feels like Jonathan's first season is playing it safe, I think it's because of that absence of risky international work (outside of Into The Woods, which is risky for its size), which has been precipitated by turning the The Fortune Studio into what seems to be a touring/independent-centric space.
KP: Yes, for a first flavour of Jonathan’s programming though, it’s a strong New Zealand statement for that part of the country. Even if it is a very white New Zealand statement.
KP: So to The Court Theatre? (Who of course programme mid-year to mid-year, so half of their season has already run).
SB: Yes! Straight up: It’s weird that Annie Baker’s first work in NZ is her adaptation of Uncle Vanya, rather than her more popular work like Circle Mirror Transformation (which focuses on a motley crew of characters who take drama classes at a local community centre) or The Flick (which looks at a group of ushers working in a cinema). But that’s the most exciting thing about that programme for me, because Annie Baker is one of the best playwrights around right now - she’s working in a register of almost hyper-naturalism that is more theatrical and lived-in than anything else I’ve read.
KP: Yeah, The Flick has had lots of popularity in the UK and Australia. Red Stitch Theatre Company in Melbourne staged it in association with the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2015 which was a great match.
AG: I've been wanting someone to do The Flick for an age. Maybe Circa's got that hidden up their sleeve…
As much as I love Circle Mirror Transformation, I can absolutely see why it hasn't been done here yet, even if it seems like prime fodder for a smaller company like Last Tapes.
KP: Programming tips there from Adam Goodall…
AG: That one’s for free. Also, I won't lie, I want to see Ross Gumbley and Allison Horsley’s new play Ropable entirely because it's a Hitchcock goof. The idea of reimagining Rope with two gormless middle-aged women sounds very good to me.
SB: The idea of seeing Lara Macgregor and Eilish Moran do it as well seems great for me. And it’s nice to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time with another season in this country.
AG: Centrepoint Theatre in Palmerston North has also programmed Ropable, and their season has Yvette Parsons in it, so if this becomes a time-weathered vehicle for underrated New Zealand comic actresses to do glorious pratfalls across the country then I'm 100% here for it.
KP: Ha, yes I agree Adam, so much great female comedic talent in New Zealand and great to see it being given a platform by mainstages. Ropable is also another Ross Gumbley special - he’s now written numerable works for The Court Theatre, often partnering with another playwright, which then often travel to a provincial theatre. For example, he used to write a lot with Alison Quigan when she was the Artistic Director at Centrepoint Theatre and who had an incredible knack for understanding the Palmy audience.
AG: I want to hear more about this…
KP: Another discussion! So data there:
The Court Theatre 2016/17
5 out of 10 New Zealand works (with 3 national premieres of New Zealand work)
Of those 5 New Zealand works:
Gender: 2 male/female scriptwriting teams, 3 male playwrights
Ethnicity: 1 Māori playwright, 4 Pākehā playwrights
Of the 3 new scripts:
Gender: Two male/female scriptwriting teams, one male playwright
Ethnicity: All Pākehā
AG: This is going to be bleak as all get out by the end of this.
KP: Yeah sozaboutit.
AG: No, we need it.
SB: Moving north to Centrepoint Theatre…
AG: To my old stomping ground. 2007 Basement Company alumni WHATUP.
KP: Yes, to Centrepoint in Palmerston North as Circa Theatre in Wellington have not yet announced their 2017 season. So, the mighty Manawatu…
Yeah, this is by far the strangest looking season, and I want to see most of it?
KP: It’s all quite dark stuff right.
SB: Yeah, this is by far the strangest looking season, and I want to see most of it? When was the last time a mainstage programmed Philip Ridley in this country?
KP: I know, that one feels like a good pitch from the Philip Ridley-leaning director Benjamin Henson. Great they’re doing some contemporary Ridley!
AG: It's a wild send-off for Artistic Director Jeff Kingsford-Brown, too, who's been pushing Centrepoint Theatre to some pretty dark and interesting places for a provincial company. His programmes have been energising and challenging the provincial theatre stereotype in a way that they haven't since Simon Ferry was in the job. I remember seeing Gillian Slovo and Victoria Brittain's play Guantanamo, directed by Simon Ferry, there as a teen; an angry and austere production totally unlike what you'd expect from that venue, and Jeff's programming has at times felt like it's at that provocative level.
KP: Yes, Centrepoint programmes have certainly increasingly looked outward, which is great. I do wonder how well those kinds of scripts do and whether it would also be great to see the kinds of plays that could only really be staged in a theatre like Centrepoint - I’m thinking of David Geary’s The Farm, which I’ve seen described by a reviewer as ‘one of Palmy’s most famous native plays’ which I kind of love. I don’t know, I just think that the focus on the local, especially for provincial theatres, is also essential too.
I remember that Centrepoint programmed Victor Rodger’s Black Faggot a few years ago, and has been really active in pulling in shows like that into their programme. It’s really exciting to see something like Not in Our Neighbourhood, similar to Hudson and Halls, continue its life beyond its premiere.
KP: Yeah this is a trend right – new work finding its feet often independently then travelling to these mainstages. The most exciting new New Zealand work is feeding into our mainstages this way. Which is great that this independent work gets picked up, but part of me would love to see the mainstages championing a stable of playwrights themselves too.
AG: It's interesting, though – just to refer to my earlier comment, calling this season ‘weird’ and ‘stereotype-challenging’, I was obviously writing on the basis that there's a ‘stereotype’ of what a provincial theatre company looks like - David Geary and Foreskin's Lament and Stockcars: The Musical. That's not an especially helpful stereotype, especially because we've just identified that Centrepoint and The Fortune have regularly hired some of the most audacious programmers, for provincial theatres, in our country. Which makes me think: what the hell does it mean to be a provincial theatre? It seems unfair to constantly talk about their choices like we expect Dave Armstrong’s The Motor Camp running all year.
KP: Yeah and I don’t believe in any kind of template parochial programming for provincial spaces, but I do think speaking to the local should be a focus for all theatres, whether that’s in Palmerston North or Auckland. It is a great question. And of course it’s a balance. Also, surely New Zealand work for New Zealand provincial audiences can itself also be audacious! So data there:
Centrepoint Theatre 2017
2 out of 5 New Zealand works (with no national premieres)
Of those 2 New Zealand works:
Gender: 1 mixed male/female writing team, 1 male playwright
Ethnicity: 1 Pākehā writing team, 1 Māori playwright
KP: So, moving on to Silo Theatre?
KP: I grew up on the music of Peter and the Wolf as I took on weird sort of self-led projects when I was little and one of them was learning the structure of an orchestra (which was part of the the reason why Moscow Children’s Theatre commissioned Prokofiev to write Peter and the Wolf in 1936), so obviously pretty EXCITED about that.
SB: Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. was maybe the best thing I saw in Edinburgh, and the script is maybe the best play I’ve read in ages, and it fits the Silo brand and the direction that Artistic Director Sophie Roberts seems to be taking Silo in so well. It’s a really smart and brave programming decision.
AG: Fascinated by Cellfish, too. It's got a formidable team behind it, it looks like it's being built to have legs beyond the Auckland Arts Festival, and it's exciting that there's at least one company in Auckland conscious of how political Shakespeare can be in the modern day and building productions to reflect that.
Yeah Sophie Roberts mentioned at the programme launch that Cellfish director Jason Te Kare was a practitioner who she’d always wanted to work with and I just thought, man I would love all ADs in the country to have a wish-list of like five, no ten! practitioners they’d like to work with, and, unhampered by boards and broad appeal blah blah blah, just be able to go there.
That said, Cellfish is a work that was originally developed by the creative team, then was supported with further development by the Auckland Arts Festival last year, before the festival approached Silo Theatre regarding partnership.
SB: I’m also really excited to see Silo doing a classic play like A Streetcar Named Desire. Some of my favourite shows of theirs in the past and have been their takes on shows like Noel Coward’s Private Lives or even something more recent like Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues, so to have THIS company tackling a play like A Streetcar Named Desire, especially with THAT cast, is incredibly exciting for me.
KP: The first time I saw Sophie Roberts as an actor onstage was in a 2007 production of Streetcar at Circa Theatre in Wellington, directed by Willem Wassenaar, so there’s also a kind of circularity there too. In fact, as yet in each of her seasons there’s been a piece of work that Sophie has drawn from a pre-Silo creative life, and I kind of love that. Like, if you you were programming a season, what works are in your creative DNA…
I think it’s entirely appropriate and awesome that previous Silo Artistic Director Shane Bosher returns to direct the motherlode in an acknowledgment of 20 years of Silo.
SB: And who can blame them for bringing Hudson and Halls back? It’s a hit, it’s a great show, and it’s a show that people want to keep seeing. It’s the new Daffodils.
KP: Ha ‘the new Daffodils’! I love it. I LOVE IT - seeing something in real time become a classic. It's great they’re supporting new female directors, which is a major weak point, in terms of support, in the hardy fabric of New Zealand theatre.
But I guess as we're finding - risk is relative, right?
SB: Absolutely. Virginia Frankovich (If There’s No Dancing at the Revolution I’m Not Coming, Car) has been working for a good five years now and making really risky and brave work. I still remember Gorge being one of the best Fringe pieces I’ve seen in this country, and a play like Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again suits her talents so well.
Out of all the programmes this is the one that feels the most risky? Like there are plays in this programme that I can see people being actively turned off by, and that really excites me as an audience member. There’s plays that will make people angry and will make people talk.
KP: I agree but I guess as we’re finding - risk is relative, right? ‘Risk’ and ‘bravery’: those oft-spoken theatre words. What do they meaaannnn.
AG: Yeah. I guess this is more to be expected from Silo but that's definitely because it's a theatre that's built its name on this kind of provocation and it has an audience base that expects that of them. That doesn't take away from how fucking *exciting* it is, though.
KP: You know what I also love - the ‘centering’ of young people. For example, in Medea last year with children on stage, and this year with Peter and the Wolf, making children and young people the central audience for a mainstage work. Like, why do they always have to be shunted to the outreach/education section? I love that.
SB: Even The Book of Everything is, I think, a show that even if it isn’t a kids show, definitely works to include children and younger people in its audience without pandering to them in an outreach/education kind of a way.
KP: There’s this great quote which I’m going to paraphrase terribly by a director of a UK theatre company for young people which is about how we always focus on young people ‘as the next generation of theatre goers’. But nah - what about young people as thinking, feeling creatures now - making work for them for this moment now?
KP: It’s an interesting thing looking at Silo’s ‘numbers’, because it’s also a reflection of a collaborative mode of making. Silo’s new New Zealand works last year and in 2017 are co-created, not a single author vision, which very much speaks to an international trend (I say trend, we’re talking a good while here) towards multi-authored work.
Silo Theatre 2017:
3 out of 6 New Zealand works (with 2 national premieres of New Zealand work – including 1 adaptation)
Of those 3 New Zealand works:
Gender: 3 m/f making teams
Ethnicity: 2 Pākehā / 1 Māori
Of the 2 new works:
Gender: 2 m/f making teams
Ethnicity: 1 Pākehā / 1 Māori
AG: At the very least, I think we can all agree it's going to be exciting seeing all these shows where the actors all play multi-coloured ghosts.
KP: Very much looking forward to disco ghosts
SB: Casper the Tripping Ghost.
Shall we move onto Auckland Theatre Company?
KP: Seems like the perfect segue.
Oscar Wilson: topless again
AG: Why. Are. All. Their. Seasons. So. Short. Though.
KP: Good to see our first thoughts are so in alignment Adam.
SB: Surely it’s because it’s safer to extend a two-week season than it is to program three weeks and undersell it?
AG: I hope it's that. Because even though it's a *grim* philosophy I can't think of a better alternative.
SB: I’m legitimately excited for Nell Gwynn, which is a very intelligent and forward-thinking crowd-pleaser and one with the scope and scale that only a company like ATC can really do ‘right’.
KP: Yeah interesting that in terms of work with a feminist heart - ATC's offer is Nell Gwynn; Silo's is Revolt.
It’s a strange-looking season for ATC, and I can’t imagine it’s one that would’ve been programmed if they didn’t have their own space.
KP: I’m confused by our possibly divergent connotations of ‘strange’ and intrigued on your reckons on that Sam.
AG: Tell us more.
SB: For the past few years ATC’s programmes have been pretty safe bets, with a few stabs in the dark. This year in particular felt really safe, with three surefire hits in You Can Always Hand Them Back, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Billy Elliot.
But this programme feels like they can make stranger choices, or choices that seem stranger to me. As good as a lot of people think Amadeus is, I can’t fathom a reason to program it in 2017, and in a similar vein, When Sun and Moon Collide is a great play, but it seems like an odd choice to put on Right Now. Like, I can’t imagine if they were still a ‘homeless’ company they would have programmed either of those shows. They don’t feel like they fit in the same season of work, if that makes sense.
KP: Hm, but are you talking less about ‘risk’ and more about contemporary relevance here?
SB: It looks more strange than risky to me.
KP: I mean Amadeus has just had a massively successful season at the National Theatre in London so it’s in the collective consciousness - and that’s also so often where programming inspiration derives from in New Zealand and Australia - still.
AG: That's true.
KP: There is this element of the Baroque, and sort of 17th-18th Century fripperies running through their programme which contemporary New Zealand work is always going to clash with, but of course programming shouldn’t have to be themed, and often when they are it can seem very arbitrary. I think it’s how those works speak to each other which is interesting, and in terms of the strangeness you talk about Sam – perhaps that’s where it is for me, I’m not quite sure how those works speak to each other. Interestingly Nell Gwynn - about the first woman on a professional stage - speaks to the Auckland Pop-up Globe season in 2017 with its ‘authentic’ all-male casts. It’s like 17th/18th Century London, out here in the City of Sails in the early 21st Century...
I’m really intrigued by the casting of Ross McCormack as Mozart in Amadeus – even though his image is all over it, there’s nothing written in the programme about the casting choice of this incredible contemporary dancer and performance maker. Obviously it’s just not the angle for ATC in the programme, yet it’s the most interesting aspect of this production for me. I recently saw Triumphs and Other Alternatives, Ross’ work with his company Muscle Mouth at The Hawkes Bay Arts Festival and he's electric to watch. He can be this kind of Puck-like figure - not without a very clear cheekiness to the audience. He was part of les ballets C de la B in Belgium and has come home to work with his own company. Anyway, I think it’s a really interesting casting choice and blurring the lines between artists and forms I really welcome.
AG: So many of these professional companies see 'emerging' as 20-45, which I guess is why it feels like ATC are doing something 'fresh' and 'new' with people like Eli Kent (for Peer Gynt [recycled]) and Ahi Karunaharan (for their primary school tour The Adventures of Rama, which sounds fun as hell) even though they've both been around for at least a decade now.
KP: Yes, but we've not seen huge amounts of mainstage work from them - this is Eli's second for ATC after Black Confetti in 2012, and it will be Ahi Karunaharan's first work for ATC. But yes, how long is an emerging piece of string. This is another question of contextual relativity isn’t it. Because it’s also generational. Eli himself and his contemporaries wouldn’t necessarily consider Eli ‘emerging’ but then to an ATC audience he very much is. It’s an interesting discussion - I feel like if there was a thicker ‘new writing’ culture in this country, perceptions around ‘emerging' and 'mid-career’ would be a wee bit closer to reality.
But I’m really excited by the prospect of Eli taking on Peer Gynt and Ahi's ‘Marvel epic’ take on The Adventures of Rama for touring to schools. It’s great to see the fruits of ATC’s support of these practitioners.
It's kind of fascinating, this seam of Ibsen that runs throughout New Zealand theatre from the predilections of one director
There is also this interesting trend of ATC commissioning writers to adapt Ibsen. For example, Emily Perkins’ The Doll’s House and now Eli Kent’s Peer Gynt. Colin McColl is of course an Ibsen expert, and first suggested to a young Hone Kouka to write the classic Nga Tangata Toa from Ibsen’s The Vikings. So it’s kind of fascinating, this seam of Ibsen that runs throughout New Zealand theatre from the predilections of one director. It’s also interesting having recently been in Melbourne where the majority of those doing the adapting of classics are the directors, not necessarily the writers - like piles and piles of directorial adaptations of the Greeks and classics. We don’t have the same strongly director-led culture here. So, data for ATC:
Auckland Theatre Company 2017:
3 out of 5 New Zealand works (with 2 premieres)
Of those 3 New Zealand works:
Gender: 1 female playwright / 2 male playwrights
Ethnicity: 1 Māori playwright/ 2 Pākehā playwrights
Of the 2 premieres:
Gender: 2 male playwrights
Ethnicity: 100% Pākehā playwrights
KP: So let’s perhaps just look at some overall impressions for 2017. What are you thinking about?
AG: Looking at all the programmes, I’ve had this kneejerk reaction to the seasons from our provincial theatres: ‘This is unexpected’. They seem to be more willing to go with the untested and outré than our main city stages (to the extent we can call The Fortune a provincial theatre). There’s the Centrepoint programme, obviously, but also, looking at Fortune's previous Southland tours, they're going out on a bit of a limb making My Dad's Boy the first of their two tours for 2016, even if it is a more accessible and crowd-pleasing work by that new playwright (I can't imagine them going out on that limb for Ushers). That's not necessarily to downplay Colin McColl's choices at ATC or Ross Gumbley's at The Court, but like we mentioned before: when was the last time someone programmed a Phillip Ridley for a mainstage? What's behind this? Does the financial reality of operating in a big city make those risks harder to justify? Or am I just talking shit?
SB: Is it something to do with people coming into and out of their jobs as Artistic Directors? This is Jeff’s last programme, Jonty’s first and Sophie’s third. So also why these programmes seem atypical might be because of new personalities with new priorities and artistic bents running these theatres just as much as it might be a prevailing trend throughout the country.
AG: That's possible, though the other examples that we brought up as we went through the programmes - Lara Macgregor and Simon Ferry - both had three or so years where they hit that mark pretty consistently. Maybe the small sample size means it's hard to draw conclusions like these, though.
KP: Yeah I’m just wary of coupling the idea of the ‘untested’ play with say Philip Ridley - whose work is possibly more ‘risky’ content-wise - as I would say that in the main, new New Zealand work is always more risky (commercially) than tried and tested overseas work, no matter how ‘artistically’ risky that is. But it’s a great question regardless, and it’s about theatres reading their audiences isn’t it, and like Sam says - a new Artistic Director can come in with those fresh ideas about their audience before getting caught in self-fulfilling patterns. I’m kind of fascinated by that subject too – different theatres’ perceptions of what their audiences think/want.
The role of Artistic Director is a kind of curator of the zeitgeist and I feel like the only AD right now who is beginning to approach that territory is Sophie Roberts
KP: So looking at 2017 overall, what I’ve been thinking about is why does it seem that only Silo Theatre are driven by a kind of immediate politics of *now*? Or politics is present and informs their programming. It’s interesting you know, being in Melbourne last year – the State Theatre Companies are very obviously the Establishment. And the Establishment are always going to do what the Establishment does and follow where they believe their subscribers want to go with maybe some push out to the edges as much as they can abide. So it often falls to the 'second' theatre companies in each state – the Belvoirs and the Malthouses and the La Boites to speak to a more political present. (Astonishing, relevant work from the constellation of independent companies aside). So I really see that similarity in Silo. It really is our only instance of a city’s ‘second’ theatre company echoing this same model of the Australian theatre sector. I really believe the role of an Artistic Director is as a kind of curator of the zeitgeist and I feel like the only AD right now who is beginning to approach that territory is Sophie Roberts.
AG: I wonder if that's partly because AD roles in this country seem to function as legacy positions rather than as posts for auteur expression. I look at who holds the thrones right now – Jonathan Hendry, Ross Gumbley, Jeff Kingsford-Brown - and they're all practitioners who have been around for decades and have 'done their time' (even Colin McColl, a trailblazer in the 1980s, probably fits this description). That's not to say that they don't have things they want to express in their programming, but it definitely says something that Sophie is younger and didn't have the same mainstage background - pantos, Dave Armstrongs, Roger Halls - that the others did.
KP: I agree. And I mean, you just listing the ADs like that makes it pretty clear why a programme from Sophie Roberts is going to stand out as different. You know (and sorry to keep boringly referring to Australia), all the Artistic Directors of those ‘second’ theatre companies are in their 30s. (They’re all young white males but that’s another issue). And I’m being massively ageist and prescriptive here but just as somewhere like BATS or The Basement Theatre should really be run by people in their tireless and idealistic 20s, who are developing life-long skills, there needs to be more spaces which are open to be led by those who have been around for a ten years or so (i.e in their 30s) and now are pretty damn sure about what they want to say about the world. But still have the energy and anger to fight and be anarchic and annoying and wrong, possibly sometimes, but say something.
SB: I think it’s also important to note Silo’s role in the Auckland theatre landscape compared to the other mainstages. Silo very much co-exists with ATC, and even if their programmes don’t necessarily complement each other, I think Silo has a freedom to be the alternative mainstage in Auckland in a way that a place like Centrepoint or Fortune can’t be. While ATC can give you those huge scale shows that are crowd-pleasers and not necessarily risk-takers, and quite bluntly, shows that aim to please an older audience, Silo can take more risks and aim for a younger audience, or at least an audience that has grown up with them. Whereas Centrepoint Theatre and The Fortune Theatre have to do both these things in a smaller city.
KP: Yeah that’s what I mean about the mandate of the 'second theatre’ and the ecosystem of Australian state theatre company - the two institutions co-exist. It’s a certainly a different case for the smaller New Zealand centres with theatres which need to please a broader audience.
As always, I’m also interested in new writing developed specifically by theatres and how a lot of the new(ish) work next year on mainstages is provided by touring independents or in the case of Hudson and Halls, from other theatres. And interestingly in the case of Peer Gynt at ATC, it is new writing by an ‘emerging’ writer, but couched in the relative ‘safety’ of an adaptation. I really want to know more about Colin McColl’s Ibsen love and how that Artistic Director understands how it speaks to now - I think that’s really interesting stuff which I wish we heard more about.
The classic dramaturgical question: Why This. Why Now.
One trend we can point to in 2017 (and every year?): it's pretty white. It's pretty male
SB: Me too! And I would love to hear some kind of defence - not that it’s necessarily something that needs defending - of adapting a play like Peer Gynt for the now? Or some reason beyond it’s Eli Kent and Eli is amazing, because Eli is amazing and any new play he’s writing is going to be worth seeing.
But yeah I agree - I think the theatre that has done the best work of crafting a programme for 2017 is Silo. Their programme feels like something that would only happen in 2017. You look at ATC’s programme - that could’ve happened last year. Or even The Court’s programme. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, given that some of these revivals may be long overdue or might need a wider audience, but Silo’s programme feels like a response, and an intentional active response to the theatre the rest of the world is making and the way we, or their audience, is living now.
Also - and I think this is crucial - I am definitely the audience for Silo Theatre. I have been since I left high school and I will continue to be. I’m part of their core demographic. I can imagine somebody fighting for the programming at The Court just as passionately.
KP: So, just to touch on my awesome data - one trend we can also point to with new New Zealand work in 2017 (and every year?): it's pretty white. It's pretty male.
AG: YUP. It's wild to me that the number of shows written by Māori playwrights across the board can be counted on one finger?
SB: Cellfish, When The Sun and Moon Collide, Not in Our Neighbourhood?
KP: Yeah but just to clarify Sam – I was also specifically looking at new New Zealand work - the premieres. In which case it would just be the one. I know this is pedantic, but the new writing data reflects what is being developed and supported by the theatres now, not just the dip into the archives or the pickup of an independent work (which is equally as important but not my particular focus).
AG: Circa Theatre's programme will probably add to that due to their working relationship with Tawata and Taki Rua, but that and the fact that pretty much all of the international productions are by white writers?
KP: Yeah it’s structural, and to do with the ecosystem of the New Zealand theatre sector and the way our companies are funded. And the way we talk about them. For instance, we are talking about mainstages here that are funded under Creative New Zealand’s Totara (Leadership) Scheme, and one mainstage theatre (Silo) funded under Creative New Zealand’s Kahikatea (Development) Scheme, but considering we’re including Silo why aren’t we talking about Taki Rua as a mainstage company, funded as they are under Totara?
It’s also worth noting that often the best companies dedicated to focussing on Māori and Pacific voices like Hone Kouka and Miria George’s Tawata Productions, pointedly sit outside what is essentially a Pākehā mainstream in terms of what they themselves value. It’s good to remember this: that mainstream ‘Establishment’ theatres are not always what companies like this are aspiring to - I remember Miria George saying this at a forum earlier in the year. That said, I still think as a picture of what is valued in New Zealand theatre, mainstream programming for new writing must be inclusive and must draw new diverse voices up.
Who is our Joanna Murray-Smith? Our blockbuster female playwright?
AG: Yeah, in this context I don't think the criticism is to be directed at those companies working outside the mainstream - Tawata and Taki Rua and Tikapa have no obligation to connect with mainstages - but at the mainstage programmers.
KP: Yeah absolutely - and I’m not talking about them not connecting at all.
AG: Yes, when we talk about mainstages programming in a conservative, risk-averse way, we can't avoid talking about how that thinking time and again means the sidelining of Māori and Pacific voices.
KP: It’s just about flipping the script as well and not viewing this as an obligation but a fucking strength. Inclusivity is strength.
SB: It’s not even that it’s an unfortunate lack of diversity. It is a galling lack of diversity on our mainstages and one that in absolutely no way reflects the makeup of our country - and we haven’t even seen the casts and creative teams for many of these shows yet. How many opportunities are there going to be for performers and other creatives?
AG: I think they *know* it's a strength, though? I don't have a financial rundown, so correct me if I'm wrong here, but Tawata and Taki Rua (for example) have routinely performed well at Circa Theatre, financially, critically and with audiences. Like Sam says, it's galling because leaders know and they still don't work to fix the blind spot. And this isn’t even taking into account the strengths these artists bring that aren't tangible, measurable things like that.
KP: Yes – it’s also a bit tough talking about Circa in the same Artistic Director-led ‘programming' discussion – being a theatre programmed by committee. But yes, I get your point Adam absolutely and yeah, you’re right, that’s bonkers huh.
AG: True. But still.
KP: Jennifer Ward-Lealand gave a mihi and spoke in fluent reo for a good while at the Silo launch to a room full of pretty much 100% Pākehā, and when she finished I’ve never heard so many kia oras and sounds of ascent from a group of Pākehā. I just thought, as a symbolic act, it was this fascinating thing: Pākehā speaking to Pākehā in fluent, confident Māori. As an act of centering the language in Pākehā spaces, not in an obligatory way (Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa. And now onto my English…) but in a fluid, fluent, essential way.
AG: Here's a question: when was the last non-Pākehā AD of a mainstage?
KP: Yeah not sure? Would have to think. None at ATC. None at Centrepoint. None at The Court. None at Fortune. So that’s… never.
AG: If Artistic Directors are 'legacy hires', then, what legacy are they selling?
KP: Yes. Whose legacy, whose voice. And I won’t get started on women's voices, which often get shunted under the already problematic term 'diversity', which is a nonsense, considering they form half the population (and more than half of the ticket-buyers...) I read something about Joanna Murray-Smith in The Court Theatre programme, who is of course the ridiculously popular and prolific Australian playwright who does sell out seasons of plays such as Switzerland, The Gift and The Female of the Species. And I thought, who is our Joanna Murray-Smith? Our blockbuster female playwright? And I don’t know the answer to that.