Reasons To Leave The House: Ten Moments In Wellington Theatre 2017
Wellington Theatre Editor Adam Goodall's been a little burnt out this year, but Wellington theatre's made it easy to recharge the batteries. Here's nine reasons why - and one reason why it might become more difficult.
Portrait of an Artist Mongrel
Rowley Habib, the groundbreaking New Zealand playwright, screenwriter and poet, died on the 3rd of April last year. For this year’s Kia Mau Festival, Nancy Brunning (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāi Tūhoe) and Tanea Heke (Ngāpuhi), director and producer of Hāpai Productions, brought together a crew of eight Māori makers – a mix of old legends (Jim Moriarty, Mitch Tawhi Thomas) and exciting new creatives (Trae Te Wiki, Moana Ete) – to celebrate Habib’s legacy. A mix of readings, music staged excerpts and stories from people who knew and loved him, Portrait of an Artist Mongrel is the perfect introduction to Rowley’s work, one of the most compelling and insightful voices in New Zealand drama. It was also a whakanui that filled the heart, a warm, joyous and deeply affectionate celebration of a rangatira who carved the path for many others to follow.
Speaking of Jim Moriarty, Te Rakau’s four-part epic history of the Wellington region, told through the lens of one tribe, one colonist and the generations that followed, was a four-chapter melodrama of remarkable scope and emotional potency. Written by Helen Pearse-Otene (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāti Rongomaiwahine-Kahungungu) and directed by Moriarty (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Kahungungu, Rangitane, Scots, Norwegian, Italian), it was an experience whose dizzying highs more than made up for its clunky, oddly-blocked lows (especially in The Ragged, the first chapter of the series). The ambition of their mahi, the confidence of the history they wanted to tell and the community they wanted to build in that telling, fired me up. I pray it has a long life.
Stand By For The Tape Back-Up
Playing for one night only at the Roxy Cinema, Edinburgh writer and performer Ross Sutherland’s one-man show used a battered VHS tape, recorded over by his grandfather again and again and again since the 1980s, as a medium for exploring grief, depression and the fear of losing who you are. Part Kate Tempest, part My Accomplice, it was hypnotic and devastating and the best touring show that no-one even knew was here. There was one moment, about twenty minutes in, that threw me into an overwhelming panic attack about my own limited time on this earth. If that kind of visceral, unexpected, unshakeable emotional reaction isn’t what theatre should be trying to do, I don’t know what is.
Onstage Dating / the internet is where innocence goes to die and you can come too / Aunty
I burned out on theatre a little bit this year. Each of us only has a certain amount of energy in the tank, energy that fuels us to leave the house, to engage with work that might challenge us and push us into uncomfortable places, to talk and be present with people. My tank was empty too often to count. The reason I highlight each of these shows is because their inclusive, loose, utterly infectious energy refilled my tank each and every time. Australian artists Bronwyn Batten (Onstage Dating), Harriet Gillies and Roslyn Helper (the internet is where innocence goes to die), and Auckland-based performer Johanna Cosgrove (Aunty): each embraced me as an audience member, pulling me into their ludicrous worlds and inviting me to play with them in their space without having to leave my seat. They all got me genuinely excited for all the work that comes with going to see a show – buying tickets, wrangling friends, leaving the house – just so I could see their shows again. I saw Onstage Dating and the internet is where innocence goes to die twice, which I rarely ever do, and I can’t bloody wait to see Aunty again in February.
Last year, Taki Rua, Tawata Productions and The Conch came together to lease the offices above Corey’s Electrical at 274 Taranaki Street. Since then, Te Haukāinga - a large multi-purpose office and rehearsal space – has become an invaluable asset to Wellington theatre, and particularly to Māori and Pasifika makers. It’s hosted numerous readings, round tables and sector-wide workshops; it’s given a laundry list of artists valuable resources to test and rehearse their work; ultimately, it’s filled a massive gap in Wellington theatre, providing space to make and grow in a city where space is in vanishingly small supply.
Neenah’s solo show in this year’s Kia Mau Festival, This Is What It Looks Like, was a sensitive, honest and painful account of everyday depression, but it also found space for hope and a wry sense of humour in its dual storylines. She found both the vulnerability and the strength of conviction in Anahera’s titular social worker-cum-detective – an emotional anchor even as the world around her spiralled out of control. I’m told she was exceptional in The Mooncake and the Kumara too, and I'm ready to make up for an egregious omission (again, burn-out) and catch her performance in Waru when the film comes out on DVD. Like all of the best performers in this city, Auckland has coaxed her away – she’ll be in Julius Caesar at the Pop-Up Globe next February.
The Annual BATS Summit (TABS)
Late in November, BATS Theatre hosted the first Annual BATS Summit (TABS), a weekend-long summit for upskilling and opening conversations between Wellington artists. Launched as a companion piece to STAB, BATS’ major development commission for the year, it’s a reassuring and valuable step forward in building mainstream infrastructure for new and established artists, giving them a chance to share knowledge and ideas in a mediated, accessible way.
I was only able to attend one workshop (Auckland Theatre Editor Kate Prior and I spent most of the TABS weekend leading a critical writing workshop): The Art of Advocacy, on the first Friday night. It was sobering, to hear makers talk frankly about the limits of our imagination as independent artists in advocating for investment and for ourselves. But it was also invigorating, to hear those answered with action points and solutions to precarious foundations of independent theatre in New Zealand. For that alone, I’m eager to see what TABS can continue to offer the city.
Yonge opened the year in ecstatic fashion with her unsettling, lump-in-the-throat horror The Basement Tapes. Developed in collaboration with theatre wunderkind Stella Reid, The Basement Tapes was a sensational experiment with sound and space that unravelled inch by excruciating inch, like you were pulling back a loose bit of skin on your finger and went too deep without realising until too late. It was easily one of my favourite shows this year. She followed that with a number of projects, some of which I wasn’t able to get to, like Our Food Story, the big-hearted photo exhibition of communities sharing their favourite childhood foods that she produced with Barbarian Productions and Changemakers Refugee Forum. But I did get to WEiRdO, the musical comedy that she, Waylon Edwards and William Duignan built together that had anxiety, discomfort and anti-colonial fervour set in its bones. Yonge’s a director who can be messy, anarchic and unpredictable with precision, and god it’s fun to watch.
It was a huge year for writer/director/producer Mīria George (Te Arawa, Ngāti Awa, Arorangi (Rarotonga), Areora (Atiu)). Aside from being one of the leaders behind Te Haukāinga, she opened the itchy and ambitious sci-fi The Night Mechanics; she opened Fire In The Water, Fire In The Sky at Porirua’s Pātaka Art + Museum and Te Papa Tongarewa, a dance/art hybrid that critically responded to the 'museum' as an institution in powerful and innovative ways; and she toured last year’s brilliant The Vultures to Auckland. She also won the Bruce Mason Award, the first Pasifika woman to win since the award was established in 1983 (though if we’re being honest, that award is ten years overdue; few other writers could have wowed and provoked people like she did with and what remains). She’s a spectacular and unpredictable writer and with this kind of trajectory, everyone should be paying attention.
Theatreview and the fate of New Zealand theatre reviewing
Earlier this year, Theatreview managing editor John Smythe announced that following several rejected applications to Creative New Zealand for funding, Theatreview would be moving to a community funding model. A few days ago, a new course of treatment – Auckland reviews would be discontinued for lack of funding, with Wellington reviews, continuing through the first quarter of 2018.
I’ve had issues with Theatreview in the past – most notably the thin editorial oversight and the occasional instance of throwing writers under the bus – but it’s an undeniable fact that it was the only outlet in New Zealand that reliably reviewed every single production in New Zealand, serving as an important archive of New Zealand performance. There are other spaces like TheatreScenes in Auckland and Art Murmurs in Wellington, blogs sustained solely by their writers’ love and sweat, but no site that reviews every single production in our major centres.
There’s increasing evidence that the current funding environment is unsustainable even for barebones operations like Theatreview, operations that have been running on love and the smell of an oily rag for a decade plus. We can’t expect people to keep doing this taxing, time-consuming, emotionally draining work for free. That’s a quick road to burning people out and drumming them out of the community. Yet it’s hard to see how we turn all this around.
Header photo: From left to right - Te Kahu Rolleston, Trae Te Wiki, Moana Ete, Mitch Tawhi-Thomas, Rowley Habib (screen), Tanea Heke, Jim Moriarty and Reuben Butler in Portrait of an Artist Mongrel at BATS Theatre. Image credit: Kahu Kutia.