Final Flourish: Ten Moments in Auckland Theatre 2017

Kate Prior surveys the year in Auckland live performance.

Forget the title – there's too many exciting things happening outside the imagined confines of that 'theatre' word. Kate Prior bends the distinctions and surveys the most potent moments in Auckland live performance.


If ever there was an Auckland moment in performance in 2017, FAFSWAG was it. The collective of Pasifika and Māori artists has been mounting vogue balls, art activations and photography work for around five years now, but their 2017 Basement Theatre residency (which we chatted about here) saw them staging three new and adapted works for a more dedicated performance space (which yes, often clashed with that word 'performance'). Those works were Akashi Fisiinaua's banjee realness Femslick, Pati Solomona Tyrell's meditative Fa'aafa and Moe Laga's raw Neon Bootleg.

The Basement location this year meant that while their faithful followers came through, FAFSWAG also engaged a whole new CBD theatre audience who were newer to their work. Constant shapeshifters, the formal hybridity of a collective like FAFSWAG reminds us that those art form distinctions that run across the top of this page (and any kind of binaries) are only as concrete as you imagine them. Now their work is even extending into the digital VR space. Who's quibbling about form when you're about to take over the world?


I tentatively headed to choreographer Sarah Foster-Sproull’s Orchids on my birthday with my mum. Tentative, as I wasn’t sure how far into the yonic imagery we would all be heading. Even if your mum was the first feminist you ever encountered, sometimes you’re still 13 in the lounge with your parents, watching a sex scene on Montana Sunday Theatre, sinking into the floor. I needn’t have worried; Orchids was fucking wondrous and it was a dumb thing to be tentative about anyway. Costume designer Elizabeth Whiting’s palette was earth and dust and pink and just when you felt the tug of wanting something more to evolve from a moment, it did, and by the end ‘the feminine divine’ wasn’t just a nice phrase, it was real and in the room, and I was a blubbing mess. Seeing bodies like mine on stage (but stronger, more precise, and much better at jumping) was so affirming that I felt my spine lengthen on the way out.

It’s impossible for me to write anything more of incisive worth about the show because catharsis has dulled my recall so that two months later all I can remember is the watery, gasping feeling and Foster-Sproull's images transforming from the minute to the statuesque, but Orchids made something bloom inside me. Keep an eye out for a hopeful return.

Auckland Fringe being amazing on nothing

Fringe masterminds Lydia Zanetti and Helen Sheehan put on a festival with $7500 this year. It was packed with so much great work and set me on a theatre rocket into 2017 and we could have missed out on all of it if it wasn’t for their tenacity and belief in what Fringe stands for. Work like the stuff from...

More of those Aussies

This year saw some awesome Australian (or more particularly, Melburnian) experimental performance artists come this way, a rarity for Aotearoa audiences and I hope the beginning of many more Fringey trans-Tasman tours. Firstly, Bron Batten toured her second show to New Zealand shores – the hilarious Onstage Dating, in which her hapless opening night date happened to be a reviewer, which only lent another weird layer to the already weird proceedings. As the show moved through its awful first date rhythms, my face was in a fixed kind of grimace. It was cringingly good. Secondly, Tessa Waters brought her outlandish Over Promises to the New Zealand Comedy Festival in which she ranged about; a sequinned clown. Thirdly – my particular fave – Emma Hall and Prue Clark toured the barbed brilliance of We May Have To Choose to the Basement, a show constructed of our personal aphorisms, our banal de Botton, our strange, illogical, fixed, contradictory meaning maps. I went straight out and bought the beautifully published script they were selling in the bar afterwards – when do you get to do that in New Zealand?

Miriama Mcdowell

Everywhere I turned this year, actor/director/writer Miriama Mcdowell was being a straight-up legend. She kicked off the year winning Best Actress at the New Zealand Film Awards for self-funded feature The Great Maiden’s Blush, giving a brilliant speech about motherhood and filmmaking, that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and basically SUPPORT MOTHERS. A few days after that, she opened her hugely successful Pasifika-inspired Much Ado About Nothing at the Pop-up Globe. The next month she gave a knife-edge precise performance in Cellfish, a play she wrote with Rob Mokoraka and director Jason Te Kare. Later in the year she performed as a rangatira in a sleeping bag korowai in Red Leap's Kororāreka: The Ballad of Maggie Flynn, while on screen we saw her comedy chops in Find Me A Māori Bride and finally in breakout portmanteau feature Waru. That's a big year for anyone. Miriama did nearly all of this while pregnant.

The closure of PIPA

This was unfortunately not a moment to be celebrated. Imagine working towards your grad show after three huge, challenging years at drama school and then reading in the news one morning that your school was going to shut down that week. That’s what happened to Pacific Institute of Performing Arts (PIPA) students a few weeks ago when PIPA’s parent company, BEST Pacific Institute of Education went into liquidation. The grad show the staff and students were working on was finished by staff working for free and the group had to pay for the venue themselves.

PIPA wasn’t a school that was failing. It was a flourishing training ground for Pasifika theatre makers, and grads from PIPA have changed the landscape of the performing arts in Auckland. PIPA grad Leki Bourke, who won four awards for himself and his company at the Auckland Theatre Awards said in a heartfelt article on The Coconet, "as a Pasifika student, no other institute could offer me what PIPA did and no other learning environment could nurture and stimulate me the way PIPA and its amazing staff members had." The closure of PIPA is devastating to our community and industry. Will there be an alternative in the space that it leaves?

The first ever book on dramaturgy from a New Zealand perspective

What wacks me out about PhDs is all those years of thinking going into something that is useful to the academy but often doesn’t reach beyond. What’s awesome about Fiona Graham’s Performing Dramaturgy is that it’s one of the PhDs that broke out of the library. Thanks to Fiona, David O’Donnell at Victoria University, Playmarket and Whitireia Publishing, Fiona's PhD has been adapted into an accessible text for practitioners and anyone interested in the many facets of dramaturgy in New Zealand and mates, we've got ourselves a key text!

Academics and dramaturgs alike love creating conceptual metaphors for the dramaturg: the dramaturg as midwife; the dramaturg as kaitiaki; the dramaturg as boat-builder; the dramaturg as your fun aunty. I love those sweet metaphors too, but what I love even more is super practical frameworks and guides, and this book has both. It also has a great sections on historical context for the dramaturg and dramaturgy in Aotearoa – covering feminist and Māori dramaturgies – which is essentially the history of playwriting in New Zealand. When our recent theatre history is reflected back to us, it’s an important and extremely useful thing. Go buy it.

Victor Rodger and FCC

Playwright Victor has been staging plays and mounting play readings under his FCC banner for several years now. He’s previously said that the collection of work he curates would be the plays he’d programme if he was an artistic director. Well, let’s just acknowledge that he is an artistic director and FCC is giving airtime to some of the most relevant and galvanising international and home grown plays.

This year FCC staged Victor’s 2002 play Ranterstantrum at the Basement in its first ever Auckland outing. As searing and discomforting as it ever was, Lana Lopesi and I had a wiry conversation about it here. In October, FCC staged a wildly successful season of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop. Profoundly necessary, hopeful, and singing in the intimacy of The Basement, we are very lucky punters for Victor Rodger bringing the Olivier-award-winning play to Aotearoa audiences.

Edinburgh success

Edinburgh 2016 was the year when a New Zealand-made play was produced by one of the most revered new writing theatres in the UK (Daffodils at The Traverse). Edinburgh 2017 was when live art we made got nominated alongside some of the best contemporary theatre makers of the moment. Both Binge Culture and Julia Croft and Nisha Madhan were nominated for Total Theatre Awards. This was a huge achievement and I wrote more about it here. Edinburgh is a marathon for the practitioners and producers who are scrambling for visibility, and while no one is in it for the awards, in this instance they symbolise a big payoff. And as former Prime Minister Bill English always said, a win for New Zealand live art is a win for New Zealand.

Alice Snedden and Self-Titled

In the New Zealand Comedy Festival in May, Alice Snedden exploded out of the gates with a debut comedy hour that was certainly not a debut comedy hour. The shape of the content in Self-Titled and Alice's absolutely assured delivery that made you sit back relaxed in your seat, was more akin to someone who had a few of those hours under their belt. Of course you can be awesome on your first go, why not? But it's a whole other journey to make that stuff look easy. Using the power of her laconic charm and well-placed surprise in her arsenal of comedy tricks, Alice did, which made for an astonishing first hour. And that final flourish? Had us all like Meryl on Oscar night.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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