Why now is the right time for a New Zealand Theatre Month

Roger Hall hopes that New Zealand’s first “theatre month” will highlight to Kiwis just how diverse and thriving the stage scene currently is.

The veteran playwright is the driving force behind the initiative, which has been embraced by the theatre community across the country. Productions of New Zealand plays old and new will be staged from Whangarei to Invercargill throughout September, while panel discussions and other events are also scheduled.

Now 79, Hall, the writer of beloved Kiwi comedies like Glide Time, Middle Age Spread, C’Mon Black and Social Climbers, says a nationwide celebration of New Zealand theatre is something that he’s long wanted to see happen.

“We set up a committee about four years ago, but we couldn’t agree on how to do it. It was just hopeless, to be honest. Then, at the beginning of last year, I remembered how, back in 1989, I set up the first New Zealand Writers Week by myself. It’s not so much about vanity, but more if you do things that way you’ve got no one to argue with – you just make decisions.”

Roger Hall hopes the inaugural NZ Theatre Month will highlight to all Kiwis just how diverse and vibrant our stage scene is.

Roger Hall hopes the inaugural NZ Theatre Month will highlight to all Kiwis just how diverse and vibrant our stage scene is.

However, Hall admits that, this time around, he quickly realised he needed help. “So I said to one of my coffee mates, Malcolm Calder, who is very experienced in theatre administration, quite casually, ‘how would you like to help me?’ Well, he’s been working about 27 hours a day ever since.”

Hall, who is the chair of the project trust’s board, likens himself to the captain of the bridge, while Calder, the executive director, is “down in the engine room doing all the hard work”.

But why introduce a month-long celebration of Kiwi theatre when, as the success of recent shows like That Bloody Woman and Hudson & Halls Live! have shown, New Zealand penned-productions are often the ones packing audiences in?

“Well, although we have an amazing theatre scene by and large, the public is not aware of it,” Hall reasons. “It just doesn’t loom large in the national conscience because it tends to be everything fighting their local corner – and fighting to stay alive in cases. I just want us as an industry to take more pride in what we do and be proud of what we have – because it’s astonishing.”

He says even regular Auckland theatregoers seem to have no idea of the range and diversity of performances taking place within city’s thriving theatre scene. “There are masses of stuff in basements and bars – it is absolutely humming. And that’s one reason for creating a theatre month, to say to people, ‘listen guys, you are living in an amazing time for theatre, so get out there and enjoy it’. Asian theatre is spreading, there’s now an Indian theatre company apart from Indian Ink, it’s springing up everywhere and it’s very exciting.”

Hall himself was at the forefront of the first golden age of New Zealand theatre in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Plays like his Middle Age Spread, Glide Time and Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament generated huge excitement amongst the dinner-party hosting “chattering classes”, Hall says.

“My standard joke is, in my day you had to put the words ‘New Zealand Play’ on a poster like a government health warning because people were very nervous, self-conscious and not sure what they were getting. But then, we got people into theatre, men in particular, who never used to go. When Glide Time, for example, came out, I’d hear from men who said, ‘I didn’t want to go to that, but the wife made me come and I really with enjoyed that’, with a great tone of surprise. They discovered that theatre could be enjoyed, it wasn’t just something posh people went to.”

Hall knows that with competition like “the flat screen in the corner of your house that’s shows Netflix”, live theatres need to up their game to keep their audiences sustainable.

“And I don’t think theatre has quite faced up to that enough. I think companies could do a lot more to get people out.”

Lamenting the demise of his former home Dunedin’s professional theatre company the Fortune earlier this year, he says that as much as some involved in the industry sneer at doing “box office hits”, crowdpleasers and school holiday shows for kids, “you do need to keep a strong eye on what’s going to succeed”.

“However, hindsight is a very good friend and I think theatre directors have an unenviable task. Everybody knows what plays you should put on, but the reality is a lot harder. You’ve got to fill the theatre, appeal to diverse audiences, are probably being pushed by Creative NZ to do a wide variety of stuff and, on top of that, create a profit.

“Compare a theatre to an art gallery for example, who get thousands of visitors a year. But would people go if they had to pay $20, $30 to go in? You bet your life they wouldn’t.”

Hall though is delighted with the response from theatre companies to the theatre month concept.

“The Court [in Christchurch] are the perfect example. As soon as they heard about it, they instantly leapt on board and have been hugely supportive. Others are yet to be convinced about it, but are still doing something. But, when all is said and done, it’s an unknown quantity and we are in it for the long haul.”

Hoping that it will inspire community theatre groups to search the extensive back catalogue of New Zealand plays (“One of my disappointments this year was I was really hoping someone would bring back Renee’s Wednesday to Come and some of Mervyn Thompson’s great works like Children of the Poor – what a wonderful time to do that now”) and save them for next September, Hall says he is heartened by groups who have told them they are already planning for Theatre Month 2019.

Christchurch’s Top Dog Theatre founder Derek Doddington says his group decided to get behind the concept as soon as they found out about it.

“I think it’s a great idea and the combined marketing power is really helpful for smaller groups like ourselves.”

British born, Doddington has lived in New Zealand for two decades now and says that while the company originally performed often quite gritty UK plays, they were more than happy to perform a Kiwi play with a “real feel good factor”.

Kate Di Goldi’s The ACB with Honora Lee is “a lovely little play”, he adds, saying that finding a New Zealand penned-show was easy. “There are plenty of good New Zealand-written shows out there.”

Doddington believes that Christchurch theatre audiences have held up well since the 2011 earthquakes damaged many venues. “If anything, they are just as healthy as they were before, I don’t think it has affect people’s desire to get out and see stuff.”

For him, the enduring appeal of live theatre is its personal nature.

“It’s an actual evening out that gets you away from the blooming telly, gets you socialising. You can get a group of friends together, have a drink beforehand and watching something live. Sometimes, if you’re in the front row, you’re just two metres away from the actors – right in it, right amongst it.”

Wellington-based playwright Dave Armstrong is another unabashed fan of a theatre month.

While some plays attract large, diverse audiences, Dave Armstrong says he still meets many people who tell him about those who've never seen a live show.

While some plays attract large, diverse audiences, Dave Armstrong says he still meets many people who tell him about those who’ve never seen a live show.

The author of hit shows like Niu Sila, Kings of the Gym and The Motor Camp, and whose company is performing Dean Parker’s Wonderful at Bats Theatre as part of the festivities, says that while there are people who say “every month is New Zealand theatre month” because of the number of Kiwi plays performed at places like Auckland’s Basement Theatre or Wellington’s Bats, he is still surprised by the number of people he meets who say they know someone who has “never been to a play before”.

“And I’ll think it’s someone in the outer suburbs who is unemployed and they go, ‘no, this person is a lower or a highly-educated graduate’.”

So while Armstrong is impressed with the diversity of theatre audiences (and theatre makers) in 2018, he believes some people still have phobias about attending a play.

“They dread that they are going to get dragged up on stage or tortured in some way. But the great thing about a play is that it is communal. I had a comedy being performed in Nelson once and the power went off, but the play continued because they had one emergency lightbulb and the actors incorporated the situation into the plot. I’m sure the audience liked it more because of that, because they could appreciate how clever the actors were.”

Armstrong believes that’s one of the key advantages live theatre has over movies or television.

“Theatre can work so you believe anything taking place on stage. As Roger Hall says, ‘if someone says, ‘this is your pilot speaking, we’re 20,000 feet above sea level’, you believe it because you want to believe it’. With movies, you spend a lot of time going, ‘gee, Leonardo’s wig doesn’t look too good, I can see that he’s not 80’, whereas if an actor comes on, particularly without make-up and just acts – you believe it. I remember Dave Fane came out as a 14-year-old girl going on a date and I really wanted him to go on a date with this boy. I suddenly realised I was looking at this very large Samoan man with a beard, but I was so taken with his acting, I believed it.

“We jokingly call it ‘the magic of theatre’, but it really is.”

For more information about NZ Theatre Month, including what’s on and where, see theatremonth.nz

– James Croot
Stuff

Video: ELEPHANT PUBLICITY/YOUTUBE


Click here to view all NZ Theatre Month shows currently ticketed through iTICKET.

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