Roar of the greasepaint, Frances Edmond

Downstage Upfront
John Smythe
Victoria University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0864734891

In Downstage’s first year, 1964, I saw the Beatles in the Wellington Town Hall and screamed and cried along with thousands of other teenagers – girls mostly. The next year my parents took me to see Oh! What a Lovely War at the Paramount. I was 15 and can still conjure up the strange thrill, the feeling of risk and excitement induced by sitting in a darkened space watching real people sing and dance and talk. I did not know it was a Downstage production, but I was enthralled.

In 1976 as a young actor, fresh out of drama school, I joined the Downstage Theatre Company. By that time the Hannah Playhouse had been built, and Downstage was well established. In fact, in a letter to Act magazine a patron condemned Downstage as “becoming too establishment: the number of fur coats and expense-account wives seems to double with each new production.” I recall that the auditorium always smelt of food when you came on stage, and there were apocryphal stories of stoned kitchen staff making garlic icecream.

Downstage was only 12 years old, but none of the original team was still involved. Until I read John Smythe’s book, I did not know in any detail the inspirational story of its beginnings. I knew the names – Martyn Sanderson, Tim Eliott, Peter Bland, Harry Seresin – but not much more. The ephemeral nature of theatre, the immediacy of performance demands, the financial lurching from crisis to crisis mean the present can be so all consuming that there is no room for the past. Downstage Upfront is therefore a significant contribution to remembering not just Downstage but where New Zealand theatre came from and how it might negotiate a more certain future.

Smythe is a writer, director, actor, teacher, critic, theatre animal. He not only writes this fascinating and turbulent story, he is part of it – his professional acting career began at Downstage. With its stunning cover photo of Catherine Wilkin in Colin McColl’s memorable 1990 production of Hedda Gabler, Downstage Upfront is not just a meticulously comprehensive history of a playhouse – every production is listed – it also traces the emergence of a genuine New Zealand theatre. It is a testament to the visionary struggles and sheer bloody-minded persistence that have made it possible for us to take for granted that we can go to our theatres and see New Zealand plays.

In 1964 Tim Eliott observed: “’There is no great hope for our New Zealand culture as something distinct and immediately identifiable and unique in the world.’” Even in 1978 Raymond Hawthorne in an interview for Art in New Zealand could say:

“I still don’t think New Zealand has much character. I mean it’s easy to write about an English situation because everyone’s a total individual in England aren’t they? … whereas you can meet seventy-five New Zealanders a day who are as dull as bloody ditchwater. Nice. Lovely people – but dull!”

 

Oh yes?

As a counterpoint to these expressions of cultural cringe, Bruce Mason, a guiding beacon, illuminates the pages with his lucid and elegant prose. His perceptive reviewing and his sharply intelligent critique of New Zealand’s struggles to develop a culture of its own are underpinned by an ardent commitment to writing and the performing arts. In 1968 Mason described George Webby’s review of his play Awatea as

lacerating invective disembowelling not only the play but the author …. I find it remarkable that in a country where the arts, far from flourishing, have barely taken root, an artistic failure can evoke a furious satisfaction.

 

Recording Mason’s death in 1982, Smythe notes that “This book will be the poorer for lacking the frisson of Bruce’s passion, compassion and rigour.” Indeed!

Early responses to the question of whether or not we should do New Zealand plays included variations of “Only if they are as good as those from overseas” or this from Tony Taylor: “‘a New Zealand play should not be “done” simply because it is a New Zealand play … not enough good New Zealand plays are coming through.’” Our Calvinist heritage – we work longer hours than many other countries in the western world – ensured that if the arts were to survive they had to do it on their own. There was no room for such self-indulgent nonsense as “nurture”. And gosh how difficult it was to get approval, how grudgingly and sparingly it was given and what an unforgiving attitude towards mistakes. Colin McColl, discussing the difficulty of programming a theatre, remarks: “’It’s like playing the futures market. If we knew the answers we’d all be millionaires, like Andrew Lloyd-Webber.’”

Smythe both comments on and exposes a history of public arts policy that has sometimes been meddlesome and shortsighted, while at others breathtakingly stupid and ignorant. The reader is forced to reflect on the endless struggle to survive that not only Downstage but theatres nationwide have had in a precarious financial environment. Downstage Upfront is an eloquent portrayal of the obvious truth that dreams and ideals are not enough; it takes hard cash, political commitment and enormous energy to keep a theatre like Downstage alive. All over again I was enraged by the inexorable march of new right thinking, as Downstage struggled under the burden of the absurd user-pays mentality of the 1980s and 90s.

But I think that Smythe was suggesting something else as well: that we New Zealanders have difficulty taking a long-term view of ourselves and our culture. In these narrow islands far away from everywhere, we have had to work hard to develop a sense of who we are. In the jostling for space and light, we have often turned on each other without mercy, fighting for a share of a meagre pie. In the late 90s as Downstage lay bleeding, Philip Matthews published an article in the New Zealand Listener entitled “End Game”. In the article Matthews put the question: “What good is Downstage Theatre?” One of those he interviewed was Simon Prast, then director of the Auckland Theatre Company. Prast took the opportunity to feed the old Auckland/Wellington feud (whose ruling tenet is: when the other stumbles, go in for the kill). Like Ellie Smith, I found myself wondering: “’Why can’t we all just get along?’”

On a lighter note the text is rich in incidental comments that reveal theatre life with its artistic temperaments, feuds, personality conflicts, and hints at the affairs, relationship breakdowns, and damaged egos that are all part of the set dressing and without which the theatre would – well, not be the theatre.

I was by turns delighted, moved, frustrated, outraged but always engrossed by the Downstage story through which stride men and women whose idealism and tenacity have ensured its incredible survival amid often stultifying politics. Downstage Upfront contains a plea for an intelligent assessment of the place of theatre, and by implication of the arts in general, in a vibrant society and of course for more realistic funding. As an aside, I regularly drive past the old Mercury Theatre. While the fact that it is now a church has a certain symbolism, the loss of it as a theatre never fails to cause me a pang. Now there’s another story.

Finally, bravo, a round of applause for Smythe and to Downstage who will, I trust, continue to rise like a phoenix. And to the indomitable life force of the theatrical spirit that drives each new generation to embark on a life of poverty and uncertainty for the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd!

 

Frances Edmond is an Auckland screenwriter.

 

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Posted in Art, History, Non-fiction and Review
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