National theatrics, John Callen

Playmarket 40: 40 Years of Playwriting in New Zealand
Laurie Atkinson (ed)
Playmarket, $40.00,
ISBN 9780908607457

Ask an actor or director to speak at a function or write something about theatre, and there’s a good chance they’ll presume it’s themselves they’re being asked to discuss. Playmarket’s history of 40 years amazingly matches my own career in the theatre (and allied) arts, at least in terms of timing, so please excuse any conceit in this brief notice.

On the periphery of the professional theatre scene in Wellington in 1974, while earning a living as a journalist, writing and voicing various small projects, and performing in early New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation dramatised documentaries, I – and everyone in my circle – was well aware of Robert Lord. I had the advantage of having been introduced to Downstage and New Zealand playwriting via the now-defunct Evening Post, for which organ I worked as a sub-editor and sometime columnist. I had seen some of Lord’s work and that of other New Zealand writers. A common feeling at the time was that locally written drama had to stand on its own merits; we couldn’t and shouldn’t give it preference simply because it was local. There was a view that, frankly, local writing wasn’t up to it. Having come from England 10 years earlier, and having spent my upbringing attending London theatre from the age of five, I was just as fascinated by what was on stage here as I had ever been. To me, there was an almost exotic element to theatre in New Zealand, a distinct language that I was keen to learn. I just didn’t comprehend the objections.

Bruce Mason’s voice could be heard through his writing, his performances and the brave theatres that chose to present his works. His performance of The End of the Golden Weather was a watershed in my appreciation of local drama, even with, and maybe because of, his unique vocal delivery. He was a dynamo of a writer, as I found in a very personal way when asked, during a stint as a drama script editor for Radio New Zealand, to talk to him about revising one act of a play he had written especially for us. I was somewhat unsure what the issue was. To me, it seemed to be fine, but I was just “the boy” and duly rang the great playwright. “You will change nothing. Not one word.” He certainly had the courage of his convictions and was prepared to stand by them.

Mervyn Thompson also had courage and was speaking quite loudly, too, along with the ubiquitous Robert Lord and the likes of Joe Musaphia, whose works were remarkably underrated. James McNeish and Brian McNeill added an indelible stamp on the founding pages of our theatrical literary history. Roger Hall, already writing television scripts, was observing from the wings.

Sadly, there were, even within the theatre industry, voices of doom declaring that Kiwis weren’t interested in seeing themselves on stage. At Radio New Zealand, we performed mostly English plays, with only occasional excursions into our own story landscape. As a young actor/director, it was clear to me that many were unthinkingly dismissive of local writing. Colonial cultural cringe was the rule.

Lord was the leader of those who recognised that New Zealand voices were just as valid as any others and were even more appropriate for our ears, that the stories could be universal, even in their unique setting of a still-doubtful 1970s Aotearoa. But it was tough going. Lord realised that, without some kind of support and archive, some very good works were likely to be lost and our theatrical heritage left severely lacking. In late 1973, with Nonnita Rees and later Judy Russell and Ian Fraser, he started Playmarket specifically to support New Zealand writers, a function it has since developed to a high standard. This they did despite the initial refusal of the then Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council to proffer any real assistance, and certainly no money. The Council changed their collective minds only after extensive submissions from professional theatres, but even so the cash didn’t start arriving until 1975. The rest, as we say, is history and this history very much informs our present. Today, there is strong support for existing and budding playwrights. Initial licensing has developed to 400 licences per year from 500 submissions. Script assessment and feedback, publishing and agency functions, have grown into a valuable united resource for writers. New Zealand now has a rightful downstage-centre voice in its own theatrical performance.

Playmarket 40 appears at first glance to be little more than a chronological list of milestones, with social and political settings of the times in which to place those events. The Playmarket Annual – New Zealand Theatre 2012 provides a more detailed list of who wrote what, when, what was staged where and when and by whom. Here are names that didn’t just forge, but shaped and moulded and drove the theatrical machinery of the nation. Closer inspection of Playmarket 40 reveals a valuable lesson in perseverance and faith. Essays and comments, observations and critiques give an informed view of the development of performing arts in the theatre. Playmarket has grown exponentially with the population and allied arts, film and television. The early work has enabled more and more writers to accept that today they can be professionals, just as actors and directors can. The place of women in this adventure is given rightful attention, despite there having been a long period when male writers dominated in terms of their work being performed. The rise of Maori voices and those of the Pacific community were added to the mix, bringing a challenging harmony that persists today as an acknowledged justification of the faith and courage of Lord and Rees.

Playmarket 40 is not a hard read; it is easy and quick, and I devoured each page. Yes, I have a vested interest. I doubt it will be a big seller, but I shall always treasure my copy. My joy in the ongoing development of Playmarket was marked by working with so many of the wonderful people, far too numerous to name, who fill their archive and, as actor and director, on scripts that have helped shape not just New Zealand’s theatrical landscape but my own career. Thanks to them all and thanks for Playmarket 40.


John Callen is an Auckland actor, writer and director, currently on-screen as Oin in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.


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