Rebellious Mirrors: Community-based Theatre in Aotearoa/New Zealand
Canterbury University Press, $45.00,
Twenty New Zealand Playwrights
Michelanne Forster and Vivienne Plumb
Though differing in approach, tone and content, there are strong connections between these two books. Both make a significant contribution to the story of theatre in New Zealand. Both rely on interviews to help tell that story. And their authors are professional theatre practitioners, deeply and personally engaged in their chosen subject.
Rebellious Mirrors tells the story of professional, community-based theatre in New Zealand. Paul Maunder’s agenda is to reclaim the invisible. Speaking of Taki Rua’s core work in touring a te reo show each year, he observes: “we never hear of this, for like all community-based work it takes place silently.” The opening chapters make plain that community-based theatre work often goes unrecorded and unacknowledged by the wider theatre community. Another aspect of invisibility comes in contrast to text-based theatre with an identified author: hence the claim that New Zealand theatre came of age with Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament (though the play was first performed in 1980, not 1985 as Maunder maintains). With community-based theatre, the artists must often subvert their own desires to the greater good of the community being served. In talking of his early experiences, Maunder notes: “It involved a giving up of theatre establishment notice – reviews, articles, etc. Even more importantly, it involved a difficult recasting of the artist’s role, a relinquishing of a personal creative agenda.”
Maunder has a lifetime’s experience as a theatre practitioner, and was one of the co-founders of Amamus (1971-78), which he characterises as experimental, counter-cultural, anti-establishment, nationalist, political and in some respects, community-based. Thus, he writes from a position of immersion and lived artistic experience. Rebellious Mirrors reworks his PhD on the subject – as is evident in layout, content, and the testing of each group examined according to key definitions of “community theatre”.
Early chapters contextualise the history of New Zealand theatre through the refracting mirror of the community-based theatre model, here and overseas. Maunder sets out his definitions and discusses 1970s companies such as Theatre Action. He puts forward the Town and Country Players (1980-85) as the first New Zealand attempt at a community-based theatre. He also argues that the early Maori theatre movement initially had a strong community impulse at its heart, alongside connections with the Pakeha avant-garde, basing his discussion on interviews with key participants Rori Hapipi, Brian Potiki and Jim Moriarty.
The bulk of the book is taken up with discussion and analysis of the key community theatre groups and practitioners who, in Maunder’s view, represent the maturing of the form. Here, he states a key point: that “as a neo-liberal society was created, the community sector began to assume an official role”. This material comes largely from interviews with the practitioners, and, again, Maunder argues that while he may only be providing snapshots that may soon be out of date, he sees it as “absolutely vital to begin to make the diversity of community-based theatre practice in this country visible.” In light of the fact that, as he points out, there has been very little documentation of community theatre to date, it is difficult to argue with his view.
Companies examined include Jim Moriarty and Te Rakau Hua O Te Wao Tapu, Sam Scott (Massive Theatre Company), Tony McCaffrey (A Different Light), Elizabeth O’Connor (Skillwise) and Simon O’Connor (Talking House), amongst others. These and the other groups explored touch on a range of communities, including prisoners, youth, the disabled, regional communities, students and marae theatre. As Moriarty says, when asked the difference between marae theatre and the mainstream: “The curtains don’t get drawn, the lights don’t go down. This is theatre for life.” Maunder nicely expresses the nature of Moriarty’s early group-created pieces, born from a standard set of provocations as having “a ritualistic sameness to them, in the same way as the Catholic mass has a necessary sameness.” Maunder has selected his companies to represent regions across the entire country, from Auckland to Dunedin. There are omissions, such as Miranda Harcourt’s work in the area, but there is no imperative that this book should tell the complete story. In discussing the work of Taki Rua, Maunder extends the notion of community even further, referring to their touring work as community and nation. One feels a sense of mission, above all, in Maunder, who refers to himself as “in the twilight of my own career”, to shine a light on a significant, but largely unsung, sector of New Zealand theatre, which this book accomplishes.
While Maunder may feel that community theatre has been invisible, there is a certain irony in the approach of Forster’s and Plumb’s book, which celebrates writers largely from the New Zealand theatre mainstream, and yet makes a similar claim. As Murray Edmond’s introduction points out, dramatic writing has been virtually unacknowledged in the two extant anthologies/histories of New Zealand literature. In rebuttal of this extraordinary omission, he suggests “the past 30 years of playwriting practice … represent the strongest literary contribution of that period.”
Forster and Plumb begin with the premise that the act of creation comes first from the script. They accordingly interview here “20 of New Zealand’s most performed and studied playwrights”, in 19 interviews. (Justin Lewis and Jacob Rajan are interviewed together, as they have co-created much of the work of the Indian Ink Theatre Company.) This is not, in fact, the first book to interview New Zealand playwrights. Performing Aotearoa (2007) included six substantial interviews with playwrights, five of whom – Duncum, Henderson, Rajan, Grace-Smith and Chanwai-Earle – are also represented in this current volume, Jean Betts being the sixth. But detailed and sustained attention to leading practitioners is a very healthy sign of a thriving theatre community, as the Preface and Edmond’s Introduction also point out.
This set of interviews works particularly well, because the questions are astute, and the resulting (edited) conversations are sharp and clear. One feels the personalities of the writers very strongly emerging from these pages. Indeed, for those who may wish to see them in action, selections from the live interviews can be found online via the Playmarket website (www.playmarket.org.nz). The key point is that every interview springs from discussion of one particular play, each selected by the playwright, which assumes it holds a particular place in elucidating that writer’s history, philosophy or working methodology.
So, for Renée, it is her classic, much-studied Wednesday To Come; for Briar Grace-Smith, it is the story of how she came to research and write Haruru Mai; for Ken Duncum, it is his adaptation of The Great Gatsby. This latter interview makes a strong case for allowing a play the chance to breathe and develop. As many of the playwrights bemoan, too often their work is seen once and then abandoned in favour of “the next great thing”. In the case of Fiona Samuel, she still has not found a company willing to stage her most recent and arguably best work, Ghost Train, which is given life and recognition within this volume. Duncum describes in detail an editing process that has developed his script through professional productions at the Court and at Circa Theatre, and beyond. But, despite his success, he is still in the hands of others for his work’s visibility: “Now I feel the script is in its most strong, powerful, dependable form. But I need somebody to put that on as a production … .” Fighting that scenario, Rajan and Lewis and Hone Kouka are amongst those interviewed who have formed their own production companies to regain a sense of autonomy and power over their own craft.
The book, which also includes often unpublished excerpts from the plays under discussion, ranges across many topics of interest, from the power and love of language, as championed by Kouka and others, to the cry of not wanting to be typecast, as Grace-Smith, Roger Hall and others forcefully express, to the shattering or anger-evoking effect of harsh critical reviews. Victor Rodger produces some useful advice: “Keep writing until your toes don’t curl.”
Above all, the power of the creative act, and the delight and compulsion each writer feels towards it (even when, like Victor Rodger, they have a self-confessed tendency to procrastinate), shine most forcefully throughout the volume. Overall, they suggest theatre’s essential strengths, even when in competition with film. Fiona Samuel longs for “strong meat, the mature engagement with the human condition.” And, as Dave Armstrong delightfully points out: “That’s why it’s called a play! That’s why we are called playwrights. We must play … .”
Lisa Warrington is an associate professor in Theatre Studies at the University of Otago.