Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 13. 1967.
Is theatre dead ? — Professor Roberts writes on Downstage
Is theatre dead ? — Professor Roberts writes on Downstage
Is Theatre Dead? A corpse in a condition of reflexive reaction soon to give place to an embalmed stillness attractive only to the necrophagic scholar. Impressed by the greater technical means and the popularity of film and television, there are a few brave critics who do neither bewail declining support for the contemporary theatre nor exude the effluvia of cultism that remains. For them a corpse is a corpse. Better bury it and get on with the lively arts. The theatre is dead. Long live the media.
If they are right why should we now celebrate the third year of Downstage's existence? Living, hand to mouth, as it always has done and dependent for its margin of existence on the unconscious bounty of a gambling nation; playing as it must to a tiny audience, does it not confirm that theatre is a mummy wrapped in the winding clothes of civic culture and intellectual snobbery?
No one has an answer to the general question. But Downstage, specifically, is alive. On its third anniversary it is necessary to ask why this presumptuous venture should have survived innumerable crises of economics, doctrine and temperament. Downstage has been steadfastly unreliable. Neither the audience (nor, often enough, the management) know what will happen next. It has no repertoire. Of the 49 separate productions, only one has been repeated. There has been no period of settled theatrical direction. The management of Downstage has been, and is still a moot point. Although there is a supporting society, Downstage does not have the faithful clientele of the amateur societies. In the theatrical bestiary it is an unlikely animal.
This, say the knockers, is the main—and wasting—asset of Downstage. It is a novelty like a two-headed calf. In the long run it is merely a monstrosity. Theatre is a matter of traditions; the comfortable seat, the stage dominated by the proscenium arch, the concentration of attention by the logical ordering of the parts. It cannot be a nervous melange of eating house and theatre in which nothing remains static. A theatre where the most mobile element of all is the stage itself is an absurdity. It is simply not showbiz to disorient all of the people all of the time.
One can only ask how long does it take for novelty to wear off. One month, a year, five years. There has been no dropping off in audiences, no sign of irritation with the constant shifts in the arena. Rather, the audience appears to adjust instantly to the sudden transformation of some anonymous bit of floor space into a student's flat, a training college lecture room, or boudoir of the haut monde.
By Professor J. L. Roberts, Professor of Public Administration at Victoria University.
Professor Roberts was first president of Downstage and until this year a member of the management committee.
This may be mere indifference. Downstage may well be a restaurant with a peculiar floor show—drama as a digestive pill. If it is, some of the pills have been bitter ones and others sufficient to choke a critic let alone an overstuffed diner. The Homecoming is not calculated to enhance the flow of vital juices nor is Happy Days adapted to post prandial relaxation. Theatrical policy at Downstage has never been much influenced by the need to feed people. This has always been an incidental economic necessity in the search for a system which would enable serious theatre to survive and lodge securely in the esteem of a particular community.
The search began three years ago when Tim Elliot, Martyn Sanderson and Peter Bland, disgusted with the conditions for the practice of their profession, asked Harry Seresin— for whom the word entrepreneur might have been especially fashioned, to join them in the establishment of a theatre.
At that time the whole project seemed absurd. There was no money, no precedent, no organisational assistance. The double collapse of the New Zealand Players, an organisation which had secured nationwide backing of a most comprehensive kind, seemed to condemn to instant oblivion any proposition less well supported. In ballet and opera a large and well-oiled subsidy programme only just sustained the companies above the failure level. Only music among the arts seemed to have found a mighty fortress in the Broadcasting Corporation.
Downstage in embryo looked a fair candidate for abortion. It was saved by three limited factors. The right objectives, the right people, and the right time.
In a sense Downstage owes a great debt to the New Zealand Players. For every goal the Players sought, Downstage looked for its opposite. Where the Players were national and ambitious in their plea for support, Downstage was local and modest. The Players were essentially a touring company, Downstage tours only very occasionally. And then in the Wellington region. Where the Players had to make concessions to commercialism in their dramatic policy, Downstage adheres strictly to a policy of dramatic significance and to standards of performance dictated by the needs of the play rather than the clamour of the groundlings.
With the occasional exception of this last (and it must be admitted, most important) objective Downstage has managed to maintain this antipodean position.
The men in the life of Downstage were less steadfast perhaps, but no less important. Since it was small, the fuel provided by Elliot, Sanderson and Bland could move the vehicle a fair distance. The first production, Ionescu's Exit the King depended heavily on their skills and Zoo Story, by Edwin Albee, the first theatre cafe production, starred none other than Martyn Sanderson and Peter Bland. There were obviously talents of a high order in the venture and they attracted other talent by a sort of creative osmosis.
Downstage has never lacked ideas and ability from its earliest days. But talent alone cannot sustain a theatre. Administrative gifts are required, and political skill of a high order. I am not sure how Harry Seresin came into Downstage, but I am certain that it would not exist without him. His experience as a restaurateur, his charm, his sensitivity to the needs of a [unclear: c] environment and above athological optimism are built the fabric of Down-stage
One [unclear: oth] must be mentioned, [unclear: As Dow] fearfully opened its [unclear: rather ta] doors on the corner Terrace and Courte-of camb [unclear: essor] D. F. McKenzie of the [unclear: ty's] English Depart-ment [unclear: too] the Presidency. He remians [unclear: pre]-president of Down-stage [unclear: aer] member of the Threatre [unclear: a](a classical victim of [unclear: organtal] infant mortality) and a [unclear: it] member of the Drama [unclear: c] of the Queen Elizabeth II. Council.
Professor McKenzie would not thanks me the ecomium I could legitimate write. I dare only to venture without his ability to be [unclear: toug] when toughness was needed, [unclear: tchless] skill in translating [unclear: less] meanderings of his [unclear: com] into effective pro-grammers his courage in standing up the arts bureaucracy. that [unclear: wove] been that. It is also a [unclear: m] of some pride to the [unclear: Universi] Downstage owes an [unclear: bt] to the large number of stand students who have laboured in their hands in the kitchen a with their bottoms in endless tee [unclear: meetings].
But [unclear: tives] and the people would [unclear: sted] their sweetness had [unclear: lie] shrugged their shoulders it turned back to their idiot [unclear: box] Instead, they came and [unclear: hav] coming. I must be careful [unclear: to] extrapolate from insufficient data. I see no necessary [unclear: rev] of theatre in Downstage [unclear: ence], but there must have [unclear: nething] lacking for succeed from such small [unclear: ngs], such miniscule [unclear: adevertisi] and in the initially scungy [unclear: es] of a bankrupt coffee [unclear: ho]
Three [unclear: ble] explanations suggest [unclear: the]. Human contact and [unclear: hum armth] is still a commercial [unclear: modity]. Downstage may on [unclear: sions] have provided all too [unclear: -] contact and sweaty heat as [unclear: bstitute] for warmth, but it is [unclear: nstrably] human, odd, spare, [unclear: ar]. From the girls Who [unclear: seve] coffee to the Admirable [unclear: Cri] who builds the sets (and [unclear: tal leading] roles in the [unclear: Produc] Downstage is the antithesis [unclear: mpersonal] electronic efficiency.
The [unclear: se] reason is more important. [unclear: I] can sell only so much that is [unclear: th] seeing in showbiz. The [unclear: lar] proportion must be glup. [unclear: tage] has not found it necessory sell glup. The most [unclear: epheme evue], the lightest musical [unclear: he] had bite and wit. There [unclear: se] to be a proportion of the [unclear: popul] with the discrimination to [unclear: ra] this fact.
Finally most important. The peculiar atenations of circum-stances [unclear: h] prevented the formation of [unclear: lt], Squares, hippies, scists, eggheads and [unclear: business] all come and all are welcome.[unclear: I] has something to do with the [unclear: staurant] side of the deal. [unclear: The] with whom you break bread are [unclear: ur] companions of spirit and [unclear: min t] is in itself so human an [unclear: activ] that it destroys the [unclear: distinctio] expressed in the blue rinses [unclear: th let] the front stalls on Reportory pening night agleam and the [unclear: ards] and duffle coats that fug [unclear: a] Unity production.
This [unclear: al] but receptive atmosphere [unclear: hi] permitted the widest range of [unclear: amatic] experiment in Downstage. The audience is so mixed, [unclear: t] basis of support so broad that there is simply no temptation to select plays to flatter any particular prejudices except those of the producer and management. From. say. Lady Audley's Secret to, say, Anna Lockwood's Glass Concert is a long journey dramatically. I doubt that many theatres besides Downstage could make it.
Unfortunately this has its negative side. The very freedom has led to disputes among the artistic directors. What Downstage should do and how it should do it became in time about the dreariest Agenda ever handed to an exhausted and deadlocked Management Committee. In the end. Martyn Sanderson, who had been acting as temporary director, felt it best to resign in favour of an import from the United Kingdom. Sandy Black.
The dispute turned partly on the professional policy of Downstage and partly on personality. Money, the ancient curse of theatre, prevented a rational decision. It still does. Although Downstage pays for its theatrical services, it does so at a rate which is simply derisory in relation to other professions. It is odd that the worthy citizens who sit in committees of management at all levels, seem to feel that well qualified artists ought to be happy to muck in at half the salary that any self-respecting member of another profession would consider adequate.
It would be pleasant to record that the employment of Mr. Black solved Downstage's problems, but Mr. Black left Downstage within a few months. It may be that the worries over management are misplaced. Downstage, which has longed, as a fourth former longs for a daemon lover, for some managerial wizard to give it shape and direction may have been whoring after false gods.
Perhaps a venture like Downstage, abhorring the vacuum caused by managerial crises, generates creative excitement simply by the act of rushing in to fill them.
The original dispensation is important still. Downstage was set up to provide a framework for the talents of Elliot, Sanderson, Bland and Baxter. Sanderson is in Australia at the moment, but he may very well return. The other two are the dramatic constants among the Downstage variables as was Sanderson during his term as Artistic Director. This must complicate any solution to the managerial problem.
There is another factor, however. Downstage is an Incorporated Society with subscription paying members. They must be assured of effective executive management. It is also a beneficiary of Arts Council grants. The Council has emphatically insisted on effective management. The solution may be to leave the business side in the hands of a business man and contemplate alternating regimes of Artistic Direction. This is a principle well known to a post-Freudian era called going along with the facts of life.
In any case, what do temporary managerial difficulties matter in the face of such achievement. Since May. 1964, when Exit the King mystified audiences in the University Theatre. Downstage has played to more than 86.000 people. It has mounted 49 separate productions and 12 of these have been plays written by New Zealand authors or theatrical occasions conceived by New Zealand artists. Albee, Genet, Pinter. Ionescu, Beckett, Musgrave have been given skilled and sympathetic hearings among living playwrights. The glorious dead, Shaw, Chekov, Gogol. Moliere, have been pressed irreverently into the service of a modem theatre, Shortly, Hamlet, the boss of the herd of sacred cows is to receive the Downstage treatment.
And all this, Downstage's anonymous audience has eaten up along with the anonymous food. There are no observable preferences. They rolled up in droves for Happy Days to watch Pat Evison disappear into a hole while speaking the lines of the most elusive modern playwright. They voted with their feet for a melodrama that one might have expected to roll them in the aisles.
This is the baffling and wryly amusing conclusion on Downstage. God knows why it persists. God only knows that it does. And I believe that the Wellington public will demand that it should be supported as generously from public funds as theatrical ventures in other cities. Downstage is still in debt, still struggling with its establishment costs and the expenses of converting the premises into a workable theatre restaurant. It would be a wonderful and fitting third birthday present from a grateful populace if the Arts Council could be persuaded to disgorge the six or seven thousand pounds needed to relieve the liveliest group in New Zealand's theatrical history of its last worrying burden.