Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33, No. 3 18 March 1970
Drama in New Zealand
Drama in New Zealand
I cannot pretend to know what is going on in drama it New Zealand. I doubt whether anyone else can either. In Wellington, we, that is those of us who are interested, hear the occasional cry of pain from Dunedin when Patric Carey threatens to abandon his struggle to keep the Globe Theatre alive, we try to keep the I-told-you-so look out of our eyes as we listen to rumours of trials and tribulations at Auckland's Mercury Theatre, we avert our thoughts from the professional theatre debacle in Christchurch, and, return, gratefully, to the Wellington theatrical scene.
This is perhaps the most surprising attitude of all. Somehow we feel safe with the Arts Council on our doorstep; we enjoy heaping of financial wheeler-dealering at Downstage (as if to suggest that while things are murky, there will always be a dinner-and-show there, albeit of unpredictable quality in either department); we continue amazed that Nola Millar's Theatre-in-the-Loft is still flourishing ("I believe her drama classes are marvellous"); we grudgingly admire—and envy—Ngaio Revue's acumen in getting a piece of the Town Belt to build its monstrously unaesthetic club rooms on (and its greater acumen in getting the Mayor for its patron); we cast a benign eye over Unity Theatre and Stagecraft. In the main, we admire them all, and, in the main, we go to none of them. Most of the theatres exist as a hobby for their members, and it can be said even of Downstage that its ability to stay solvent (come now, be kind) rests too heavily on patrons more interested in wining and dining, in being seen where others are being seen, than in dedicated theatregoers.
Following World War II, there was a tremendous interest in amateur theatre. Visiting professional groups—including the best in the English-speaking world at the time—played to packed houses, there being so many applicants for seats that ballots were held. During this euphoric period, the New Zealand Players came into existence and, for a while, flourished. Soon the real level of interest was reached and, even with Government assistance, the somewhat grandiose scheme failed. Bitter debates were held, individuals were blamed, and nothing was solved. One overriding fact remained New Zealand (and, of course. Wellington) was once more without a professional theatre. Not in truth, that this was of much concern to many people except those directly involved.
Television caused a further slackening of interest in live theatre, and the amateur theatres (if, as in the case of Thespians, they didn't go out of existence) were forced more and more to leave the larger, public theatres for performances in their own club rooms. Now apart from the occasional 'major' production in the University Little Theatre, the theatrical scene, in Wellington at least, is made up of small groups playing in small theatres, limiting their work to what has been described as 'intimate theatre.' In itself this has only been an expression of what has become a trend overseas anyway. Where we once looked to the West End and Broadway successes for plays to present, we are just as likely to look to the experimental theatres in both England and America.
Professional theatre in New Zealand was a long time recovering from the collapse of the Players. Hindsight has shown us that they collapsed when they were on the verge of becoming stabilised both artistically and economically, but the country was not ready to acknowledge that no national theatre can exist without state subsidy. Then, in the early 1960's, Downstage came into existence and gradually New Zealand's first restaurant-theatre became a recognised part of the Wellington theatre scene. As it grew in popularity from its small beginnings, so in Christchurch we saw the collapse of the more grandiose venture into a combined professional theatre and drama school.
Auckland, as one of the few remaining cities where the taint of professional failure had not been felt, was chosen as the centre for yet another venture into the commercial world of theatre. It is still too early to measure its success, and it has not, up until the present time, ventured outside Auckland with its productions.
Downstage, on the other hand, has made forays to such places as New Plymouth, Levin, and even Christchurch, and the latest news is that the small-cast production of 'The Au Pair Man' has taken off on a short tour. Dunedin, which used to be the centre for the also now-defunct Southern Comedy Players, has now permanently stationed there a semi-professional theatre under the direction of Warwick Slyfield. Its commitment to professional (in the sense of full-time work on a paid basis) theatre remains at the moment on a modest scale compared with, say, the Mercury Theatre.
As in the past, communication between one centre and another is meagre, and apart from the occasional prestige production (as with Canterbury University's Marat / Sade) making a trip to another town, little is known of what is going on elsewhere. Nor is there much, if any, inter-change of actors and producers, of administrators and backstage workers, between theatre groups of the different cities. The two linking organisations. New Zealand Drama Council and British Drama League work, for the most part, at the amateur level, and, indeed, have just merged into the one organisation in order to strengthen both their resources and their influences. If Wellington is any example, there is also very little communication between theatre groups, although actors and producers move fairly easily from one society to another, not out of any special regard, but basically going where the work is offering.
The most serious lack, I would suggest, is that of any form of repertory, where the best productions are kept 'on ice' and revived for further consideration. Nor, and I believe the case to be true also for Auckland now, is there any contractual system operating at the professional level, that would guarantee actors and producers work. In Wellington, many actors, for instance, are dependent on radio and TV work in order to earn enough to live on so that they can also continue to work in live theatre. Actors and producers will often take on unpaid work in the theatre in order to gain further experience.
It may be only my imagination, but I do think I note a revival of interest—particularly among young people—in the theatre, both as participants and as audiences. Experimental plays at Downstage for instance (as in the case of the Sunday night Gulbenkian Series) has been good, and audiences have contained a high proportion of young people. It is to the credit of Downstage that they have attempted to gain some sort of hearing for New Zealand playwrights. As yet, they have been very limited in the use of New Zealand playwrights in their regular theatrical programmes.
Theatre still lives a hand-to-mouth existence in New Zealand, as do, indeed, all of the arts. Theatrical groups can be formed, die, and even be resurrected without too much surprise being evinced. Actors still leave for their training overseas (although the start made by the Arts Council in sending students to train at Auckland's Mercury and Wellington's New Theatre is an interesting one). Persuading them to return is much more difficult, and who can blame them? If one trains to be an actor, one expects to act, and if the work is lacking, or is too spasmodic, or if the chance to become a 'name actor' does not exist, actors will continue to remain where the chances are, no matter how remote.
New Zealanders seem to like being in plays, and while their 'hobby' continues to absorb their interest, they are less likely to play the more passive role of spectator. It is on this almost insoluble difficulty that most professional theatre has founded. While the local amateur groups continue to feel (and often justifiably so) that their work compares favourably with anything a professional group can do—forgetting, of course, that their one major production a year cannot be compared with a year-long programme—the professional position will remain a precarious one. But there are small signs of change. Downstage, for instance, has wisely kept a programme going all year, and this means that the public, which is now finding for the first time in our history that dining out can be a pleasure, are becoming used to the idea that an evening on the town can include both food and entertainment. Downstage must next graduate, of course, to a more flexible season of plays so that in any one month, patrons can choose from a programme of plays instead of having to wait out a season of perhaps even weeks before seeing a new play. (It would be too much to expect, of course, audiences to return to see a play they have enjoyed. They reserve such luxuries for The Sound of Music), in New Zealand
I have deliberately refrained from discussing the future, since this article is supposed to be some sort of 'introduction' to the forthcoming "Arts in New Zealand" Conference organised by the Q.E. II Arts Council, and the proper place for such a discussion will be there.
But it should be said that one remains hopeful for the future of drama in New Zealand. One always does. Theatre in New Zealand over the last fifty years has known some glorious moments, and if this, the most ephemeral of all the arts, appears to be in the throes of change, then I can only suggest that such 'change' is perhaps the most healthy, and hopeful, sign of all.