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15 Feb 2013
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EnsembleImpact's STUDY GUIDE: She'll Be Write

What exactly is New Zealand Theatre? Why do we study it? How can we define it? A quick answer would be “it's where we do plays and stuff.”  So what's a “play?” What's the “stuff” and what's “theatre?”

We know “doing a play” has never been a solo effort. Every script – the written words attached to almost every piece of theatre – be it good or bad or indifferent, self- or ensemble-devised, is only one step in a process we know as “the play.”

A person (playwright) has an idea – a story line – and puts that down in words (usually). She or he or they show it to somebody else and it gets re-written, re-worked and revised. Directors usually get the first call; sometimes it's dramaturges. Even actors can get involved in the playwriting process.  Frequently, they don't. Plays (and the scenes they're divided into) get rehearsed; discoveries get made; words get added, gestures and inflections are noted. Stage directions frequently get included. Those scripts (along with some copyright notices) get made into “texts,” which then get rehearsed and get performed.

If you're in the audience that day when the script that got made into a text had a performance, you've seen the play. Which, of course, will be slightly different every night every time you see it. And that's what makes theatre (as opposed to film) a unique experience for both performer and audience. 

Script/text/performance/play – those are the mechanics of making theatre. Including ours.  

And we've been building theatres – big places to do plays – ever since we got here: Theatre Royal in Nelson, 1878; New Plymouth Opera House, 1883; Civic Theatre, Invercargill, 1906; St. James, Wellington, in 1912; to name just a few. 

Yet what was inside those New Zealand playhouses – now over a century old – was primarily English, usually light entertainment and more than likely imported from Australia: J. C. Williamson  (A stunning exception was the arrival of  Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh to these shores in 1948. They came “after the war” and nudged the New Zealand Theatre Community in a new and powerful direction: towards us).

Soon, in our own hereumu … NZ theatre was cooking.

The End of the Golden Weather is largely hailed as the landmark of New Zealand theatrical literature. It's 1959 in New Zealand and Bruce Mason's solo effort takes a look at a child – granted, a middle class, depression-era, Pakeha child – growing up and growing wise in (of all places) Takapuna, New Zealand. He felt (and we do, too) that we here could do theatre just as well as anything that was being done in “Ol' Blighty.”

Take a leap …

… If Golden Weather started the ball rolling, a decade later (after Mason had delivered some 500 performances of Golden Weather), Roger Hall brought us Glide Time and, from Dunedin to Auckland, we're laughing at ourselves.

And soon we're doing more than laughing.

Five year's from then, Greg McGee has us – much more seriously – reconsidering just what it means to be a Kiwi. Foreskin's Lament, written just before the Springbok riots of 1981, was truly “the shot heard ‘round the world” for New Zealand Theatre.

Now, New Zealand voices were having a stunning impact on audiences around the country. We may wonder at why we got here (Glide Time) but you don't mess with our rugby. Foreskin was a call to arms - its effect not only galvanized the punters, it provided a much needed shock to the system. 

And, as we had a century earlier, we got to building theatres (literally and figuratively) – again.  Downstage, 1964; Mercury, 1968; Four Seasons, 1970; Court, 1971; Theatre Corporate, 1974; Centrepoint, 1974; Circa, 1976; The Fortune, 1977. We'd been trying, bit by bit, to make acting a real profession here in Godzone, too, but the content of our theatres had remained largely “over there.”  In 1973, Playmarket gets started and, for the first time, New Zealand has a professional “home” for its playwrights.

Soon, Taki Rua (1983) will emerge. Firstly, as a Wellington venue for “alternative theatre,” then as a national source for new writing – writing that featured Maori (and even Polynesian) themes. And we haven't looked back since. Year by year, city-by-city, New Zealand content (a theatrical Nature's Best of our writing talent) has grown and grown in popularity (and profitability). We're telling our stories, to our people – occasionally derivatively, often times awkwardly (as new forms are experienced and tried out), but yet, profoundly, ours.

Look at the companies that have formed, their shows and the people behind them that have (or are now) performing regularly on New Zealand stages. From the forties when Wellington's Unity Theatre who first brought us Waiting for Lefty, to the sixties and the satire of John Clarke, Political Theatre grew us Red Mole, Amamus, BLERTA and the Living Theatre Troupe. Now there's SEEyD Theatre (which has created and produced over nine different shows in as many years and shows no sign of letting up).

The European influence of masters like Roy Hart and Jacques Lecoq brought us Physical Theatre – once a niche occupied almost solely by Dutch emigrant Bert van Dijk – is now home to Stephen Bain and France Herve from Under Lili's Balcony and Kate Barker and Julie Nolan's Red Leap; Devised Theatre, such as Theatre at Large has spawned The Massive Company; Maori Theatre, Taki Rua; Island Theatre, Kila Kokonut Krew, The Conch; and, along with Lynda Chanwai-Earl, Jacob Rajan and Roseanne Lang, new voices and new plays get added to Asian Theatre from practitioners like Mei Lin Hanson, Ben Teh and Ahilan Karunaharan. Asian Invasion and Indian Ink.

And the list and the content and the variety of the plays being performed keeps growing.  As graduates emerge from Toi Whakaari, Unitec, Long Cloud Youth Theatre, The Actors' Program, Victoria and Otago Universities, NASDA and Whitirea, new voices and new approaches get added to the canon of New Zealand Theatre. They are met (and occasionally guided) by both old and new directors, playwrights and practitioners. Imagine, a kiwi using masks and commedia dell'arte to tell stories of Indian migrants to New Zealand (Jacob Rajan), a Wellington dramaturge using Shakespeare to comment on feminism (Jean Betts) or a Christchurch religious study major writing a definitive play, Two Fish ‘N' A Scoop, on Chinese immigrants to New Zealand (Carl Nixon).

So what, exactly, is New Zealand theatre?

It's us: brown, white, yellow, Maori, pakeha. We are the stuff of New Zealand theatre. Our approaches may differ, the theatrical styles we employ may change, our methodologies often sit in contrast to one another but the voice – our voice – is the same. There's a bit of Stanislavski and a touch of verfremdungseffekt, a hint of marae and a pinch of fagogo, a chunk of number eight and a soupcon of “she'll be right,” and maybe even a wee drizzle of kabuki in the recipe, but we're all New Zealanders and we're all doing the talking – it's “uz,” having a knees-up.

And you are a part of it.

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