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by The PlayGround Collective
devised and performed by Simon Leary, Victoria Abbott, Joel Baxendale and Gareth Hobbs with director Robin Kerr and writer Eli Kent
Produced by Show Pony

at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 20 May 2014 to 31 May 2014
[1hr 30mins (no interval)]

Reviewed by John Smythe, 21 May 2014

Most theatre, arguably, invites us to observe human activity from an objective perspective – from the outside looking in – and engage with the characters' subjective experiences through empathy. All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever, which turns out to be about dealing with grief, attempts to take us inside a young man's subjective experience by making a highly theatrical artefact of his attempts to live through his loss.  

What preoccupies me as the play reveals itself, is the extent to which this play is directly related to playwright Eli Kent's recent life experience; specifically the death of his father, Dave, following a brave but debilitating battle with motor neuron disease. In his much-feted The Intricate Art of Actually Caring, Eli characterises himself, in his onstage persona, as a reluctant pilgrim to the grave of his actual great uncle, the famous poet James K Baxter, with his actual good mate Jack. In AYWANFF the focal character is called Simon, which is the name of the actor Simon Leary, but the play's Simon is an electronics engineering student.

Both plays play with narrative and meta-theatricality in ways that subvert our standard expectations of how stories get told on stage: an avowed objective of The PlayGround Collective's ever-evolving aesthetic. And in both cases it's fair to ask whether the idea is to reinvent theatre in order to better explore and evoke profound human experiences, or vice versa. Or are they indivisible objectives; engaged in a quest for a yin-yang equilibrium that simultaneously objectifies personal experience while personalising metaphysical-cum-existential concepts? 

“In life we are promised that if we are a good person and work hard … things will always get better,” says director Robin Kerr in the media release. “Yet this myth doesn't reflect the chaos and randomness of life and our decisions. So in the show we will create narrative then mischievously subvert the audience's expectations about how that will unfold, to highlight the fact that this isn't how life and people work.” 

The BATS Theatre (Out of Site) black box stage space is transformed into a bright white box as part of Sam Trubridge's Performance Design (see discussion in Comments below). Solitary Simon shares this space with his three pet rats, and ritually makes his health-drink smoothies there after extensive jogging (which may get him outside although in his mind he's getting nowhere fast). And it's into this pristine box that a mysterious cardboard box is delivered. Does this contain the titular promise? 

A single pulsating light turns out to be significant, and Marcus McShane's initially simple lighting design gets to erupt in ways that subvert the whiteness.

Simon's head-space (that's how I see it, anyway) is meta-theatrically serviced from stage right by a trio who may well be, judging by the briefly-glimpsed hints of his ‘real' life, his Aro Valley flatmates, played by Victoria Abbott, Joel Baxendale and Gareth Hobbs, using their own first names. This behind-the-scenes ‘service area' is notably cluttered and grotty; clearly not for public inspection, which makes our viewing of it all the more intriguing. 

Hobbs designed, composed and recreates in live performance a potent range of keyboard-generated sound effects and a number of haunting songs. Abbott and Baxendale busy themselves with voicing the TV and radio voices in Simon's life, and variously represent the odd person or thing that appears at its periphery. A lot of comedy arises from this, even as we (or some of us, anyway) compulsively try to decode the logic that's driving the action.

A major clue as to what's going on is that all the action is masterminded by an unseen computer which announces upfront, “I have high hopes for this one” – which could mean Simon, the play or both. Its god-like voice is, I'm assured, entirely computer-generated and inescapably redolent of the signature ‘voice' of theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who also has motor neuron disease. His doctoral thesis was entitled Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time and he rose to public prominence with his best-seller, A Brief History of Time: from the Big Bang to Black Holes – all of which seems entirely germane to the thinking at the core of this play and its subsequent evolution. There is certainly a ‘hole' in Simon's life that threatens to consume him unless he can climb out if it, rise above it or find some way of filling it.

A young colleague alerts me, after the show, that a sequence discussing the possible primordial origins of a ubiquitous element in online pornography references the opening scene of 2001 Space Odyssey. The voice of HAL, the spaceship's computer, therefore enters the equation. Except in the film HAL develops a mind and will of his own whereas here Simon needs to take back control of his life, even if it was he who delegated it to his computer as a coping mechanism. But does he achieve this?

Online gaming, specifically on the Super Mario Brothers platform, is also referenced throughout the play, reinforcing the idea that Simon has objectified his life as a computer game – facilitated in his possibly paranoid fantasy by his flatmates – and sees himself as a player trying to get to the next level.

James K Baxter and his peers were given to referencing Greek, Roman and Biblical mythology in their poetry, assuming their readers would be classically educated enough to grasp their meanings or inspired to investigate further. Similarly it seems young playwrights like Kent – and Uther Dean in his A Play About… trilogy and A Show About Superheroes – take it for granted their audience is conversant with pop culture or will Google up on it afterwards.

Don't let me mislead you into thinking this is therefore an esoteric play for a coterie audience. The juxtaposition of Simon's perfectly recognisable day-to-day life with the ‘other-worldly' evocation of his mental and emotional state renders it highly accessible to anyone. Also readily recognisable is the dreamlike state where what's happening is entirely credible, even when it doesn't quite make sense or its meaning eludes us when we ‘awake' (if indeed we do).

There is great ingenuity in the manifestations of characters like Simon's mother (whose position in the story is clear to us even if he can't see it) and the man in Eastbourne who also has motor neuron disease. The passing mention of a Four Square shop at the beginning sets up an extraordinary sequence towards the end, performed by Victoria Abbott, which reincorporates much of what has gone before, could be said to be worth the price of admission alone (although it does have to be seen in context, of course).

As promised, conventions are broken, expectations are subverted and the spectacular imagery of the final sequence leaves us with plenty to ponder, assuming we trust it to have a purpose and meaning beyond just messing with our minds. I may have to see it again to determine whether the ending is an unresolved function of the group-devising process or a vivid expression of how – and where – we live our lives. I'm sure some refinement will be in order (e.g. the late entry of a turtle metaphor seems clumsy and unnecessary) but yes, I do trust it to reward my further investment.

The Playground Collective's highly creative and accomplished team ensures All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever has the capacity to be compelling, engaging and entertaining, although exactly how that happens may be quite different depending on who you are, what you've experienced and where you live in relation to the fictional Simon.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.

See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 Sarah Burrell


sam trubridge posted 22 May 2014, 10:31 AM

My programme credit is 'performance design' not 'spatial design' John. Thank you. Sam

John Smythe posted 22 May 2014, 10:39 PM

Thank you Sam. The media release says Saptial Design and the programme says Performance Design, which is a new one on me. Production Design makes sense to me but Performance Design implies you designed the actual performances which I don't think is so, unless we speak a different language. 

sam trubridge posted 23 May 2014, 08:12 AM

In 2011 'The Prague Quadrennial of Scenography and Theatre Architecture' (the most prestigious event of its kind) changed its name to 'The Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space'. This year OISTAT (the international governing body for this industry) also adopted the term to account for a holistic treatment of set, costume, and performance in a visual and material language. In my understanding design in another process that acts upon and shapes the performance: thus doing more than just providing a set, costume, mask, or prop but also working with the ensemble to determine how these elements can be used appropriately to the performance that is being generated. Thus, performance itself IS designed - just as much as it is written, directed, lit, produced, and... performed. My thanks to director Robin Kerr and the amazing team for such a fantastic process. And thank you John, for this insightful review into the work.

John Smythe posted 23 May 2014, 12:35 PM

Thank you Sam, I get the idea now (although in isolation the term is quite ambiguous). I have altered the credit on the production page and in the review and added a reference to this discussion. In so doing I note the once sacrosanct published review is now a 'living document'. 

Michael Smythe posted 25 May 2014, 04:51 PM

It seems that we have to read design for perfomance rather than design of performance. It joins other contemporary labels such as interaction design and experience design. The performance /intercation /experience is not actually designed, it is facilitated and/or enhanced through design.

sam trubridge posted 26 May 2014, 12:23 PM

Certainly not Michael, since that suggests design is secondary to the performance, or separate from the performance. These days design is often integrated with performance works beyond providing backdrops and costumes. Sometimes design authors the performance itself. And sometimes design actually becomes a performing agent in the work - as you will see in the final moments of this production, if not elsewhere in the show.   

John Smythe posted 28 May 2014, 12:41 PM / edited 28 May 2014, 04:21 PM

Even this is design FOR performance.
It is design-led, the performance serves the AV design, within in which one may argue the visual expresses the audio element (I assume the music came first - or maybe they evolved together). But however it evolved, in performance the illusion is that the performers are generating what has actually generated their performance.  All the elements were created FOR performance.

Michael Smythe posted 28 May 2014, 06:13 PM

When I was a design student, back in the mid-1960s, some theatre was being created by actors in black tights and skivvies without any use of sets, props or costumes. I wondered how one might create theatre without actors - but I never took it further than musings. I am sure it is possible but what would be the point?

Looking back I see my young self desperately seeking validation and operating in a 'win by making the other bugger lose' mode. Now I see design as an integrative discipline that often goes unnoticed when it's doing its job really well.

James Levy posted 28 May 2014, 07:35 PM

Yes, such a good idea to rid the theatre of pesky actors and have "pure" performance design. If you do that you'll fit right in at the Prague Quadrennial, a contrived example of academic concepts run by Uni drama departments and junior architects. No actual theatre design is allowed to transgress  into this as it is just nasty, popular and vulgar....ugh backdrops! that campy costume design! Don't want any of that sort Here. Black skivvies and writhing in front of a white sheet (with fuzzy projection) is still the thing. Don't understand it foolish audience member? Well then, you have to read the essay attached.

sam trubridge posted 29 May 2014, 12:16 AM

I find it a bit awkward having a debate like this on the review page of a show that does not fall into the stereotypes you each have painted in your comments. All Your Wants and Needs... is (in my estimation) a beautifully written, directed and performed work, and whatever role the design plays, it is integral with these things. So I do not think my points have been entirely understood, and the discussion has strayed far from my original intention to a place where I am having to defend Performance Design. I originally brought it up, because the term 'Spatial Design' does not sufficiently account for the input I had in the show, where the props, costume, and other stage elements were also considered, as well as how each was USED. It is unfortunate that the collaborative, holistic nature of this project has been eclipsed by this discussion of design alone, but I have to stand by my assertions about performance design. Regarding PQ: it is interesting that in any other field (science, economics, history, psychology, etc) university research is respected for its leadership and specialised knowledge. Certainly working with neuroscientists and chronobiologists for the past 7 years has demonstrated this to me. Not so in the arts it seems. Or is it just a unique Kiwi trait to have such disregard for the specialist? I am reminded of the disdain expressed by John Key on BBC Hardtalk when presented with Massey ecologist Dr Mike Joy's findings on just how polluted NZ waterways are. Key's response surprised the British reporter, who had to remind our prime minister that this was 'one of NZ's leading scientists'. Are we just a nation of churlish generalists? 

John Smythe posted 29 May 2014, 11:04 AM / edited 23 Nov 2014, 12:07 PM

I have no idea what you mean by “the stereotypes you each have painted in your comments”, Sam, so won't try to argue that point. My quibble is semantic, over your apparent rejection of Performance Design meaning design for performance (rather than of performance).

It has never occurred to me that good design elements in theatre are not “integral with [the written, directed and performed work].” Ever since some ancient Greek designed the first ‘deus ex machina' (as the Roman poet Horace called it) to bring a god into a play, design has informed the nature of performance. The performance conventions of commedia dell'arte are inextricably wrought in mask, costume and props design. Likewise the design elements in circus, ancient and modern, and film …

All have been designed, presumably in a collaborative process, according to how they will be USED. All is aligned to – designed for – performance; that's what brings it all to life in live theatre.

Certainly when specialist theatre practitioners work in isolation from each other, the results in performance can be ugly, clumsy or deadly. But across the whole history of theatre in all cultures, that would be the exception rather than the rule.  

The integration of design elements with performance in All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever is exemplary, with performers manifesting, animating and facilitating much of it. I have now seen it a second time and I don't see anyone performing for the design; all is quite clearly designed for performance.

sam trubridge posted 30 May 2014, 08:07 AM

Hi John, you should talk with Sally Jacobs about the how her design shaped the performance for Brooks' A Midsummer Night's Dream, or consider how a painter/designer/director Robert Wilson composes his performances likeThe Black Rider, or how in Athol Fugard's The Island(with no credited designer) the simple decision to mime the opening 20 minutes scene has such an impact on the show. All of these are design decisions executed by different approaches, but in each case they shape the performance significantly, creating a world and shaping the performance. And in each of these cases the design needs to be 'introduced' to the cast, and the designer needs to work with the ensemble to ensure that the design is used effectively. Thus the performance is 'designed' as much as it is 'written', 'directed' or 'performed'. Does Eli 'write for performance'? Does Robin 'direct for performance'? Do the actors 'act for performance'? Do you review 'for performance'? I hope that the design for this show demonstrates that I am not disposed for the 'black skivvy and white sheet' stereotype. I hope it can show that the designing OF performance is just another authorial perspective in the process that complements the director's vision and the playwright's script. Please take my word for it that it is designing OF performance, and not FOR performance. If someone chooses for their work to be credited in a certain way, then there is a reason for it, a philosophy and a practice behind that decision. 

John Smythe posted 30 May 2014, 07:00 PM / edited 30 May 2014, 09:19 PM

Sam, rather than continue the semantic debate, I feel it would be valuable if you could be anecdotal about the design of performance in this production. For example, by what process did Simon's mother come to be manifested as she is?  Likewise the man in Eastbourne – and did this inform the final image or did the final image come first then feed back into the representation of Eastbourne Man?

I may have more to say about the final image but it would be a spoiler to discuss it before the season ends tomorrow. You may wish to wait too, to avoid spoilers.

sam trubridge posted 1 Jun 2014, 09:55 AM

You are missing my point John. You remain obsessed with details, and with designing as the provision of concrete objects/moments for the service of the performance. Meanwhile I have been trying to communicate that performance design has a broader purview. It doesn't matter who produced what or whose idea was whose in a collaborative, devised process like this. One of the most rewarding aspects of this project was working with a team who all were able to contribute to overall shape of the work in so many different ways. It was my role/input in this project to look at how each component (wherever it came from) and the performance fit together into a broader design logic and semiotic for the show. Of course this is always in negotiation with the other contributors, and I was constantly discussing the overall construction of the work and its vision with Robin and Eli. The role of performance designer was the role that was discussed from the start when Robin invited me into the project . I have been trying to describe the nature of my input to you from the start, but you seem unwilling to accept it. I don't understand why you have to qualify the simple title of performance design with the design [for] performance clause, as if to put design in its place. I feel it would be insensitive of me to expose too much about the devising process in this forum, so you have to take my word for it that the credit that I have for this show best describes my input, and does not need your editing. It is a clearly recognised term that NZ has had a leading role in establishing internationally. 

John Smythe posted 2 Jun 2014, 05:24 PM / edited 2 Jun 2014, 05:56 PM

First, Sam, let me be absolutely clear I both understand and applaud the collaborative process by which this production was created. I completely understand how difficult and even irrelevant it may be to demarcate the areas of creative responsibility for the conceptual, physical and metaphysical results in performance. This, of course, has always been the case when attempting to ascribe due credit to a playwright, director and actors when the component parts of the collaboration are so well integrated the whole transcends their sum. Likewise with what we may call the designed elements, especially where a design sensibility has informed elements other than objects in performance.

Your concern seems to be that I am perceiving the role of design in performance as somehow subservient in the hierarchy of creation. That is not how I see it, although it could be said that when it comes to bringing all the creative elements together, everything/one works in the service of everything/one else. It can be impossible to tell where and when creation blends into recreation.

My concern is that the term ‘performance design' implies something other than what you describe because while you may bring a designer's perspective to the evolution of what is performed on the night(s), I don't think it can be said that you therefore design the performances; in the case of this show that the actors and musician – three of whom take joint responsibility for activating the sound design in performance – are somehow working in the service of your design concept. Does that explain why I have a problem with the terminology?*

You mention, above, the final moments of this production and I am glad, now the season is over, that we can discuss this specifically. The first time I saw it, I came away impressed by the dramatic impact but wondering what it was supposed to mean – presumably because I was unwilling to accept its implications. The second time I thought, OK, this is what Robin (the director) must mean about subverting our expectations – in this case of a positive resolution to Simon's grieving.

The media release tells us: “something fundamental is missing” in Simon's life. In this “absurdist comedy … We watch him come into existence and then try to fill this hole inside him until it becomes evident that you always want something more than what you have. The piece explores identity and the (im)possibility of fulfilment.”

To clarify (spoiler alert if you have not seen it and anticipate a further season):  

Simon's father has died of motor neuron disease. The setting for almost all of the action involving Simon is a large white box – even when he is out jogging, he is trapped in this box – and from time-to-time various objects, sometimes representing people (mother, mate, girlfriend), are introduced in the space via various portals. One is a cardboard box he hopes will fill the indefinable gap in his life, but it is empty except for an address which leads him to another man with motor neuron disease. He is manifested by a black plastic bag that pulsates on the end of a flexi-duct tube and I take this to represent his still-active brain. When Simon visits him, the man tells him he is ready to end his life and – because he cannot ask his family members to do it – he asks Simon to ‘switch him off', which he does.  

In the play's final moments, Simon's white-box space is entirely invaded by an inexorably inflating massive black plastic bag beneath which he (and two other actors who have entered the space) disappear. Then a light begins to glow within the bag and Simon can be seen jogging in his orange vest, just as he was doing when the play started …  

It is an extraordinary effect and a powerful image, impressively executed. But what does it mean? The emptiness in his life has been filled – but with what? Has the white hole been filled with a black hole? Has Simon become overwhelmed by his compassionate act of euthanasia; if so is this guilt? Or does the huge black bag represent his father - his brain; his being; his death? Does this mean his attempts to move on from his grief – as manifested in his jogging, perhaps – are futile?

*Need I add I don't see why I or anyone else should unquestioningly conform to a dictate from the Prague Quadrennial; there would nothing collaborative in their claiming to be some kind of Performing Arts Vatican with the right to make such decrees. As a writer and editor of this site I aim to see language used well to clearly convey ideas, concepts and responses to performance.

sam trubridge posted 3 Jun 2014, 11:22 AM

The performers are not subserviant to the design, although it is funny how this description of the role has been read as a threat to the autonomy of the actor. Several times I have compared design to the holistic (and collaborative) input of the director and writer, which traditionally HAS dictated the movements of the performer. But like performance design these disciplines can lead while still being collaborative, can embrace inputs from elsewhere whilst maintaining the vision of the overall work. Yes, the design might establish certain parameters for the action, but it does so in consultation with the director, the writer, and the cast - in order to develop and enhance a shared vision or LOGIC for the performance. The term 'performance design' is very clear, it is not confusing. This is why OISTAT, PQ and various colleges around the world have picked it up in the last 10 years. Previous terms like Scenography, Set Design, Theatre Design, Costume Design have all been discarded because they are misleading and innaccurate descriptions of what is done. And I am sure that some day Performance Design might also become a defunct term in need of revision when a broader culture or practise requires it. I just think you are threatened by the notion that the designer contributes to the shaping of the overall performance, providing a 'performance design' that complements the input of script, direction etc to realise a shared vision for the work, instead of just providing these elements FOR the other contributions at their behest, following the brief set by director, writer, and performers.

John Smythe posted 3 Jun 2014, 05:29 PM / edited 23 Nov 2014, 12:16 PM

I am not at all “threatened” by the idea of design being part of an holistic collaborative process, Sam, and have no idea why you keep thinking I am. The model you describe is ideal and I have seen it in operation to varying degrees throughout my career. Also in film, probably more consistently than in live theatre: the production designer, lighting cameraman /cinematographer /operator and director could be said to work collaboratively on every shot with the actors meeting their needs as well as bringing their craft to the performance on the actual shoot – then the editors, sound designer, composer etc add their contributions to the whole.*

Given that parallel, and given that in theatre all elements come together in development and rehearsal to be recreated live in performance, I would have thought the term Production Designer would be more appropriately inclusive of all the levels at which the design elements operate, including performance.

*(Of course in film, when the actor is in a lycra onsie animating electrodes as the basis for some fantastical CGI creation, the performance is absolutely designed although, to the audience, it is the design that is being performed.)

But if I am the only person in the world who needs special tutoring to understand the intended meaning of ‘performance design', then thank you for educating me: I stand corrected. If, however, others share my confusion, please feed this feedback back to “OISTAT, PQ and various colleges around the world”.

You haven't commented on whether my musings on the meaning of the final image in All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever get anywhere near what you and the collective had in mind. I am keen to be reassured it was purpose-driven rather than ‘a great effect that the audience would be free to interpret in whatever way they wished' (which I would regard as a cop-out).

sam trubridge posted 4 Jun 2014, 09:11 AM

Yes, John. 'The Blob' was intended for those readings, and I like your analysis. As a maker I am always clear on the meaning of an image with myself and my collaborators. But I prefer to let the work speak to its audience alone. I think in this regard Eli and Robin would feel the same, but I will talk more on it for the benefit of this dialogue.

It was a much discussed and calculated conclusion to the show's dramaturgical lines, its visual narratives, performance, script, etc that had many clear intentions, but was intentionally left open. We spoke of entropy, of death, of the unknown, and of the need to explain the inexplicable. The 'black box' is a common symbol of anything unknown, threatening, or mysterious that we are eternally trying to understand or see into. Pandora's Box perhaps. Ironically the much sought-after 'black box' of airplanes like Flight 370 are actually orange, but they still contain this name and sacredness: as an object that might reveal the meaning behind the disaster, somehow making the emptiness more bearable with answers. As a material the black plastic rubbish bag is this anonymous, sanitised image that we have of waste - the excess or byproduct of all our wants and needs. They haunt street corners in any city, waiting to be picked up and taken away to some 'backstage' dump, out of sight and mind, where they take centuries to decompose.

For me The Blob was a phenomenon carrying all these meanings, intruding upon the auditorium, something overwhelmingly absolute and uncompromising in its claim of the space and the narrative: like grief if you will, or any other kind of emotional, physical, or environmental disaster. Its blackness overtakes the white cube of the set, itself in a black box theatre, itself inherently empty: like the cardboard box, like Simon's mime, and ultimately like any attempt to satisfy our desires. It becomes expressive of an existential nihilism that rejects other narratives, and reflects the chaos that follows Simon killing of his own narrator.

But all of this is a deep reading of what was also intended as a moment of spectacular and surprising stage wizardry - that is amazing but sad, beautiful but plaintive. For with this image we can seduce the audience and leave them with a memorable moment that does not declare its meaning or intention but instead leaves them with an image to haunt them with its hidden meanings. 

John Smythe posted 4 Jun 2014, 12:21 PM

Thank you Sam - greatly appreciated as an example of the design process.