May 10, 2006

John Smythe      posted 2 Apr 2006, 06:10 PM / edited 2 Apr 2006, 06:15 PM

For every NZ International Arts Festival there is huge competition to score a commission to create a local production. Only a few of those who apply get to pitch their idea at the ‘show and tell’ session, and only a handful of them get the go-ahead.

The Festival operates as producer or co-producer, managing core funding from Creative New Zealand (CNZ). International producers and festival directors come looking for shows to take to the wider world, stressing that work that is true to itself and culturally specific is what travels best.

This year the performing arts commissions included The Holy Sinner, King and Country, Instructions for Modern Living and Aarero Stone. The Circa production of Dr Buller’s Birds was also part of the Festival. Of these, only King and Country – co-produced with six other arts festivals and performed at all of them before it got to Wellington – opened to universal acclaim.

Of course festival fare should be challenging and contentious, and passionately held differences of opinion are in themselves a good outcome. But I say the other shows fell short of their potential because one key creative component was missing.

·     King and Country had a writer, director and dedicated producer as well as performers.

·     The Holy Sinner had two directors and three designers but no writer.

·     Instructions for Modern Living had a writer/performer and composer-performer but no director.

·     Aarero Stone had two choreographer/performers and a designer but needed a director as audience advocate.

·     Dr Buller’s Birds had a writer/director/designer and three designers (and a dramaturg) but needed much more work on the writing side.

Why were they under-resourced? Is this sort of counter-productive cost-efficiency something the creators felt compelled to practice in order to be competitive? Do they feel pressure from the Festival and/or CNZ to slash their budgets this way? Or did they feel sufficient unto themselves?

Simon Bennett posted 3 Apr 2006, 02:22 PM / edited 12 Apr 2006, 08:00 AM

Another factor that needs to be taken into account (and I speak from experience here), is that most international productions are well and truly run-in by the time they come to NZ. All bugs have been ironed out elsewhere – both in the writing and production areas. NZ works are hugely disadvantaged by being given a tiny development time and a matter of days to pack a show into a theatre for the first time. When it opens to a Festival audience it has often not had the chance to improve through exposure to audiences, critics, peers and the artists’ own (more) objective assessments.

John Smythe      posted 18 Apr 2006, 10:16 PM / edited 11 Mar 2007, 09:46 PM

Your points are well made, Simon. Personally I find it especially exhilarating to be at the birth of a new work and I don’t expect a ‘newborn’ to be anything like the mature, well-travelled and usually rather eccentric aunty or uncle from overseas. Seeing the potential in something new is one thing, but realising they’ve come into the world undernourished and disadvantaged is another – which is more the point I was making.

I’d also like to tell all those who flocked to The History Boys at great cost – and all those who missed it because it sold out so fast – that for the same price they can see, and hear, three great shows most weeks of the year (e.g., in Wellington, at Circa, Downstage and Bats; in Auckland wherever the ATC is playing – at Maidment or Sky City – and at the Silo or Herald …). But how many Festival flockers are also habitual theatre-goers? I fear there are still too many who have no idea what great creativity and quality is available close to home all year round.

Paul McLaughlin               posted 18 Apr 2006, 11:42 PM / edited 19 Apr 2006, 11:44 AM

I so agree with your last point John. I see much of the glitterati in the “who’s who” type pics of opening nights, esp at International type events. Let’s see these same folk down at the grass- roots level supporting some of the real fresh NZ works being premiered – sometimes world premieres – at local theatres like Bats, Circa, Silo, Court, Fortune. 

John Smythe      posted 19 Apr 2006, 07:48 AM / edited 11 Mar 2007, 09:45 PM

Charity? No, no, no, don’t go out of charity. Go because it’s our homegrown theatre that truly hold s the mirror up to our lives. Go because the creative ingenuity we’ve become world famous for is truly manifest in our live theatres. Go because you deserve to treat yourselves.

Or did I misunderstand you, Paul?

Paul McLaughlin               posted 19 Apr 2006, 11:44 AM / edited 11 Mar 2007, 09:46 PM

You did. I have edited my post. Whatever it takes, we must somehow get more people into our theatres around NZ, all year round, not only at our Festivals (as wonderful as they are).

My last post (to make sense of John’s comment above) did end with the line ‘charity begins at home’; by which I meant it’s all very well for the people to come out and enjoy international works at festival time, but works of this quality are often on at local theatres, every month, works of theatre and dance who do not often enjoy the publicity and support that a Festival generates.

Your comments as to why the public should go to theatre are certainly valid, but with the ever-increasing demand on people’s entertainment dollar, theatre has to work really hard to make sure we keep getting ’em in; and on that point I feel we have to keep championing (specifically) NZ theatre, to make it world standard and make it accessible, on all levels.

Michael Wray    posted 23 Apr 2006, 03:53 PM

I’m glad to see you make the point that Circa, Downstage and Bats operate year-round, offering tickets at incredibly reasonable prices to quality shows.  Plus there are regular public performances at Toi Whakaari too. Trouble is that most of us who frequent this site already know this.  The Wellington residents who are not aware are probably unaware of this site too. (By the way, great site – good upgrade.)

Coming to live in Wellington a few years back from England, I was amazed to discover how fantastic Wellington is at catering for people who love theatre.  It has certainly made a difference to how I feel about NZ. I will always miss the football, but I am able to make up for it by making a glutton of myself on theatre.

We attended 5 or 6 Arts Festival shows and enjoyed most of them. But there was not a single show that I would hold up as superior to Circa, Downstage and Bats.  (Obviously Bats fills a particular niche, so oftentimes is not going to compete with Arts Festival shows with regard to a polished finish.)  The intimacy of the venues is so much greater than the likes of the Opera House or St James can provide. One of the great advantages that theatre has over cinema is that intimacy, that feeling of involvement with the performers – difficult to produce when sitting in the gods at St James unable to see facial expressions etc on stage.

So I guess the question is how should the incumbent theatre scene raise awareness of its offerings beyond those of us who have already been converted?

Ron Kjestrup      posted 10 May 2006, 03:14 PM / edited 11 Mar 2007, 09:46 PM

Ah, the six million dollar question! There’s no answer, is there? If there was those of us who have tried toi make a reasonable living in theatre over the years would be happily ensconced in paid-for homes with comfortable incomes,  doing the sort of theatre we enjoy and  revelling in full houses.

Sorry – a bit of cynicism born of years of …you know.

There’s always room to discussion on improving the way we sell the idea of theatrte as a regular night out. It is very hard to work out how to get into the heads of that crowd mentioned who flock out to international (read visiting if you work in Dunedin or Nelson or a smaller centre) events but can hardly ever be seen in the foyer of their local theatres. I guess local just ain’t sexy enough.

I do think, though, that there is opportunity in the likes of this site and IT and web technology in general. It is now very easy to establish a regular newsletter that can be sent to all the entries on a data base, for instance. 

The small non-profit I work for now sends out a one coloured page every week to nearly 400 subscribers and every time a business card comes into the building their email is added to the list. It has helped enormously to defeat the “I forgot” or “I didn’t know it was on syndrome”.

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