May 23, 2007

Rothwell and Mainstream

Bruce Phillips     posted 11 Mar 2007, 12:37 AM

Judith Dale writes in her review of Deliver Us that the mainstream theatres arent up to it (ie doing a Rothwell). I would prefer to think “aren’t up for it” would be fairer. However she may be delighted to know that Golden Boys was presented in Circa Two a couple of years ago. Perhaps she wasnt up to it herself?  Mr Rothwell is a fine writer and we look forward to eventually seeing more of his work in the “mainstream”.

Judith Dale          posted 15 Mar 2007, 12:08 AM / edited 26 Mar 2007, 12:26 PM

Oops, I’m sorry. I apologise to Circa Theatre for crediting Golden Boys to Bats when of course I saw it at Circa Two. I guess I misremembered the venue because both Rothwell’s other plays Hate Crimes and Deliver Us were at Bats, the latter with three of the same actors and the director from Boys. Paul Rothwell’s newest play Kissing Bone is now onstage at Bats, from 22-31 March. However, Golden Boys at Circa was certainly the play that confirmed for me how significant a playwright Paul Rothwell is.

At the risk of offending, I should say that I regard playwrights as the theatre people who matter most. Other practitioners come and go but a scripted play-text remains the basis for new productions sometimes years or even centuries later, each production a fresh reading of the script. Bruce Phillips’ production of Hannie Rayson’s Two Brothers has just opened at Circa One. The initial production caused a furore in Australia by being seen allegorically as impugning the Australian government’s harsh asylum-seekers’ policies. The play was accused of being “distorted and exaggerated”: “how cruelly and hysterically Rayson smears our defence personnel”. People lost sight of the play itself. Bruce Phillips’ production enables it to be reconsidered. The ‘abortion issue’ in Deliver Us has been read as the focus of that play, whereas some of us have been pointing out that it needn’t, perhaps even shouldn’t, be: so see further debate later in this forum.

Audiences matter hugely. So the real question is whether we, those of us who are part of Circa’s mainstream audience, are up to being up for it? Professional theatres have to weigh what will and won’t go and take their chances accordingly, in box-office terms. As I suggested before, if an author is well-known then something dark and bleak is acceptable (Pinter, say, or Shakespeare, or a classic or modern tragedy, or black comedy if it’s really funny). Comedy pure and simple is always enthusiastically received even from a young author unknown outside the fringe theatre scene, if it’s funny enough. To have a dark, bleak play and a young and unknown playwright poses a risk for any theatre. Is Circa up for a Paul Rothwell play, in the big main-stage auditorium? I am, for one.

Michael Wray    posted 15 Mar 2007, 10:07 AM

To be fair to the crediting to Bats, Golden Boys did play at Bats before going to Circa  (as did Wheeler’s Luck and It’s a Whanau Thing).

Bruce – out of interest, would you say that Circa Two audiences differ from Circa One? Obviously, we generally see different styles of shows between the two and I’m curious as to whether that is reflected in the demographic of audience members.

Judith Dale          posted 16 Mar 2007, 12:15 PM / edited 16 Mar 2007, 12:44 PM

I’m really committed to plays which take moral and political issues seriously. That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about what Paul Rothwell is doing. There are hundreds of other writers working similarly worldwide (Hannie Rayson is one), but he’s important because he’s here.

I also know perfectly well that plays have to have audiences: so see above. The conjuction of the two is always hard to manage. Now I’ve just found an article that raises other huge questions too. It’s by Robert Fisk, whom hundreds of us heard at Writers and Readers Week in Wellington last year, and headlined Torture in Lebanon via a Toronto Stage: The duty of an Artist is to place art on a higher level than history.

“The duty of an artist, I have always thought, is to place imagination on a higher level than history, to frame real events – if he or she must – to fit the interpretation that an author or playwright chooses to reveal about life.”

See The Independent Online from 10 March 2007:

Zia Lopez             posted 16 Mar 2007, 04:24 PM

The last contributor claims commitment to writers who take political issues etc.  seriously hence her interest in Paul Rothwell, who says of his own writing in an earlier post on this page:-

“Ultimately Deliver Us was an entertainment for me, like a horror movie, The Ring, perhaps. I accept that it is glib and admit that I chose to make it sensationally entertaining, which was an easy path.”

I’ve never read a comment packed with less “serious political awareness”.

Ryan Hartigan    posted 16 Mar 2007, 10:57 PM

Zia, I think you will find that Rothwell’s comment is part of a response that is so full of irony, it would not pass through a metal detector.

Zia Lopez             posted 17 Mar 2007, 01:14 AM

Why?  Why is it full of irony?  If he is making “serious moral and political points”, why would he want to obscure them with irony?  Unless he is a coward scrambling to cover all his bases and whatever else he is I’m sure he’s not a coward

On the contrary I believe he meant what he said, and that attempts are now being made to transfer embarrassment.

Ryan Hartigan    posted 17 Mar 2007, 12:11 PM / edited 17 Mar 2007, 12:11 PM

I don’t care to hazard a guess as to why it is written in the style that it is. I also don’t see how construing it as couched in irony is at all a long bow to draw. I could go through and list the elements of hyperbole, the deliberate oppositions, and the satirical points of comparison, but it would seem to be a rather long exercise where you will still conclude that you don’t feel convinced despite a mass of textual evidence. This tends to be underscored by the fact that you remove that isolated quote from a passage, where it really needs to be read in context.

There’s a long history of writing in an ironic style when dealing with extremely serious moral and political issues. I’d refer you, just as one example, to Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”. It’s the piece where he writes, in the style of a political tract of the time, that the solution to Irish famine is for them to eat their children. It’s an extremely famous piece. I don’t think you will find much traction in the idea that his sense of irony obscures, confounds or reduces his extremely serious intent. I could go on, or offer more examples, but I really do think that maintaining that moral and political issues and humour are mutually exclusive is fairly tedious. I’m not at all maintaining that Rothwell is in the same league as Swift, simply locating this kind of a response in a wider tradition.

So, what is it that he “meant”? What “embarassment” is being avoided? What do you think is lost if it is ironic? I’m curious, because I just don’t really see the impact of your contentions.

joshua judkins   posted 18 Mar 2007, 02:40 PM

lol. 😀

Super Dooper    posted 19 Mar 2007, 03:01 PM

There seems to be an unwritten bit of snobbery running through this thread, and that is that any play worth its salt has more to tell us about who we are and the issues we deal with than any entertaining horror movie. This is bullshit, pure and simple. If you think the world’s theatres are filled with works of art superior to the horror movies of Cronenberg, Romero, Argento, Polanski, Freidkin et al. then you’re, simply, wrong. I contend that ‘The Exorcist’ has more to say to a modern day audience than, say, ‘Endgame’.

What’s wrong with aspiring to write a play that’s the equal of ‘The Ring’? Damn well wish I could. What with its themes of loyalty, life, death, love, abandonment, technophobia, alienation…

Ryan Hartigan    posted 19 Mar 2007, 05:49 PM / edited 19 Mar 2007, 05:55 PM

I don’t see what’s wrong with it, necessarily, although I certainly hope that it’s a play that remembers it’s a live act, as opposed to trying to ape another artistic format. I don’t proclaim to speak for any of the others here, but I don’t agree that snobbery is *necessarily* at play. I do think it seems present in the point of comparison in the writer’s original response, but given how tongue in cheek it is, that’s neither here nor there.

Leaving that aside, all of the people you name here as film makers are figures who I have a hell of a lot of time for. Cronenberg and Romero are virtually posters on the wall of my mind, although latterly, now add in Jodorowsky. Perhaps because of this inclination, I think that it’s a fairly boring knee jerk reaction to try and polarise “The Exorcist” and “Endgame”. I like both. Beckett’s one of the greatest playwrights, and Friedkin crafted an amazing film. Both make me think. Both make me feel. Both make me respond. And, most importantly, they work in a different medium, doing different things in different ways and to different ends. I don’t see what you’re trying to prove by comparing unlike things.

To try and valorise one over the other seems to me to be a somewhat pointless activity, and simply reversing the pattern that you’re accusing others of.

Super Dooper    posted 19 Mar 2007, 07:01 PM

Au contraire.  I’m not trying to pit horror films against live theatre for a second. And if I were, surely I’d be on the Fangoria website or something like that. I didn’t use ‘Hamlet’ as an example of something trummped by ‘The Exorcist’, I used ‘Endgame’. And I like Beckett too. I just think that that play is the most dreadfully dull and ass-numbingly tedious way to spend the night ‘being entertained’. Want reaction? Want talk? Want to connect with people? Show them ‘The Exorcist’. Or ‘Deliver Us’.

I’m aware ‘snobbery’ is a loaded word, and people already have their minds made up about what does and does not qualify snobbery, but I do feel that it is in play here. I think there’s a lower level of irony in Rothwell’s comments than you might think. I respect the way the play evoked the feel of films (even mediocre ones like ‘It’s Alive’ and ‘The Desperate Hours’ and a dopey thing I saw the end of last night called ‘Fear), and in doing that put us even further in to our own everday worlds.

TRIPPY! Not only is this in a living room like that one I saw in Karori, but this is kinda like that movie with the… hang on! I’m being affected by this piece of work in a new and weird way. Good god! The magic of theatre!

Same thing happens when someone writes a song because of inspiration from a painting. Cross-fertilisation of the arts is really choice. Of course, one can go too far. Guy Ritchie doesn’t work on stage. Actually, he doesn’t work much any more at all, does he?

Ryan Hartigan    posted 19 Mar 2007, 08:05 PM / edited 19 Mar 2007, 08:21 PM

I think in some central ways you might find we’re in agreement, but surely you can see how combining an attack upon perceived snobbery (which yes, is a really, really loaded word – it opens up a different discourse, and means you’re invoking a cultural ranking that I really don’t think is in play) with a comparison of a piece of film and a piece of theatre, in a piece of writing that argues that you’ll be better served by a listing of film makers than most theatre, might well seem like something of a value judgement. It tends to also surface again when you refer, above, to something being “trumped”. My mistake – but it does seem like you’re making a point of comparison to me. I’m also pretty confused about what you’re trying to maintain is the point of snobbery, because I’m just not seeing it. For my part, the point I was debating with the other contributor wasn’t what seems to be the central element in this discussion (the particular cultural currency of The Ring, and what emerges consequently). In fact, it wasn’t even on my mind. Even if I was, if indeed The Ring is much deeper than what is characterised in that moment as “glib”, isn’t that a further level of irony? (ie, depth to the apparently superficial piece?)

Anyway, I’m intrigued: why does “Hamlet” make all the difference as an example of something that would not be beaten down by “The Exorcist”? Similarly, I’m mystified as to how you can both say that you like Beckett and yet say that “Endgame” is a tedious piece? Surely if that bores you, you’d be fairly bored by most, if not all, of his work. It seems a bit strange to me, so I’m interested in what you’re trying to say here.

I agree that there’s nothing wrong with cross-fertilisation, influence, mutually developing movements. Some of the most exciting philosophical and artistic moments happen precisely through these collisions. Just as long as the piece knows what it is. Personally, I find nothing more boring than a piece of theatre that is just screen dropped onto a stage – and I say that precisely because I’m a fan of theatre, and film, and it makes me so angry when someone smacks them together without any comprehension of what they are doing and shows the worst of each form in the process.

And yes…I think Guy Ritchie is lucky to now have a full time position as Mrs Madonna. Let’s not even try to imagine the profound horror, in a true sense, of someone trying to whack his work on stage. Unfortunately, I’m sure someone’s already tried it. Refer to the rash of Irvine Welsh adaptations for the stage, that range from the very good…to the “please place a pillow over my face so I don’t have to suffer any longer”.

Zia Lopez             posted 19 Mar 2007, 08:50 PM

oh boys, please, go get a room

Steph Walker     posted 20 Mar 2007, 12:06 PM

I agree Zia. Enough of the one upmanship – I am intrigued as to what other people think of Bruce’s opening of this forum – are the ‘mainstream’ theatres in New Zealand too ‘mainstream’?

I have heard people despair over getting new audiences in to our professional theatres – do people think this is to do with the programming, the marketing, the leadership of the theatres…. I’m curious as to what you all think!

Elizabeth Booth                 posted 21 Mar 2007, 09:12 AM

One-up-manship or critical debate?

My understanding of the purpose of this site and these forums was to provide a place for precisely the kind of dialogue we see above. Is this really going to accomplished if any substantial debates that begin to develop are dismissed in such a childish way?

I’d be interested to hear what John thinks about this.

John Smythe      posted 21 Mar 2007, 10:11 AM / edited 21 Mar 2007, 10:12 AM

I am delighted, Elizabeth: shades of the university pub debates of old; the repartee of salons … Ben Elton could script it into a new incarnation of Blackadder …

Personally I’m not a great fan of some of the defensive, ego-protecting, attack-the-person-not-the-argument tones that have crept in at times, but if that’s what it takes to get people passionate, provoking and finally communicating, who am I to say nay? 

Bruce Phillips     posted 24 Mar 2007, 03:51 PM

Sorry Michael, to answer your question from ages ago…I’ve been busy and also away…We have been trying to attract a younger audience in Circa Two, ie a BATS flow over, but I would have to say that really we get the same true loyal theatre fans in Circa Two as we do in Circa One. I firmly believe that there is a tiny percentage of the population that loves theatre in all its forms from an early age, and they come to most things.  The other type of theatre goer is a “casual” and will come if mates suggest it or whatever but they arent really ever going to love theatre much.  So instead of fretting over getting this type in, this year we are going for stronger productions of fantastically interesting plays from anywhere which suit the ambience of Circa Two. There are a lot of plays which are superb in an intimate theatre space. (ie Wassenaar’s Glass Menagerie) and this has been our programming committee’s main aim.

To expand the topic a little though, (as a lot of debate has arisen quite away from the initial thread of Mr Rothwell)  My feeling is that we arent going to attract a BATS type theatre crowd to Circa until they are older. Its just not the place for the casual theatre goer who prefers a wild anything-could-happen  “raw art” presentation. (which I also happen to love  – in its place)  We are catering for the theatregoer who wants a strong production of a play which has been already tested.  Circa’s basic philosophy has been to serve the playwright. Some theatres now dont want to do this, ie the thread about devised work. This is a new phenomena, and it will be interesting to see where it leads.  Love it (as most of our regular audiences do) or hate it (thank god for BATS) its the formula that most established theatre round the world work by.  

We do do quite a lot of premieres of new NZ work (typically about 2 -3 a year) and love doing them and would do more, but sadly these works often dont pay their way very well. Our audience tends not to want to see “an experiment”  Damn it, but they dont. And if we are to survive  (why bother some will ask!)  we have to take a very measured approach, balancing new with old, comedy with drama, risky with proven  (note…I dont say safe….nothing is safe and I laugh when I read people saying we have a safe programme…if we could have a safe programme we would do it and all be millionaires!!)

Anyway, just a little ramble.  If you can suggest ways we can get the young BATS crowd to come to Circa please let me know!

claire van beek posted 24 Mar 2007, 08:29 PM

Paul- If you’re out there… Your plays sound amazing! When is your work next in Auckland? And if you’re having workshops how do I become involved? I read the latest review and just thought I have to see that, it sounds like a fun, dark playground.

Anonymous        posted 25 Mar 2007, 01:41 PM

What an interesting forum. But really, what is ‘mainstream theatre?’ One simply cannot call Circa or Downstage ‘mainstream’ It is ludicrous! The only thing I can see that gets up peoples noses is the fact that these theatres often hire the same artists. But why not? It is a form of support in this tumultuous industry. And these people get the work done and damn well I must say.

Also, both theatres are supporting the new wave of talent coming in. Downstage with its apprenticeships and Circa continuing to hire newbies. I think what a lot of people are forgetting is the EVERY PRODUCTION IS A RISK. Both in the art and business side of it. Whether it’s a Roger Hall or a Paul Rothwell.

For me the only difference between a Circa/Downstage production and a BATS/Happy/etc one is the price. Not necessarily the calibre of work. I want to see all the theatre that is out there – and I’m pretty sure a lot of people in the ‘younger’ age bracket feel the same.

Finally, I have just seen TWO BROTHERS at Circa and it was one of the most thought provoking plays I have seen in a long time. Well worth the extra 10 bucks.

p.s apologies if half of this was already posted – struggles pressing buttons on laptop!

Elizabeth Booth                 posted 26 Mar 2007, 09:27 AM

A quick response to Bruce’s comment about younger audiences in Circa.

Young people don’t see plays at Circa because

a.) The plays staged there are directed at older audiences

b.) It’s too expensive

Super Dooper    posted 26 Mar 2007, 11:53 AM / edited 26 Mar 2007, 11:59 AM

(Stops bickering with Hartigan because it’s sunny outside). Mr Phillips, thanks so much for the honesty in your last post. Come on, Theatreviwers, let’s get to the bottom of this…

Circa’s plays are too expensive.

Young people feel like party crashers at Circa. We don’t have the shared memory of productions / history that seems to add to the Circa experience.  Little of the sponsorship/ advertising is relevant to us. The carpets are too clean. Stuff like that. And that’s simply a cultural and economic reality that’s very hard to change. You can’t be all things to all people.

So what would I do if there were an explosion on the waterfront and through some zany legal mix-up I was given run of Circa 2? Dunno. Probably set up a separate box office and run more shows there.

(BTW, I’m having huge trouble logging in to this site sometimes. I’ve sat here entering in my details upwards of two dozen times with no luck signing in. If this continues I may be tempted to get a life.)

(Also BTW, this site as show? Sod Ben Elton! Devised work all the way. With some editing from Roger Hall and Paul Rothwell.)

Judith Dale          posted 26 Mar 2007, 12:20 PM / edited 26 Mar 2007, 12:43 PM

Thanks for that, Elizabeth. In response to Bruce’s question, I had been waiting for someone more appropriate than me to say that younger people don’t go to ‘professional’ theatres because they’re too expensive. (I know the terms ‘professional/non-professional’ are contentious too, but if Mr/s Anonymous objects to my calling them ‘mainstream’ as I initially did, what else to say?) The way to get younger audiences to Circa, I suggest, would be to have nights at Circa with ‘Bats’ prices.

Elizabeth gives another reason for younger people not going to Circa/Downstage and the reasons are of course related. Their plays are, she says, “directed at older audiences.” And they have to be (if indeed they are) because those are the audiences who can afford them. Some young professionals have money but students don’t and students can’t do things they can’t afford. As I said earlier in this forum, professional theatre companies have to survive financially if they are to survive at all (that is, the economics of production has to be ‘up to it’).

So I applaud Anonymous’s endorsement of Bruce’s “Two Brothers” at Circa as “well worth the extra 10 bucks”. I think it is. It’s an important, problematic and fascinating piece of theatre and I wish I could shout everyone who’s not going to go because they can’t afford it!

Angela Green     posted 26 Mar 2007, 08:38 PM

I don’t know whether it is just the money thing. When I was a student I was offered loads of cheap deals to see theatre and if the play didn’t interest me I didn’t go. That being said, now that I am a jobbing actor sometimes I have even less money to play around with 🙂 What DID make me go (and still does) is word of mouth. Get people along to a play who are going to talk about it. This site is great for that. I also think that marketing is a big thing. Younger audiences may be looking for different things in a poster, for example. It’s frustrating because I have been in plays that are fantastic but the poster and marketing campaign (or lack thereof) turns people off. Something to consider maybe. Circa appears to have a standard poster ‘flavour’ and can make everything seem to blend into one. By the way, to me, ‘younger’ doesn’t necessarily mean age. There are loads of savvy people out there from all demographics. And some boring ones too.

Paul Rothwell     posted 26 Mar 2007, 09:50 PM

Hi Claire – thanks. I don’t have any shows or workshops coming on in Auckland yet, so if you know of anybody who’s looking to put something on… hehe. I used to live in Auckland for ages and I was a friend of your lovely sister.

claire van beek posted 26 Mar 2007, 11:03 PM

Lovely? try getting held down in horse bites for minutes on end while you’re crying and laughing at the same time and nearly wetting your pants!! Ok, that was a while back. yeah she’s ok.

Maybe I’ll move to Wellington so I can see some more of your work, I didnt realise you’d actualy made the move. Auckland is definitly missong a “Bats”… a place which supports new (often young) work. Is that why you’re in Welly?

Wilma   posted 23 May 2007, 02:45 PM

to say that plays at circa are aimed at older audiences is rubbish, who were the plays written for? certainly not just ‘older audiences’

I agree with the price issue on some levels but otherwise i ask why cant younger people access and enjoy the plays put on at circa, they are no rules anywhere saying they cant.

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