October 16, 2007

Is Theatre Dead?

Isabel    posted 28 Aug 2007, 10:33 PM

I have recently heard several people despairingly remark that Theatre is dead in this country.

In comparison with what other art forms are doing i would have to agree. When was the last time anyone saw anything fresh and original. Something new and risky? I can’t remember much of note since the days of Trouble and Lily’s Balcony…

Is something dead if it is no longer evolving? Is theatre in wellington evolving?

Can we compare Theatre to the work of artists such as ‘et al’? I don’t see how they are so different… therefore why are ‘et al’ no longer doing the things they did ten years ago and why is mainstream theatre here no different to what it was doing 20 years ago!?

How can we start to change what is and bring new energy and ideas into the old ways of working? Circa Theatre is the most wonderful resource and the potential to develop the studio space into a more ambitious venue is immense- however no one at Circa seems to be embracing that by letting new talent in to do its ow thing. And Downstage is a stunning theatre in a prime location however it struggles to get audiences and as a result is turning more and more safe and boring.

Does anyone else feel this way?

How do we build a culture of theatre in this country that is brave and ambitious like some of the work that comes out of Europe?

Michael Wray    posted 28 Aug 2007, 11:01 PM

Dead? I don’t think so, but it’s perhaps not as healthy as competing forms of entertainment. Is that a new thing, or has it always been that way? I haven’t been here long enough to comment on how it compares to what was happening 10 or 20 years ago. Coming from the South Coast of England (i.e. not London), I think NZ is incredibly well served for theatre – and this has been the most compelling aspect of me considering myself settled in NZ.

Wellington has always seemed to me to be somewhat spoilt, even if doesn’t always take advantage of it. However, as I left the ATC tonight I was thinking that over the last 12 months, it has felt like Auckland has been putting on a more edgy programme than Wellington – whether it’s classics like The Crucible or more contemporary works like The Pillowman. And last year’s Twelfth Night at ATC felt positively contemporary (by the way, check out the current Toi production of Twelfth Night and the very clever way of sharing parts that does not feel contrived and actually adds something). ATC is not alone in putting on stuff that feels sharp; Silo has had some great stuff with Lobby Hero, Dying City, Take Me Out springing to mind.

Circa Two/Studio seems to go through periods of opening up to non-inhouse productions. I remember Ryan Hartigan putting on The Ghost of Woody Allen and Willem Wassenaar having The Glass Menagarie (and Willem is directing Angels in America at Downstage from 29 Sep).  There was new talent on display for The Cape. I don’t know how well these examples of allowing new talent fared in a commercial sense – presumably good responses needed for Circa to pursue.

Isabel    posted 29 Aug 2007, 10:28 AM

Wow Michael you see a lot don’t you! How do you do it!

I am talking more about work that is experimental and new- work that is exploring new dimensions of the craft, as opposed to ‘contempoary’ versions of classic plays. (However Almost a Bird are doing this with great artistry.)

I wonder also why devised work is getting such a hard time when that is what we should be looking to as the future of the work? If artists are not supported in the beginning stages how can they grow and develop?

t opiate                posted 29 Aug 2007, 10:52 AM / edited 6 Sep 2007, 09:36 AM

I don’t think the form needs to be shaken up too much for something ‘new and exciting’ to occur in that ‘fabulous invalid’, theatre.  At the risk of opening a can of worms and feeding them to a school of sharks, I gotta raise Paul Rothwell’s ‘Deliver Us’ (as directed by David Lawrence), which essentially follows a ‘well-made’ model. The Shocking New of the production is that, for the first time in my experience, a young company has put on a new NZ show by a young playwright in a trendy alternative black box space and dealt with issues truly disturbing to the audience.

You can get up and rail against racism, Bush, big oil, the Nats, homophobia, middle class complacency, Nazis, sexism, religious fundamentalism, bullying, the patriarchy, colonialism and sexual repression all you want at places like BATS and it won’t make a blind bit of difference. Rothwell’s play deals with abortion remorse. That’s a hard sell, particularly when you’re selling it to an audience with a preconditioned response to the issue. So much of what passes for ‘challenging’ theatre is preaching to the converted.

‘Deliver Us’ took a risk very few serious practitioners would be willing to take. It isolated some theatregoers, it inspired debate, it upset some and it no doubt offered some sense of vindication to others. The form did not require an arbitrary makeover: content was all. 

Dandy   posted 29 Aug 2007, 12:00 PM / edited 29 Aug 2007, 01:16 PM

I would be really interested in where you are from Isabel (Welly or Auckland).

Personally I feel the problem in Auckland, which creates a feeling of stagnation, is that there is a lack of venues which support experimental theatre companies putting on their own work.

To stereotype for a bit, currently your theatre audience in Auckland can be comprised of a few groups of people.;  Ex-Mercury & theatre corporate patrons (between 30 – 100? years of age, people that diligently went or were taken to most of the shows put on there and from that have become avid loyal supporters of theatre in Auckland & New Zealand), Practicioners in or breaking into the industry (the best way to get your foot in the door is to actually go through the door and see whats going on) and a slim group of people between the ages of 20-30 (who are outside the industry and either have enough expendable cash to be able to afford most luxuries, or they are friends of practitioners and like to support their friends or young people that simply like theatre for the sake of liking going to the theatre).

My point is, in 20-30 years time who is going to go to the the theatre in Auckland?  Current a large aim (funding criteria) in project funding is to increase the diversity of the theatre audience, but I believe that the problem is not the work we put on, but the lack of venues to support emerging experimental practitioners.  We have the largest population for a city (by far) in this country, and probably the largest number of skilled & trained practitioners out of work.

I believe that we need to estabilish new venues to be used only by smaller production companies with an aim of putting on new work and existing experimental work that you wouldn’t normally see in theatre today.  If we can get more people working, they will get more people coming to the theatre.  It’s as simple as that.  And if we can create more experimental work I believe we will also get a new generation of 20-30 somethings that don’t like going to see a traditional play but prefer a work that is non-linear, existential and different.  If such venues were to exist funding bodies could also run workshops to further train people on how to get shows up and running, because I believe there is probably a lack of producers for experimental theatre in Auckland as well.

I think ATC and Silo put on outstanding shows and I think that they know their market and serve them very well.  But in 20-30 years time how many ex-silo patrons will still be attending theatre or will even be in this country?? (I hope Silo’s still around then though)  How many ATC subscribers and regular patrons will still be attending theatre??

In Auckland theatres not dying, but if were not careful in decades to come alot of the audience could be.

patrick graham posted 29 Aug 2007, 04:03 PM / edited 29 Aug 2007, 06:05 PM

Its always interesting to see when Aucklanders rail against the lack of performance venues that the STAMP programme at THE EDGE is never mentioned.  They have continuously supported emerging talents like The Rebel Alliance and some of my work.

 It is interesting to note that many other smaller companies are using alternate venues. Fingertips and Teeth, a company set up by Tom Sainsbury continuously uses venues other than theatres. Recently his production The Mall used a gallery and in the past he has used studio spaces and bars to great effect. Personally, I’ve used the Wine Cellar, and several other smaller companies have used this venue also. The Peripeteia Players staged many successful Shakespeare’s in the Dogs Bollix bar.

 I don’t think the problem lies with Auckland not having enough venues. I think it has more to do with the audience and whether or not they are willing to experiment with where they see a show.   I know that a lot of these shows do go under the radar because they don’t get as much funding support and therefore aren’t as able to publicise them. An audience has to be willing, when they do find out about an event, to try it. Auckland audiences can be very conservative in their choices of what to view.

nik smythe          posted 29 Aug 2007, 09:52 PM / edited 29 Aug 2007, 10:22 PM

i concur with patrick there, what’s more i saw The Mall and it was about as good an example of something watchable and edgy as you might want, not only in spite of a clear lack of budget but even managing to use it to their advantage, particularly in terms of the harsh fluoro department-store type lighting (e.g. the Cross St Studios lights). Full review here .

since screen innovation has rendered theatre down to a more niche-type market, the challenge is upon these stalwart devotees to the craft to bring something forth that is both not available through film or teevee, e.g. a tactile form of experience, as well as riding the edge of theatrical innovation itself. companies such as Fingerprints and Teeth, the Rebel Alliance, In the Shape of a Square, and the up and coming ‘Devise & Destroy’ Theatre who’s current devised work in progress I was privy to a workshop staging of at the Wine Cellar, and quite promising it was, albeit extremely avant garde which i personally love but am aware it has a limited market.

all these energetic youth-driven enterprises indicate there is still a lively passion for experimental theatre present, from the artists’ point of view. when we talk of ‘theatre is dead’, i suggest we are referring more to the open-minded willingness of potential audiences to risk their hard-earned entertainment dollar on such a dubious form.

Oliver Driver       posted 5 Sep 2007, 12:59 AM

Each night during the interval of The Pillowman I stand in the dock of the theatre smoking a cigarette (sometimes three if truth be told) watching the disgusted, the affronted, the shocked and the timid escape into the spring filled night. They vary in age and socio standing but are united in their actions, as they walk quick and silent to their cars, eyes front and centre. I had assumed it was the swearing, the blood and the violence that prompted their departure but such offence is usually the bastion of the blue rinse not couples in their forties with snazzy black leather jackets and designer trousers. So being the curious chap i have become I asked some youngish patrons why they felt the need to flee. They were upset and angry that their night out at the theatre was not the entertainment they had expected to see. “I didn’t come to the theatre to see all this conflict, we wanted a nice night out, a bit of a laugh.” They said more but I was quietly dying inside. My point is this, We are creating an audience that expects to be amused and entertained rather than challenged and questioned. We are committing theatrical suicide.

If fingers are to be pointed at anyone but ourselves, they should be pointed squarely at CNZ. It’s simple, stop funding pap and support those companies that make great theatre.

Thomas LaHood                posted 5 Sep 2007, 10:09 AM

Well… I appreciate your point Oliver, and I haven’t seen the show in question, but…

You know, there’s a point at which I switch off to too much shouting, violence and overt conflict onstage too.  It’s not that I don’t like to be challenged, it just takes a finer lure to hook me.  Sometimes I get that sense of ‘an actor’s play’, one that gives the performer the chance to go ‘out there’ but leaves the audience aloof on the shore.

Sometimes a play can use the lure of comedy, entertainment, even joy, to hide the sharp edge of a challenging idea.  Serious does not always educate more successfully than silly, as anyone who has read stories to children can attest.

The worst thing for theatre in this country would be a CNZ with the attitude of the Pythons’ Major General – “This play is too silly!”  It seems to me we already have a habit in this country of dismissing both the highbrow and the lowbrow for the ‘topical’ middle.  For me it’s this that is killing theatre in New Zealand (although I personally believe the tide has turned), a thousand deadly plays about power and psychology with no love, no emancipation and no wild dreams that whisper in your ears.

Oliver Driver       posted 5 Sep 2007, 10:44 AM

Thomas, go see the play.

Thomas LaHood                posted 5 Sep 2007, 11:23 AM

Yeah, I will if it comes this way.

John Smythe      posted 5 Sep 2007, 01:33 PM / edited 5 Sep 2007, 03:10 PM       

Oliver, given your statement about Creative New Zealand, how do you justify the hyper – ‘don’t worry folks, its all great fun and not to be taken seriously’ – tone you and the team consistently bring to Frontseat? If anything is cultivating an expectation that theatre is “pap”, a “good night out” and “non-confrontational”, it’s that, surely!

Also, perhaps you could offer more detail on how it is that CNZ funds “pap” and how this disenfranchises the ATC?

Oliver Driver       posted 5 Sep 2007, 08:55 PM

Unfortunately TVNZ share a similar view to CNZ when it comes to content. They demanded that Fronseat become more ‘Magazine’ in style. TVNZ’s view is that funny and simple shows rate, which they do. Funny and simple plays rate too. My request remains the same but i’ll broaden it to include television for you.  CNZ and TVNZ please stop funding and making pap and invest in great theatre and television that does not measure success only in terms of audience viewership.  Also I never stated that CNZ disenfranchises ATC. My point was that ATC is the only company in Auckland funded to a level that enables it to consistently produce theatre without fear of going under and that a lot of the theatre funded in this city and this country is safe, light and…well…pap.

nik smythe          posted 5 Sep 2007, 10:13 PM

I agree wholeheartedly, and as i alluded to in the comments in the Pillowman review, i found it refreshingly edgy (gunshot issue notwithstanding), in particular from an ATC product. i might add that the 2007 ATC season looks by and large far more exciting and interesting to me than it has in previous years. yet Oliver’s shocked-audience report concerns me; will they decide they pushed the envelope too far and revert to the old blue-rinse appeasing formula? it seems we’re talking about two kinds of theatre death here – (a) box office statistics in serious decline, and (b) the artisitic integrity and challenging potential of theatre being severely undermined in a desperate yet backward attempt to address the more commonly understood (a) type. so what does it take for both creative substance and audience numbers to flourish in unison?

Oedipa Maas      posted 5 Sep 2007, 10:57 PM / edited 5 Sep 2007, 10:59 PM


Yes ‘Frontseat’ did adopt a further creeping magazine (…pap-like?) style format towards its axing – but I think you’ll find this factor a definite Catch 22, rather than the smoking gun shooting into Mr Driver’s foot.

As I well and fondly remember, Frontseat used to be a programme of substance. Interviews with arts funding bodies, creatives, creators etc.etc. in a refreshingly “this-stuff-really-is-important-guys…” format. Why did it change? Why did it slowly seep from cultural current affairs to magazine-like fluff?

Here’s the rub: funding.

From what I understand, TVNZ informed Gibson Group, Frontseat’s creators and presenters that they were looking for something: “a bit lighter”, “more entertaining” and “not so confrontational” than the original Frontseat – or else, it could not call its timeslot home.

Sound familiar?

So, in order to keep SOME semblance of our country’s arts community on our television screens, Gibson Group and its associates (Driver included) complied by loosening some of its straight edged format. Only to be told after a second season that TVNZ were still looking for something: “a bit lighter”, “more entertaining” and “not so confrontational”.

So Mr Smythe, both arts television AND live theatre are tying themselves into noose-like knots in order to stay afloat. One is not a pawn in the hypocritical downfall of the other. It is rather funding and the lack thereof and resulting timidity and the sheer mass thereof, which are the downfalls of BOTH (if not all?) mediums of our artistic community’s expression.

And be not mistaken. Complying with the timidity-instilled needs and wants of funding bodies and broadcasters will NOT lead to better and trusting funding relationships in the future. It will lead theatre through banality to the same conclusion as Frontseat, Mr Smythe: axed and non-existent.

P.S. I don’t think Driver’s point was to claim CNZ disenfranchises the ATC. Rather, that it disenfranchises ALL OTHER Auckland theatre outfits. ATC is the lone great beneficiary of CNZ in Auckland, the city with a third of New Zealand’s population. Compared to Wellington’s seven funded companies? Eight? While I will never argue that funding should be taken from Wellington as I greatly admire their theatre culture and creations… Surely Auckland’s funding should be a little more evenly spread? Non?

John Smythe      posted 5 Sep 2007, 11:45 PM

Well said, ‘Oedipa’, about the downward spiral to oblivion.  Must we accept that ‘Cassandra’ would be a better name, in that your prophecy is destined to be disbelieved, or is there an effective way to take a stand? Heaven forbid that attempting to thwart the prophecy should lead to punishment for the crime of hubris …

I am interested to hear more about how Creative NZ goes about interfering with the creative decisions of artistic directors, etc.  Am I right in thinking they send funding applications back for revision where they feel proposed seasons are not viable.  If so, what is their means of projecting the outcome?  Similarly with Project Funding – what are the key criteria and in what way do they thus promulgate “pap”?

For the record, surely Silo Theatre is recurrently funded by CNZ, giving Auckland two Recurrently Funded Organisations (RFOs).  Wellington has three RFOs: Circa (or more precisely the Theatre Artists’ Charitable Trust which is the funding resource for the series of co-ops that make up the Circa schedule) and BATS, which is largely a managed venue available to co-ops that have to find their own project funding and/or sponsorship.  Downstage, as I understand it, remains obliged to apply for annual funding, although it is the only Wellington theatre which pays specified wages (like, I assume, the ATC and Silo).

So where do you get four more Wellington theatres? Taki Rua and Capital E are national touring companies, albeit based in Wellington. Are you also counting the RNZ Ballet and NBR Opera? They do form part of the production industry infrastructure that also serves film and the little TV that gets made here.  Auckland, of course, has the great monopoly in TV drama and TV commercial production, which is key to employment opportunities.

Shane Bosher     posted 6 Sep 2007, 12:27 AM / edited 6 Sep 2007, 07:28 AM

Surely John, your notion of funding is incorrect. Silo Theatre does not have RFO status with Creative NZ. It relies on project funding, and has done so for the last TEN years of its existence. Auckland is the most expensive city in the country to present work. Compare the difference in funding levels. Do the maths. “Thrilling” bedtime reading.

Isabel    posted 6 Sep 2007, 01:34 AM / edited 6 Sep 2007, 07:26 AM

It’s great to see the discussion in relation to this thread. However as with most of the forums on this site it has turned into a mud slinging match which does not answer the guts of my question. However perhaps the responses answer the question itself- practitioners are too wrapped up in ego and being “right” to actually consider the core problems in our work.

“How do we build a culture of theatre in this country that is brave and ambitious like some of the work that comes out of Europe?”

Oliver you are right in order to create the interest in the work we have to be ruthless to our audiences and not give them the fluff they think they are wanting. We need to redefine theatre in this country. We need to awaken the craft of the artform. I as an actor don’t want to make a career out of performing fluff. I do it because i think theatre has great power and in the hope that one day i can create something that will have a profound affect on people lives.

Aaron Alexander              posted 6 Sep 2007, 09:26 AM / edited 6 Sep 2007, 09:37 AM

Isabel, while I admire your aims, I think as actors/theatremakers we should always keep some perspective on how important what we actually do is. Theatre is a fascinating and exciting form of human expression, but ‘having a profound effect on someone’s life’?

I’m sorry, call me cynical and ban me from opening night pissups, but in my opinion that’s a spectacular overestimation of what we do. Sure, maybe once in a blue moon an audience member seeing the right show at the right moment may make a decision differently than if they hadn’t seen the show. But by and large, it’s disposable entertainment. Hopefully interesting, challenging, exciting, thought-provoking entertainment, but that’s the sum of it. And let’s not devalue the concept of entertainment by making hubristic proclamations about ‘changing lives’ etc. Entertainment and diversion are extremely valuable parts of our society. We would grow rapidly mad without it.

If you want to profoundly affect lives, become a doctor, nurse, social worker, public prosecutor, politician, teacher…

John Smythe      posted 6 Sep 2007, 09:31 AM

I am deeply shocked, Shane, to learn that Silo Theatre is subject to Project Funding, and I am grateful that you have corrected my misapprehension.

Indeed the CNZ website lists the following as recurrently funded organisations: Auckland Theatre Company, BATS Theatre, Centrepoint Theatre, Circa Theatre [+TACT], The Court Theatre, Downstage Theatre, Fortune Theatre, Capital E National Theatre for Children, Taki Rua Productions (Co-funded by the Arts Board and Te Waka Toi) and Playmarket. The italicised RFOs receive 2-year or 3-year funding, the others apply each year.

Does this mean Silo has to apply for funding production-by-production, or can you group the work into seasons? On what basis, for example, were you able to publish your 2007 Season Catalogue?

I am also shocked because I had thought CNZ’s Project Funding pot was mostly directed towards homegrown theatre, yet Silo’s 2007 season includes just one NZ play: a revival of Toa Fraser’s BARE. The rest is made up of 4 scripts from the USA and 2 from the UK!

This falls far short, in my opinion, of CNZ’s primary responsibility to direct significant resources towards the development and sustaining of homegrown theatre. My questions to you, Shane, are these:

    To what extent is CNZ directing you towards the sort of season you produce?

    What incentives are they using to help Silo qualify for recurrent funding?

Isabel Howden posted 6 Sep 2007, 12:54 PM

Aaron call me idealistic but i think to not have that kind of desire driving an artist would and does create very boring art.

Do your statements on entertainment apply to all art? Can you say that about a Picasso painting or a piece of Beethoven. Have you seen “The Lives of Others”? There is a beautiful moment in the film where Lenin is quoted as saying, “If I had listened to Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata more, I might not have finished the Revolution.”

Surely the overall purpose of art is to redeem humanity? I’m not saying this should be the case for every show but i think it is what any artist should be striving for, especially when creating new work.

Aaron Alexander              posted 6 Sep 2007, 01:27 PM / edited 6 Sep 2007, 05:07 PM

I just get deeply put off by woolly terms like ‘redeem humanity’. What exactly does that mean? Make up for humanity’s evils? I’m not sure art can do that.

And yes, it does apply to all art, for me. Whose life did Picasso’s paintings profoundly change, aside from those of Pablo and his dealers?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a lover of art, in all its  forms, and I think it enhances lives and allows memorable experiences, but I don’t see people’s lives fundamentally altered by it. I think it’s something we tell ourselves and each other to assuage the guilt of not being ‘productive members of society’. That’s what’s going on in The Lives of Others, in my opinion. Did Lenin actually say this, or is this a work of art (the film) reinforcing its own importance?

Here’s a thought, do you think people can be profoundly affected negatively by a work of art?

Also, as much as you argue that not having a high ideal can lead to the production of boring art, equally an inflated sense of the fundamental importance of your work can lead to the production of self-indulgent art-wank. I see plenty of productions which err in that direction.

It’s all good though, Isabel, you be idealistic, I’ll be cynical, and between us we’ll create a nice balance!

Or possibly cancel each other out…(cynic)

Thomas LaHood                posted 6 Sep 2007, 01:30 PM

I agree with both Isabel and with Aaron – perhaps you’re not at as cross purposes as you think.  Isabel, I totally agree that art’s greatest role is the redemption of humanity.  This is what elevates art above mere entertainment and diversion.  However, the two are not mutually exclusive, nor can we always predict the effects of our art on society.

I agree with Aaron that in trying to have a profound effect on other people’s lives we often risk forgetting to cater to their need for joy, inspiration, release, in favour of presenting ideological conundrums.  We fall into the trap of thinking, like Oliver does, that we know in advance what constitutes ‘great’ theatre.

Both provocation and celebration are necessary in theatre, and I have been as profoundly moved by clowns juggling pizza dough as I have by Nancy Brunning’s haunting waiata in Wairua.  ‘Great’ art can spring from the commonplace as well as the rarefied.

I’d like to offer this observation, also, to Isabel.  The traditions of Europe have as much trouble turning out magic as we do.  I spent a good part of last year attending arts festivals around Europe and while I saw some spectacular stuff, there was plenty of dross masquerading as quality.  In particular I was astounded at what I saw in Brussels, where funding, support and time for development are no problem at all, but where liberal application of these precious resources seem to turn out stuff that looks surprisingly weak by Wellington standards.

John Smythe      posted 6 Sep 2007, 05:27 PM / edited 6 Sep 2007, 05:29 PM

I well remember my decision to make theatre my vocation rather than a hobby. It was based on the realisation that, more than offer an escape from ‘real life’, it can give us greater access to life’s riches.

As with all the arts, theatre can articulate things for us; give form and meaning to what concerns us. By moving us in the moment – to laughter, tears or deeper contemplation – it can move us off a stuck position, into greater understanding and even on to taking action.  It can certainly give us common points of reference and very useful terms and phrases …

While I doubt theatre could provoke a person into an action, or any kind of change, that they were not already primed for, consciously or unconsciously, I certainly believe it can be as instrumental as any other factor.

So I think I agree with everyone here, in part, so far …

Bruce Keffer       posted 16 Oct 2007, 06:11 AM

Theater dies when creativity stagnates and government ignores the arts.

Expand the meaning of theater, experiment with the new and unique, push the limit. But remember the roots of theater are encompassed within those two faces that hang over the stage.

Above all learn and use the mechanics of delivery to the advantage of the artist on the stage, to deliver the greatest benefit for the audience, then maybe, theater will survive.

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