August 27, 2008

Tom Cardy on Downstage

Uri Khein              posted 27 Aug 2008, 12:56 PM / edited 1 Sep 2008, 12:40 PM

Tom Cardy, in his blog this morning: Why isn’t Wellington’s theatre community up in arms over the future of Downstage?

“Last week it was revealed that Creative New Zealand, which has been annually funding the theatre to the tune of $500,000, may cut funding next year.

“Where are the anguished online discussions on the likes of Theatre Review and Lumiere that occurred earlier this year when the theatre was about to be restructured? I can’t find a thing.

“Creative NZ and Downstage are in negotiations right now, so are refusing to comment. Frustrating, but understandable. It’s also unclear if Downstage’s funding will be reduced or completely axed. But it looks very unlikely is that it will be the same level of funding and obviously won’t be more.

“Either way, it doesn’t bode well for Wellington theatre and is made worse by the economic downturn. So why isn’t a public meeting being organised over this? Aren’t the Downstage Theatre Society concerned? Why wait till its finalised? Downstage is not only a Wellington theatre institution, but a New Zealand theatre institution. Regardless of the changes made earlier this year, it seems to me too early to pull the funding plug. Or have people simply given up on it?

Why isn’t everyone up in arms about Downstage, Tom? Because it’s late, very late, in the saga of Downstage and the time has come when something new must take its course; an event that doesn’t allow for too much weeping over what’s already been lost. It may well be that the extant new vision for the theatre succeeds despite all odds; doubtless, this would be a good thing. Failing that, there must come the event that is less – or, as the case may be, more – than positive: the final meltdown. It may be the case that it’s already too late to merely articulate, idealise and coral the potential energy that is out there. There may be nothing left but to literally release that energy – and to release that energy there must be the mini-apocalypse.

There’s been a lot of positivity and meticulously-articulated concern around the matter of Downstage in recent months but there’s also been a lot of denial. There has been a failure to frankly admit that while Bats is bouncing and Circa flourishing, Downstage has become plain weird. Weird in a boring way, not weird in a sexy way. The Hollow Men was great but it is not enough; a good student production or two, similarly, is not enough. The place simply does not cohere. Putatively, it has a place in Welly theatre, a scene that is a melange of pretensions, assured moments, beautiful accidents, along with a trousseau of dreams more incoherent then those of Curious George on speed. And yet Downstage’s real context is unknown, to say nothing of unrealised. The praxis of a programming venue that implies virtuous anarchy at Bats and a virtual ensemble at Circa is just insipid ad-hocery at Downstage. It cannot last and it should not last. There needs to be something else, something new.

Once upon a time Downstage was something remarkable. It boasted Anthony Taylor and Raymond Boyce: a partnership that was not only exemplary but that is still the only collaboration in the history of New Zealand theatre to have been a genuinely great one. Amongst practitioners overall, Bruce Mason is revered, Roger Hall is a brilliant success, but only Douglas Wright is greater.

Then came the often-scintillating Colin McColl’s long, assured tenure. When Colin McColl stepped aside, the obvious successor was Murray Lynch a.k.a. Tantrum Theatre. Here is, to say the least, an interesting director. When I was first introduced to Murray Lynch he amiably mentioned to me Angels in America, one of the most groundbreaking events in writing for the stage of the last twenty years. More than one New Zealand director rushed to embrace the glamour of Angels Part I: Millennium Approaches; when it got to the point of the even more remarkable Part Two: Perestroika, the glamour—and the steam—had, alas, expired.

The fact is, if I lived in a city with a theatre of the quality of the RNZ Ballet, I would have seen a production at Downstage of Perestroika by Murray Lynch by now. And it would have a production worth seeing. If Murray Lynch does Dario Fo, you really get to see anarchic, disconcertingly physical comedy. If he does Brecht, you really do see unsettling counter-bathetic allegory. Then he goes and does Hone Kouka’s Waiora. Hone Kouka said at one point, quite realistically, that if he managed to reach just one person he considered that he had done its job. And yet at the end of the premiere performance, I saw not one but two women, Māori, perhaps thirty-something, sitting on opposite sides of the round: stunned, dazed, unable to move, unable to speak. I felt a familiar rumbling, that strange admixture of panic and relief and then I was sobbing my guts out all the way down the stairs and out, all the way to the band rotunda on Oriental Parade. This is what theatre is: astonishment, revelation, tears. Or fabulous entertainment. Nothing else—the intrinsic brief of theatre is magnanimous enough.

Sometime after Downstage had already lost its company, its rehearsal rooms, its workshops, its wardrobes and who knows what else—sometime after Guy Boyce’s and Ellie Smith’s brave stewardships—Murray Lynch got his chance. At that point, some things were possible and yet a great deal in the scheme of things meant that ist was already too late. Having performed good service, Murray left. Whose turn next? Miranda Harcourt was talked about: one of the city’s genuinely terrific actors, not so great a director. And yet a person who may have been to Wellington theatre what Simon Prast was to Auckland. A practitioner who knows about audiences, knows about business; who would have cared enough to network, to listen, to try, to plead, to cajole for the sake of Downstage. It wasn’t to be; the Board’s choice was Cathy Downes(tage). Two years of more or less sincere, more or less competent, more or less ambiguous … two years, indeed, of more and less. And now Hillary Beaton. There’s a good feeling around about Hillary Beaton. But who is Hillary when she’s not taking the floor in Denver, or the floor most directly adjacent to the sky in Nepal? One way or another, the city is going to find out.

Why is Downstage Downstage and not Circa? What makes the Circa folk so different, their outlook so much more rosy? Those Circa folks are tireless veterans and good business-people who love theatre: they’re not too flashy, certainly, at times, a little trashy; very definitely homely: they know who their audience is. I have an uncle, 80 this year, who has a great fondness for Ray Henwood. Why? Because my uncle has lost count of the number of Jewish roles that Ray Henwood has played over the years. When Ray Henwood walks on stage as a Jew, he is a Jew – my uncle can readily tell this.

Could the essence of theatre as an event encountered by a living audience really be something so simple, so parochial, so personal? Yes it can and yes it is. It is, because when it is alive, theatre is literally all things to all people; it is a mad, mad cornucopia of quirky possibilities. If Ray Henwood makes The Birthday Party enjoyable it is not because Circa’s production can match the creepy inanities of William Friedkin’s eponymous movie of Pinter’s play. It’s because Mr Henwood, the old true-pa, like Mr Tilly, like a number cherished others, knows how to have a good time, and he wants his audience to have a good time too. It’s the classic middle-brow approach: it can go high-brow in an instant or low-brow if it chooses; it really doesn’t care and neither does its audience, so along as the audience remains engaged. Like Enlightenment, Theatre doesn’t care how you get there. But get there you must, or you must die trying. Downstage won’t go there and it won’t die. Well now it doesn’t the luxury of keeping its backside on that particular fence any longer.

There has been a Downstage industry consultation. There has been a report by Briar Munro which reads, inter alia, “The consultation indicates that Downstage has the potential to be a significant force in the building of distinctive, internationally recognised NZ theatre … this cannot be done in isolation from Wellington and New Zealand audiences. Theatre is a dialogue between practitioners and audiences … it is to the interface of audiences and practitioners that Downstage needs to focus its vision … There is a call for Downstage to step into the unknown.”

These sentiments are not wrong and yet they do not ultimately go the heart of the matter. The vile acuity of cement-brute architecture and an auditorium of superbly sinister functionality don’t in truth sort with the daring civility of recommendations for “a distinctive and cutting edge aesthetic.” I don’t mean to mock Briar Munro: her report is an excellent, coherent gesture but it is muesli for the magician; the magician is something no industry consultation can provide.

If you care to look closely at that excellent and rather horrible building on the corner of Courtenay Place and Cambridge Tce, you see that it is a venue in which salient features of the New Zealand psyche: anxious liberality, ambivalent courage, sullen piety and emotional reticence are to be sacrificially burned on a pyre that is visible from every hill in the city. It is a place that must be as uninterested in, or as serendipitously untouched by, the psychology and the temperament of those selfsame limitations; it must, in other words, be a place that breathes the same breath as the late Sir Ed or Mr Jackson and his friends. A place in which cheerful and/or brooding theatre iconoclasts from Jo Randerson to Jean Betts from Andrew Foster a.k.a. Trouble Theatre, to Simon Tayor a.k.a. Brazil and Stronghold Theatre are seen and recognised. A place in which the audience can be gentled, when it is time, by the Edelkeit – to use a Yiddish word meaning great sweetness –  of Gary Henderson. A place where the particular, uneasy mystery of the long white world described by Aotearoa’s original Māori settlers is to be forcefully encountered, if not, profoundly known. If it happens, it is wonderful; it is not comfortable. And yet this IS the happen.

For all of that, the praxis of a great theatre is not self-conscious reinvention or well-meaning and covenanted statements of intention. The praxis, to invoke a very old cliché, is a seizure of the imagination in all of its elemental, uncharted rawness. A scene that engenders not only loyal subscribers but theatre-goers who are giddy with the anxiety of missing out; students for whom the line at the stand-by discount booth is a better carnival than the Undie 500. They think that sofas ablaze in the street are amusing; wait for their faces when they see the sofa ablaze onstage. A theatre can be a cosy milieu and yet its vision isn’t really sofa-cosy.

“I had a sort of vision of theatre,” wrote Martin Sanderson, founding artistic director of Downstage, “[which] was to reach out into the community, to be a forum for debate and the arts in whatever form they represented themselves, to break down the conventions that created ‘sacred space’, this sacrosanct, invisible barrier between the public and the people who were representing them to themselves.” Martin Sanderson’s is a remarkable brief, a remarkable articulation of aspirational intimacy. Even so, it can’t and doesn’t mitigate the sacred necessity of the theatre, the “secular holiness” described by the Polish master Andre Grotowski** Theatre may transpose the mesh of the confessional to the mise-en-scene that is amusing and frightening but there is still the stage of mysteries on one side and the audience of putative converts on the other. It really is an axiomatic and irreducible form of relationship. At his or her most extreme, the great practitioner, tyrant-imperator of stage-side, doesn’t give a damn about the audience. He or she is like a great lover. The lover you find alluring is the lover who doesn’t give a damn about you. Smitten or at least tantalised you forget your inhibitions, you come seeking that lover: you bring a gift, you are granted admittance, you are aroused, seduced, enlivened, insulted—and at the end the lover tells you to leave. Again there are moments that are sofa-cosy but there can’t be too many. A theatre that makes the audience sit up and literally aspire is what we need in the Hannah playhouse.

It may be that the time has come to retire the Downstage brand. It definitely is time for a new entrant into the Hannah, guided in by Hillary Beaton’s steady hand or no. It certainly is time for a brave new ensemble; it is time for a Steppenwolf and a Schaubühne. It is time to see on stage Mr Rose and Ms Harcourt, Ms Rees, Ms Brophy, Mr Brophy, Mr Devenie, Ms Pierce, Mr Hendry and Mr Spite, and a fair number of others, not some of time but a lot of the time. It is time for an ingenious, beloved, rude director: perhaps an auteur like P.T. Anderson. A setose and somewhat baffling trickster who likes South Park, Coco Chanel, Annihilation Point, ghost stories about Cape Reinga, Adam Sandler, Tama Iti, George Eliot and Leonard Cohen. A director who has staged to great acclaim Hamlet and all of its offshoots: Hamlet-Machine, Rosencrantz and Ophelia Thinks Harder as a single nine-hour production in a wool shed in Foxton that punters from the city drove around and around desperately trying to find. If no one like that is available, try Mr Lawrence and Mr Pinfield. Try them both. Really. That’s the grace that we need, that’s the dare. These sentiments alone, or anyone else’s, are just not going to cut it.

** I meant, of course, Jerzy; “Andre” being a friend of JG’s …

John Smythe      posted 27 Aug 2008, 10:50 PM

This is the letter I sent to the Dominion Post a week ago (21 August) in response to its article about Downstage. It has yet to be published:

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

Yet again you imply Downstage Theatre is at death’s door (21/8) by trotting out old news and ignoring the latest. There was no “shrinking patronage” for the last two seasons. It is well known that both My Brilliant Divorce and Strike’s Elemental enjoyed healthy houses and it has been publicly stated that the theatre has run at a surplus for months.

Meanwhile Downstage has initiated a drive to revitalise its operation and the capital’s performing arts practitioners have rallied with enthusiasm. Following industry-wide consultations and a comprehensive report, projects have been submitted for the first half of 2009.

While the theatre is closed this month for maintenance, physical renewal and implementation of the new model, it reopens in early September and I believe a programme to complete this year will soon be announced. It will take time for the new approach to be fully implemented but the prospects are exciting and are being well managed. I am therefore dismayed at your continued doomsday spin on what should be a good news story.

The continued health of Downstage is integral to Wellington’s professional performing arts scene and there is every reason for optimism.

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