April 12, 2011

What makes a New Zealand Play?

John Smythe      posted 26 May 2010, 04:14 PM / edited 12 Apr 2011, 11:42 AM

Simple answer: New Zealand plays are original theatre works created by New Zealanders.

For the record, and by way of reminding ourselves of some of the NZ plays have been honoured lately, here are nominees and winners (in bold) of the relevant awards at the Wellington-based Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards over the past ten years.

The Absolutely Positively Outstanding New New Zealand Play of the Year:


No 2 by Toa Fraser

The Candlestickmaker by Jacob Rajan & Justin Lewis

Flipside* by Ken Duncum


Have Car Will Travel by Mitch Tawhi Thomas

Take Me Home Mr! by William Walker

Waterloo Sunset by Ken Duncum


Trick of the Light by Ken Duncum

The Daylight Athiest by Tom Scott

The Pickle King* by Jacob Rajan & Justin Lewis


Cherish by Ken Duncum

Awhi Tapu by Albert Belz

Potiki’s Memory of Stone by Briar Grace-Smith


Niu Sila by Oscar Kightley and Dave Armstrong

The Love of Humankind by Brian Sergent

The Prophet by Hone Kouka


The Tutor by Dave Armstrong

Baghdad, Baby! by Dean Parker

The Remedy Syndrome by Tim Spite, Leo Gene Peters, Danielle Mason & Pedro Ilgenfritz


Yours Truly* by Albert Beltz

Picture Perfect by Ken Duncum

Troy the Musical by Paul Jenden


Homeland* by Gary Henderson

The Hollow Men by Dean Parker (adap, from the book by Nicky Hager)

Turbine by the SEEyD Company (Nick Dunbar, Rachel Forman, Emma Kinnane & Tim Spite)


Where We Once Belonged adapted by Dave Armstrong from the novel by Sia Figiel

The Man that Lovelock Couldn’t Beat by Dean Parker

2b or nt 2b by Sarah Delahunty


Collapsing Creation* by Arthur Meek

Biography of my Skin by Stuart McKenzie

The Intricate Art of Actually Caring by Eli Kent.

*These plays also won the Chapman Tripp Award for Production of the Year.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The Peter Harcourt Award for Outstanding New Playwright of the Year sponsored by BATS Theatre and TAKI RUA Productions over the past 10 years are: 


James Griffin (Serial Killers),

Bevin Linkhorn (Confessions of an Adolescent Stormtrooper),

Gabe McDonnell (The Inept); 


William Walker (Take Me Home, Mr!),

Ryan McFadyen (Shootout),

Kathryn Van Beek (Little Death);


Peter Cox (The Plum Tree),

Megan Huber (Gravity),

Tom Scott (The Daylight Atheist); 


Kirk Torrance (Strata);

Dean Hewison (Head of the House);

Matthew Saville (The Boxer);


Brian Sergent (The Love of Human Kind),

Vela Manusaute (The Taro King),

Paul Rothwell (Golden Boys); 


Lauren Jackson (Exchange),

Paul Rothwell (Hate Crimes),

Matthew Saville (Kikia Te Poa); 


Sonya Stewart (Wheel),

Jan Bolwell (Here’s Hilda),

Julie Hill (Stories Told to Me by Girls); 


Rob Mokoraka & Paolo Rotondo (Strange Resting Places),

Brian Hotter (Pig Hunt),

Charlotte Simmonds (The Story of Nohome Neville and Unwholesome Clare who Worked in Kitchens and Smelt like a Dish); 


Eli Kent (Rubber Turkey),

Sophie Dingemans (Grace),

Branwen Millar (Armslength); 


Arthur Meek (Collapsing Creation),

James Nokise (The Minister’s Son),

Lucy O’Brien (Postal).

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The Montana Wines Award for Most Original Production of the Year over the past 10 years:


SEEyD (Tim Spite, Genevieve McLean, Richard Edge & Scott Macky),

Box/Role/Dream (Lynda Chanwai-Earle & Vanessa Byrnes),

Fragments (Peter Wilson & Nick Blake); 


inSalt (SEEyD Company),

Irish Annals of Aotearoa (Simon O-Connor & David O’Donnel),

Wild Night American Dream (the clinic);


SAnD (SEEyD Company),

A Perfect Plan (Jealous),

The Pickle King (Indian Ink Theatre Company);


Strata (Taki Rua Theatre),

DnA (BATS Theatre),

Vula (The Conch);


Sniper (the 24/7 Project & BATS Theatre),

The Peculiar Case of Clara Parsons (the clinic),

Yatra (The Untouchables);


Head (Head Collective),

Migrant Nation (Migrant Nation Collective),

Demeter’s Dark Ride (Pandemonic Attractions);


Yours Truly (Left of Centre Productions),

Arcane (Theatreheuristic & BATS Theatre),

Dr Buller’s Birds (Circa Theatre);


Hotel (site-specific.co.nz),

Settling (A Slightly Isolated Dog and BATS Theatre),

Turbine (SEEyD Company);


Apollo 13: Mission Control (HACKMAN & BATS Theatre);

Familiar Strangers (Connect Productions),

On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking Me as Her Young Lover (Theatre Beating);


The Intricate Art of Actually Caring (The Playground Collective),

Faust Chroma (Free Theatre Christchurch),

Frogs Under the Waterfront (Bard Productions);

Again it must be noted these awards apply only to work produced professionally and presented in Wellington within each given year. 

John Smythe      posted 26 May 2010, 06:39 PM / edited 27 May 2010, 01:43 PM

In the spirited Horse Play, Horse $#%& forum I wrote:

“A New Zealand play that draws on our rich multicultural heritage from a New Zealand perspective will always be very different from one that was conceived and raised elsewhere then comes to visit.” 

Sam Trubridge responded:

“John’s definition of ‘what makes a Kiwi play’ depresses me, since it only seems to offer one option for success in his estimation – one “that draws on our rich multicultural heritage”. Is this the only ‘kiwi play’ that can ever be made? If so, then maybe the term ‘New Zealand theatre’ can be used with less parochialism and preciousness.”

Clearly I made no such generalisation. Back in 2006 I was part of the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards panel that whole-heartedly anointed Yours Truly by Albert Beltz – about Jack The Ripper and set entirely in 1888 London – the Absolutely Positively Outstanding New New Zealand Play of the Year.

My review included this: 

“With Yours Truly Albert Beltz has certainly succeeded in his stated aim of breaking free of the ‘Mâori playwright’ label. While he may well be exploring other dimensions of his cultural heritage he has, with this play, distilled an essence of (in)humanity that resonates around the globe and through all of recorded time (witness the recent Rome miniseries).”

We all accepted that any play written by a New Zealand playwright qualified as a New Zealand play. And it does. We are all citizens of planet Earth entitled to engage with whatever excites our creative passions.

Last year the New New Zealand Play award went to Collapsing Creation by Arthur Meek.

My review for that included:

“Commissioned by The Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolutionary Studies to mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his life-changing work The Origin of Species, Meek’s Collapsing Creation is extremely pertinent right now, in a world threatened by religious intolerance and the inability of many to embrace diversity in their own communities. The core questions of human identity – where did we come from? why are we here? where are we headed? – also permeate the play.”

As it happens, both Yours Truly and Collapsing Creation also won the Chapman Tripp Award for Production of the Year.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

However, my Theatre article in the current issue of Wellington’s FishHead magazine* is headed ‘Achieving distinction on the world stage’ and asks: During the International Arts Festival, who were we? While applauding the ingenuity, creativity and 0verall quality of these productions, the article concludes (hyperlinks added):

“So of the seven homegrown productions, only two – He Reo Aroha and Mark Twain & Me in Maoriland – are culturally rooted in NZ. The Letter Writer and The Arrival are set in fictitious lands, 360 is non-specific, Apollo 13 is set in the USA and Ship Songs, although it includes an immigrant to NZ, is happily ‘at sea’ with no Kiwi voice in the mix [the narrator is an 18th century Irish whaler].

“Compare the Festival’s international theatre component: 11 and 12, clearly located in French Africa; Sound of Silence, a Latvian take on the global ‘love’ revolution; Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, utterly English; The Walworth Farce, very Irish and set in South London.

“T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T offers a Polish take on an Italian classic. Inside Out, with its multinational cast, gives circus a Swedish sensibility. Only The Tragical Life of Cheeseboy, from Adelaide, opts for fantasy with no fixed abode.

“The Festival selection criteria – and the message it gives to our play makers – seems to be that while Maori characters and stories offer a marketable point of difference, there is no place for distinctively Pakeha stories. Strange.”

*[Incidentally, my inaugural FishHead article, All the world’s a stage: capitalising on the performing arts in Wellington, may be found here.]

carl bland            posted 28 May 2010, 09:54 AM


You have left out Head winner of Most Original Production in 2005.

John Smythe      posted 28 May 2010, 10:29 AM / edited 28 May 2010, 10:30 AM

Thank you Carl – I will remedy that ASAP. For some reason I don’t have the Chappie programme for 2005 – and only decided to add the New Writer and Most Original awards after I’d compiled the New NZ Play list. I’ll trawl through other sources …

John Smythe      posted 28 May 2010, 10:47 AM

Thanks again Carl, and apologies to:

Lauren Jackson, Paul Rothwell, Matthew Saville;

Head, Migrant Nation, Demeter’s Dark Ride;

You now have taken your rightful places in the list above.

Ian Hughes          posted 4 Jun 2010, 11:08 AM / edited 4 Jun 2010, 05:03 PM

Hi John.

Firstly, thanks for the great reviews!

Slightly tricky to reply in that I am the writer of one of the Plays in the festival but it is an interesting question.

As someone who wants to be creative in NZ you sometimes have to dance around a little to fit in to the agendas (cultural, political and financial) that swirl through the industry. the need to acknowledge Maori culture, the need to have a new Zealand voice- what ever that is, the need to make international product, the need to sell tickets to a predominantly upper middle class white audience, the need to be edgy enough to get pats on the back from your fellow practitioners….

If we are anything we are a culture of borrowers and I think there is a need to look beyond the subject matter, or settings or voices that you hear on stage. Certainly walking down K road, where i live,  it would be hard to pick the predominate accent or even language of New Zealand.

I think we do have a growing style and attitude to how we tell stories that needs to be acknowledged and debated and celebrated. The way the Apollo 13 team approached that story, I argue could not have happened from any other country, certainly not the USA. The unique voices of people like Carl Bland, Peta Rutter and Ben Crowder meant that 360 gave a New Zealand sensibility to their version of the Prodigal Son but more than that these uniquely creative people should not be hobbled with a need to talk about NZ just as no one feels compelled  to critique Peter Brook for not being English enough.

There is a large part of Ship Songs that borrows and celebrates Maori oratory tradition, the power of song/waiata then process and power Mihi, the idea of the defining the self and now by telling and celebrating the path that brought you here, spoken story telling. Part of the plays agenda was to have “distinctively Pakeha stories”. Sometimes I am literal but other times not , by choice.

Re reading your piece I don’t really see your argument. I’m not sure what you are comparing? Are you saying that unless the pay is set in NZ we are being somehow embarrassed or shy or scared of New Zealand? I’m not sure.  The same could be said of the international work…

for arguments sake…

11 and 12, is an African story told by a French based English man same as; Sound of Silence, a Latvian story about how they didn’t want to Latvian but rather American; as you say

“T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T offers a Polish take on an Italian classic. Inside Out, with its multinational cast, gives circus a Swedish sensibility – not a country with a huge circus tradition.

In my mind the NZ work often showed a confidence that we can and do speak with a New Zealand voice without feeling the need to be literal or parochial.

Ian Hughes          posted 4 Jun 2010, 11:41 AM / edited 4 Jun 2010, 05:04 PM

Actually just thinking about it.

Did Will – I – am get hassled for writing about some Merchant from Venice or some Prince from Denmark. I think the whole thing about the trip to England was a cynical attempt to get round funding obligations to the Ye Olde British council!

John Smythe      posted 4 Jun 2010, 07:13 PM

Ha – good gag, Ian. Of course in Will’s time it was dangerous to be too literal in one’s local and topical socio-political commentary, hence his habit of using found stories set elsewhere to make ‘have a go’ obliquely.  Besides, in those days access to other cultures was hard to come by. Nowadays the opposite is true: we are free to comment on our own societies; our entertainment media give us more access to other English-speaking cultures than our own.

I am not about to start ‘shoulding’ about what constitutes a New Zealand Play. My initial definition stands: New Zealand plays are original theatre works created by New Zealanders.  A survey of my reviews of all the original NZ plays I mention above that happen not to be set in NZ and/or use no distinctively NZ ‘voices’ – meaning ‘voices’ literally, and ‘distinctive’ as in neither neutral nor belonging to another culture – will note I celebrate them whole-heartedly for their various qualities. And I agree that all are inevitably created from a Kiwi perspective, with an undemonstrative Kiwi sensibility

Need I clarify that any of the non-Pakeha or non-Maori voices heard in K-Road now belong to New Zealand too? The many Pasifika, Indian, Asian and otherwise multi-cultural home-grown theatre works that we have enjoyed over the past few years are absolutely part of the contemporary NZ ‘voice’.

It is in retrospect that I note how large the proportion is of NZ-created plays that are culturally non-specific or set elsewhere, as exemplifies by the Festival. Add to them Richard Huber’s Glorious, Paul Jenden’s The Nero Show (make no mistake, I love the whole sequence of Jenden/Farr musicals) and Ken Duncum’s adaptation of The Great Gadsby – produced amid the general plethora of international works on our main stages – and I think it is fair to ask: is a syndrome emerging here?

Is it totally accidental or do the programming policies of major theatres and arts festivals have something to do with it? Is this the 21st century version of ‘cultural cringe’, an inevitable consequence of globalisation or merely an aberration?

Ian Hughes          posted 4 Jun 2010, 09:14 PM / edited 4 Jun 2010, 09:41 PM

I think what you are suggesting is a conspiracy. Not a planned or conscious one. It would be naive in the extreme to suggest such a thing. But rather a fad or fashion in the programming that is based in a way of seeing or rather a way of being seen or rather a paranoia about being seen in a particular way that leads to a particular style being chosen above or instead of another.

I think you are suggesting a deep lack of self confidence or maybe lack of self awareness that leads to a particular direction in the works shown.

I would maybe suggest the opposite may be true?

It is a confidence, maybe naive ( possibly that is the debate?) that leads to feeling that we don’t need to tell NZ stories as such but that whatever stories we tell will be NZ ones because we are New Zealanders telling them.

Where one generation avoids telling NZ because of cringe the next may do exactly the same thing because they are not embarrassed?

Same result, different motivation.

John Smythe      posted 4 Jun 2010, 10:47 PM / edited 4 Jun 2010, 11:02 PM

Interesting thoughts, Ian. I don’t think I’d ascribe the phenomenon to either a lack of self confidence or a lack of embarrasment – more a taking for granted of our points of difference; an indifference to what they have to offer.

It’s not that I hunger for “New Zealand stories” as in stories about NZ or being Kiwi. It’s rather that I believe in the value of the authentic voice; in the idea that distinction as difference fosters distinction as excellence; in the oft-proved truism that it’s the culturally specific story that travels best (because a story ‘hermetically sealed’ in its own environment is most likely to resonate with timeless and universal truths about human existence).

I find it interesting that this ‘distancing’ (for want of a better term) is happening in our theatres at the same time as Taika Waititi’s film Boy is breaking box office records; The Flight of the Conchords has been going down a storm on international TV and in its live concerts in the UK, Europe and USA; Outrageous Fortune heads for its umpteenth high-rating TV season …

Simon Taylor      posted 7 Jun 2010, 12:17 PM

Perhaps NZ theatre is a colonial phenomenon, hangover.

Ian Hughes          posted 7 Jun 2010, 01:50 PM / edited 7 Jun 2010, 01:51 PM

 What do you mean? a hangover of a colonial phenomenon? what Phenomenon?

Simon Taylor      posted 7 Jun 2010, 01:55 PM

a colonial phenomenon or a colonial hangover

Ian Hughes          posted 7 Jun 2010, 03:45 PM

 If you are referring to the fact that its present form and syntax of theatre comes from British and European roots. Yes. But I don’t really get your point. So what?

All people tell stories and most cultures have ritualised and formalised the telling of them, Music, dance, puppets, acting, kapahaka, poetry, writing, art….

This discussion is about source or motivation for new zealandness in the contemporary professional theatre.

I hate to put word in your mouth but are you suggesting the “disconnect” talked about is because its present form came from overseas?

Simon Taylor      posted 7 Jun 2010, 08:34 PM

I was responding specifically to John’s invocation of ‘distancing’ as a term to cover theatre’s retreat from direct engagement with the local and specific, such that he sees a difference in other media, in film, with Boy, and TV, with Outrageous Fortune. It may be the nature of these media – or ‘forms’ if you like -, at this time, and in this place, that allows them to take up cultural specificities. It may be their mediocrity. Or the commercial aspects to their successful incorporation of the local hermeticism that John seeks. To run with that, why is theatre different? Is it a vestigial elitism? or is it more likely that the general popular culture of NZ has moved on from the ‘colonialism’ of theatre? (In which is invested, naturally, a somewhat racist elitism, however vestigial.) Are there more of that group we call ‘theatre-goers’ on the North Shore or in South Auckland? (Or, again, is this to do with, as you point out, Ian, our definitions of ‘form,’ and therefore an internal cultural difference.) Do the stories told by ATC and The Silo, for example, cross demographic demarcations like ‘principally white middle-class’ and ‘other’? Is the colonial generation in NZ dying out? The generation that looked to Europe and Britain to provide the ‘form’ of our story-telling, Ian?

All questions. But I think the problem of colonialism goes to the heart of this ‘distancing,’ You don’t? I mean, if theatre could only deal with what Boy and Outrageous Fortune deal with, could we justify theatre? As a certain actress suggested at the meeting marking Watershed’s demise, ‘Perhaps people actually prefer TV.’

Ian Hughes          posted 8 Jun 2010, 12:49 PM / edited 8 Jun 2010, 09:34 PM

I don’t think the form is to blame for a lack new Zealandness  or a disconnect in NZ theatre ( if there is one). Bit like blaming the shape of the ball for us not winning the rugby world cup.

Is it really The balance of commercial agendas verses the idea of the arts being a public oracle?

Looking at Tv for instance, Outrageous fortunes would not have been made 30 years ago when Angela read our news. Tv has moved away from it’s self imposed role as voice and guardian for New zealand and the associated nanny state/colonial/ British/ religious ( no ads on a Sunday) agenda that came with it – sometimes explicit sometimes subtle.

Embracing a more commercial agenda lead to a period of strong cringe where we hated watching and hearing ourselves – some still do. I am sure there are some in TVNZ who would have loved if NZ on Air never existed. But eventually the networks have discovered we still want to see and hear ourselves and out of this we get Outrageous and Bro town ( both from the commercial network not the state one!?)( by the way TVNZ rejected Flight of the concords – which came out of theatre!?) But If you look at Johns examples, they are all working class or marginalised or “low brow”. Can you imagine the NZ TV audience at the moment embracing a sit com set in a university?

The form has not changed but the audience has and so follows the institutions… but not without the help of NZ on air.

Maybe the help and associated agendas of intuitions like CNZ, the festival, ATC etc have created an environment where the makers of theatre are subtly battling to escape? Wanting to reach a different audience than that necessarily wanted by the institutions who fund them?

so, as you possibly suggest … Maybe theatre should be let free from state assistance and we can see if the people really do want it?

That being said I do remember working behind the bar of the Watershed and seeing the range of peoples go into the theatre that i don’t really see any more – or at least it is fractured – ATC crowd shows Versus The Basement crowd.

So i do believe that people do want it but who those people are has grown and expanded and changed.

Maybe the balance is wrong? Maybe we  just need to trust the practitioners more rather than arts administrators and the shows will come back from outerspace? 

Simon Taylor      posted 8 Jun 2010, 04:36 PM / edited 8 Jun 2010, 09:38 PM

I don’t want the state to stop funding theatre. I want it to start funding it to a level where theatre may be free from the commercial imperative. I am however interested in the contrary-ness John calls ‘distancing,’ whereby the local and specific are being avoided by theatre even as this subject matter has come to be considered as commercially viable.

I would suggest that different political understandings come to bear on different forms of cultural expression, that this gives each ‘form’ a history and that these histories happen despite the predominance of an economic interpretation. By the latter I mean the predominance of a mythology in which the market ought to be the ultimate arbiter as to the public good, as to what is included in public life. The economic justification for public policy, in the arts as in other public sectors, acts to conceal a specific history with a generality; the parts of public life (or civic life) become ‘economic’ sectors: hence the choice to fund theatre, theatres, particular shows, is first a political choice in which historical agendas conspire against the evidence that the form is – according to the market – uneconomic.

Why then does theatre keep getting made? Part of the reason is that there is an audience for it, to whom it is relevant, in general, as a ‘form’ of cultural expression. It is this historical agenda I would call colonial, a political understanding that says ‘for this reason’ we ought to have theatre in public life. I think it is the form’s job not only to acknowledge but to examine its history, that is, the justifications made for its existence, the interests it expresses, the political understandings historically brought to bear on it.

I would further suggest that it this ‘distancing’ marks something suppressed, not an unwillingness to ‘see ourselves’ so much as the problem of belonging, which is somehow ramified in the history of the form, theatre, insofar as it participates in the colonial legacy.

David Murray     posted 9 Dec 2010, 11:20 PM

> Simple answer: New Zealand plays are original theatre works created by New Zealanders.

Of course, every performance by NZers is an “original theatre work created by New Zealanders” even _if_ the script was written by someone on the other side of a stretch of water; because theatre is the performance in front of an audience and not merely words written on a page.

John Smythe      posted 9 Apr 2011, 09:55 PM

I never did reply to this … Yes, David, any play produced in New Zealand is part of the New Zealand theatre scene. New Zealand plays, however, are surely

    written or devised by New Zealanders (or residents of New Zealand?), or

    set in New Zealand, no matter who they are created by. 

John Smythe      posted 9 Apr 2011, 11:17 PM / edited 10 Apr 2011, 12:51 PM

This year’s ADAM NEW ZEALAND PLAY AWARD has been announced. Now we have four winners over four years to consider – and I can’t help wondering what message NZ playwrights will glean from this. Here are the winners:


Fucking Parasites by Ninna Tersman (born and raised in Sweden).

In a suburbian refugee hostel, two teenagers who have come to New Zealand as refugees meet and get to know each other. In the absence of coping parents and other adults, they turn to each other with their despair, loss of hope and confusion about their present situation. Through the eyes of Irina and Behrouz we get confronted with a harsh and startling look at life. Fucking Parasites is a play that deals with the complex issues of immigration, and the idea of far flung New Zealand, which doesn’t turn out to be the haven these teenagers had hoped for. 


The 53rd Victimby Pip Hall (NZ)

Based on the London Tube bombings and the young New Zealander who tragically became known as the ’53rd victim’. On the morning of July 7, 2005, Pip Hall was in London. She wandered into Tavistock Square shortly after that double-decker bus had been destroyed by suicide bombers. Also there at the same time was a young New Zealand woman claiming to be a doctor as she assisted the wounded and the dying.


Pasefika by Stuart Hoar, f

The startling imaginings of French artist Charles Meryon compelled him to depict whales and waka over the skies of Paris in his striking etchings. A profound and dramatic mark was left on the artist by time spent in the very early years of the New Zealand colony of Akaroa, and this is the starting point for Stuart Hoar’s play Pasefika.The play is a dazzlingly theatrical re-imagination of Meryon’s struggle to survive as an artist in Paris of the 1860s, an existence firmly interwoven with his experiences in Akaroa (1844-45), while juggling his relationships with his colleague and friend the poet Baudelaire, and two striking women – in both locations. Consequently – colonialism, racism, art, feminism, and of course, love – are tackled in a refreshingly original and provocative way.  


Hero by Arun Subramaniam (Malyasian, 4 years resident in NZ)

Hero recounts the glory and anguish surrounding a Malaysian politician’s assassination as told through the eyes of himself, his wife and their 13 year-old son. [There is no NZ connection in the story at all.]

Let us take it as a given that they are all excellent plays. However, the message – reinforced by the NZ plays selected for last years NZ International Arts Festival (see above) – appears to be that if you want the experts who assess NZ plays, and/or select local content for festivals, to rate your play ‘the best’ you need to set it elsewhere and/or include non-New Zealand characters.

Compare this with the international hit of the moment, August: Osage County, which captures the universal dynamics of families because it is culturally specific: hermetically sealed in its own time and place. 

I hope that explains why I am finding it hard to accept the direction NZ play writing appears to be moving in. 

Simon Taylor      posted 11 Apr 2011, 11:37 AM / edited 11 Apr 2011, 11:40 AM

You make it sound like a Jewish plot, John. Perhaps you should do as you advocate, follow your counsel and seal yourself up hermetically with the limited canon of truly New Zealand plays, reviewing them endlessly. … Perhaps your extended family would oblige in performing them to your requirements … away from the pernicious and clearly corrupting influence of foreign art, or, as one used to say, entartete Kunst. … preserving, lest it degenerate further, NZ play writing, with you, like a Waugh character, in your hermeticism, in a sentimentalist bubble of nationalistic kitsch. … No?

John Smythe      posted 11 Apr 2011, 04:48 PM / edited 16 Mar 2014, 05:14 PM

 Simon, I assert no plot or conspiracy. I am not saying only ‘hermetically sealed’ (for want of a better term) stories are valid. But I do note the truisms that culturally specific works travel best, and universal and timeless truths about human existence tend to be found in plays that distil the particular (which may well be why Hero by Arun Subramaniam won this year’s award).

Let me be absolutely clear that

§   I do accept that any NZ playwright should feel free to write a play about whatever they choose and still have it regarded as a New Zealand play.

§   I have no issue with any one play I’ve mentioned in and of itself; it is the pattern that is starting to look like a rule that I feel is worth discussing.

My question is, what are New Zealand playwrights – be they established, emerging or aspiring – to make of the clear fact that:

§  four out of four scripts that have won the major NZ Play Award involve foreign characters and/or are set in foreign climes (Hero having no connection or reference to NZ whatsoever), and

§   (as noted in my post of 27 May) of the seven homegrown productions selected for last year’s NZ International Arts Festival, only two – He Reo Aroha and Mark Twain & Me in Maoriland– are culturally rooted in NZ. The Letter Writer and The Arrival are set in fictitious lands, 360 is non-specific, Apollo 13 is set in the USA and Ship Songs, although it includes an immigrant to NZ, is happily ‘at sea’ with no Kiwi voice in the mix [the narrator is an 18thcentury Irish whaler].

Let me reiterate: all were/are brilliant. I just cannot help wondering whether playwrights who think their primary purpose is to ‘tell our own stories in our own voices’ are beginning to think there is no room for that sort of thing. Have we entered a new era of clutural cringe or is there a better term for this phenomenon?

Simon Taylor      posted 11 Apr 2011, 06:37 PM / edited 12 Apr 2011, 01:10 PM

Perhaps playwrights are going to make far less of it than you, would be my point.

“no Kiwi voice in the mix” ?

I think is insulting to the work you pick as not “culturally rooted” here.

(btw imho, “clutural cringe” is quite adequate as a term)

Simon Taylor      posted 11 Apr 2011, 08:11 PM / edited 12 Apr 2011, 01:09 PM

“I do note the truisms that culturally specific works travel best, and universal and timeless truths about human existence tend to be found in plays that distil the particular (which may well be why Hero by Arun Subramaniamwon this year’s award).”

…this is wonderful, John. But very old-school New Criticism, i.e. new in the 1950s-generation-sense. Which is where coincidentally enough much of NZ culture seems to find itself, or coincide with itself, or simply aspires to cohabiting with. As an Erewhon that never was; a nostalgia for that which never was and so ever will be.

I reject your truisms. And opt for the cultural specificities of … the writer. Above all functions of critical judgement. The cultural specificity of the actor, the actress, the director, now that a culture of theatre is largely… missing. Or at the least, aporetic.

I find you outrageous in the most distillate sense of a culture, like an essence of NZ mediocrity, when you wonder about telling our own stories in our own voices. Since I don’t think you have any taste for particular voices. Only for a normative generality loosely centred on some transferred sense – your own – of NZ identity.

Are you pro plastic waka or against? pro ‘brand Maori’?

Before all claims that can be made of NZ cultural specificity, there is te reo and the theatrical language of maori. The rest is colonialism.

Does a work have to speak the international language of business – english –  “to travel”? That is the question worth asking. (Because it has to do with these languages: theatre and commerce.)

John Smythe      posted 11 Apr 2011, 09:14 PM / edited 12 Apr 2011, 11:01 AM

Again, I am simply noting the common denominator of what gets chosen, be it for a prize or a festival, and asking if we should ascribe some meaning to it. I am not saying any of the inane things you seem to be assuming, Simon, so choose not to defend either those assertions or myself against them.

Paul Rothwell     posted 12 Apr 2011, 10:57 AM

 I think that it is an interesting observation

Simon Taylor      posted 12 Apr 2011, 11:04 AM / edited 12 Apr 2011, 11:06 AM

It would be if it were true. Because John is not asking if we should ascribe some meaning to it. He has a meaning he’s prepared earlier, which leads him to the following inanity, which in turn is certainly not one I either assume or impute to him:

“I hope that explains why I am finding it hard to accept the direction NZ play writing appears to be moving in.”

Paul Rothwell     posted 12 Apr 2011, 11:40 AM

there’s no reason to try and stamp it out.

John Smythe      posted 12 Apr 2011, 11:44 AM

That’s ambiguous, Paul. We’re not tweeting here. Please amplify.

Simon Taylor      posted 12 Apr 2011, 12:45 PM / edited 12 Apr 2011, 12:55 PM

But let it stand, Paul: your story; your voice. It is an interesting observation and I hope that its very ambiguity explains why I am trying to stamp out didacticism when it masquerades as empirical observation and moralising when it is substituted for criticism.

However, it occurs to me, Paul, that John is wondering who or what it is that he is presently engaged in trying to stamp out… in his image, one presumes.

It was bad enough when everyone was a writer, now everyone’s a critic as well.

John Smythe      posted 12 Apr 2011, 04:30 PM

Simon, I will engage with the subject but not with your personal attacks (email me direct, if you like, and we’ll have it out privately).

Paul, if you think I am trying to stamp out something, I am not. A trawl back through this forum will show that I am full on enthusiasm for many NZ-written plays that are not culturally specific (e.g. Yours Truly by Albert Belz; Collapsing Creation by Arthur Meek).

What I will admit to is asking judges, selectors and playwrights:

    whether they think there is a superior value in NZ plays that connect overtly to other parts of the world or belong nowhere in particular (do you think that makes them more attractive to international audiences), and

    to appreciate the intrinsic value of culturally specific work, both on its home turf and in the international arena.

In also acknowledging the undoubted excellence of Richard Huber’s Glorious and Sam Shore’s The Idea of America, I stand by the questions I raised in Comments on the former and my review of the latter.

Having mentioned the example of August: Osage County, let me add that I firmly believe its profound excellence and candidacy for being a modern classic (what’s the gestation time for being deemed a classic?) has everything to do with being deeply rooted not only in playwright Tracy Letts’ own story but also in those of the ensemble he wrote it for: 

This from his article on the Steppenwolf website:

“When reviewing the biographies of the actors who comprise Steppenwolf, I was struck by a nearly common denominator: place of birth. From Lincoln, Illinois to Council Bluffs, Iowa, from Mankato, Minnesota to my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the majority of ensemble members are small-town Midwestern people. Their stories are my stories. We share the history of families – mainly descendants of Irish or German or Dutch homesteaders – who forged their ethos from hardscrabble Depression years through the Baby Boom. We share the multi-generational conflict that inevitably arises when Those Who Have Nothing have willed their pride and guilt to Those Who Have Wanted for Nothing. August: Osage County is my attempt to explore this generational schism and the Midwestern sensibility with an ensemble of like-minded artists.”

This may lead us to assume its success is dependent on its being played by that ensemble; indeed it was their production that toured Australia to great acclaim. But two superb NZ productions later – by the Auckland Theatre Company (reviews here) then Circa Theatre (reviews here) – prove that it can stand in its own. And its cultural specificity is what has made it universal. 

Simon Taylor      posted 12 Apr 2011, 05:30 PM / edited 12 Apr 2011, 05:32 PM

John, it would hardly be appropriate to “have it out privately” with you. I am entirely indifferent to you as a private individual. It is your public persona and your published opinions and beliefs that I am criticising. You unfairly denigrate this critique as ad hominem, quite the stance of one who considers himself above it and his views beyond reproach.

Martyn Wood    posted 12 Apr 2011, 06:37 PM / edited 12 Apr 2011, 06:40 PM

Just a thought in reaction to your assertation that the prominence of plays by NZers set in places other than NZ represents a new form of cultural cringe – surely it can be seen as the opposite? The prevalence (and success) of NZ stories is everywhere – Outrageous Fortune, Go Girls, Shortland Street etc on TV; Boy, Second-Hand Wedding, My Wedding and Other Secrets etc at the movies. Perhaps our voice is being heard so loudly that we have empowered playwrights to diversify, to explore other areas of interest that extend beyond the family on the farm, or the flat in Aro Valley?

NZ plays (set in and about NZ) are still prominent on the stage – Circa’s Motor Camp and the upcoming revival of The Lead Wait; Downstage committing to an all NZ programme, BATS committing to an 80% NZ programme; even Silo opens their new season with a new, NZ work despite their niche in new American and British works. Why shouldn’t Pip Hall set her play in London? Or Sam Shore set his in America? I agree that a play (or a work) achieves universality through specificity, but who is to say that through research and life experience a NZ playwright can’t achieve that specificity?

A work by a NZ writer, whether it is set in New York or Newtown will always have a Kiwi flavour – it is the unique way we filter a subject through our own sensibility that makes a NZ play – no British writer would have explored Jack the Ripper in quite the way Albert Belz did in Yours Truly, no American would come close to the way the Hackman boys chose to put Apollo 13 onstage – a show more infused with the can-do, Kiwi Number 8 Wire mentality than most (something i can attest after countless hours soldering, labelling and wiring as part of an endless stream of volunteers to create the consoles that give the show its unique edge). Shakespeare set his plays in Italy, Spain, France – no one was clamouring for him to set his plays soley in Britain, and if he had we wouldn’t have  Hamlet, Romeo, Juliet, Othello….

Rather than cultural cringe, perhaps the list of winning plays at this years Adam Awards signals a new wave of cultural maturity – a maturity that gives NZ writers and theatre makers the confidence and courage to look beyond ourselves and “our” stories, to investigate, question and challenge our perception of the world as a whole, and where we sit in it – as theatre practitioners and as audiences. We are part of the global community – how brilliant that the work of our theatres is reflecting and exploring that, beyond just staging NZ productions of plays written elsewhere.

Simon Taylor      posted 12 Apr 2011, 07:22 PM

A good thought, Martyn. I agree about the release of playwrights from having to reprazent. This work is being done by TV. And film. One always returns to what it is that theatre has to offer that no other art form has. Which, with the TV comparison, is NOT realism, or “realistic” representation. That, of course, and what it is necessary to say. There is a sense – in terms of a direction for NZ theatre – and a belongingness – in terms of what belongs to the medium of theatre – that remains to be explored, outside of what the good critic or the popular will dictates.

John Smythe      posted 12 Apr 2011, 10:37 PM

Good points well made, Martyn. Do I have to repeat that I am not saying Pip or anyone else “should” have done anything other than they did? Nor am I “clamouring” for anyone to go against their muse. I am just noticing a trend, wondering what it means and feeling the need to also affirm the value of work that evolves in way exemplified by Tracy Letts (above).

There is a point to be made from an acting perspective too. The extraordinary capacity of NZ actors to emulate other cultures – given the exposure we have to them throughout our lives – has plenty to do with why the NZ productions of August: Osage County were/are so good. Maybe we are world leaders on that score. (And given that, why shouldn’t our writers have a crack at emulating those other cultures too? Fair enough.) We all play to expand our horizons, it’s natural.

But consider the actors from New Zealand and Australia who have achieved standing on the international ‘stage’ (by which I really mean screen). It wasn’t their work in international plays that got them there (although that might well be relevant to how well they do internationally once they’ve been ‘discovered’). What proved their excellence and bought them their ticket to a global career was almost invariably an authentic homegrown role: Sam Neill (Sleeping Dogs); Kerry Fox (An Angel at my Table); Anna Paquin (The Piano); Karl Urban (The Price of Milk); Temuera Morrison, Rena Owen & Cliff Curtis (Once Were Warriors); Judy Davis (My Brilliant Career); Mel Gibson (Mad Max); Geoffrey Rush (Shine); Cate Blanchett (Paradise Road; Oscar & Lucinda) … Just saying. 

Don’t get me started on the other habit we seem to have formed, of casting Australian actors as leads in NZ films … Suffice to say it seems related to this discussion.

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