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01/01/2014 - 31/12/2014

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Engaging, astute and sometimes eccentric minds are revealed in these interviews with twenty of New Zealand’s best-loved playwrights.

This book offers compelling insights – Roger Hall’s opinions on language and laughter, Hone Kouka’s mission to shatter racial stereotypes, Renée’s impact on sexuality and feminism in theatre – among lively discussion of the processes, pitfalls and triumphs of twenty playwrights. 

Price $40.00
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Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis
Hone Kouka
Fiona Samuel
Dave Armstrong
Roger Hall
Briar Grace-Smith
Victor Roger
Greg McGee
Ken Duncum
Lynda Chanwai-Earle
Gary Henderson
Sarah Delahunty
Stuart Hoar
Lorae Parry
Angie Farrow
Carl Nixon
Toa Fraser
Jo Randerson

Theatre , Book ,

The chroniclers, conscience, predictors, pretention-prickers and imagineers of our times

Review by John Smythe 22nd Mar 2014

Yes, it’s true, New Zealand does have twenty living playwrights whose work has helped to create the multi-facetted gem that is New Zealand Theatre: Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis, Hone Kouka, Fiona Samuel, Dave Armstrong, Roger Hall, Briar Grace-Smith, Victor Roger, Greg McGee, Renée, Ken Duncum, Lynda Chanwai-Earle, Gary Henderson, Sarah Delahunty, Stuart Hoar, Lorae Parry, Angie Farrow, Carl Nixon, Toa Fraser, Jo Randerson. 

In fact the editors of this splendid volume – Michelanne Forster and Vivienne Plumb – confess they were “spoiled for choice”, note “three notable playwrights, Dean Parker, Jean Betts and Albert Belz [who] could not be interviewed” and add, “we were also forced to earmark the talented next generation for Volume Two, should we be so lucky.” (p9)

In his richly erudite introduction, Dr Murray Edmond easily completes the 20 more, many of whom are not “next generation”, by also naming Michelanne Forster and Vivienne Plumb – the interviewers and editors for this book themselves – Stephen Sinclair, Fiona Farrell, David Geary, Anthony McCarten, Simon O’Connor, Kirk Torrance, Mitch Tawhai-Thomas, Dianna Fuemana, Oscar Kightley, Pip Hall, Arthur Meek, Eli Kent, Paul Rothwell, Miria George and Thomas Sainsbury.

And what about Stuart McKenzie? Surely he deserves to be in there too. Indeed, given the collaborative nature of Rajan and Lewis’s wrighting of plays, he could and should have been in this first book, even if it was therefore called 21 New Zealand Playwrights, especially given the editors’ desire for their “readers to see the diversity of approaches to playwriting, and to appreciate the individual paths taken by those who choose to write for the stage.” (p9)  

All of which proves we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to living playwrights, even if a glance through the mainbill seasons of our better-resourced theatre companies over recent years would seem to suggest otherwise. If they consistently produced 60+ percent homegrown work, more of these writers would still be writing for the stage, more new Zealanders might find live theatre more relevant to their lives and more international visitors might be attracted to theatre as a way of experiencing our points of difference. 

Edmond makes the pertinent point that while the best-known writer in the English language world is a playwright, William Shakespeare, “in New Zealand in particular … playwrights have not received the kind of acknowledgement this volume offers.” Quoting Renée’s observation that “There’s no national prize for the best script” and the prime Minister’s Award for lifetime achievement in writing has never been given to a playwright, Edmond asks, “What are we to make of this?” (p11) Indeed he concludes that playwrighting practice in Aotearoa New Zealand over the past thirty years of represents “the strongest literary contribution of that period.” (15)

He draws attention to the ‘wright’ in playwright, “as in the ‘maker of’ [dictionary.com defines wright as “worker, especially a constructive worker (used chiefly in combination): a wheelwright; a playwright] and to the way the “second process of production and performance” gives plays a “doubleness that largely does not apply to other writing (and which) is also inherent in the audience experience.” (p12) Edmond goes on to note in detail how “an intimate, practical and engaged knowledge of theatre” underpins the work of many of the playwrights interviewed. (pp 13-14)

Just in case anyone thought there was a right way to write a play or be a playwright, these 20 New Zealand Playwrights prove there are at least 19 (given the Rajan-Lewis collaboration) ways to go about it, with many indicating their processes have changed as their careers have progressed.

Each interview is prefaced with the playwright’s name, year and place of birth, a brief introduction and a list of titles – Plays, Awards, Publications – with Musicals and Pantomimes, Plays for Children and Screenplays also listed, as and where appropriate. 

After each interview an excerpt from one of the playwright’s plays is printed. It emerges that each writer has been asked to nominate this scene or sequence as a focal point for discussion and the degree to which this occurs varies widely, which is fine; despite common ground being covered from their different perspectives, there is nothing formulaic about the flow of each interview. 

Although the book captures a moment in time (some future plans mentioned are now past events), I find myself ‘conversing’ imaginatively with the writers while reading it. This tells me that, like many good plays, it has a vitality that transcends the ‘present time’ of its setting. I could detail my own ‘interactions’ at length but I won’t because yours will be more relevant to you.

Suffice to say this book confirms that playwrights are the chroniclers, conscience, predictors, pretention-prickers and imagineers of our times; their reflections shine essential light on who, what and why we are as we are. Any society, then, that does not value them is the poorer for it. 

Anyone engaging in live theatre at any level – as a theatregoer, playwright, producer, director, designer, actor, publicist, stage crew, operator, administrator, teacher, student, whatever – will find value in Twenty New Zealand Playwrights. Like PLAYMARKET 40: 40 Years of Playwriting in New Zealand, it is essential reading.  Playmarket is to be congratulated for bringing these voices to the fore through the skilled midwifery of Michelanne Forster and Vivienne Plumb.

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