Instructions for Modern Living

Te Papa: Soundings, Wellington

10/03/2006 - 15/03/2006

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Production Details

Duncan Sarkies (words) & Nic McGopwan (music)

An after-hours montage of New Zealand living rooms and nightspots – an urban and suburban portrait of the way we live.

Theatre , Music ,

1 hr 30 min, no interval

A soporific mix

Review by Lynn Freeman 15th Mar 2006

Rounding off what’s been a disappointing line-up of homegrown theatre in this year’s Festival programme (bring back Outstanding Aotearoa!) is Duncan Sarkies’ and Nic McGowan’s text/music show Instructions for Modern Living.

Sarkies has a weird and sometimes wonderful take on the world, reflected in some of the work here – especially the late night talkback radio host desperate to hear someone else’s voice, and the lonely astronaut who finds out that life in the stars isn’t as lonely as life on the planet.

There was a great two-way conversation between a couple watching the telly too. Fantastic. The other monologues all some striking lines – Sarkies puts his finger on the large and small stresses in our lives, for example: cellphones you can’t remember if you turned off before the show started, traffic jams, bosses who know less than you do. But 90 minutes worth, one after the other, with McGowan’s enjoyable but repetitive music underscoring them, makes for a soporific mix.

Two years of work should have produced a much tighter production than this and a more intimate setting than Soundings would have helped.


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Get your act together, guys

Review by John Smythe 13th Mar 2006

Instructions for live performance:

1. When playing direct to an audience, look at them. Make eye contact. Gazing at the ground or sideways at your co-performer while making oral love to your microphone is unlikely to establish good rapport.

2. Sort out your technology. Preferably have someone else load the videos, press the buttons, adjust the levels … If you must insist on doing it yourself, as well as speaking the text you’ve developed, make sure your preoccupation with the tech-stuff doesn’t impede the flow of the show. If you really do think your audience will want to watch you wander over to a shelf, pretend to consider what to choose while taking a bit of a drink, then wander back, load it and muck around with the remote etc, you’d better be bloody sure the previous item was so incredibly rich in content they need that time to digest it.

3. Just because you formed a mutual admiration society by meeting late at night once a week over two years in an Island Bay studio to jam your ideas, it doesn’t follow that the audience will automatically feel the same way about you. You need to earn their respect every night, even when they’ve come in anticipation of the weird and wired insights you shared in your earlier works, Duncan, like Stray Thoughts & Nose Bleeds (1999) and Wild Man Eyes (2002).

4. Also, it doesn’t follow that the way you messed about in the studio is necessarily a good way to present the resulting work on stage. Ninety minutes in performance requires a very different energy than you might have established over those ninety-odd nights over two years.

5. That said, there is nothing wrong with being laid back provided you keep your audience engaged. Just because you dedicate your show to all the lonely people referred to in Eleanor Rigby, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to alienate your audience too.

Had Instructions for Modern Living had a director, I imagine such points would have made at an early stage. As it stands, a lot of good – or potentially good – material is overshadowed by all the mucking around. The inhabitants of lonely nights on talk-back radio, in drive-through fast-food outlets, at home on the couch and mesmerised by infomercials for hair-styling gadgets … The thoughts that drift through minds not captured by more urgent concerns, the banality of so-called conversation between people scared of addressing what really matters to them, the loneliness of the mega-distance astronaut … All this offers rich material for the idiosyncratic writing skills of Duncan Sarkies and the electronica composing skills and musicianship of Nic McGowan.

The use of video imagery, a live synthesised soundscape and voice-altering technology is all good too. And – don’t get me wrong – quite often the component parts do conspire to transport us into these other realities where more than one aural, visual or imaginative image is good enough to be savoured and saved, to be taken away in the doggy-bag of memory. But all too often the boredom between subverts the quality moments. And the value of some good elements are diminished by repetition.

6. Just because you’ve devised some really good nightscape music, Nic, or hit on a really funny set of electronically-enhanced character voices, Duncan, they don’t get better when you keep on using them over and over in sequences that are supposed to be different.

7. If you manage to score one of the few Festival commissions that so many extremely talented and hard-working people compete for, make sure you deliver on the promise of your Show-and-Tell audition. Otherwise you may bring the process, and the overall quality of homegrown work, into disrepute. It’s an awesome responsibility, I know, but you’re playing in the big league now. Punters confronted with countless options have chosen your show on trust, ahead of others. International producers and festival directors have travelled huge distances to find cutting-edge Kiwi material to take abroad. They all want you to be as great as you can be.

8. In short: get your act together – you know you can do it; you know you want to – or move over for those who would love to win such a great opportunity.


Veronica January 28th, 2008

i just saw the show [Instructions for Modern Living] here in Victoria BC, as part of Intrepid Theatres winter Festival, a theatre which usually books classy acts. I wonder what happened here. This was the singularly worst piece of live performance I think I have ever seen in my life. These two untalented techno geeks were self indulgent and arrogant, and the material was preachy and monotonous and had nothing to offer the audience, except maybe to let us know that we are all dismal lumps without insight compared to themselves. Yuck!! I wish I'd had the nerve to walk out, or throw some rotton tomatoes or something. Instead I felt trapped in my seat, and had to plug my ears and close my eyes to defend myself from this awful work.

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