BATS Theatre, Wellington

21/04/2015 - 25/04/2015

Production Details

Letters from the Front brings ANZAC letters alive 

Improv troupe Best on Tap is bringing a special show to BATS for ANZAC Day.  

Inspired by centenary commemorations, improv troupe Best on Tap is producing a show based on real-life letters sent to and from New Zealand soldiers in the First World War. 

The letters and diaries are all the genuine article, printed from the archives, and the cast have not read them beforehand. Like the audience, the improvisers will be hearing these letters for the first time, and will be inspired to create scenes based on their contents. From the trenches in France to leave in London; training in Egypt, under the gun in Gallipoli and back in the homestead in New Zealand – this is history coming to life. 

It’s bound to be an emotional experience. 

“I was doing some research pretty early on,” says Wiremu Tuhiwai, one of the players. “I Googled ‘ww1 tuhiwai’ and the top find was ‘Wiremu Tuhiwai’, one of the Maori Pioneer Battalion. He died in France in 1917. I read that and I thought, this is getting super real. I hope I do him proud.” 

And what about the women? 

“Women weren’t just sitting at home knitting socks and worrying,” says Nicola Pauling. “There were women’s temperance movements that rallied hard against the war. And there were women who rolled up their sleeves and got to work while the men were away. They were nurses at the front, and they were ingenious fundraisers back home. Those women’s stories aren’t often told, and I’m looking forward to having some of them come to life on stage during the show.” 

Letters from the Front on from 21 to 25 April at BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace. The show will begin at 7pm, and will last approximately 50 minutes. 

Tickets are $18 or $14 unwaged and can be booked on the BATS website. 

Best on Tap would like to thank the Alexander Turnbull Library for their support of the show and for allowing us to replicate and improvise from the letters and diaries they curate. 

Dates: 21-25 April 2015 
Venue: BATS Theatre, Kent Terrace 
Tickets: $14/$18 
More Info: http://bats.co.nz/shows/letters-from-the-front/ 

Theatre , Improv ,

Strangely safe and benign

Review by John Smythe 22nd Apr 2015

Amid the welter of ways war stories are being brought to the fore amid WWI centenary commemorations, this improv format raises a number of questions. 

Given hundreds of letters and diary entries are potential source material for a performance work that seeks to capture the essence of how it was for those on the frontline, and their loved ones, the first question is where do we start and how do we end? 

Fair enough, then, to go for ‘random selection’: audience members trawl through photocopies in the foyer and choose what to drop in a box; on stage two Archivist characters pluck a page at a time from the box, and read out snippets. These are the ‘ask fors’ and ‘offers’ which provoke re-enactments by five more improvisers, suitably attired as soldiers or nurses.

The format is inspired by Return to Sender, which some of the same actors – as Wellington Improvisation Troupe (WIT) – played with last year. In that case the audience brought in the ‘snail-mail’ letters that ended up in the Dead Letter office and provoked the improvs.

In both cases the growing relationship between the letter readers – here the 21st century Archivists, winningly played this night by Nicola Pauling and Matt Hutton – runs parallel to the WWI scenarios. But given no ‘ask fors’ from the audience, there is no proof this part is not predetermined. Will all Archivist couples during the season beak the three cardinal rules around food, drink and dating? How do we know it’s improvised?

There also seem to be some ‘set pieces’ within the war scenarios, notably the Christmas Day 1914 truce, when opposing soldiers met in No Man’s Land and played football. Welcome and important as it is – although it could be a lot more poignant – it nevertheless comes out of nowhere that the audience is privy to.

Clearly the Best on Tap team playing soldiers and nurses for this opening show – Barry McSkimmin, Geoff Simmons, Kate Wilson, Mary Little and Wiremu Tuhiwai – have thoroughly researched the subject (their personal notes in the programme attest to that) so the slightest hint of something from a letter is able to park off a scene that authentically represents the war experience.

This time there is no actual trench warfare – and to attempt that could well be to trivialise it. We see the aftermath of the horrors in various ways, which are salutary. And some scenes represent departing for war, being on leave and returning home.

All the male characters this time are somehow benign and compassionate; there is no hint of how war can bring out the worst in a man (as well as the best). Likewise the women are exemplary members of their profession, except for that one tumble in the sandbags while off duty …

There is one brief attempt to refer back to a previous character but mostly we get snippets of different lives, so nothing accumulates within the war stories. This leaves the Archivist arc to give dramatic structure, and while their nice little love story makes for a good contrast with the other stories, it seems odd that it should take dramatic precedence.  

Sebastian Morgan-Lynch adds greatly to the moods with his cello, culmination in a moving rendition of ‘The Last Post’, to accompany Binyon’s words – “They shall not grow old …” etc – which presumably will end every performance.

More often than not with improv, the concept is the peg on which to hang bravura displays of spontaneous creativity and the more the jeopardy there is the better. With Letters From the Front, improv serves the greater purpose of capturing the experience of the so-called ‘Great War’, which is admirable. Yet there is little danger. This first outing is strangely safe both in content and style.

The question that remains, then, is whether a format built around voyeurism and designed for fun may be productively used to replicate the profound experiences of war and address the issues inherent in our sending troops and support services to that dreadful, wasteful debacle. Which is the means and which the end? You will have to go yourselves to answer that.

In post-show chat an acquaintance and I both discovered we were recalling Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What A Lovely War which powerfully satirises the ‘Great War’ to brilliant effect. Perhaps now is not the right time for such a trenchant piss-take but let’s hope someone revives it before the centenary commemorations are completed. 


John Smythe April 23rd, 2015

Points taken and thank you from me too, Jen, for taking the time ... I do note that the examples you cite are all long form improv formats which are inherently compelling because every offer made by the improvisers impacts the accumulating story, and the more they incorporate and refer back, the better.

It may be relevant to mention that one of the 'Yes Games' Ian Mune brought back from the Welsh National Theatre in the late 1960s, where he had worked with Keith Johnstone, was letter-writing, word-by-word around a circle of actors. What added special value to the contents of the letter itself was the evolving pictures of the letter writer and the person to whom it was written. I'm not sure if this applied to the RETURN TO SENDER shows but it wasn't evident in the first LETTERS HOME show.

I guess what I've been trying to do is work out whether my lack of enthusiasm about Tuesday's show, as a contribution to the counless evocations of WWI experiences coming at us through all media, arose from the format itself or the inability of improv per se to get to the heart of that ghastly event. And that, I freely admit, comes from having strong views about the war that deprived my mother of her father and wrought such damage in the households of our nation because (as someone put it recently) two royal families in Europe were having a squabble.

Christine Brooks April 23rd, 2015

Yes! Yes! Yes! Jen - I so agree with how you've characterised the approach to improv. Watching improvisers struggle and incorporate audience suggestions can be immensely entertaining and rewarding but it is a small subset of why people go to see improvisation and why people strive to create art through improv. Thank you for taking the time to describe this so eloquently.

Jennifer O'Sullivan April 23rd, 2015

Unhelpful, friend. 

Mark Brocklehurst April 23rd, 2015

Surely the obvious solution here is for concerned improvisors to get Elspeth Sandys to write another review.

Jennifer O'Sullivan April 23rd, 2015

The breaking of three rules was simply the improvisors finding the game of the scene and heightening each other's offers. They noticed a pattern in what they'd done and highlighted it. It's a common feature of improvisation and I'm still unsure how their ability to recognise a pattern and explore a relationship means that one can't trust that it's improvised. 

Your requirement of jeopardy for entertainment is only a requirement for a particular style of improvisation. You're allowing your idea of what improv could be to be hindered by what you appear to think it *should* be. I find watching competent performers deliver seamless storytelling utterly thrilling, regardless of whether or not I can see them struggling. I enjoy improvisation that engages with the audience directly, and I enjoy improvisation that maintains a perfect fourth wall. And even then, improvisors are absolutely dependent on their audience - they respond in the moment to the audience's engagement; their laughter, their gasps, their rapt silence. Regardless of whether you got to call out 'eggbeater' at the beginning or not, the audience is always, always helping the story. 

I want to remind you of some other reviews you've published for improvised work:

The Young and the WITless - included no ask fors from the audience, prepared characters

Spark - from NZIF, no ask fors, a single story, no prepared characters

In the Parlour - NZIF, no ask fors, and a note from the reviewer about how adding them would definitely not improve things

Basically, I'm encouraging a change in perspective: from watching improv and thinking 'Will they succeed?' to watching improv and thinking 'What will they show me tonight that will never happen again?' Change the possible options from "failure vs success" to "Which of the myriad of stories and shows that *could* happen will happen tonight?"

John Smythe April 23rd, 2015

Hi Christine and Jen

I realise my refering back to the RETURN TO SENDER format was not clear. The full sentence reads "The question that remains, then, is whether a format built around voyeurism and designed for fun may be productively used to replicate the profound experiences of war and address the issues inherent in our sending troops and support services to that dreadful, wasteful debacle." This refers specifically to the RETURN TO SENDER format being the starting point for LETTERS FROM THE FRONT and is certainly not meant to be a generalisation about all improv formats.

The "how do we know it's improvised?" question is related to the evolving relationship between the two Archivists and specifically their breaking of three rules. I do not mean to impugn the integrity if the performers - I certainly assume it is improvised, but the value of 'ask fors' for audiences is we get to see how what we offer is incorporated. While taking it all on trust is fair enough, I suppose, it robs the performance of some of the jeopardy that makes improv entertaining and celebrates its point of difference from scripted and pre-rehearsed works. 

Christine Brooks April 23rd, 2015

Hi John,

I agree with everything Jen has written in her comment above. I'd like to add my thoughts on your contention that improv is "a format built around voyeurism and designed for fun". Some of the most moving and truthful theatre (of any kind) I've seen is improvised theatre. Often it has required nothing from the audience in terms of ask-for or starting point. That does not mean it is not improvised theatre. 

Improvised theatre is as an broad art form as theatre in general and there is as much variety in what can be delivered. Some of the leading work internationally at festivals, and indeed at our own New Zealand Improv Festival, is subtle, moving, truthful and not primarily comedic. I haven't seen Letters from the Front so cannot offer comment on whether or not this show achieves those objectives but to exclude it as a possibility on the basis that the art form itself is incapable of delivering it is an unfortunate and narrow interpretation of the potential of improvised theatre.

NB: I was not involved with the "Letters from the Front" in any way.


Jennifer O'Sullivan April 23rd, 2015

Hi John, thanks for taking the time to review this show - we really are fortunate in Wellington that improv shows are afforded the luxury of reviews. I know there are many places (both here and overseas) where improv is ignored by theatre critics despite its very long and very respectable history as a theatrical form. 

Your review has raised some questions/thoughts for me and I'd like to respond. Brief disclaimer: I was not involved in the creation of this show, though I'm thanked in the programme as I helped the producer out with marketing advice. 

My central concern is the idea that improv must be 'obvious' in order to be valid. You ask 'How do we know it's improvised?' and state that there are no ask-fors - despite knowing the following:

- Description of the show on the BATS site reads "Best on Tap presents an improvised drama inspired by the real experiences of New Zealanders at war"
- All performers in this show are skilled Wellington improvisors and have been reviewed on this site multiple times (and I know you have seen all of them perform before)
- The scenes are inspired by letters selected by the audience before hand and the box of selected letters is never looked at by the performers prior to the archivists reading them during the show - the ask fors are therefore present, just not in the breaking the fourth wall kind of way
- Programme notes state that all scenes are "spontaneously" created

Calling the nature of the show into question casts unfair aspersions on the honesty of this cast and company, and furthermore suggests that any quality or theatricality present in an improvised show is only possible through rehearsal of set pieces that pose as improvised. This is absolutely untrue. Improvisors have an incredible skill set that allows them to present never before seen work that is emotionally driven, theatrical and complete. Not every scene flies but when they do (and oh! how they can fly), it is so disheartening to be told that it must have been prepared beforehand. 

There is no reason for these performers to pretend to be improvising. Anyone who questions this should go again - I am sure you'd can arrange some kind of discount (don't quote me on that, but it's what I'd do). 

My other question is around this comment: "a format built around voyeurism and designed for fun"

I don't know exactly what you are referring to here. Do you mean improv itself or the show specifically? If you are referring to this show, I would invite you to reread the marketing materials and question which part of the promise of the show led you to believe this work was intended to be fun. Improvisation is not synonymous with comedy. There is so much more that improv can do and I commend these players for taking such a huge risk in attempting honest, historical improvised theatre. 

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