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40 Years of Playwriting in New Zealand

From humble beginnings in a tiny nook opposite Downstage Theatre, Playmarket has advanced to become a key player in New Zealand’s national theatre landscape.

Playmarket 40 celebrates the first forty years of achievement, from the development of the organisation itself to the evolution of local playwriting. With articles and introductions by playwrights Hone Kouka, Kate Morris and Renee Liang, Playmarket Directors Nonnita Rees, Mark Amery and Murray Lynch, and commentators Laurie Atkinson, David O’Donnell, John Huria and Alister McDonald, this is an essential volume for researchers, theatre students and theatregoers alike. 

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Essential reading

Review by John Smythe 19th Jan 2014

Playmarket was conceived on a bed in the late Robert Lord’s Clifton Terrace flat by a foursome – Robert, Nonita Rees, Judy Russell and Ian Fraser – and the founders were honoured with the Mayor’s Award for Significant Contribution to the Theatre at the 2013 Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards.

PLAYMARKET 40: 40 Years of Playwriting in New Zealand was launched at Playmarket’s 40th Birthday Accolades on 24 November 2013.

A splendidly compiled and presented book, it can be read a number of ways, depending on your perspective and purpose. Whichever way you look at it, it is an essential addition to the bookshelves of all theatres, educational institutions, critics, commentators, funding bodies, theatre practitioners and theatre-goers.  

Dive into the middle to bathe in 16 pages of evocative production images from throughout the decades. Not being in chronological order they do seem to be oddly grouped but sometimes I can discern a possible logic to each page beyond the pleasing visual compositions. Over all they certainly capture the rich variety of style and content that has graced our stages over the decades. Without reading a word you cannot fail to be impressed with what has been achieved.

Four groupings of easily-found light grey pages distributed throughout – and complied by Laurie Atkinson, the book’s editor – offer a verbal snapshot of each year from 1973 to 2012. The ‘Playmarket Milestones’ which trace the playwright development agency’s steady and impressive evolution are placed in context above snippets from ‘The National Theatre Scene’ and ‘Beyond the Stage’. A ‘Quote / Unquote’ extract from a script or piece of theatrical commentary adds potency to the picture.

As succinctly informative summaries of our playwriting, theatrical and socio-political history, these 40 pages alone are worth the price ($40 from Playmarket’s online bookshop). But I recommend you read them as a whole, either as a taster or a summary of the 40 year story; reading them in sequence as they are grouped amid the nine essays that form the bulk of the book will not offer a straight chronological narrative as each contributor covers a range of years in the continuum.

The introductory pages are written by Murray Lynch, current Director of Playmarket; David O’Donnell, Editor of Playmarket’s New Zealand Play series and consulting editor of this book; Ian Fraser and Nonita Rees.

Rees also leads the run of longer pieces with a reprint of ‘The Story of Playmarket’, marking the first 10 years and first published in Australasian Drama Studies 3, no 1 (1984). She sums up the daily work of Playmarket as: “promoting, preparing scripts, negotiating, pressuring theatres, encouraging writers, collecting royalties, running a magazine and acting as a general clearing house for information.” (p21). In retrospect she adds notes about Robert Lord’s successes and premature death and the legacy he has left with the Writers’ Cottage in Dunedin. (p22)

Other historical essays are reprinted along with new pieces written especially for this book.

Roger Hall is rightly credited more than once with keeping professional theatres and Playmarket afloat financially and Alister McDonald, long-time dramaturge of Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre and a member of the Playmarket Executive, sums up his contribution under the clever title ‘The Hall Way of Life: Rogernomics in the New Zealand Theatre’.

While McDonald’s claim that more people saw Four Flat Whites in Italy at the Fortune in 2009 “than saw all the other plays staged in Dunedin at other venues that year” (p23) is impressive, the comparative stats game gets a bit dodgy when he compares the 7 percent of Dunedin’s population who saw it with the “less that 1 percent of [Melbourne’s] population [that] would see a David Williamson play when it is staged by the Melbourne Theatre Company.” Apart from all the other theatrical activity in culture-rich Melbourne – including its massive Fringe and Comedy Festivals – the MTC itself produces some 21 plays a year across different venues and hosts a festival of independent theatre, so there is much more competition there than in Dunedin. 

He acknowledges Hall as “unashamedly a storyteller to his tribe, the middleclass Pākeha New Zealanders who make up the audience at the country’s metropolitan subsidised theatres”, notes that his characters “have aged with him” and comments on how the changing role of women in NZ society has been reflected in his plays. The essay does assume a prior knowledge of Hall’s works in that, for example, Market Forces is not identified as a sequel to Glide Time, or Spreading Out as a sequel to Middle Age Spread. (p24-25)

From Playmarket News, no. 16 (Spring 1997) comes ‘Mā Te Rēhia E Kawe: Māori Theatre in the 1990s’ by John Huria, editor, writer, mentor, consultant and director of Ahi Text Solutions. He articulates the rise in Māori theatre and refers to Briar Grace-Smith’s perception of the “shift from Māori ‘going to be seen’ to ‘going to see themselves’” in our theatres. (p35) Sections on ‘The language of our theatre’ and ‘Collaboration in the house’ are followed with ‘Where to stand’, an insightful account of the issues that arose from Taki Rua losing its Alpha Street (Wellington) home and reforming itself as Taki Rua productions. (As I recall they claimed at the time that, as a company with a nation-wide reach, they didn’t want to saddle themselves with bricks and mortar.)

Huria’s account includes, “[Hone] Kouka’s great fear is that with the establishment of a production company, the ‘big players’ will get a high profile, while the developmental stage will be neglected.” (p39) The ‘homeless’ theme continues through sections subtitled ‘On the road’ and ‘Building the whare, moving the whare’. “While the whare tapere was the site used for performance,” writes Huria, “it was also the assembly gathered together.” (p42)

Playwright, director, dramaturge and producer Hone Kouka’s contemporary contribution, ‘Ko te Korero te Kai a te Rangatira: Words are the Food of Chiefs’ should be read as a follow-on to Huiria’s piece despite being placed much later (pp88-91).

Having acknowledged the high point around the turn of the century, not least through the “strong tangata whenua focus” of the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts (p88), Kouka writes that “Five years later the Māori theatre community was lost in obscurity … In just over a decade after the decision to vacate the venue in 1997, we had become a ghost of our former selves. Suddenly, with the advent of Taki Rua as a production house, all responsibility for Māori theatre had been handed over to a small group. Reduced leadership and a board replaced collective work in a group dynamic.” (p89)

Kouka is, I feel, unnecessarily coy about the way Tawata Productions – which he co-founded in 2004; of which he is Artistic Director – has picked up the development role. In a 2012 review of one of their soon-to-be award-winning productions, I wrote: “While other theatre companies are risk-averse with their programming, Tawata Productions just gets on with the job of doing what theatre was invented for. New writing is their ‘life-blood’ and writers their ‘soul, conscience and heart’. They honour the fundamental purpose of theatre in any healthy society.” Kouka does attribute the strengthening to the Matariki Development Festival which is presented by Tawata and hosted by Circa Theatre (p90), but Tawata’s activities in developing and producing new work by non-Pākeha playwrights go way beyond that.

Of particular interest is his announcement that what he calls a decade of inactivity (despite Tawata’s turning 10 this year) “has led to the formation of Te Putahitanga a te Rēhia, a group of Wellington Māori theatre practitioners … [whose] purpose is to nurture Māori theatre in the capital and beyond.” (p89) Given he concludes, “In a very practical sense, not having a home, a place to call ours, to host manuhiri and hui about our communities’ concerns and develop as a powerful voice, has left us at the whim of other theatres, where our work is seldom seen,” (p91) one has to ask whether the Hannah Playhouse, recently vacated by Downstage Theatre, is not the obvious whare for them to inhabit.

Laurie Atkinson kicks off his 30-year anniversary article – ‘A small Vermin-Free Island: An Informal History of Playmarket’, first published in Playmarket News, no 32 (Spring 2003) – with an account of playwright, director, actor and activist Mervyn Thompson’s experience of rampant cultural cringe among elitist educationalists “as late as 1975”. (p69) This establishes the essential need for an organisation like Playmarket and Atkinson goes on to account for how it improved the playwrights’ lot over its first three decades.

He rightly acknowledges the initiative shown by Downstage’s Artistic Director Sunny Amey, not only in providing accommodation and resources for the fledgling agency but also in staging a record number of NZ plays on the mainbill in 1974. However he says there were five in this essay (p71) and six in his one-pager for 1974 (p28). Six is correct if one includes the brief return season of Joe Musaphia’s Victims, which premiered the previous year, prior to its going on tour.

The physical growth of Playmarket, its various homes and the inevitable politics that played out when certain factions accused others of factionalism are well documented by Atkinson.

While the advent of Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament – workshopped in May 1980 – is rightly credited as a landmark in the evolution of homegrown playwriting, I take issue with David Carnegie’s assertion (quoted from his 1998 entry in The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Asia/Pacific, Vol 5) that it marked “a watershed in the country’s development: the end of the myth of homogeneity in a social paradise, and its replacement with the uncertainties of adult nationhood.” (p73) Bruce Mason had long since exploded any such myth in pretty well all of his plays by then, from his short plays in 1953 then The Pohutukawa Tree (1957) and The End of the Golden Weather (1959) through all his other ‘Healing Arch’ plays (Hongi, The Hand on the Rail, Swan Song, Awatea) to Zero Inn (1970), and he revisited most of his challenges to our questionable cultural value systems in Blood of the Lamb, which premiered in March 1980.

By way of introducing the further initiatives Playmarket had made by 2003 – the Year of the New Zealand Play (who knew?) – Atkinson makes the following sobering observations:
   “While there are numerous young writers willing to try their hand at the difficult art of playwriting, many only write short plays and few emerge as fully grown from the warm embrace of such excellent caregivers as Young and Hungry, the New Zealand Young Playwright’s competition and Playmarket itself. To make things worse, far too many of the senior playwrights have stopped writing, have been unable to get their work produced or turned to other forms of writing. In addition, with a few notable exceptions, out novelists, poets and short story writers have stayed clear of writing for the theatre altogether.” (p76)

He concludes on an upbeat by quoting Nonita Rees as being “proudest that the New Zealand voice is now a natural part of New Zealand theatre. Its emergence parallels New Zealand’s arts renaissance and the disappearance of cultural cringe.” (p76)

‘Shaping the Future: Pacific Playwrights in New Zealand’ is David O’Donnell’s contribution. He uses the term Pacific Theatre for what others may call Pacific Island or Pacifica Theatre and traces its evolution from the 1970s through to the present, noting significant playwrights, actors and performing groups on the way.

By way of summing up, O’Donnell states: “Since the 1980s, the range and influence of Pacific plays has expanded exponentially, bringing new themes and performance styles to our stages. Pacific plays have perfected the art of dark, cross-cultural comedy, vividly engaged with the politics of the post-colonial Pacific and brought the beauty of Polynesian languages to our theatres.” (p97) A thorough and erudite entry.

The task of surveying Pākeha and Palagi: New Zealand European Playwriting 1998-2012’ falls to Mark Amery, Director of Playmarket from 2002 to February 2010 and editor of the Playmarket Annual. He observes that after having the territory to themselves in the 1970s and 1980s, Pākeha playwrights now have the confidence to write across cultures thanks to Māori – and Pasifika and Asian – theatre, asserting that the Maori-themed plays Bruce Mason wrote in the 1960s grew from a different cultural landscape.

A skim through significant playwrights and titles confirms the breadth and depth of work produced but what is most telling is his identification of important plays by established writers which have yet to be produced or achieve production beyond their premiere season. This reinforces my long-held contention that our better-resourced theatres are still not hungry enough for home grown plays and their audiences have no idea what they are missing, which raises two questions: What would possess a good NZ writer to choose theatre as their medium? What would bring new audiences into our theatres? 

Renee Liang’s ‘Growing Big Trees: Asian Theatre in Aotearoa’, from Playmarket News, no. 35 (Spring 2010), includes Indian theatre in its reach and is written from a personal perspective which adds welcome zing to the text. While the first documented Asian performance was in 1887, playwriting beyond ‘cultural performances’ took much longer to evolve. “Professional theatre representing a true Kiwi-Asian voice has only emerged in the past fifteen or so years, and it this on which I’ll now focus,” she writes. (p105)

Liang’s tone is upbeat and optimistic, even though “ethnic theatre floats on capricious cultural and social winds.” Despite having no dedicated funding streams, unlike their Maori and Pacific Island colleagues, “Diversity is officially sexy.” (p106) She notes the importance of universal themes to writers like Lynda Chanwai-Earle and Jacob Rajan, who “both resist the label ‘Asian playwright’, preferring to recognise that their backgrounds influence their world view and hence their writing” – adding that “the pigeonhole question … [is] a double-edged sword, of course.” (p107)

Alongside their right to write outside their ethnic pigeonhole, Liang also welcomes non-Asian playwrights exploring Asian themes with Asian characters. “The outsider perspective helps our community hold up a mirror and see how we are perceived. A cultural windsock, if you like.” (p108) She concludes by mounting a compelling argument for why “Asian theatre in Aotearoa will only get bigger and more diverse and attract a greater audience over time.” (p109)

‘Defining the Audience: Writing for Children’ is Kate Morris’s contribution from Playmarket News, no 46 (Spring 2011) and she too writes from personal experience. She notes the importance of Capital E National Theatre for Children, Tim Bray Productions and Jenny Wake’s Calico Theatre, and quotes Bray’s frustration at the under-resourcing of theatre for children and his argument for its being “acknowledged and funded to the same level as theatre for adults.” She comments, “It is perplexing that children’s theatre, which for a lot of us is our first theatrical experience in life, still meets with this double standard.” (p111)

Morris gives the last word to playwright Michelanne Forster: “Children’s theatre should never be an afterthought. It is a genre in its own right, and those who make children’s theatre need support to develop their craft skills to the highest level. When we attract first-class writers, directors, actors, musicians and set and costume designers to children’s theatre, then we will see an enormous leap in standards.” (pp112-113)

The Appendices comprise a potted history of Playmarket achievements in themselves. Twelve years of the Adam Playreading Series, from 1997 to 2008, are recorded by Title, Playwright and Director, and it is instructive to note how many of the 49 – which are just the tip of a very large iceberg – remain unproduced.

Playmarket publications from 1980 to 2012 list 67 titles, with some plays grouped within collections. The 30-odd playwrights listed as Bruce Mason Playwriting Award Winners from 1983 to 2012 (excluding 2003-2005), Adam New Zealand Play Award Winners from 2008 to 2012* and the inaugural Playmarket Award winner (2012) offer further proof of how much talent is at the disposal of our theatres.  

*(An editing glitch, caused by deciding to remove the 2013 line, has muddled some titles and writers. For the record they should read: 2011 – Hero – Arun Subramaniam; 2012 – Hui – Mitch Tawhi Thomas; 2013 – The Mercy Clause – Philip Braithwaite.)  

On the Statistics page, covering 2003-2012, five Roger Hall plays head the Top Ten Royalties Collected list, taking 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th and 8th places. Dave Armstrong plays come in at 3rd and 10th; James Griffin plays are 6th and 7th while an Alison Quigan play takes 9th spot. Graphs show impressive upward trends in Top Royalties Collected and Performance Licences issued.

A list of Playmarket Administrators and Script Development Staff from 2003 to 2012, Acknowledgements and a comprehensive Index complete this 150-page essential volume, edited and produced by Whitireia Publishing for the Playmarket imprint (ISBN 978-0-908607-45-7).


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