POWERPLAYS: everyday underdogs trying to win at life

Pataka Museum, Cnr Parumoana & Norrie Streets, POWERPLAYS: everyday underdogs trying to win at life

02/05/2016 - 02/05/2016

Brierley Theatre, Wellington College, Wellington

06/05/2016 - 06/05/2016

EnsembleImpact 2016 Schools Tour

Production Details

Award Winning Ensemble style: Award Winning Playwright  

The EnsembleImpact National Tour is back with an award winning New Zealand playwright and an award winning approach to ensemble theatre.

PowerPlays: everyday underdogs trying to win at life is a short sharp collection of extracts from the works of NZ Playwright Arthur Meek (Bruce Mason award for Playwriting).  The extracts are woven together in a vibrant theatre ensemble style by Leo Gene Peters, the award winning director of theatre company A Slightly Isolated Dog. 

“Are we in charge of our own lives? How do we harness our personal power and be who we want to be? We’re battling with ourselves as much as anybody else. It’s very funny and absurd sometimes with a real honesty underneath it all.” – Leo Gene Peters on PowerPlays.

For six years, EnsembleImpact have created a themed collection of play extracts from NZ playwrights to tour to NZ schools and community centres. Just four professional actors, minimal props and minimal costumes in a theatre style that has lasting impact and addresses key points in the school drama curriculum.  The last tour, in 2014, Asian Invasion was a knock-out collection of plays with Asian themes. “…provocative, intriguing, skilful, high-energy performance…” 

Past tours include Womenz Work!,  She’ll Be Write, and A Baker’s Dozen.

Ensemble Impact, now under the auspices of Young and Hungry Arts Trust, missed out on Creative NZ funding last year and was under financial pressure to close its doors. 

“We’re thrilled to add the EnsembleImpact National Tour to our collection of activities and build on its success,” says Diana Cable, Partnership and Programmes Manager for Young and Hungry. “It’s a natural fit with our mandate to mentor NZ’s young people to create, appreciate and participate in NZ Theatre.”

The schools tour runs from 2nd May – 1 July, visiting everywhere from Invercargill to Kaitaia with community centre and regional theatre showings along route.  There’s usually time for a talkback session after the show for anyone who wants to ask questions about the content of the plays, creating theatre and the unique performance style used.  

Extracts are from (in order):
The Cottage
Charles Darwin: Collapsing Creation
The Upside Down of the World
Mando the Goatherd

Power Plays has a public showing at
Pataka Museum, Cnr Parumoana & Norrie Streets, Porirua, Wellington
Monday 2 May


More about Arthur Meek: http://www.playmarket.org.nz/playwrights/arthur-meek

More about Leo Gene Peters and A Slightly Isolated Dog https://www.facebook.com/aslightlyisolateddog/

More about Young and Hungry Arts Trust  http://www.youngandhungry.org.nz/  

Theatre ,

Creative and skilful navigation of a range of roles, settings and situations

Review by John Smythe 07th May 2016

Since 2009 EnsembleImpact has done invaluable work, touring high schools with compilations shows drawn from our rich resource of homegrown play writing.* Beyond the themes explored in each programme, they have proved to thousands of students that their world is full of material for creative play-making; that New Zealand stories are well worth telling.

Threatened with closure when funding was not forthcoming last year, EnsembleImpact has the Young and Hungry Arts Trust to thank for getting them back on the road. “It’s a natural fit with our mandate to mentor NZ’s young people to create, appreciate and participate in NZ Theatre,” says Diana Cable, Partnership and Programmes Manager for Young and Hungry. Kia ora to that.  

This year their Power Plays programme, subtitled everyday underdogs trying to win at life, comprises extracts from five plays by Arthur Meek – who went to Wellington College, so it’s fitting I should see it in that institution’s Brierley Theatre, in the traverse with boys from 14 to 18, all studying performing arts, seated seven-deep on the floor.

File boxes and piles of somewhat mangled paper define the acting space. The four performers – Katrina Wesseling, Calvin Petersen, Johanna Cosgrove and Shane Murphy – engage in a low-key way with the audience as they settle, then orientate themselves towards beginning. Their trying to work out where best to stand turns out to be a clever strategy for pulling focus and achieving silence.

Introductions done, they launch into a welter of jargon referencing the learning goals around life outcomes that inform the achievement standards for NCEA, not least the Drama Matrix Strands. I shudder – but hey, it’s a pisstake and the senior students clearly appreciate the satire. Maybe the younger students get it to …

Even so, to revert to such gobbledegook (devised by the cast and their director, Leo Gene Peters) between each play extract seems beside the point and counterproductive to me, although I suppose it does make the coherent and entertaining scenarios all the more welcome by comparison. And the piles of paper they metaphorically drown in do come in handy for manifesting props like beards and sheep’s wool. (You can get four credits for demonstrating “an understanding of the use of drama aspects within live performance”.)

The conversation about the sexuality spectrum, from The Cottage, is a good choice for drawing the teenage audience into the substantive content of the show. Here two university hostel inmates go clubbing; Shereen fantasises about Brendan declaring his love for her and has to face the reality of his being “a hundred percent gay.”  

The scene chosen from Collapsing Creation finds Charles Darwin having his extraordinary ideas scoffed at by The Royal Society in 1859. The business of holding up paper moustaches and beards detracts somewhat from the argument so it becomes more indicative than substantial.

We slip back even further to 1840 (to what we now know as Judge’s Bay in Auckland harbour) to share Lady Mary Ann Martin’s early experience on The Upside Down of the World. Although her monologue – embellished with the presence of other, mute, characters – is clearly articulated it, is totally devoid of the cultured English accent that should put her well-meaning but flawed maternalism in context.

Indeed her lines are delivered with a strong, and natural, contemporary Kiwi accent while her pronunciation of Māori is impeccable. For me this compromises the essential dimension of class-consciousness, cultural ignorance and assumed superiority that, in the full play, Lady Mary gradually loses (along with her whalebone corsets). Why this choice has been made escapes me.

The economic inequities inherent in owning land versus leasing it are explored in Mando the Goatherd(which I have never seen in full production). This too is brimming with potent socio-political themes. And by this time I am starting to feel quite strongly that naming them in the same breath as all the bureaucratic NCEA jargon is extremely counterproductive. It feels unfair to any teacher intending to initiate follow-up work.

The fifth and final piece is set in 1966 Masterton: the Golden Shears and fashion show scene, from Sheep. Having demonstrated clever staging techniques for the shearing, the focus turns to the lengths an unmarried, independent-minded young woman is obliged to go to in order to be prescribed the contraceptive pill. Implicit in this are questions of planned parenthood and gender inequity in the work place: excellent areas to end on.

Previous EnsembleImpact shows* have plundered twice, if not three times, the number of plays to make up their programme. Power Plays is to be commended for fielding longer extracts from fewer plays. Nevertheless at forty minutes it feels like a very short show. I expect the idea is to leave a good ten minutes for Q&A – which the team handles well.

The fluidly-directed quartet acquit themselves well, navigating the range of roles, settings and situations with an ease that belies the hard work and creative skills involved.

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*Previous EnsembleImpact shows have been: She’ll Be Write (2009); A Baker’s Dozen (2010); Womanz Work! (2011); In Spite of Himself (2012); She’ll Be Write 2013; Asian Invasion (2014) 


John Smythe May 10th, 2016

Thank you for that clarification, Arthur. This points to the greater question of whether the NCEA Drama Matrix stimulates interest in the essence of theatre or ... otherwise. Certainly if all the potential follow-up activities occur, Power Plays will prove to be a rich resource at many levels. 

Arthur Meek May 10th, 2016

Hey John, 

Thanks as always for your thoughts and for taking the time to see this show.

I'd like to offer some insights into some of the less conventional things you’ve seen us trying to do, and offer my thanks and praise to the Ensemble Impact team that has agreed to steer a new course championed by me. It’s one I’m hoping will have positive implications for the future of the company, its audiences, my career and in a small but significant way - New Zealand theatre itself.

You note that the devised spine of this show refers to the NCEA achievement standards that students studying drama in high school are working towards.

We’ve intentionally chosen the scenes and our presentation style to directly address these. There are also a number of online educational resources, including the script, available free to schools through the EnsembleImpact website. These explicitly link aspects of the show to NCEA Achievement standards (AKA The Drama Matrix).

It’s my hope that students who see the show will write and reflect on the show as part of their coursework. It’s my hope that this will help them develop a critical awareness of contemporary New Zealand practitioners and their work, and that it may lead them to become future audiences.

EnsembleImpact’s funding struggles have been well reported. Another complication has been the difficulty getting schools to buy these shows. I talked to high school drama educators and their feedback boiled down to one word: relevance. To justify the time (six months) and money ($800) it costs to bring the show to their school, it’s best that the show directly and obviously relates to the curriculum.

As an artist who is struggling more and more with the question of ‘why theatre’, their need was a blessing for me in shaping the show. It gave me a sense of purpose with regards to our scene selections, everyone’s hard work, and the show’s presence in schools. Gene and I talked long and hard about what themes and scenes we would present, how and why. And how our engagement with official learning objectives could be honestly filtered through our irreverent instincts.

This show is the result of our attempt to engage with these issues – to use our work to give teachers and students what they need in a way that they need it – to provide them with contemporary NZ theatre material and ways of responding to that material in a way that can engage and hold their attention.

This is the reason the show is as it is – it’s why it self-consciously refers to our mission and takes the piss out of it. It’s why a Victorian woman speaks like a modern Pakeha, rather than how Mary Martin may have spoken (which, to be honest, we really don’t know - Wikipedia confirms my hunch that RP is a term that only came about in 1869, halfway thru her life, and regardless, my intention in the scene/play is not historical verisimilitude, it’s that the audience sees in Mary the birth of their own Pakeha culture.)  

So in short, I’m grateful as always for your analysis, I read it and consider it deeply and with utmost respect. In my reply I’m hoping to de-gobbledegook the reasoning behind a few key, perhaps surprising and perhaps questionable decisions – all of which I was involved with and approve of. Whether our best intentions worked or are worth anything is now a matter for you and the schools to decide. But this is the true and accurate record of why we swung for this particular fence.

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Strengths lie in the way it poses questions, rather than instructions or answers

Review by Annabel Wilson 03rd May 2016

When I recall visiting ‘theatre in education’ troupes that came to my high school, I cringe a bit. Often these fully-funded touring shows were heavy-handed in their use of drama as a tool for social change. Sex and drugs were prevalent themes and the messages were often preachy. Imperatives for ‘how to live a healthy adolescent life’ were tied in a neatly packaged bow by the time the lunchbell went: Make safe choices! No balloon – no party! DARE to say no to drugs! The over-the-top, all-too-earnest shows were the ones we laughed at, and not in a good way. The shows that managed to engage a hall-full of hormonal teenagers were those that kept it real.

Power Plays is a piece that engages its high school audience by mocking some of the ‘theatre in education’ tropes its cast experienced as teenagers.

The show begins with a piss-take of educators fumbling with the admin and jargon of NCEA. There’s the talk of course outlines, achievement objectives, the Drama Matrix and meeting the standard all too familiar to today’s youth [More]


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