Letter from New Zealand

Feature in Issue 12-2 | Summer 2000

Reporting from his homeland, Robert Bennett, of Wellington-based theatre company Mime International, takes a whistle-stop tour of New Zealand’s physical theatre scene.

There have always been writers, actors and directors in New Zealand who have created works which the Establishment wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. The Establishment has needed to ensure the ongoing support of the affluent middle classes who don’t want to feel challenged or to be made to feel uneasy in the theatre. The move away from the well-made play has resulted in a growth in fringe theatre. Fringe European theatre, as well as Maori ritual and protocol have been strong influences on new theatre forms.

In the 60s, while England celebrated with the Pip Simmonds Theatre Group, Shared Experience and Welfare State, Paul Maunder gave New Zealanders Amamus Theatre, which presented political theatre in the Grotowski style, touring not only at home but also in Poland. Amamus Theatre was totally committed to political message-style theatre, and received public subsidy, which was important. It often takes overseas success and recognition to gain Establishment support in New Zealand – a factor of colonial mentality and an inability to recognise quality in our own artists without the approbation of experts elsewhere.

In the 80s there was a sudden spurt in the growth of non-mainstream theatre, with artists prepared to take risks and produce work which tested conventional boundaries. Red Mole, led by Sally Rodwell and Alan Brunton, created community theatre projects which combined mask, mime and dance, and dealt with issues of immediate concern to local communities. Political satire was a big part of their work; lampooning politicians and addressing issues of the day – anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid. Dramadillo, a clown and mask show created by Nick Blake, had a strong following and toured the country performing in university theatres and alternative venues. On a much larger scale were Warwick Broadhead’s community projects, where young people in huge numbers gathered to explore and present message theatre. The appeal of his shows was the spectacle of hundreds of people with giant puppets, colourful costumes, live music and the energy of performers discovering the joy of theatre for the first time.

Mike Mizrahi and Marie Adams explored improvised theatre with their company Inside Out, creating The Lover and the Beloved, The Holy Sinner, and Song of the Civilised Thief. Mike and Marie were commissioned to develop New Zealand’s official millennium show, This is It, which celebrated two thousand years of human history with a symphony orchestra and cast of thousands in the Auckland domain on New Year’s Eve.

The Front Lawn duo of Harry Sinclair and Don McGlashan in the 80s and 90s presented urban stories with a surreal twist, singing and dancing their way into the hearts of New Zealanders with The Reason for Breakfast, The One that Got Away, The Story of Robert, and The Washing Machine. They often combined with an alternative avant garde jazz group, The 6 Volts, whose work has become legendary in New Zealand. The Front Lawn has now split up due to a lack of funding. Don has formed the successful rock group The Muttonbirds, which is now based in the UK, and Harry now writes and directs feature films – his most recent being Topless Women Talk About Their Lives.

Theatre at Large, created by Christian Penny and Anna Marbrook, have presented plays and devised work – including The Butcher’s Wife, Henry VIII, Cyrano de Bergerac and King Lear – which have been created in a group style, often with the use of quirky puppets and masks.

The influence of Jacques Lecoq was felt in New Zealand through Francis Batten’s workshops, while Jumping John ‘Mouse’ Bolton commutes between Australia and New Zealand offering physical theatre storytelling experiences. In the same mould of physicality, Stephen Bain’s Theatre on the Balustrade offers acrobatic alternative physical theatre/dance, and he commutes between New Zealand and Europe.

The alternative theatre groups are spread throughout the country, and whereas Auckland and Wellington may at one time have harboured the ‘rebels’, these are now found nationwide as the new millennium begins. Briar Grace-Smith is a Maori writer of international repute; her work Purapurawhetu has been performed in Canada, as was Waitapu in 1996. James Beaumont creates very surreal theatre pieces and he is now working at Waikato University in Hamilton. His memorable theatre pieces include Wild Cabbage, Blood for 2d, and Black Halo, a post-apocalyptic analysis of Thatcherism loosely based on Waiting for Godot. All these works were performed at the Depot in Wellington in the 80s.

In Wellington, Paul Jendon directs and dances in gorgeously costumed extravagant productions: 1001 Nights, Dance for Dummies and Dragon in a Wagon for children. My own favourite for 1999 in Wellington was Split, in which Kelson Henderson and Damon Andrews showed two sides of one personality using acrobatics which had the audience gasping with disbelief. Directed by Jed Brophy, this one-hour of exhaustion could and should travel well overseas.

Wellington is the home of Toi Whakaari – the National Drama School - and two ex-students have hit the big-time with solo performances: Tim Balme was highly successful not only in New Zealand but also at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and in England, Ireland and Israel with his solo show Johnny Costello, directed by Simon Bennett. Jacob Rajan, using a multiplicity of masks, was also highly successful at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with Krishna’s Dairy. His latest play opened at the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in March. Gary Henderson’s adaptation of the Denis Glover poem ‘The Magpie’ (Skin Tight) won a Fringe First at Edinburgh and has toured extensively nationally and internationally.

The National Drama School puts emphasis on theatre, Maori and Pacific. Taki Rua Theatre in Wellington has often launched the works of these talented young actors. Toa Fraser, a Fijian Indian writer, whose works premiered at Auckland’s Silo Theatre, rocked Wellington with Bare, and is now returning for a second season. Both Bats in Wellington and Silo in Auckland have been instrumental in encouraging new experimental work.

Unitec in Auckland has a strong Performing Arts Department, while the Department of Theatre and Film at Victoria University in Wellington has turned out numerous actors and directors. Christchurch Teachers College is host to the National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Art, while Dunedin University has long been connected with ‘new’ theatre, emanating from Allen Hall Theatre and The Globe Theatre. This huge burgeoning of tertiary performing arts courses is indicative of a shift in mind-set of the public and educators towards the arts as a viable career opportunity.

Celebrating twenty-five years of touring nationally and internationally this year is my own company, Mime International. The Pacific Islands, Zimbabwe, Mexico, China, Singapore and Australia have all been hosts to the company, whose inspiration comes from the Rose Bruford College of Sidcup. In the nationwide picture, Mime International fills a gap – no other New Zealand group provides silent illusionary mime programmes suitable for school and family audiences. Throughout its history, cast members have gone on to develop their own touring shows, and most notable are Stephen Aitken, Michelle Hine, Fergus Aitken (Mr Fungus), Tim Denton (About Face), Katie Haines de Viere and Gavin White. About Face and Out of Hand (Anne Forbes) are gaining a large international following and are frequently being asked to tour at overseas festivals.

There was a time when unemployed actors could be on the dole while creating their next piece of theatre. This is no longer possible. The New Zealand 1990 budget changed the laws and so many creative actors are now out there working themselves to exhaustion in cafes and hotels, while trying to remain faithful to their first love. Their spirit remains unbroken and, as the new New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark is also Minister for the Arts – who knows what will happen?

I would encourage visitors from the UK to consider visiting New Zealand during the International Festival of the Arts which is next held in March 2002. The best of the New Zealand physical theatre groups perform at the Fringe Festival while more mainstream works and the overseas groups are to be found on the main stages of Wellington. It’s usually still summertime in March, warm both climatically and theatrically. See you there.