I was commissioned by Playmarket in to write about the position of the New Zealand play and playwriting in schools for their Playmarket Annual 2016. We recently published the article on The Pantograph Punch here.
A couple of weeks ago Auckland theatre maker Kip Chapman was interviewed for a profile piece by The Press in conjunction with the Auckland and Christchurch seasons of new musical That Bloody Woman. The article was headlined Kiwi director Kip Chapman says theatre companies need spectacles to keep audiences coming. Kip very consciously threw down some interesting provocations regarding the theatre sector, and in true New Zealand style, due to the fact that the article was not written by an arts journalist who might have the time or interest to connect the dots, none of it went any further. I’m probably not going to take it any further either - simply doodle about the details. One of the points Kip raised about immersive theatre in New Zealand had me thinking so I thought I'd write some stuff about that. (Turns out I had 3000 words to write about that, so sozaboutit).
In the article, Kip notes, ‘I’m super surprised that more theatre companies haven’t made more immersive works. TV and film is so good these days. Why would you leave the house? Theatre has to be seen live and we have to engage with the audience and to say, ‘This can only be seen live’…theatre has to do something that’s unique, compared to the brilliant offerings in TV and film. We have to engage with an audience in a way that TV and film can’t’.
I totally agree. Most certainly theatre must utilise its live quality – its bodies-in-front-of-bodies quality - to do what the screen is unable to. So there’s two things I want to delve further into here:
1) Let’s unpick the word ‘immersive’ specifically for a New Zealand context. Why not.
2) I’m interested in our varying thresholds of what true ‘liveness’ means. Is work that is described as 'immersive' the only vehicle for the exploration of the ‘live’?
Currently, in most of the English-speaking theatre world, the term ‘immersive’ has now become catch-all flab; over-utilised to within an inch of its life and emptied of meaning by producers and marketers. In New Zealand - always just a bit different aren’t we - we have a weird mix. Firstly, within the theatre sector, due to our size, I’m not sure we’ve reached peak ‘immersive’ glut, however I think the term is colonised by a certain type of immersive work. Secondly, in marketing to the general public, theatre doing anything with a whiff of audience proximity or involvement gets touted as innovative and the ‘first time ever’. So you have an article in the Dom Post regarding promenade headphone piece The Woman Who Forgot in the New Zealand Festival this year in which the writer notes, ‘immersive theatre has been done before in the United Kingdom but the concept is a first for NZ’.
Blank face emoji.
The contemporary interest in immersing the audience inside the theatrical story world in a style we are now familiar with emerged in the early 2000s in the UK and NZ. (If one was to look at traditions within community theatre contexts and actually lots of different historical movements, this is a total lie, but for our convenient timeline purposes let’s go with early 2000s). The beginnings of work that we now describe as immersive could be seen in work described then as ‘promenade’ performance, ‘site-specific’ or ‘site-sympathetic’. There were various instances of this in NZ - I vividly remember Kerryn Palmer’s work Sniper at BATS in 2004, a STAB commission, which, in creating a war zone, shunted the audience around the side of the building and into the transformed space. In terms of site-specific work, Tim Spite’s company Seeyd made work in old office blocks before they became expensive waterfront apartments; a moment in Sand, when a sunset view of Wellington was revealed was the most memorable kind of coup de theatre. Our own graduating Toi Whakaari drama class of 2004 made a three-year devised site-specific performance, Penumbra, in the basement of Toi Whakaari itself. These latter two examples, while not calling upon the audience to move through or become ‘active’ participants in the space, took their design and formal cues from the space they existed in - something which later became a bedrock of work describing itself as 'immersive'.
At about this same time in the early 2000s in the UK, companies which have since become heavyweights of the immersive theatre ‘genre’ such as Punchdrunk and Shunt, were beginning their first explorations in site-specific work.
But what is this slippery term ‘immersive’, what is ‘interactive’, and how does it all shake down? In her book Immersive Theatres (note that sweet plural), Josephine Machon spends a whole introduction attempting to contain this term. The important point she makes is that ‘immersive’ is not a genre, with fixed codes and conventions. Indeed, we don’t expect the terms ‘site-specific’ or ‘promenade’ to wield the weight of genre, they are simply useful adjectives - as was once the word ‘immersive’. But once this term was latched onto by tribes of happy practitioners and marketers, confident they’d hit audience gold, no longer having to fall back on the dreaded ‘audience participation’, ‘immersive’ became a kind of mutant genre. Of course the giant net of that term contains a vast array of forms, the corresponding descriptors for which, such as ‘interactive’ and ‘participatory’ can overlap significantly. To complicate things, work that is simply participatory will often be defined as immersive. Work that is immersive will be defined as interactive. And then we get told ‘immersive’ is new in New Zealand and nobody has a bloody clue anymore.
Immersive theatre is experiential. As critic Matt Trueman notes, the term ‘marks a piece of theatre experienced from within rather than as an outside observer. The work happens around you or to you. You are part of it, rather than looking on fundamentally distinct’. Strong immersive theatre carefully calibrates a series of experiences to be explored by the audience member in a space that is all story world, of which there are no boundaries. Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More is the obvious exemplar here – as a mask-wearing audience participant, you are free to roam wherever you please over five floors of warehouse and experience (or miss out on) as much as you want. You have absolute agency in the space. For a word that doesn’t in fact denote genre, it can be said that this style of immersive theatre has become the touchstone definition of the term for many UK practitioners and critics. In NZ, possibly due to the budget concerns (or the amount of volunteers these kinds of works involve) we have not *yet* seen work of such ‘deep’ immersion on a wrap-around scale. Yet we have our own versions, which I’ll get to shortly.
So in this style of immersive theatre, no matter how much agency you have in the space, would anything in fact change if you weren’t there? It could be said that this is where the term ‘immersive’ departs from ‘interactive’. Interactive work requires you. Purely immersive work could probably continue on its sweet fruity way without.
Regarding interactive work, two great international examples of companies engaged in pretty definitive theatre of this kind are Melbourne company Pop Up Playground and Coney in London. Both use games (in Pop Up's case, sometimes inspired by video games) and interactive play to create happenings where participants are most definitely not spectators, and are in fact creating the forward trajectory of the piece in the moment, wherever that may go. A whole separate post could be written on companies making work such as this.
While we're on tentative definitions, as an anchor point, I really love this offering by a Rafaella Marcus in this uniformly excellent article in Exeunt titled Is immersive theatre broken (yes, they’ve come on a bit since the wide-eyed previous decade in the UK - the prevailing wariness of the term in this piece is pretty fascinating - do read it). She says, ‘…Immersive theatre absolutely isn’t necessarily interactive theatre – interactive theatre requires the audience in order to exist, to create a narrative, whereas a lot of immersive theatre supplies a great volume of detail, which you are left to sift through like your own dramaturg’.
In the last ten years, the UK has seen some shining touchstones of immersive theatre (some of which is also often interactive), from You Me Bum Bum Train, which relied on the power of around 200 volunteers per show in which participants found themselves giving art history lectures and standing on podiums as the conductor of a full chamber orchestra, to Dutch company Ontroerend Goed’s The Smile Off Your Face, which took singular audience participants on a wheelchair through a space and placed them in increasingly intimate situations, playing on ideas of trust and power (and a show which would truly be my personal hell).
As you can glean from the above Exeunt article, while there have been explosively joyful successes in this territory of work, there have also been numerous derivative failures, in which the relationship with the audience hasn’t been placed under enough scrutiny or treated with the mathematical/logistical attention one needs when a group of humans in a room are offered the ability to do whatever the hell they want. Therefore, like any trend that has its moment, the term ‘immersive’ is viewed with increasingly wary eyes (in the UK at least), which is glaringly apparent in this Irish Times reviewer’s note regarding NZ company Royale Productions’ The Generation of Z in 2014: ‘The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, bastion of experimentation and trends, is tellingly light on immersive events this year. A New Zealand production, The Generation of Z, subjects its audience to a zombie apocalypse, where flailing masses in need of brains may already signal the start of immersive theatre’s parody phase’.
So that brings us (somewhat uncomfortably) to ask how does this all sit in a New Zealand context? (What’s so fascinating about the above is the question of time and the development of trends in all this. Stylistic and formal preoccupations of theatre are temporal. We may be at bottom of the planet but it’s to our detriment I reckon if we're not taking up an international lens and acknowledging global theatre shifts. It’s something I’m always interested in when companies travel to Edinburgh: how shall that work sit globally? With Generation of Z, as the above reviewer indicates, it would appear - from a critical perspective at least - that that one could have been a bit behind the immersive eight ball. Or perhaps the form was simply not explored to the fullest. Regardless, I’m pretty sure those who want zombies aren’t too fussed about global theatre trends).
In New Zealand I think we may often define work as immersive when it is in fact possibly interactive, but more likely participatory. Hackman’s Apollo 13, directed by Kip Chapman (and pictured below), is an interesting case study. If we were to apply the definitions above (already a problematic act, considering the mutability of the word and the fact I’ve spent all this time saying it’s not a genre), taking ‘immersive’ to mean a wide ranging play area, usually not a theatre, in which audience have complete agency - considerations which have come to increasingly encapsulate the term, internationally at least - Apollo 13 does not necessarily accord. Yes, the audience are sitting at an incredible fully reconstructed 1960s Houston NASA control centre, however due to the very nature of the space, the strictness of the Houston Command story world, and the various roles the audience take on, this wouldn’t allow total free range play. Then again, that space station is most certainly an immersive environment. I mean, if that is not an environment which could be described as 'immersive', what is, right?
Apollo 13 could be defined as interactive. Yet it is interaction which will never affect the ultimate narrative trajectory. No matter how many mathematical formulas are solved or phone calls are made by the audience, Gene Kranz and the Houston audience/participants will most definitely see the crew of the Apollo 13 return. Therefore while the audience have interactive moments with the players of the story world, their interactions are limited to what is required for the narrative to move forward on its inexorable way. Perhaps Apollo 13 would then more accurately be defined as participatory. In any case, I don't think in a New Zealand context that Apollo 13 couldn't be described as ‘immersive’, and I'm not using this as a case to show arbitrary usage of the term at all, however by raising even this one example it’s possible to perceive how mercurial and problematic such a catch-all phrase, hijacked as genre, can be.
But let’s return to Kip’s provocation in The Press: firstly, he notes that he’s surprised 'that more theatre companies haven’t made more immersive works' (it may have been that he was referring to our mainstage companies and not the whole lot. As the journalist did not define this, one will never know. I have taken it to mean companies in general). I challenge this. I’m wary that this director may defining ‘immersive theatre’ in his company’s image. In New Zealand, I don’t think the problem lies with deficit of this work, but with definition. For our small size, in New Zealand we have an abundance of practitioners willing to engage the audience by utilising immersive and interactive techniques. Secondly, Kip notes that theatre must find ways to engage audiences when TV and film is so good. While I absolutely agree, he implies that immersive work is the way to do this. I don't know. I’m not sure our only route towards ‘liveness’ is through whatever that thing is that we call 'immersive'.
To tackle (conveniently) both these points, here are some New Zealand companies who in the last five years have been creating work that in some instances could be described as immersive, in most instances interactive and in nearly all instances participatory. While none of them emulate ‘immersive’ in a Hackman or Royale Productions style (or even for that matter the aforementioned free range UK style), each one of them considers the liveness of the theatre state, the fact it is very much not a closed-off narrative world, and I'm pretty sure each would share an implicit maxim that would go something like Kip's 'this can only be seen live':
- Jo Randerson’s and Thomas LaHood’s BARBARIAN PRODUCTIONS last year created Grand Opening (pictured above) in Wellington’s Cuba Carnival, in which audience members/participants were taken through the backstage areas of The Opera House where various characters and creations lived in each of the dressing rooms - in this case the entire theatre became the story world of the piece - eventually emerging on to the stage to become the performers themselves. In the last election year, Barbarian also created Political Cuts, in which you can receive a free haircut in exchange for political conversation. They also made Sing It To My Face, an inter-generational music project in which four different generational choirs let each other know how they really feel about society in a theatrical performance of a fully scored choral arrangement. Barbarian are concerned with community, the power of the non-performer and the subversion of the idea that performance is an elite arena in which only ‘professionals’ can take part. Therefore their work is deeply participatory, interactive and in some cases that inherently involves immersion in the given space.
- Auckland-based Nisha Madhan and Stephen Bain create work under the banners of THE TOWN CENTRE and FUTURE HOTEL. Much of their work is participatory, working in public and found spaces and plays with ideas of agency and ritual. Nisha’s most recent work TITLED placed the audience in situations of bureaucratic form filling, games, journeys through tubular passageways, high ritual, and naff office parties. Stephen also co-created I Wanna Be Na Nah Na Nah Nah, a headphone piece in which participants walked around Ponsonby streets, taken back to a very different Ponsonby of 1983. What’s already interesting about these first two examples, is while by rights some of their work could be defined as immersive, they would probably never define themselves as such. (Which is possibly an indication of the increasing 'genre' stamp of 'immersive').
- BINGE CULTURE are a Wellington company who make work centred on the live encounter. They have become whales beached on the Wellington waterfront and in many other spots around the country. A riot for all ages of audience/participants, Whales finds random city-dwellers all pitching in to save a pod of ‘stranded’ whales. Interactive yes, immersive if we take a wide lens on the term.
- In her recent work CAR, Virginia Frankovich played on the fact Aucklanders spend an inordinate amount of time of their waking lives in cars. Ignoring the confines of the theatre, she created an immersive work which took six audience members on a ride throughout Auckland city.
- Leo Gene Peter’s company A SLIGHTLY ISOLATED DOG’s most recent work at Circa Theatre in Wellington used all the participatory power of the audience to tell the story of Jekyll and Hyde. While this piece would not be described as immersive, it carefully built participatory trust in the relationship between the storytelling troupe of French narrators and their audience to build touch points around the narrative and create a ton of delight.
- Holly Chappell and Tom Eason's company TWO PRODUCTIONS created The Powerful Event in Christchurch in 2013. This was a self-described immersive show which took place on a vacant lot in the CBD. The company created corporation Nouveau Monde Global, and enlisting the audience as employee candidates, it played on what it takes to stand up and make decisions for your city.
- All of Trygve Wakenshaw’s work. Trygve’s work is fuelled by the live encounter. (Can we still call the international new mime rockstar ours? Who knows).
There’s seven. As you can see, while some work by these companies could be called immersive, some definitely couldn’t and some work probably doesn’t want to be. But all these practitioners acknowledge and are fuelled by theatre’s liveness. In at least four examples there is also a deep interest in the local, which, on an equal footing with liveness, is theatre's secret power over mass media.
In the long mysterious road of engaging audiences, full immersive spectacle is undeniably one attractive answer. But to quote Stephen Bain in a previous post, 'I think we tend to feel a little bit like, because we’re all doing theatre, we want everyone to like all the theatre. But nah. I don’t want the same audience as other people and for everyone to like all the same things. It’s quite good to do things that people just don’t like, or which has a completely different audience - there’s strength in that’. Scooping the audience up in an immersive spectacle is one way to acknowledge and to sure razzle dazzle em. But if the essential question is ‘how do we make this work live in the moment with this group of people?’ as we can see above, there are lots of possible answers, of which GET THEM OUT OF THOSE DAMN SEATS AND IMMERSE THEM may only be one.
My final point is a confession. I quite like sitting on my bum in the dark with other humans, watching and listening. I can be as bored as the next person by dead, hermetically-sealed lounge-room theatre but I also acknowledge that watching and absorbing is not in fact a 'non-engaged' state. There is a whole lot of stuff going on in that body and mind while we watch. As that Irish Times reviewer notes ‘to sit, watch, engage and reflect is not passive’. As we know from the Popup Globe, (immersive theatre in one way, immersing audiences in an idea of 16th Century London) the spectacle of space is an audience puller, but sometimes when it comes to 'immersion', I wholly empathise with that guy in the Exeunt article when he says, ‘It’s all very clever, and from time to time it might sweep me off my feet, but I think I’d rather just sit and watch, thanks very much, without a silly mask strapped to my bonce’. And mate, that's alright too.
I spoke to Nisha Madhan, Artistic Director of The Town Centre, a month or so back about the theatre she’s making, what interests her, and what she’d encountered being a maker of experimental work or live art in New Zealand.
Nisha spoke to Jo Randerson, Artistic Director of Barbarian Productions, and amongst many other things they discussed some strange responses a recent touring Melbourne performance work had received amongst reviewers, and the growing need for artists to get together to discuss this territory of work themselves.
From these discussions, Nisha, Jo and myself decided to use the time that Nisha and Julia Croft were in Wellington with their two feminist works (TITLED and If There's Not Dancing At The Revolution I'm Not Coming) to collaboratively facilitate a conversation with Wellington theatre makers about new performance work. Nisha’s main intention, instead of getting bogged down in industry or business context, was to lead a forward-looking discussion about intentions, inspirations and challenges in the work.
Language. It struck me on Saturday that theatre makers have a love/hate relationship with the permanence of words. There’s something about theatre’s ephemerality which draws us to this form. Therefore the relative fixity of language always presents an interesting negotiation; one which 20 or so Wellington and Auckland theatre makers had a really rich time wrangling with at BATS on Saturday 16th April.
The following is a fairly rough meandering reflection of the discussion, intended purely as a document for interested parties who weren't able to make it. It's naturally process-focussed and inward facing. I hope it provides some insight into some of the interesting territories covered.
Nisha opened the session by describing her intention to formalise discussions that were already happening with those companies in Wellington that The Town Centre felt a kind of connection to, such as Barbarian and Binge Culture. ‘I sort of feel that the work I’m making, it doesn’t comfortably sit in theatre and it doesn’t sit comfortably in dance. I couldn’t really call it performance art. It’s a little bit towards live art, and I recognise it happening around the country and I think it’s a really good thing, and I’d like us to be able to find some language to be able to talk about it, so that it gets stronger. And that's why I thought a discussion like this could be really helpful’.
Kate and Jo introduced themselves and their intersections of interest with this work (for Jo, the intersection of feminist practice and live art, and for Kate, having been in Melbourne where this work is layered and rich, to activate discussion about it in New Zealand) and together on butchers' paper, everyone wrote down some words that arose for them, which could be returned to, when hearing words such as ‘performance art / live art / feminist dramaturgy / expanded dramaturgy’.
A common word for lots of people was ‘process’ - this kind work being one that is really conscious of process. We started discussing this in relation to Nisha’s work, TITLED. Collaboration is a term all theatre makers use, but how does the shape of collaboration inform this work? Nisha noted ‘I couldn’t really pull apart who came up with what, when. When I say collaboration, I mean collaboration in the way that it's not just individuals doing their job. Each offer impinges on the other persons offer’.
What was the starting point for TITLED?
‘It's the fourth iteration of a question I had around what the contract was between performer and audience and if the contract was changeable, what would it look like. I wanted to deal with the frustrations of bureaucracy and kind of jump into those frustrations and find a perverse pleasure in it, and at the same time completely break it and try and make a contract with the audience that’s more like a 'blood brothers' pact. I wanted to look each audience member in the face and make a pact with them and make that the contract. And I guess that is maybe to do with my search for liveness. I guess I started with a concrete ‘contract’ and then I wanted to find something that was way more fundamental and human than that’.
Poppy Serano, one of Nisha’s collaborators on TITLED, noted that the process of her coming on board with the work was a constant negotiation - there was sometimes frustration in trying to work out the best ways of working and finding ways of starting by not necessarily imposing existing working structures. With aims to work outside a traditional hierarchy of roles, Nisha and Poppy and collaborators are constantly looking for new ways to be able to work with each other.
Jo spoke about words often associated with feminist work. ‘Idiosyncratic’. ‘Eccentric’. Not necessarily ‘unique’ or ‘original’. And often there are terms around the work ‘that can lead to expectations or understandings or diminishings of what the work is’. For example, if companies make work in a community hall or a school room, there can be assumption that aesthetic and professionalism is not a concern of the process, when it very much is. ‘So I really like what you were saying Nisha about wanting to build some terminology or planks so you can feel strong about what that work is, because there's a really determined craft in there…it’s not just random’.
Nisha discussed the fact her work is so reliant on the participation of an audience, therefore often making it hard to rehearse. ‘I want to make something that can’t work without an audience. Like, I don’t know why it's a live performance without audience. I feel like I need you there. I need you to exist’.
Tom Lahood discussed this and ‘the encounter’ being a core purpose of the work:
Tom noted layers of iterations are essential to the work. Setting working questions and in each iteration checking back on these - ‘did that do what I thought it might do or did it do something even more interesting?’ Feedback loops. ‘Its just a testing-based process’.
Nisha noted that this is the experimentation at the heart of the work, and connecting back to assumptions around terms, how often ‘experimental’ can be a dirty word. ‘I really want to claim it back. I don’t set out to make experimental work - I set out to make work and there’s a question that I have. It’s got ‘random’ attached to it, but I’m being really particular about these questions. I think success and failure in association with ‘experimental’ all get a bit stitched up and I don’t know if they’re useful at the moment’. She noted how live performance can and should exist everywhere, not simply in dedicated theatre spaces.
This opened a discussion around success and failure as connected to space. Stephen Bain noted how he thinks about space as a maker:
Kate noted that on the subject of failure there is a real tradition in this work of the poetics of failure and setting up impossibilities, which feels like a strong strain in Julia Croft’s If There’s Not Dancing At The Revolution I’m Not Coming. Julia noted, ‘We really consciously wanted the work to be task-based to get away from this thing that was pretending to be an encounter or pretending to be genuine, or I’m pretending to have emotions in front of you. Actually I’ll rub onions in my eyes and then there’s something real happening in the room’. She noted that the encounter becomes real when ‘I’m really trying and I’m never going to get there’. (A core touchstone also within clown work).
Julia discussed the fact that as a female performer she is really interested in mess; that much of the work she sees in Auckland is really slick, which is something as a maker she’s not interested in. This lead her to talk about ‘unfinishedness’ being a facet of both Nisha and Julia’s work and the links between our desire for completeness and certainty or ‘truth’ and the pull for her as a maker to sit in doubt and the multiplicity of voices, the disagreements and the mess.
Nisha connected this to the idea of resistance which is tied to a feminist politic - a useful part of the work for her. Jo added a layer to what resistance could mean in this instance:
Jo discussed that once again, this was about increasing the terminology and vocabulary that can be utilised. ‘Like task-based - I didn’t actually know that phrase, that’s a cool phrase’. Jo and Kate spoke about discursive words Kate had raised in an initial conversation. These were some umbrella terms from the introduction of New Dramaturgy, a book edited by Bernadette Cochrane and Katalin Trencsényi, which offered some great seeds for thinking when approaching this work.
Those terms are:
From New Dramaturgy eds. Katalin Trencsényi and Bernadette Cochrane, Bloomsbury, 2014:
We understand ‘post-mimetic’ that the work acknowledges and recognises they decline of mimesis as the dominant dramatic model and, by extension, the decline of representational theatre culture. This acknowledgement doesn’t necessarily mean refusal, or the absence of representation, nevertheless, it acknowledges a distancing (sometimes melancholic, sometimes ironic) from the mimetic theatre tradition.
By ‘interculturalism’ we understand that we no longer live in a monolithic culture, but are surrounded by multiple value systems and cultures which are often intertwined, and between which we negotiate; and this is reflected in the processes and the products of theatre-making....We consider interdisciplinarity as being part of interculturalism - it is an exchange between different knowledge systems and the cultures of those self-same knowledge systems.
Finally, by being 'process-conscious’ we understand that when creating a piece of theatre, the way it is made, the process’s ethics, aesthetics, ecology etc., become dramaturgical concerns, as they inform and shape the materiality of the production.
Kate also discussed a common thread in live art being the rejection of virtuosity. This is a touchstone in the work of many companies - Forced Entertainment of course comes to mind, and Ranters Theatre in Melbourne. We’re so trained to applaud the well-done - what is it when we break this? Nisha noted that in a life in which we’re constantly making mistakes, she has a distrust of work that has no space for fuck ups - it’s harder to relate to things that aren’t messy, because humans are messy.
It was noted that literary plays still very much use this as fodder - our errors and disconnects - but interestingly these ideas are packaged in a structured way. Julia noted that in this territory the form is so much part of the story; the form is a lot more fluid and is carrying meaning.
Poppy spoke about the notion of the ‘problem solving economy’ - something she has encountered working with Auckland theatre maker Alice Canton. The tendency that the creator needs to solve the problem so that the audience will have an answer, or that the thing that will be presented will make explicit sense. It provides challenges, especially when approaching resolutions or endings.
Adding to this, Stephen spoke about working with a dancer and our unconscious structural modes that certain theatre traditions leave traces of:
Kate picked up on something Poppy had said about being academic about the work and noted how there are interesting waves of knowledge and practice in this work in NZ. This work is not new - companies like the aforementioned Forced Entertainment began in the early 80s and were feeding off performance art that was happening in the 70s. In New Zealand we have people aware of this work on an international scale but in our own country it has always remained very much on the fringes or underground.
Tom also raised that this connects to a lack of understanding about the whakapapa of this work in New Zealand and often assumptions that work is harking back to old forms when in fact it could be drawing on these forms as an ongoing journey.
Jo referred to Kate’s blog piece about criticism in NZ and discussed why it’s important for artists themselves to support the work as makers who are steeped in its particular dramaturgical concerns; an invitation for artists to step forward really positively into that realm.
It was discussed that if critic and practitioner are two sides of the triangle then the audience is of course the third, and that all this language is important for us, but it still needs to live onstage. Someone else noted that ‘not everyone has to like it’. Yet that it helps if artist and audience have a few similar frames of reference.
The idea of reception was extended by Stephen, ’You have to remember that… if you came up to me and you gave me a free ticket to a Warriors game, I still won’t go. I still won’t go because I just don’t want to do it right? And in the same sense I think we tend to feel a little bit like because we’re all doing theatre, we want everyone to like all the theatre. But nah. I don’t want the same audience as other people and for everyone to like all the same things. It’s quite good to do things that people just don’t like or has a completely different audience - there’s strength in that’.
Julia noted that in her experience often the more responsive audience members will be those not from a theatre background. ’Often I make assumptions about what ‘the public’ as a mass will like or won’t get and I’m often really wrong’.
Jo discussed that acknowledgement of multiplicity is a feminist strategy. ‘Like multiple voices, multiple audiences, theres no ‘one’, theres no ‘us’ and ‘other’. It’s multiple, its diverse. And it’s what Jean Betts always says - the important thing is to just make sure that the audience who want to see your work, know about your work and can access your work, financially, or where you place it in the city’.
Nisha wrapped up the session and further discussion extended afterwards. The act of coming together and discussing these connections as groups of makers with similar preoccupations is really important. Here’s to much more.
Last year I gathered this data and made a kind of terrible infographic which a few people shared and The Pantograph Punch asked to publish. I said 'yes but can I write some context with it'. They said 'yes'. So I wrote, and I wrote far too much and got so tied up in everything I wanted to say, that I didn't finish it. So in the interests of completing things I begin, I'm publishing the basics here.
I've been in Melbourne completing a Masters in Word That Means Everything and Nothing* at the Victorian College of the Arts. Melbourne is a Theatre Machine. I’ve been hugely inspired by the breadth of work I’ve seen, the rigour and the risk, and excited by the public and private conversations regarding The State of Australian Theatre. Of course this has made me realise how strongly I care about our own.
I’ve been thinking for a while about some really big obvious things in the New Zealand theatre sector, like how little we publicly monitor our work, and secondly, how little we publicly discuss it. We hold dynamic and important conversations in various streams across the country (Wellington’s Big Live Art Group and the recent Māori Theatre Hui are some examples) but a national conversation, the wide river underneath all this, seems to be lacking somewhat. I’m loathe to say it, but with a pretty robust critical debate which includes practitioners, theatres, academics, critics and cultural commentators, those bolshy Aussies are doing ‘national conversation’ much better than us. So where do you start?
There is this great quote by this Australian writer and director Jim Sharman that I came across last year. He is discussing theatre criticism specifically but it can be applied here. Sharman says, ’Theatre practitioners are like a lost tribe with only an oral tradition handed down erratically from person to person, usually as gossip. Without access to history, the growth of our theatre is inhibited. For while an absence of tradition can be liberating, it can also be wasteful as each new generation earnestly sets about re-inventing the wheel’.
When I read that and thought about all the information I have gleaned about our theatre over the years, the stories and anecdotes from contemporaries and mentors (read: the older actors you get to be in a cast with when you're a baby just out of drama school and from whom you learn more than any formal training), I thought how true Sharman’s notion is. So, when I ask myself ‘where do you start?’ I am aware that generations have started before us - trying to grasp and communicate what is happening within the sector is nothing new. But if we don’t capture information now in the public (and not only academic) sphere and start talking about it together, not only at drunken opening night tables, not only in hushed dressing rooms, and not only in our Whatsapp groups (oh how those virtual knitting circles abound), generations following will continue to ‘start’.
When I was writing some notes for the Creative New Zealand review of theatre which occurred last year (the results of which you can read here), I was particularly curious about how much new NZ work was being produced on the nation’s mainstages now. It was kind of irrelevant information in regards to what CNZ were actually asking for, but I wanted to get my head around it. Statistics are dry and so often tell us what we already suspect (or do they?) but they are essential in providing a spring board for conversation which is centred around what is actually going on. I’m interested in what is actually going on, because in an ideal world it means that all those participants in the theatre ecology named above have a touchstone for debate. In that vein, I’m not interested in statistics becoming the catalyst for useless pile-ons and slinging matches but as a platform; a starting place.
So I gathered all of the 2015 programming data from our metropolitan mainstage theatres and put them into an infographic here. However with a deadline for review submissions looming I decided to limit my scope and only focus on only those funded through CNZ’s Toi Totara Haemata (Leadership) scheme, and only one per city. Unfortunately in the larger centres that rules out several other major Totara-funded organisations, for example Taki Rua in Wellington (where I’ve included Circa as the main stage), and Massive Company in Auckland, and other obvious mainstage theatres, such as Silo Theatre in Auckland (a Toi Uru Kahikatea funding programme recipient). A comprehensive study would also include all theatre organisations funded under the Toi Uru Kahikatea scheme. (It would more likely be a picture of greater diversity and contemporeneity, which then throws into relief where that is being captured and brought through by our leadership organisations).
Therefore this is by no means a picture of a whole ecology but a glimpse of one year in the life of our mainstage theatre organisations. And while it may not encompass the whole picture, by focussing on Totara-funded organisations, it is a picture of what leadership means in the sector in 2015 and a picture of what is valued at flagship organisation level.
(Also to note - this information is captured with the awareness of annual programming ebbs and flows. For example 2015 was a particularly bad year for NZ work at Auckland Theatre Company but their 2016 programming boasts a 50/50 split.)
- The level of overall NZ work constituting 40% of total programming is not a completely dire figure.
- Yet at a quarter of that smaller proportion of NZ work, new NZ work constitutes a very small amount of the mainstage programming.
- It is no surprise then, that the majority of mainstage NZ programming is from majority Pakeha, male voices. If we dig into our theatrical past, that shall be the topsoil.
- That does not reflect the NZ of the present or the future. (As Toby Morris communicates beautifully here)
*Dramaturgy. A Master of Dramaturgy.
Art and the equipment to grasp it are made in the same shop. Clifford Geertz
Several weeks ago a New Zealand theatre maker offered up a question on Facebook regarding qualities of our theatre criticism. The post touched on a whole lot of interesting issues; the role of the reviewer to utilise various critical frameworks through which to read work, the danger of the critic imposing arbitrary or defunct criteria, and the frustration of artists making work and it not being met by empathetic minds ready to wrestle with what the work is and what it is aiming for. The post wasn't a sullen attack following an unfavourable review, rather an objective question regarding how happy we as artists are with our theatre criticism in New Zealand and what pathways need to be created to improve it. These questions are nothing new, but the very fact that Facebook often appears the only forum is indication enough of the current health of our critical commentary.
Let me first make the distinction everyone makes when writing a piece on criticism: 'reviewer' and 'critic' are two separate entities. This distinction is important here because if you're going to read me advocating for the artist as critic it pays if we're both on the same page about what I mean when I talk about criticism. I don't simply mean writing reviews. While the reviewer does just that, the critic's remit is much broader, including commentary, advocacy, and among other things an awareness of New Zealand and international theatre contexts. The terms 'reviewer' and 'critic' are unconsciously used in equal measure in New Zealand, yet true criticism is sparse.
I've spent the past year based in Melbourne. While surrounded by Australian theatre criticism I have had lots of thoughts about our own. Comparing aspects of the two different theatre landscapes has become something of an obsession. Linked by traces of colonialism, parochialism, and a theatre culture as peripheral to mainstream (read: sports) culture as you could get, New Zealand and Australia have much in common. However despite a tendency among Australians to strangely regard these islands as just another large off-shore state (surprisingly a recent Arts Hub article was titled Could New Zealand be the new cultural capital?) there are marked contrasts in the two cultural landscapes. Especially when focussing on our national critical conversations.
I'm not launching a comparative analysis here, but it is certain that these differences have offered a springboard for my thinking; sweet and easy cultural perspective for the price of a flight to Melbourne. Why does any of it matter? Because good criticism opens a dialogue; elevating and wrestling with a work of art for the benefit of a more informed and engaged public. Repeatedly bad or lazy criticism can do real, perceptible damage to an arts ecology by shutting that dialogue down. As seasoned Australian theatre critic Alison Croggon tweets, 'criticism draws connections, illuminates contexts, advocates for the new, remembers the past. It's the ongoing argument of culture'. Good criticism goes beyond liking or not liking to consider, as cultural commentator Tom Vanderbilt notes, ‘what the work said, what the work did, and what [the critic] brought to it’. It's a deceptively simple statement that one. Adhering to it demands a kind of nakedness: deep empathy and acknowledgement of one's own subjectivity.
In New Zealand, many artists have opted out of the conversation. Not only that, but I've recently been reminded that something else occurs: the subject simply becomes a joke. Humour is armoury and conversations about criticism in NZ swiftly become threaded with tried-and-tested cynical humour, the common salve for embarrassment. So wary of the debilitating cringe of a review that is not as serious about the task of reviewing as they are about the task of making, or their critical input perhaps being misconstrued as sullenness, artists are stepping away from public discussion.
This is a shame. Not only because culture is dialogue, but because artists are some of the most well-equipped for the task. For a long while I've felt uneasy about the artist splitting their focus as a critic - an ethical minefield! A fast way to Nigel No-Collaborators! Similarly to critic and editor Rosabel Tan, I've often recognised that the proximity of practice and criticism carries with it the danger of amassing inconsequential love-ins which only add to 'our own cultural fatberg'. Yet over the past year I've changed my mind. I now reckon that in our small country the critical advocacy of the artist is one of our best bets. We must experiment further with the nature of digital criticism and the activation of the artist as critic, not only as an arbitrary symptom of her environment, but to be taken seriously as one of the best possible translators of art to its public. I'll attend to your reservations soon. But first, let's look at the current state of things.
As we all know, print is in its final death throes. The global changes to the media landscape have severely affected print criticism. The endangered newspaper critic in New Zealand suffers the same word-limit pressures as her Australian counterparts, yet is even closer to outright extinction; print reviews of theatre in the three main metropolitan newspapers are few and far between; whole arts sections of metropolitan papers have been removed in the last five to ten years and reviewers/editors are increasingly selective of which shows receive a review. The occasional preview or artist profile piece remains, usually focussing on a main stage production. Newspaper print reviews ordinarily don’t extend beyond show description and credits with a sentence or two of opinion. (Sometimes, just for fun, a clickbait columnist is sent along to review a show just to make some useless statements and tell us how awesome it was when he saw Laurence Olivier that one time). That said, two periodicals - the Listener and Metro print slightly longer (up to 700 word) reviews in their online editions. Metro magazine has provided some of the most considered, illuminating theatre reviews in recent years.
It is important to outline the above if only to make clear how this stunted print landscape obviates the presence of an online space for considered, in-depth criticism (not simply consumer-focussed reviews). Exempt from the commercial imperatives of print media and maybe more importantly, the deathly rush to the deadline, the beginnings of change in our critical culture and dialogue will only begin online. That is the territory I shall be focussing on here.
The constellation of blogs aside, there are four main online reviewing sites in New Zealand: Theatreview, The Lumière Reader, Theatre Scenes and The Pantograph Punch. (There are no sites akin to Alison Croggon’s once-vital Theatre Notes, in which a reputed independent critic solely engages in serious theatre criticism and commentary and some pretty robust debate). As can be deduced from their titles, Theatreview and Theatre Scenes are focussed solely on theatre, while The Lumière Reader and The Pantograph Punch are wider arts and culture magazine-style sites.
Having been in existence the longest of the four, Theatreview, created and edited by a former print critic, holds an important archival function within the critical landscape. It is the only place one can search for historical reviews of productions, and no other site provides such a hub for theatre news, discussion and reviews with a national focus. Yet the site does not pay its writers; it is contributed to by an innumerable range of reviewers - from enthusiasts to academics - in addition to the editor, therefore if one is to assess the quality - it's a wonky donky wild west out there.
This brings me to my first observation peculiar to New Zealand online theatre criticism: due to our small population size and extremely limited resources, there are several parts of the sector ecology which must serve several functions. Their processes and output may be of variable quality, yet due to their dual or triple functions they endure. Longevity begets longevity. The advantage of a small population means anything is possible. It also means that some facets of the culture hold more weight than they possibly would in a wider pool. Essentially Theatreview is a review site and directory fuelled by the considerations of one editor (with an overt bias towards traditional text-based theatre) and many unpaid enthusiasts who are not always equipped to provide considered and contextualised analysis; the skill of making the ‘work of art live for the spectator’. Yet due to Theatreview’s national reach and archival role, it endures.
Secondly, despite the online environment providing an opportunity for editors to approach forms of criticism afresh, the majority of NZ online reviewing sites follow a print style with all the traditional structuring and tonal qualities that entails. Experimentation with form or tone is not a priority. It’s confounding, considering the fact that our tired and somewhat compromised newspaper reviews are possibly not the best place to look to for templates.
Thirdly, to briefly touch on the convergence of academia and criticism - within the performing arts in New Zealand, scholarship and criticism (and indeed practice) cross paths less frequently than in Australia. There are several reasons for this, one of which being that our major drama schools (developing practitioners who feed the theatre sector in general) have historically been practical conservatoriums which are not linked as strongly to academia. Australian figures such as Julian Meyrick or Peter Eckersall, traversing literary management, dramaturgy and academic roles are very rare in New Zealand. And even rarer for the offerings of the great theatre academics we do have to extend beyond the boundaries of scholarship and into public critical conversations.
Tom Vanderbilt writes ‘the Internet was supposed to wrest criticism from the elites’. This is an interesting notion to consider from a New Zealand cultural perspective. Within the cobweb-thin ecology of New Zealand theatre criticism where the full-time paid critic does not (cannot?) exist, there are no elites, just newspaper journalists-cum-reviewers offered no space for in-depth commentary, various online reviewers and enthusiasts, and somewhat disconnected academics. It’s a flat heirarchy. At it’s worst, theatre reviewing in New Zealand is ahistoric, grasps at generic systems of judgement (highlighting one system of measurement for all), offers a general wash, blindly miscontrues and passively decontextualises. Thoughtless, go-to, pat phrases are consistently used so as to empty them of any meaning, and confusing frameworks are imposed, not to illuminate the work but to serve the ego of the reviewer.
The situation is not without hope. Two promising online homes of more considered theatre criticism (including interviews with practitioners alongside reviews) - The Pantograph Punch and The Lumière Reader - are sites which are not dedicated purely to theatre criticism. Both umbrella various art forms (The Pantograph Punch with a more literary bent, The Lumière Reader with a focus on film) and this most certainly impacts upon their approach to theatre. The quality of one conversation can only lift the quality of another.
In her essay The Critic in New Zealand, Rosabel Tan notes, ‘While critics shouldn’t tell us how to think, they should illuminate new ways of seeing. We want them to be invisible but we’re making them ineffectual…Critics are gut flora. We can survive without them but it will only make us weaker’. So what can we do about our debilitated discourse? How do we stop artists opting out of the critical conversation and create an invigorated, relevant exchange between artist, critic and public?
As noted, one of the issues Tan discusses is the ‘blurry occupational distance’ in such a tiny industry in which critics are also working as artists, creating a vacuum for any real objectivity. I too was once sceptical of this awkwardly close relationship, especially due to my own ethical aversions. Yet if we are to search for ways forward for the critical conversation in a country in which the entire population numbers near that of Sydney, awkward closeness is never going to be something we can avoid. So I propose as part of our critical reinvigoration we wholeheartedly embrace the notion of the artist as critic.
The duality is not at all new - there are numerous instances in NZ of artists working as reviewers, however by consciously choosing this as one solution among many - by recognising a paradigm already present but like most aspects of the critical culture, taken for granted (or worse - regarded with scepticism), we allow ourselves to explore all the imaginative possibilities of a criticism driven by the artist. It means actually drawing on the artist/critic's skills in empathetic creative analysis in encountering another's work. It means taking all the energy in our private critical discussions and transforming that for considered public discourse.
It also means that rather than lamenting the ubiquitous 'portfolio career', within our critical culture we use our necessary nimbleness to our advantage. Yet instead of spreading ourselves thinly over a various collection of roles, those who balance a strong artistic and critical capacity hone this particular duality; utilise the rub between the two supposed polarities to approach new work with a critical empathy, an awareness of process and hopefully an understanding of the theatre maker’s associative world, which as critic Mark Fisher notes in How To Write About Theatre, is a central part of the job.
The latter consideration may be one of the most important. Theatres and independent artists pour much of their energy into marketing, yet all the audience segmentation in the world can’t help the fact that we need better cultural translators. A critic’s cultural awareness, as Mark Fisher notes, must be broader than average. A good critic must have a strong grasp of the inspirations and associations of the artist; wherever the artist decides to travel with form, subject or theme, the critic must follow. Too often in New Zealand work is measured against arbitrary and unexplained yardsticks. Who better then than the engaged artist to draw upon her own awareness to explicate, dissect and expand the work? To return to Clifford Geertz, who describes all of this in one beautiful line: ‘art and the equipment to grasp it are made in the same shop’.
The artist as a figure of action is of potential benefit to a reflective, critical conversation. There is work being created in Aotearoa that isn’t happening anywhere else in the world. While the singular critic can trace international influence, the artist is often at the vanguard of a national conversation. The artist isn’t watching and waiting but doing; not simply collecting derivative cultural trinkets last, but looking at what we’re doing first. Here, the artist/critic is the ideal advocate.
Of course, there are natural pitfalls of such blurred critical and artistic boundaries. While it would be nice to wholeheartedly agree with our mate TS Eliot when he says that for the artist, ‘criticism will be criticism, and not the satisfaction of a suppressed creative wish - which, in most other persons, is apt to interfere fatally’, that is not to say that a Pandora’s Box of other afflictions would not affect the artist/critic to skew their analysis. The potential thud of envy lurks in the bar after every successful show. And perhaps most detrimental to the possibility of an assertive and engaged New Zealand artist/critic is the fear of offence to potential future collaborators. She shall never be immune to these tricky navigations, however, as mentioned at the outset, I'm not advocating narrowly for the artist solely as reviewer. We need to shake the idea that reviews are the only available mode through which to activate public critical thought. We need to imagine more for our theatre criticism.
For one, I'm not sure we always need to climb into the critic's spiky costume in order to apply their authoritative voice. It's simply one voice we've heard repeatedly and one which many reviewers unconsciously hold fast to in order to hand down the requisite critical judgement - but once again, from where did this tone and the standard review structure derive? Print? If so, why are we using it now? If the art is doing what it wants, constantly shifting, embracing cross-modalities, interrogating the role of the audience, and as American director Anne Bogart writes, 'finding resonant shapes for our current ambiguities', how do we reflect that in our responses; find the reflective shapes in the written word? (I recently found Mal Ahern's great piece on 'Naked Criticism' in which she uses the same image to question the need for the critic's cool voice of authority. She makes the point more extensively and gracefully than myself - it's a good read).
When new work emerges in New Zealand, it’s a common occurrence to defensively and swiftly decide whether it’s worthy of praise or not. If not, it’s duly forgotten about. If it is, reviewers will often trip over themselves in a stampede of assent that seems to say ‘Oh thank god, not a dud!’ After a successful show in 2013, one respected reviewer breathlessly dubbed the work ‘our new national flag’. I love outright positive assertions, I mean, why not? Yet in a landscape in which the review is the sole mechanism for public critical reflection - in which in-depth analysis and commentary outside of academia is absent - what happens in the space between quietly forgetting and new national flags?
If the online environment untethers us from the commercial imperatives of print; if there are many engaged and passionate artists in a sector who are not being met on equal terms by reviewers, or whose work is not being interrogated in meaningful critical commentary, then it is up to the artists as critics to sit at their laptops, forget about ‘reviews’ modelled on defunct print media forms, and create online homes for in-depth analysis, for advocacy and for taking other artists work as seriously as they take their own. Perhaps then we can begin to traverse that space between the ‘great’ and the ‘terrible’ and add to a wider, more engaged and - most importantly - more useful critical conversation.