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.