Why it’s time for a New Zealand national theater


Whether you think of it as a new front in the culture wars or just a storm in a teacup, the recent controversy plus a change in funding for the Shakespeare Globe Center New Zealand was further evidence that the country’s national culture was undergoing some sort of identity crisis.

Behind the row is an unanswered question: how does a post-colonial, multicultural society create a national identity? This latest case has shed light on the performing arts in this evolving cultural debate. This raises its own question: what can theater contribute to nurturing our national identity?

Live theater is important in recalibrating the nation’s image because of its direct connection to local audiences. Film and television, as a whole, are committed to exploring themes and formats that target global audiences.

On the other hand, the theater is responsible for delivering original indigenous works; or at least, a distinctive local approach to plays and performances. It is perhaps time, then, to revisit the concept of creating a national theater in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Ghosts from the theaters of the past

In the current debate over Creative New Zealand (CNZ) funding policies, it has been suggested that the ‘ecology’ of theater is in crisis. Important aspects of the crisis are economic: the impact of the pandemic on employment in the performance sector and the impact of inflation on CNZ’s fixed investment budget.

But part of the crisis can be read as structural, evoking past efforts to create a national professional theater – evidenced by the efforts of Richard Campion and the New Zealand players (1952-1960) and Wellington basement theater (1973-2013). Bruce Masonin particular, strove to produce a distinctively postcolonial Polynesian theater.

The ghosts of such efforts are not well served by current funding policy. Following his 2015 theater reviewCNZ adopted a funding model that consolidated the division between different forms of theatre.

On the one hand, stationary theaters operating in metropolitan centres, with special provisions for Maori theater and for young people. On the other side, there are community theater companies or solo artists, who perform in local theaters and non-theatrical venues such as municipal buildings, schools, arts centers and community halls.

Unlike the larger central theatres, CNZ sees community companies as a source of experimental work outside of mainstream repertoire. The support received by these companies varies according to an annual competition. Without necessarily being unfair, this structure enshrines the notion of separatism rather than cross-fertilization.

Separate steps

Unsurprisingly, reactions to recent funding decisions have raised questions about how different performing arts are valued. Like a criticism of the current system askedwhy does ballet, an “elite” art form with a relatively small audience, receive more funding than kapa hawhata popular art form with a wider audience?

A similar question was implied in the claim by a CNZ reviewer that Shakespeare is “locked in a canon of imperialism”, with no apparent consideration of how the plays might be performed.

Among the many questions concerning these decisions, two are fundamental. First, how should the different performing arts be valued – for their performance in the marketplace or for their contribution to a national performing culture? Second, what form of theater could most effectively express a national culture distinct from British or European colonial heritage?

A key flaw in current funding policy is that it perpetuates divisions between different communities of drama practice, whereas a progressive policy would promote cross-fertilization between different forms of theatre.

The increasingly multicultural composition of New Zealand’s population suggests that the official policy of biculturalism needs to be reconsidered.

Even a cursory glance at contemporary New Zealand theater reveals a wide range of practices, from ‘well done’ plays in the Western tradition to plays that draw on indigenous traditions and performance styles of various ethnic groups. . How might theater funding policy be realigned with the contemporary abundance of multicultural performing arts traditions?

Towards a Polynesian theater

Rather than separating regional and local theatre, with their different approaches to performance, funding policy could be oriented towards the creation of a national theater with an umbrella approach that fosters interaction between different theatrical traditions and encourages the emergence of hybrid theatrical forms.

Such a national theater could be structured as a permanent traveling company or a virtual academy. It could be based on a consortium of existing theater educators, or an integrated consortium of mainstream and community theatres. It could be developed as a collaborative playwright theater based on the current Playmarket model.

Given the rise of “accessory” casting (considering all artists, regardless of gender, ethnic origin, disability, sexual orientation or socio-economic origin for all roles), the real meaning of A play depends as much, if not more, on the way it is cast and staged as on its content.

Theater is a space in which plays perceived as “reactionary” or linked to a past can be revitalized and reconfigured. A well thought-out national theater could be the crucible in which Bruce Mason’s dream of a truly Polynesian theater would be forged.

Barry Kingcommunication teacher, Auckland University of Technology

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.


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