Rebellious Mirrors: Community-based Theatre in Aotearoa/New Zealand, by Paul Maunder (Canterbury University Press, 2013), 272 pp, $45.
Since the 1970s, community-based theatre has been an international phenomenon, the subject of many books, academic studies and arts policy documents. From Ann Jellicoe’s epic-historical community plays in Britain to Brazilian Augusto Boal’s liberatory Theatre of the Oppressed, community-based theatre has expanded the possibilities for theatre to find new relevance and fresh audiences in the digital era. The community theatre movement in Australia really gathered steam in the 1990s, and more than 20 years have elapsed since the publication of Richard Fotheringham’s excellent book Community Theatre in Australia. New Zealand did not have such an organised movement as Australia, and until now, there has been no New Zealand equivalent of Fotheringham’s study. Paul Maunder’s Rebellious Mirrors: Community-based Theatre in Aotearoa/New Zealand finally fills that gap in the story of New Zealand theatre. The book is an adaptation of Maunder’s PhD thesis, completed in 2011 at the University of Canterbury. Rebellious Mirrors not only provides a welcome addition to the small shelf of books on New Zealand theatre history, it also makes a provocative philosophical enquiry into the function and purpose of the arts in society.
In Rebellious Mirrors, Maunder delivers an alternative history of New Zealand theatre by celebrating the work of artists and companies working in the community-based theatre sector since the 1970s. Community-based theatre is live performance work created by and about specific community groups, under the leadership and guidance of professional artists. Maunder uses the term ‘community-based’ to distinguish professionally-led practice from amateur theatre, which is also often called ‘community theatre’. Community-based theatre allows significant participation from non-professionals in creating original narratives and performances that are directly relevant to them, entertaining and accessible, often highly political. Despite the proven social benefits of community-based theatre, it is not market-driven, and therefore it can be a struggle to obtain sponsorship and funding.
Maunder covers some of the same material as Murray Edmond’s invaluable and oft-quoted PhD thesis (1996) on experimental theatre in New Zealand from 1962–82. Maunder summarises Edmond’s argument that a flourishing avant-garde practice, which challenged the establishment theatre in the 1970s, was eventually defeated by funding policies favouring the literary-based regional theatres. Maunder updates and develops Edmond’s work by contending that the 1970s theatrical avant-garde transformed into the ‘fully-fledged community-based practices of the 1990s and thereafter’.
Like Edmond, Maunder was and is a leading player in the very theatre movements he writes about. Rebellious Mirrors is a passionate, personal account with Maunder’s own shift from experimental director to community-based theatre-maker as a central trajectory. As a political activist as well as theatre practitioner, Maunder begins his book with a quote from the leader of Mexico’s Zapista Army of National Liberation and ends with a piece by the Marxist philosopher Fredric Jameson.
Maunder’s long career includes directing for theatre, film and television, playwriting, teaching, criticism, acting, and the mentoring of countless professional and community artists. He founded one of the most important 1970s experimental companies, Amamus Theatre, which performed in Poland at the invitation of the famous director Jerzy Grotowski. He directed the ground-breaking TV drama Gone Up North for a While (1972) dealing with the difficult topic of unwanted pregnancy with a Ken Loach-style realism. His adaptation of Albert Wendt’s novel Sons for the Return Home (1979) was the first feature film to foreground the Samoan immigrant experience, and also one of the first New Zealand features to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival.
In the 1990s his new company Theatre of the Eighth Day pioneered possibilities for bicultural theatre practice, helping to lay the foundations for the expansion of Māori theatre that followed. In recent years he has built up a substantial body of community-based theatre work in towns like Blackball and Milton, not normally associated with cutting-edge theatre. Maunder’s creative journey becomes a touchstone for the development of community-based theatre in New Zealand, and his discovery of Augusto Boal’s radical performance practices such as Forum Theatre becomes a key turning point in his artistic practice. He acknowledges the ‘tightrope’ he walks between personal memoir and theoretical argument. This tightrope is negotiated skilfully, underpinned by a deep political and philosophical investigation of questions into the purpose and benefits of theatre.
Maunder argues that there has been a very significant tradition of community-based theatre in Aotearoa/New Zealand, yet this work has often been silenced, underfunded and not given the respect and attention it deserves. He acknowledges the link between 1970s physically-based companies inspired by Jacques Le Coq and first experiments in community-based theatre such as Edmond’s Town and Country Players. Extracts from the author’s interviews with artists throughout the country add colour and detail to the narrative. The book puts the spotlight on a wide range of community-based companies including Talking House, founded by Simon O’Connor in Dunedin; Massive Theatre in Auckland, led by Sam Scott; the work of Tony McCaffrey and Elizabeth O’Connor with people with disabilities in Christchurch; and Auckland City Council’s ‘Our Street’ project directed by Justine Simei-Barton. The work of these inspiring companies and artistic leaders has not been documented before, and therefore Rebellious Mirrors is an invaluable resource for future students and scholars in New Zealand theatre studies.
The book makes an original contribution to the writing of Māori theatre history by exploring the links between tikanga Māori and community-based theatre practice, highlighting indigenous practices that are unique to Aotearoa/New Zealand. Maunder highlights the importance of companies like Te Ika a Māui Players, founded by writer Rowley Habib, and actor/director Jim Moriarty’s Te Rakau Hua O Te Wao Tapu. He explores the considerable contribution made by Taki Rua Productions’ te reo Māori marae tours, and how the community-based approach has manifested in main-bill Taki Rua work such as Strange Resting Places (2007).
There are too many artists and companies covered to list here, proving the central point that community-based theatre practice is widespread, often reaching much broader audience demographics than mainstream theatre productions. Given the thorough geographical spread of Maunder’s research and interviews, however, there are a few notable omissions. These include Warwick Broadhead’s spectacular outdoor community plays, the work of Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie in prisons, Jade Eriksen’s productions with migrants and refugees in Wellington, and Angie Farrow’s large-scale community plays in Palmerston North. Despite such oversights, Maunder provides ample evidence to support his argument as to the diversity and value of theatre that acts for positive change in communities.
An excellent, concise summary of political and economic changes in New Zealand in the 1980s demonstrates how these have created difficulties for the sustainability of community-based theatre, with neo-liberalist ideology favouring commercially driven and ‘high art’ artistic ventures, undervaluing community and socially aware arts practices. A chapter on arts funding demonstrates that a new emphasis on ‘creative industries’ (the economic benefits of the arts) has been antithetical to the principles of community-based theatre and damaging to funding structures. The comparison of arts funding statistics between 1993 and 2006 provides strong evidence that in recent years the community sector has lost out to the mainstream.
The book’s origins in a PhD thesis are reflected in a solid theoretical framing, balancing the author’s personal passion with carefully chosen quotes from hard-hitting theorists including Raymond Williams, Theodor Adorno, Jean Baudrillard and Alain Badiou. The theory is not heavy-handed, rather it helps to avoid generalisations, making the arguments specific and authoritative, placing them in the context of international debates.
It is a terrible irony that the university department that supervised this invaluable research is now to be disbanded. Canterbury University’s recent decision to close down their Theatre and Film Studies Department in 2016 severs that institution’s long-standing injection of creative and intellectual adrenalin into Christchurch’s performing arts community. Maunder’s PhD supervisors, Peter Falkenberg and Sharon Mazer, must share some of the credit for this book, and its publication by Canterbury University Press is a symbolic testament to all they have achieved over the last few decades.
Rebellious Mirrors makes a convincing argument for the value of community-based theatre, featuring dynamic, original research into numerous companies that deserve more recognition. Colour photos of key productions and a list of community-based companies and plays add to the book’s usefulness. This is also a catalogue and celebration of Paul Maunder’s lifetime service to the arts, and the study gains more richness because he has been a central player in the development of a broader understanding of the value of theatre to society. The role of community-based theatre in the development of a national theatre tradition has been largely invisible, so the publication of this book is to be celebrated – a substantial statement in acknowledging and promoting this work, as well as a challenge to government and funding authorities to take the community-based sector seriously. Every educational institution, community arts organisation and government minister should snap up a copy, and Rebellious Mirrors will be essential reading for the many interested in the rapidly changing landscape of leftist politics, and in New Zealand’s cultural history.
DAVID O’DONNELL is a theatre director and Associate Professor in Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington. David has directed many premieres of New Zealand plays, most recently Te Karakia by Albert Belz, Heat by Lynda Chanwai-Earle and West End Girls by Ken Duncum. He has published widely on New Zealand and Australian theatre, Māori and Pacific performance and community theatre.