Helen Watson White
Playmarket 40: 40 Years of Playwriting in New Zealand, edited by Laurie Atkinson with David O’Donnell (Consulting Editor), (Playmarket, 2013), 150 pp., $40; Twenty New Zealand Playwrights, by Michelanne Forster and Vivienne Plumb, (Playmarket, 2013), 256 pp., $40
Theatre is often described as ephemeral. When you strike the set on the last night, it’s gone, and there’s nothing left but the photos. Playmarket declares itself in its logo as a ‘New Zealand Playwrights Agency, Advisor and Bookshop’, but it seems more than that; not so much a parent as a colleague in creativity, a best friend in a busy marketplace, home base and library for a fly-by-night art form.
In 2012 alone, Playmarket collected royalties representing over $5.5 million worth of tickets purchased by people wanting to see New Zealand plays. Over 500 scripts were submitted and more than 400 licences issued; total royalties collected on behalf of writers amounted to almost $800,000.
The backbone of Laurie Atkinson’s Playmarket 40: 40 Years of Playwriting in New Zealand is a timeline detailing, alongside milestones in the life of the agency, important events on the national theatre scene and beyond, with quotations from Playmarket publications that characterise the times.
Between the decades of facts-and-features, the story is fleshed out with essays by different hands (not always dealing with the times with which they are juxtaposed, but that’s a minor matter), providing a wide coverage of viewpoints on forty years of indigenous theatre. Although there is some honest criticism in the analysis of those four decades of experience, what is charted here is without doubt an onward-and-upward trend.
If you want to put chronology and criticism aside, you can bathe in the warm waters of a 16-page glossy insert displaying – mostly in full colour, and in no particular order – 53 photos of New Zealand productions by Playmarket client writers: a stunning celebration of achievement, not just by the writers, but by all concerned.
For, of all the codes in the world of art practice, theatre is most obviously a team sport. As Murray Lynch, Playmarket’s current director, puts it in his preface, forty years’ development of this organisation means, primarily, building relationships: ‘Playmarket’s life involves multiple partners and we have been loyal to them all. Playwrights, producers and funders have been loyal in return.’ In the light of this sort of talk, it’s upsetting to read later of the restructuring of 2012, and the loss to the Wellington office of three permanent staff whose commitment is described as ‘untiring’.
Although Playmarket can’t quite be called a corporation, it has to exist in the economy we have, which operates in exactly the way it does in Roger Hall’s Market Forces, the organisation pursuing dollars (of course – this time for playwrights), but in the process putting workers’ lives on the (bottom) line. Now if we only had the level of government support for the arts they have in Australia …
Given the changing conditions in the market for the printed word, it is astonishing to me that Playmarket has done so well at publishing plays. Since 1980, I counted in the book’s appendices, 63 plays have been released either singly or in volumes of two or more. The New Zealand Play Series is supported by ‘a range of funders’, says Playmarket co-founder Nonnita Rees, and produced by a special partnership with the Whitireia New Zealand publishing course. An online play bookshop was launched in 2007, with over a thousand titles listed for sale.
Marketing is, however, only an adjunct to the main mission of Playmarket, which has always been (in the title of Nonnita Rees’s essay) ‘Getting New Zealand writing into theatres’. Rees tells how Robert Lord, having had a play of his selected for reading at one of the first Australian National Playwrights’ Conferences, returned from Canberra excited by the process and ‘determined’ to get the same thing going at home.
Playmarket, born in 1973, developed four limbs, the first being a script advisory service answering the need for new plays to be written and new writers to be ‘found and encouraged’. The second was an agency whose aim was to ‘screen much of the writing for theatre’ so that promising material could be sent to appropriate theatres. After contracts were drawn up, and rates set for amateur and professional performance, royalties were collected and passed on to authors.
Commissioning reviews of plays, once performed, was a natural extension to Playmarket’s interest in the quality as well as the quantity of new work. Act magazine, originally a Downstage publication with some 20 playscripts incorporated in its pages, was taken over by Playmarket, valued as ‘the only continuing record of theatre in the country’. Act: Theatre in New Zealand then ran successfully from 1976 to 1986 – a very eventful ten years in terms of locally-written plays and New Zealand theatre generally.
Playmarket’s fourth area of interest was script development: the organising of funded workshops which brought authors and theatres together, paying professional actors, directors and dramaturges to work on new scripts. Short, local workshops having proven their worth, Playmarket expanded the concept in 1980. Greg McGee, whose Foreskin’s Lament was the standout success of the first New Zealand Playwrights Workshop, and who was an observer at the second, remarked on ‘the intensity of the thing, the energy’. Mervyn Thompson had said of the inaugural workshop: ‘The sense of comradeship has been overwhelming, and suddenly it seems that one can feel oneself to be part of a tradition – our tradition.’
The sense of the variety of life in Aotearoa being represented at last onstage – as it had been much earlier in fiction and poetry – is clear in all the subsequent essays: Alister McDonald on Roger Hall’s middle-class reflections; John Huria and Hone Kouka on Maori theatre and Mark Amery on ‘Pakeha and Palangi’; Laurie Atkinson on the growth of ‘national theatre self-confidence’; David O’Donnell on writing from Pacific cultures; Renee Liang on Asian theatre; and Kate Morris on writing for children.
The same diversity of experience and opinion is evident in the interview-based Twenty New Zealand Playwrights, by Michelanne Forster and Vivienne Plumb, who – significantly – are both ‘working playwrights’ themselves. Twenty practising theatre-writers ‘considered groundbreaking in some way’ represent a much larger, diverse group of individuals succeeding in the industry.
Forster in her preface writes that the ‘priority was to include those who had, over decades, achieved a status of national or international prominence’. Literary awards and numbers of productions provided some measure of this; relevance to secondary and tertiary drama students was also considered.
It must have been difficult to select the twenty subjects for interview and three ‘notable’ writers – Dean Parker, Jean Betts and Albert Belz – were not included. Nevertheless, the list is impressive. In the order in which they appear, the playwrights are Jacob Rajan, Justin Lewis, Hone Kouka, Fiona Samuel, Dave Armstrong, Roger Hall, Briar Grace-Smith, Victor Rodger, Greg McGee, Renee, Ken Duncum, Lynda Chanwai-Earle, Gary Henderson, Sarah Delahunty, Stuart Hoar, Lorae Parry, Angie Farrow, Carl Dixon, Toa Fraser and Jo Randerson. In his preface to the book, Murray Edmond imagines constructing another volume like this, and lists another twenty potential names.
The template is a good one: after a list of their plays written, awards won and publications achieved, we are given an edited version of the hour-long interview with each subject, and a two-page sample of their best – often their most characteristic – work.
The aim, says Forster, was to find out how the playwrights go about their craft, ‘how they develop their vision for a play, and what they think about their productions and the critical reaction to their work’.
A good interview depends on good questions, and in this respect both Plumb and Forster reveal their interest, empathy and considerable research in the kinds of things they ask, which are completely different in each case.
I found this substantial volume an absorbing and deeply enjoyable read, revealing as it does – in some depth, and at some length – what inspires our writers to work in a medium something akin to a roller-coaster ride.
HELEN WATSON WHITE is a writer and reviewer who has been a theatre critic in Wellington and Dunedin since 1974.