Free Theatre ensemble member Marian McCurdy has just released a new book. Congratulations to Marian - a huge achievement - very exciting! Dude.
Titled Acting and its Refusal in Theatre and Film: the Devil Makes Believe, it has been published by Intellect and is distributed by University of Chicago Press.
Based on her PhD thesis, the book presents an analysis of a number of Free Theatre productions (Including Faust Chroma and Distraction Camp) and films such Lust, Caution directed by Ang Lee and Lars von Trier’s The Idiots.
We're planning a special official launch for Dr McCurdy's book in The Gym, possibly in conjunction with a special presentation of papers that are being developed towards a new book on Free Theatre by ensemble members. We'll keep you informed with dates and details.
It shows a very original way of looking at examples of the antitheatrical prejudice as practised by creative artists in various contexts. The study is enhanced by the author’s direct experience of such projects as participant.
Recently, a supporter of the company asked why we don't publish more... perhaps we should. But there are already things out there, including: Moving Targets: Political theatre in a post-political age by Ryan Reynolds, and Emma Johnston's Healing Maori Through Song and Dance?: Three case studies of recent New Zealand music theatre. Also there are a number of writings (book chapters, journal articles and so on) in our writings thingee.
Free Theatre Flashbacks... in the build up to the première of Shirley Horrocks' film on the company...
As announced yesterday, award-winning filmmaker Shirley Horrocks has just completed a documentary on Free Theatre. Huge congratulations to Shirley for being selected to première the film at the 2017 New Zealand International Film Festival in August (dates, times and venues to be announced soon). Shirley has had more films selected for the NZIFF than any other New Zealand filmmaker, which is an extraordinary achievement. We're honoured that she decided seven years ago that Free Theatre was a worthy subject and inspired by her dedication to seeing the film get made as part of her ongoing mission to shed light on artists and work that she believes should be better known. New Zealand is notorious for neglecting its social history, often failing to realise art's relevance to our contemporary lives. This makes champions like Shirley all the more valuable.
Often the people I've made documentaries about are out there, but perhaps they're not widely known. I wanted to get them more widely known because I think they really should be.
Shirley's company, Point of View Productions, has established a Facebook page for the film here. We thought it might also be good, in the build up to the première of the film, to share some items from our extensive archives that Shirley has been researching for the film. The Free Theatre archiving project began in 2010 with a small grant from Creative Communities and it continues today with only a fraction available on our website. The archiving project reveals the extraordinary depth, nuance and richness of Free Theatre's output, and of Peter Falkenberg's contribution to contemporary theatre in New Zealand over many years through the work he has created and the artists he has inspired. It shows the extraordinary talent, commitment and intelligence of the many artists that have contributed to the company over nearly four decades. The archives also raise a recurring question.
This latest documentary by Shirley Horrocks is the inside story of one of New Zealand's most colourful and controversial theatre companies – a hidden treasure, which has been presenting one extraordinary production after another for 37 years. The creative individuals who make up the Free Theatre group in Christchurch have their own vision of how to enlarge the boundaries of live performance, making rich use of all the arts. The group has survived censure, court cases, money problems, and earthquakes wrecking their venues. Award-winning director Shirley Horrocks has specialised in profiling creative people who deserve to be better-known, and Free Theatre is one of her most dramatic discoveries.
Given the company's remarkable longevity and consistent output of ground-breaking work over so many years, why has Free Theatre always struggled with visibility? As noted as elsewhere by our Chief Archivist, perhaps there are embedded cultural reasons for this and, paradoxically, perhaps it speaks to the company's success in remaining politically relevant that it is treated wearily in a politically conservative society. It seems of value to keep questioning this as we consider the necessary changes in the role and function of art in making engaged and engaging contemporary cities. Alongside's the company's ongoing work, perhaps documents such as Shirley's, and books like that written by Dr Marian McCurdy (more on this soon) will continue to promote the value of contemporary theatres like Free Theatre and its aims to provide unique experiences of alternative ways of thinking and living.
After forming in 1979, Free Theatre's first production in 1980 was based on Georg Büchner's Woyzeck. Presented under the name 'Workshop Theatre', the realisation another company had this name meant the company eventually changed its name to Free Theatre Christchurch, an homage to the free theatres of Europe that gave birth to modern theatre. Woyzeck was presented in a space at the Teacher's College at Dovedale Ave before the company built its own space in the Arts Centre. Many years later, after losing the space to the earthquakes, the company would return to the Teacher's College studio to develop and present I Sing the Body Electric.
Büchner's text was a forerunner to Naturalism and Expressionism. Free Theatre's production saw the emergence of a new voice in Christchurch theatre and an alternative to the Court Theatre that had been founded five years prior. Directed by Peter Falkenberg, the production featured John McClatchie, Stephanie Johnson, Mark di Somma, Nick Frost, Godfrey Sim and Karl Knaup, with Sue Donaldson as stage manager and Rodger Phillips as lighting operator.
Images from rehearsals can be found here.
“Slowly, Woyzeck, take it slowly. One thing after another one. You make me feel giddy. - What am I supposed to do with the ten minutes you save rushing that way? What use are they to me? Think about it, Woyzeck; you've got a good thirty years left. Thirty years. That makes three hundred and sizty months - and then there's days, hours, minutes! What're you going to do with such a monstrous amount of time? Eh? Space it out a bit, Woyzeck.”
We've been discussing revisiting some formative Free Theatre productions including Woyzeck and Ubu Roi, either as new performances and/or as part of Ubu Nights. Here's a Free Theatre favourite, Tom Waits, presenting a piece from Woyzeck...
One must love humanity in order to reach out into the unique essence of each individual: no one can be too low or too ugly.
Free Theatre is to be in the spotlight with a new documentary by award-winning filmmaker Shirley Horrocks to première at the New Zealand International Film Festival in August and two new books penned by company members.
Horrocks, one of New Zealand's leading social and arts documentary filmmakers, is well known for producing documentaries that shed light on influential artists, her award-winning work focusing on the likes of Marti Friedlander, Len Lye, Albert Wendt and Allen Curnow. Horrocks’ production company, Point of View Productions, says the film will provide insight into “a hidden treasure, which has been presenting one extraordinary production after another for 37 years”.
Horrocks began researching Free Theatre in 2010, after travelling to Wellington to see the company present Distraction Camp at the old BATS theatre (Wellington). She then travelled south from her Auckland base to film a series of productions over six years. Her documentary provides extraordinary, previously unseen footage from a number of the company's highly acclaimed productions in post-quake Christchurch, including The Earthquake in Chile and Canterbury Tales. Horrocks also presents footage from Free Theatre's extensive archives, which have been developed through an archiving project that began in 2008.
The film comes at the same time as the release of a new book by Free Theatre member Marian McCurdy. Published by Intellect and titled Acting and its Refusal in Theatre and Film: The Devil Makes Believe, the book is based on McCurdy’s PhD thesis and offers insight into the company’s work through a series of recent high profile productions. She also discusses films such as Lust, Caution directed by Ang Lee and Lars von Trier’s The Idiots to consider the ethical desire of refusing to act—which results from blurred boundaries of acting and living—and examines how real life and performance are intertwined.
McCurdy’s book precedes another that she is currently working on with Free Theatre members about the company’s work. Research for the book will be presented as part of a special panel at the Australasian Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies Conference (ADSA) in late June.
Hosted by the Auckland University of Technology, this year’s conference theme is ‘Performing Belonging in the 21st Century’ and includes a keynote address from activist and artist Tame Iti. Free Theatre Artistic Director Peter Falkenberg delivered the keynote address at the organisation’s conference last year in Toowoomba on ‘theatre and resilience’. Elements of this paper will also feature in the book which is planned for publishing in 2018.
Some great coverage for this production, which opened on Friday April 21 and runs until May 6. The response has been fantastic. Click the images below to link to a few of them or go to The Black Rider page for previews, reviews and audience responses.
What a triumph! It was such a fantastic performance: the music was wonderful, there were many moments when you felt you were in Berlin early last century. The bullet was brilliant! And Delaney Davidson was simply awesome. I loved the way it started and ended with what looked like marionettes being set free from their box and returned to it. We felt very privileged to have been invited and will certainly be raving about it to others.
One magic bullet after another... Highly Recommended for all hunters and seekers
Astounding! Off-kilter beauty, beautifully ugly, movingly funny and strangely soothing. Churning around in the mind, as usual. That's the Free Theatre magic bullet. Need another fix. See you again final night!
An enthralling and fantastic show unlike anything I've seen before! Totally recommend this performance of incredibly talented artists.... Music, lighting singing and movement mixed with drama and emotion... you will be transported to another world! Go and see this you will be blown away...I LOVED it!
That was so f...ing good. Seriously good. Congratulations to everyone. Brecht and Weill must be smiling.
Thanks to everyone for providing a truly magical experience. I felt transported to another world from which I've not entirely emerged yet. Haunting in every respect.
More comments on The Black Rider page...
"The Forge is where we can take genuine risks. When we have a dedicated studio we can develop practitioners. That is a really important step that this company (Court Theatre) has lost. We are beholden to support and develop talent, but when you are putting something on like Legally Blonde that is not in any way entry level. There are so many balls in the air that you want to go with a safe pair of hands. We don't want to throw a young director onto a big project and have them perish. That would be damaging to their career. It is a big step up."
The repeated subtext from Christchurch's big commercial (yet massively-subsidised) behemoth, continues to be that theatre simply shouldn't be - can't be - taken seriously as art - (i.e. risk-taking). Art, they say here, is something the young folk do before growing up, getting a haircut and a real job. If Christchurch is serious about being a progressive city, why would this theatre continue to be heavily subsidised to present commercial work like Legally Blonde when genuine alternatives that pursue exciting new art experiences struggle to survive?
The Court continues to push for a new big theatre as part of the proposed Performing Arts Precinct (PAP). They would continue to present musicals like Legally Blonde and Mary Poppins next door to Showbiz in the Isaac Theatre Royal who are already presenting musicals such as Hairspray and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Not only should the city pay for the new Court, the argument goes, the city should stump up for a second theatre (The Forge) for "experimental" work. However, a survey of the Forge output at the Court reveals that shows here are a slightly different shade to Court One - following the usual literary theatre style of English theatre and more known for 'theatre sports' and improv. And so people come to align experimental or contemporary theatre with improv without an awareness of the wealth of traditions and wonderful work beyond the limited scope of Anglo traditions.
Instead of two brand new theatres, the Court should integrate the Forge programme into its proscenium-arch Court One and allow room for those companies and artists that are really taking the risks to exist alongside. If there is still appetite on the part of the Court for truly experimental work they could collaborate with others that are presenting such work in spaces such as The Gym. As said elsewhere, encouraging diversity avoids a return to the old monocultural Christchurch with clear benefits to social, cultural and economic well-being of the city:
Supporting alternatives [such as Free Theatre and The Auricle] is to the benefit of a more vibrant, diverse culture. These groups and artists push the boundaries of what is possible, providing an outlet for innovative artists and audiences of contemporary performance, building new audiences and allowing the mainstream to follow with greater room to present work that is truly contemporary. The current model for the Court Theatre is 19th century theatre, based around the reproduction of a solitary dramatic text, with a process that sees the creation of a naturalistic set, the actors learning lines (which are delivered as quickly and loudly as possible), blocking out movements and then presenting a season. The aim is to try and simulate English theatre for a conservative audience.
The co-founder of the Court, Mervyn Thompson, attempted to create a space for a new distinct New Zealand theatre - one that explores different forms to provide new and diverse experiences. Thompson was eventually rejected by a Christchurch establishment that wanted to create love-letters to Home, to create theatre as a sign of belonging to a class. In the new Christchurch though, the Court could step-up, work with others and provide room for alternatives to flourish. It could also contract more challenging directors to present diverse contemporary work in the main stage or collaborate with other companies towards a distinctly contemporary Christchurch performance culture. Since its mutual establishment in the 1970s, Free Theatre has provided a space for risk-taking contemporary artists making this a more interesting place to live - the two have extraordinary history in this city. If some of the massive national (CreativeNZ) and local (CCC, Rata Foundation) subsidies that are provided to the Court, a commercial theatre after all, were more strategically distributed to provide high quality, contemporary alternatives, this city might start to claim an identity as a progressive mover and shaker.
"If we’re serious about creating an exciting city with a difference, to move away from the monoculture of before, then we need to invest in diversity."
Some thoughts presented at a Christchurch arts forum this week. The speakers were asked to provide a three-minute response to the question: "what makes an art-full city?":
I made a list. We need a plan – a well-researched plan towards an exciting, progressive city. We need a thorough mapping of what is, what could be and what is required to bridge the two. Most importantly this plan should shift the onus from quantity (door-clickers and bums-on-seats) to a vision of quality – encouraging the pushing of boundaries and risk-taking. This comprehensive, adaptive plan will present a new vision for the arts as the primary driver of the city’s new identity. It needs to be in place for the council's Long-Term-Plan next year. It’s not only this city that needs it – Timaru, Ashburton, Methven, Hanmer, Waipara and Kaikoura know now, more than ever, we need Christchurch to be a humming, distinctive gateway to the region. And this needs to start with the most distinctive gateway in the city – the Arts Centre! It seems crazy that after all the work and cost of its extraordinary restoration, the Arts Centre appears to languish behind the Performing Arts Precinct (PAP) and even the Metro Sports as a priority arts project. The most distinctive place in the city needs to be supported to facilitate the kind of activity that can differentiate the city. This means investing in workshops and studios where a diversity of artists can create AND present new work. As part of the investment in fostering local artists to thrive, there needs to be a rethink of festivals around this activity – that is, festivals based around local talent, thereby moving away from the old provincial model of buying in expensive national and international acts. This means multiple projects could be developed over longer periods of time, around different themes/provocations. And if based around inspirational sites such as the Arts Centre, they can be multi-sited (including unconventional spaces in-between brought to life through light, sound and interaction) and integrated with markets and hospitality. A year-long calendar of events spreading out from creative engine-rooms such as the Arts Centre, along Worcester Boulevard to the river, to the park, to the Square and beyond. Artist residencies can attract excellent artists to come and work WITH local artists and organizations towards new work that engages with the time and place. If the merging of the CDC (Canterbury Development Corporation), Canterbury Tourism and Council Events is about making this “an edgy city with a difference”, then the council needs to understand that such a vibe doesn’t just materialize out of thin air. There needs to be a wider-ranging strategy put in place that has at its core the fostering of (investment in) local artists. The PAP, as currently proposed, does NOT help at all in this regard, especially if the plan is to build a new black box theatre for presentation and move the Court from its current successful site and build it, not one, but two new theatres. Both ideas mean that interdisciplinary arts organisations such as Free Theatre and The Auricle will continue to struggle for survival – and wonderful projects such as this (The Black Rider) simply will not happen. If we’re serious about creating an exciting city with a difference, to move away from the monoculture of before, then we need to invest in diversity.
And this is my picture.
As noted in our 'about' section, The Wooster Group is a kindred spirit of Free Theatre. No surprise, then, that a number of things Elizabeth LeCompte says in this article seem terribly familiar...
“No one gives us money. We don’t make art that can be invested in. It goes away, and we’re political in a way that’s a problem.”
Christchurch theatre advertised in The Press recently. It feels like nothing much has changed since Peter Falkenberg wrote the article below... in 1984.
If you want to find out about the cultural life of a town, one of the quickest ways is to go to its theatre performances. There you find the most direct expression of the consciousness of the social elite of a community. The choice of plays, the way they are performed, the expectations of the audience, its reaction to the performance: all these can facilitate a subtle and differentiated understanding of the taste of a town, at least for an observer that expects from a theatre performance more than just a good night out.
Every Ubu Night is different but this one this week takes another unusual turn. We've commenced a project that considers the current state of New Zealand using Hamlet as a core text:
Something is rotten in the state of New Zealand. But we don’t quite know what it is or what to do about it, or if we can do anything at all. We have lost our identity and lost control of our destiny. The only way left to act is as a puppet or a clown – like Hamlet. Someone once said “people don’t want much, just someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for” – this now sounds like the voice of a ghost from a different place and a different time. But maybe this voice, the voice of Norman Kirk, will urge us to act again. For Hamlet, to be or not to be means to accept the world the way it is or to kill himself. We ask ourselves how not to be Hamlet. How to “act”?
The project commenced as a personal response to the current political situation and originally I'd imagined it as a solo performance:
A performance that plays between Hamlet and my own experiences. I am Hamlet, or wanting to play Hamlet, identifying with his questions over whether to act, how to act in relation to the murder of his father. My father once said to me that the loss of his business in 1987 after borrowing heavily on the advice of the then Labour government, killed him. It certainty had a profound effect on my family and how I came to view the world. This view was further affected by experiences such as the demise of the Fortex plant I worked at in the mid 90s and the brutal and unrelenting attack on my department at the University of Canterbury through the 2000s – both consequences of the social and economic reforms of 1984 that radically changed New Zealand. Running alongside these events, intertwining with them has been my experience in Free Theatre, propelled towards the possibility that “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscious of the King”. Not a didactic theatre, but an idea of theatre as a liminal space wherein our political and social reality may be confronted and questioned, the first step towards change. Hamlet is not set apart from this reality; he forces himself to confront the truth that his own action, and inaction, may be the very source and affirmation of his uncle’s power. Or that he himself may just as easily be a Claudius, a Fortinbras or an Ubu. And so he is constantly confronted with his dilemma and attempt to escape – to be or not to be – fighting himself in perpetual crisis, constantly returning to his own certainty of his father’s murder, the causes for it, and therefore his only real option is to play the clown.
We decided however, following Peter's suggestion, that a better way to undertake this exploration was to develop a bicultural view with two Hamlets exploring different perspectives of our time and place. Aaron Hapuku and I are using our distinct biographies to explore 'How not to be Hamlet', that is, to go beyond what seem like Hamlet's only choices to either accept the world as it is or commit suicide; rather we're exploring how to act. This is a difficult question but has taken on even greater urgency this year with Brexit and Trump. It feels like one of the most important acts in these "end times" is to take the time to think, to question and to consider new alternatives.
If the last century was about theory in action (e.g. communism) with disastrous consequences, now is the time to think again, returning to what might be the best of the Enlightenment project and reconsidering ideas afresh in the current context. The problem is that when anyone questions capitalism and liberal democracy the classic response is, "Well, what do you want, communism? That didn't work out so well did it?". Francis Fukuyama's famous term 'the end of history' to describe what he saw as the ultimate victory of liberal democracy and capitalism over all other forms, is very much the ideological perspective of our times when alternatives cannot even be imagined despite the natural, political and economic environment crumbling around us. As the likes of Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou argue, now is precisely the time to be thinking of alternatives, to be provoking the dialogue that shatters the view that there are no alternatives. Thinking and generating dialogue are the most important acts - and here the theatre can play a vital role. It can provide a way to step back, a space to really look at what is happening, to question it with others. This is the action that is needed today.
"It may appear that one cannot act today, that all we can really do is just state things. But in a situation like today's, to state what is can be much stronger than calls to action, which are as a rule just so many excuses NOT to do anything. Let me quote Alain Badiou's provocative thesis: 'It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent'. Better to do nothing than to engage in localized acts whose ultimate function is to make the system run more smoothly (acts like providing space for the multitude of new subjectivities, etc.). The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to be 'active', to 'participate', to mask the Nothingness of what goes on. People intervene all the time, 'do something', while academics participate in meaningless 'debates', and so on, and the truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw from all this. Those in power often prefer even a 'critical' participation, an exchange of whatever kind, to silence - just in order to engage us in a 'dialogue', to make sure our ominous passivity is broken".
As our current Prime Minister (Uncle Claudius?) decides to call it a day, it is a good time to be thinking about what is considered good governance. As outside observers such as the Guardian and even as some of his own supporters have noted, Key spent the time telling us he was "doing all sorts of stuff", which amounted to very little in making the country better and a lot in allowing commercial interests full reign to exploit our natural resources. While he played the clown, mincing up down the catwalk, peeing in the shower, holding pointless flag referendums and pulling ponytails, he successfully distracted 'middle New Zealand' from the damage that was being inflicted on our social and natural environment.
How should we act? When Hamlet is forced into action at the end he simply perpetuates a mindless circle of violence. Our aim, through theatre, is to explore how not to be Hamlet and to actually work towards meaningful change. Perhaps by starting with a remembrance of Kirk's simple aspiration for New Zealanders: “people don’t want much, just someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for”.
“I think to make art is to make a break. And to make a cut. There’s a cut in the continuity of being, in the continuity of survival."
'Art' bashed around Christchurch as fixed, safe, and averting distraction... A chance to escape reality, promoted as a way to hide away from your everyday life. A means of climbing the social ladder... and being reminded of your station... Is this art, or the death of it? From the initial artistic impulse to engage somehow with place and people, by questioning both, to a decision to be loved at all costs by affirming that "everything is going to be alright", just like every other advertisement for insurance, electricity, rest homes, washing powder or underwear... It seemed strange that the Christchurch Art Gallery were so determined to avoid any sense of irony in the purchase and placement of British artist Martin's Creed's neon sign brightly proclaiming the phrase above. Perhaps it reflects the fear here of actually owning the political dimensions of the art experience - to be the "nail in the tyre", the banana skin persistently tripping up the seemingly inevitable or the inescapably 'normal', the unstoppable freight train of ideology, the destructive status quo. Mladen Dolar suggests that to make art is "to make a break". Unfortunately, the terror of "Daliisawanker2233" in the online comments section bemoaning the irrelevance of art when roads and houses still need to be fixed, lead the big, subsidised arts organisations to seek out distractions or explain their outputs as such - non-offensive, colourful wallpaper to cover up the tracks and cheer everyone up. This includes purchasing the works of international (well, British) art stars that offer "reflection" for the poor locals - "but Chch can now say it has a Gormley AND a Creed - we're on the map Jack". But it's difficult to go along with this when investment in nurturing a more nuanced, diverse local culture is neglected. What we need is persistent artists forever exploring the breaks, the cracks and this requires an engagement with the actual place/time - i.e. a politics, and this does not preclude the outsider - far from it - Banksy is Banksy because context peaks his/her interest. But local artists especially should be as important as drain-layers, construction workers, doctors and urban planners to building the city. Unfortunately we also have many people running around calling themselves artists as if paying fees for a course made them so - a destination and status, already arrived at rather than an unknown, forever being reached for and perhaps embodied only for brief, wonderful moments. It is hard to argue that art has an essential role because more often than not what is produced falls into the wallpaper category and genuine, essential, criticism is fobbed off - note the determined divide between theory and practice in Canterbury University's arts faculty...
The definition of a madman is a king who thinks that he’s a king. And you have this madness among artists who believe that they are artists. This is psychosis, in a certain sense, if you really think that you are what you are. You really think that you are an artist. This is the end of art, I think.
A performance by Ross McCormack at the Isaac Theatre Royal... a local dancer that has worked with outstanding international companies who decides that to develop as an artist he needs to return to NZ. It sounds, in the best sense, like pioneers such as Wright and Parmenter. But the work, for all it's impressive technical display, lacks a sense of purpose and meaning beyond showcase - it's lack of a politics may have helped justify its funding as a work of art - it is simple entertainment and distraction. An interesting design coupled with some wonderful physical images are the beginning of something that require further development - but this is sadly denied artists in NZ as tour-makers look for product that they can "sell to the provinces", thinking that all eager Joan and reluctant John from Nelson and Wanaka want is circus tricks and hits - do they really? The result is that a work with extraordinary potential is pushed out undercooked. This is especially apparent in the colonial love-letter that is the ITR - always wanting (and restored) to be like "home" with a programme chocka full of popular international musicals and tribute shows. McCormack's work I imagine is better suited to an intimate space to engage with audience as if they are part of it - much like the operating theatres of old... Allusions to Frankenstein, Pinocchio, Copelia, are superficial, but it would be wonderful fodder for further work, perhaps in conversation with fellow local artists also exploring similar ground. This is the perfect city for such exploration. And this is the perfect time. But there needs to be a plan to strategically invest, foster and grow laboratories that pursue more than teeth-whitening, formulaic, distractions...