"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.”