Over the last month, the significant performance library at UC of Free Theatre's Peter Falkenberg has been packed up and moved to the Arts Centre to form a new library in The Gym. The move prompted reflection on some remarkable achievements since the Theatre and Film Studies Department was "disestablished" in 2013.
It's a funny old thing...
Since the axing, this 'non-department' has produced six PhDs.
That would be impressive for any department of its kind anywhere - let alone one that doesn't officially exist... having been sacrificed on the altar of STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering and Maths - the subjects pushed by the last government as the most relevant for employment and productivity with the arts being seen as the most "irrelevant").
Marian McCurdy, Emma Johnston, Te Rita Papesch, Tony McCaffrey, Aaron Annan and, just recently, Liz Boldt, have reached the pinnacle of academic study. With supervision from Peter Falkenberg and Sharon Mazer, post-graduate work has been produced that would be impressive anywhere but outrageously successful for a department that achieved such a sophisticated bridging of theory and practice. Ironically, a US academic's review of the department that was eventually used to close it down stated unequivocally that such an impressive culture would be the "jewel in the crown of any serious research university in the US". It's critical, political approach clearly made it a target rather than collateral damage, a hallmark of neoliberalism. The submitted work of PhDs reflects the rich, diverse and nuanced culture that has grown out of Free Theatre and adds to an impressive culture over 20 years - topics here. There is one PhD still to come. And of course Free Theatre, for the meanwhile, with a core of PhDs at its heart continues to produce new work in the central city with a mix of vastly experienced and qualified artists and emerging young artists that may well go on to produce a new wave of practice and theory that drives a new culture. It feels like there is change coming.
An article in The Press recently acknowledged the destruction of nine years of neoliberal governance on education and the arts in particular and an awareness of the desperate need for the analytical, contextual approach of arts education in what will be a vastly different society and economy in the 21st century:
There is a certain 'follow the money' culture that has been promoted over the past decade that has narrowed some of the wider debate around the overall value of participating in education... It's not just a private good, it's a public good. We need to rediscover that ethos... A university education is not just about making yourself more employable. If you talk to employers about the skills and dispositions they want a graduate to have, they want critical thinkers, people who can digest large volumes of information and make sense of it, who can be analytical. They are talking about the profile of a graduate across a huge breadth of programmes. I think we go down a very dangerous path if we say that a university degree is preparation for a particular job. We know that university graduates tend to be pretty adaptable and flexible.
It must be said that the targeting of the arts by Steven "Pretty Legal" Joyce and his previous National government were draconian and predicated on a misguided, outdated world view. However, it continues to be a sign of hope that there are those who acknowledge this and have fought for a less "flat-earth" approach within the university:
Around the country, for arts in particular, this last decade has been demoralising. Every year we get told 'You're not as useful and don't contribute as much', even though we see all around us the important role arts has played in Christchurch's recovery. At least now we have a Minister for the Arts at the highest level in Government, showing once again what the Prime Minister takes seriously.
A recent piece from UC senior management seemed an attempt to rewrite history and reposition management as saviours of the university rather than henchmen for the previous neoliberal regime. But the attempted spin and assertions simply don't stand up to even brief scrutiny.
In 2012, a colleague at UC described "TAFS people" as cockroaches - as the university looked to once again shut us down (eventually with success). He offered a back-handed mark of respect by using the same term that then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton used to describe former PM Helen Clark (who, incidentally, once saved the department) as the ultimate survivor. But our erstwhile colleague was pointing towards something that perhaps just doesn't make sense in university these days... or arts organisations... Free Theatre and the department it spawned just don't make sense in a market-driven culture, continuing to function as a critic and conscience against the commercial odds. It is this kind of focus on collective creative thinking that is the future.
As a new Minister for the Arts, who just happens to be the PM, steps up, she brings with her an unprecedented two Associate Ministers for the Arts that are, respectively, the Minister for Finance (and Sport) and the Minister for Social Development and Disability issues. For those that care, we all have to contribute to make sure this symbolism marks real change and not more of the same neoliberal posturing.
With that in mind, it may be of interest to read Falkenberg's keynote for a conference on 'theatre and resilience' in Australia last year. Among other things, the article reflects on the experience of the department, Free Theatre and Christchurch as they battled through the worst excesses of neoliberalism that were pushed to extremes by the National government of the last nine years.
People want to be reassured by performances of resilience. Looking at it in this light, resilience becomes problematic. It could be that the arts and theatre can become complicit with the ruling ideology, and will become service providers like the counsellors and psychologists who are employed after a catastrophe. Only good news is allowed. This is an old predicament for those of us who make theatre. We always have to decide if we want to become part of an entertainment industry, or if we consider art-making in the theatre as part of a larger emancipatory process. Schiller says that only where we play can we be free and fully human. If we are not free, how can we play? Perhaps we have to think about replacing resilience with another word: resistance.
Tonight, on the first day of spring and the last night of The Black Rider, we have something to celebrate: Free Theatre's birthday in The Gym. On 1 September 2014 we officially began working in The Gym towards our very first Ubu Night on 5 September. Our tenure in The Gym was only to be two years, with the original plan for the space to be a restaurant and for Free Theatre to take up other residence in the Arts Centre. With original collaborators Arts Circus, we pitched the idea of a flexible contemporary performance space to the Arts Centre and set about implementing a light-touch fit-out with support from Christchurch City Council, Rata Foundation and Creative New Zealand. While the support for the fit-out was relatively modest, Stuart Lloyd-Harris designed and implemented an exemplary 'black box' that has allowed for a diversity of events to take place in the Arts Centre, from Free Theatre's central New Works and Education Programme that is designed specifically to exploit and showcase what is possible in this beautiful space, to festivals such as the Christchurch Arts Festival and the Jazz and Blues Festival, as well as a diversity of arts, community, corporate and private events. It is inevitable (especially with limited funding) that there are limitations to the space. However, this also leads to innovative ways of developing new work and unusual experiences for audiences. Over the three years we've been operating, local, national and international artists who don't necessarily know our situation, rave about The Gym, it's ambience and acoustics, it's sense of place in a city struggling to remember, and its inspiration for work of the future. We are proud of what has been achieved and even more so about what is on the cards in the next few years given the collaborations we have initiated thus far.
It can be frustrating as we struggle to survive to hear the constant wrangling over big building projects like the proposed performing arts precinct ($45 mil for the Court; $18mil for a 'black box') and other spaces emerging that we are being asked to contribute to as presenters even though we have stated our preferred situation - an inspiring space to develop and present new work. It is not that we wouldn't present elsewhere - obviously this is something we have done a lot over the years - but often the planners and funders look at it from the conventional venue manager's point of view that assumes pre-existing work based around conventional commercial returns. Consider, for example, the vitally important Christchurch Arts Festival, which currently directs its funding towards importing work from elsewhere with little to no support towards fostering local artists - this is a model that desperately needs to change, if we're serious about developing an exciting, engaging city that encourages talent to stay and contribute, and attracts high quality contemporary artists to come here and work with us. Festival directors need to foster artists to take risks towards distinctive new work. Currently, they shape and direct what work is produced with exponentially shrinking ideas of what they think will please their established audience - this breeds mediocrity, at best. As this established audience gets tired of the same old festival fare, visionary new ideas are required to nurture new work that energises established audiences and builds new ones. There are ample examples of great festivals already doing this and others that have transitioned in response to social, economic, political and environmental change. They build their foundations around local artists as well as curating international artists to collaborate with locals.
Despite the frustration and fatigue that sets in as we fight endlessly for an artist-led space that has more than proven its value despite chronic underfunding and attempts to dismiss it on the way to big, new shiny venues of yesteryear, we are extremely grateful and inspired by the support we have received. There is the support already mentioned from CCC, CNZ and the ever-consistent Rata Foundation, as well as champions that got us started and have kept us going, including ZNO (Jason Mill), Duncan Cotterill (Paul Calder), Kendons (Lance Edmonds and Kate Bennett) and Steel and Tube. We've developed wonderful friendships with Cassels and Sons and Black Estate Wines and we're pleased to be in a neighbourhood with businesses that include Zen Sushi, The Curator's Deli, Bunsen and our earliest, dearest pioneer friends at Canterbury Cheesemongers and Cookin with Gas/Astro Lounge. There are many others that have supported particular projects (for example Phantom have been incredible with The Black Rider), and of course, there are the audiences, old and new, that come to experience the work, expecting to be challenged with something different, and take the time to let us know that this is valued - this kind of support is valued beyond measure.
Most of all, we're driven by the artists that come to work with Free Theatre and an Arts Centre management that supports this work to continue. Christchurch is blessed with remarkable artists across a range of disciplines that continue to produce work that fuels a distinctive New Zealand culture. These are people driven not by money nor fame (if they are, then FT is a terrible choice) but the need to create work that speaks to the time and place - a desire to engage with the community we live in out of a dissatisfaction with the world as it is. Our aim is to keep providing outlets for this dissatisfaction to be expressed in conversation with the community towards hope and change. We know this desire is shared by the Arts Centre who signalled bold aims when they signed us up as the first arts-practice tenancy in 2014 and have continued to make it possible for us to work in this important, vital site that straddles the city's past and future. To everyone at the Arts Centre, and especially the inspirational André Lovatt: we continue to build programmes, collaborations and networks towards new work that supports your aims for the Arts Centre to be a special place for the city. With your support, friendship and partnership, we look forward to the future.
Early days and the first Ubu Night
-Why were you interested in the The Black Rider project?
Have loved the music by Tom for ages, I listened to it years ago, and was always interested in the Faust theme. I also wanted to get away from the rigid way music is performed on stage, and try something more dramatic. The fact that it was a Christchurch based project was a massive appeal as most of my work takes me travelling.
-Did you have any prior interest in Waits, Burroughs or Wilson’s work?
Huge fan of Waits over the years, and enjoyed the influence that Burroughs had on writing as well as his seminal work teaching the Beat poets.
-What was your role and how did you approach it?
Pegleg the Devil/Ringmaster and also a small role as a haunted painting. I thought a lot about it on my own and also enjoyed following the direction of Peter Falkenberg. It was really great to work with a director. I enjoyed having a different outlook on my performance and it was invaluable to have direction that I believed in. I found it would give me the conviction I needed as it wasn’t my decision whether It was working or not, I could just trust Peter.
-Did you introduce anything new to your role or make any obvious changes from the actor who played it in the original Hamburg production?
I tried to use the character of William Burroughs as a cue for the way my version of Pegleg spoke; a strange lilting staggering flowing way of talking. I also went against my initial impulse to make him angry mean and loud and tried to play him as quietly as possible. I though this made him more sinister. I watched the Hamburg version to get some solutions aswell to the way he is in certain scenes.
-What was it like working with Laban movement techniques?
Using Laban was a challenge but also really good as it helped me get out of my usual traps. It’s a great exercise and really starts you thinking differently about movement.
-What instruments did you play?
Guitar, Singing, Drums, Whistling, Singing Saw, and Banjo.
-Describe your costume decisions?
A tail coat for some elegance and formal feeling, a corset to make him unnaturally skinny, boots and tight trousers to make his legs and feet look like hooves and animals legs, gloves to make the hands iconic/symbolic, a hat, and make up to give him a birdlike quality.
-What was the process creating this different version of the original musical score?
We started out just trying what would work with the scenes, and because we were using a lot less musicians we had to make sacrifices. We lost our drummer as well so this meant everyone had a lot to do. I think all these setbacks were in our favour in the end.
-How would you describe the music in the production?
Atmospheric, Beautiful, Sad, Dark, Minimal, Tense, Loud, Disgusting, Sweet, Horrible, Frightening, Heartbreaking, Rousing, Compelling, Simple and Complex.
-How was your experience working as an actor/musician in the theatre different to your previous experiences?
I love theatre music because it can be so minimal and do so much. Its very different from performing a show. I sometimes miss the possibility of volume that I have at a live concert. But I always enjoy the way theatre music makes me think about sound very differently.
-What was your experience collaborating with others on the project and what were the difficulties and challenges?
Working in a group is a real challenge for me. I am naturally impatient, and find the slowness makes me freak out. I also find it challenging to be dependent on other peoples timetables. I enjoyed what happens with a group when it comes to creative input and found we made something as a group that I could never have found on my own. Working with others, overcoming my inhibitions with movement and performing, learning text, doing things the same every time, keeping the focus and intensity of the character for the length of the show.
Thursday 31st August - Friday 1st September, 8pm.
A follow-up to the artistic and popular success of HamletMachine in 1991, Free Theatre returned to Heiner Mueller with the development and presentation of a new interpretation of the modern masters work in 1995, MedeaMaterial. The Free Theatre was gutted and transformed into a nightclub complete with a bar in the playing area and television screens and peep holes all around the space. The entire theatre was used for the action - backstage, understage, toilet, workshop, store room - with the actors taking up different interpretations of Mueller's collage of texts (fragments of everyday conversations he recorded) inspired by the Medea and Jason story. Following an overtly ritualistic opening through and around the audience, the action moved to different parts of the theatre. Audiences had to move, drink in hand, to see the diverse Jasons and Medeas taking up different perspectives on the story inspired by the distinct spaces of the theatre - peeping and eavesdropping on couples squabbling as if in a nightclub. The performance document above was produced by cast member Olivia Lory-Kay.
Falkenberg has, once again, set a standard of brilliant imaginative theatre which others can only dream of attaining. But if only they would just dream of it.
In 1994, Falkenberg continued his fruitful collaboration with visual artist Graham Bennett to develop a new interpretation of Oscar Wilde's Salome. The production was praised for its nuanced performances, beautifully playing in and around the striking design, a series of turning iron glass/mirror structures on stage.
Neither at things, nor at people should one look. Only in mirrors should one look, for mirrors do but show us masks.
The production again involved students from the now firmly established and successful Drama Programme along with Free Theatre stalwarts such as Robin Bond as King Herod. While Free Theatre continued as an independent entity, a professional theatre producing high quality experimental work, its collaboration with the University meant that students were able to work in an environment that allowed them to grow as artists through experimentation and a rare combination (in New Zealand) of theory and practice. This paved the way for the emergence of a new dedicated department at the University, growing out of the extraordinary work of Free Theatre artists over the previous decade.
Flashback #7... in 1991, Free Theatre Christchurch connects with Free Theatre Munich to present Heiner Mueller's HAMLETMACHINE
... simply the most exciting theatre piece Christchurch has experienced in years... HAMLETMACHINE's opening night full house proves that Christchurch audiences do support serious theatre
If the 1980s had been about establishing a youthful, energetic presence in Christchurch, the 1990s saw exciting developments in Free Theatre's aims and growing influence. This included engaging with international contemporary performance artists and the founding of a dedicated Theatre and Film Studies Department (est. 1997) that unfettered the theory and practice of theatre and film from the traditional, marginalised existence in the literary dominated realm of English Departments. Canterbury University was the first in the country to do so and its Theatre and Film Studies Department quickly became successful with a rapidly growing postgraduate culture. This ultimately culminated in the emergence of the groundbreaking Te Puna Toi Performance Research Project in 2001.
While the company had engaged with past and current avant garde in the 1980s, it was perhaps a collaboration with Free Theatre Munich (est. 1970) in 1991 that really established the company as a noted presence in the international contemporary theatre scene. Falkenberg initiated the collaboration with this theatre company from his home town, inviting directors George Froscher and Kurt Bildstein to come to Christchurch to present a reimagined production of a Heiner Mueller work, HamletMachine. They had presented the work previously in Germany and the US. Mueller's work, considered the most important in Germany since Brecht, had never been staged in New Zealand, let alone Christchurch, and this offered the opportunity for local artists and the students of the growing Theatre Programme at Canterbury University to have access to international contemporary theatre through the making of it with established international theatre artists. On the strength of the international exchange, Free Theatre Christchurch secured an Arts Grant from the QE II Arts Council of New Zealand (later CreativeNZ). Remarkably, the company would not receive another CNZ grant until 2012 despite many years of trying with an extraordinary array of high profile, high quality work with a diversity of collaborators.
HamletMachine is typical of Mueller's work in that it is based around a collaging of texts and monologue's, rather than conventional narrative or plot. In this instance, the work is concerned with what it means to be an actor - a concern that Falkenberg would return to in different social, historical contexts, including current project How Not To Be Hamlet? A combination of professional actors and students worked on the HamletMachine production, which took place around the Arts Centre, in Rutherford's Den and the Great Hall. It was a hugely successful production both in popular and critical reviews and paved the way for a series of dynamic projects through the 1990s.
Below are some stills from a Nightline (TV3) piece on the production. The full clip itself can be found on the HamletMachine page.
A big thank you to Charlie Gates for sending this beautiful image of The Gym the year it was built. Originally the gymnasium for Christchurch Boy's High School (which occupied the buildings next door), it eventually became the home of Academy Cinema in 1976 when the university gifted the wider site to the city when it relocated to Ilam. The Academy occupied the building until the earthquakes of 2011 closed the entire site. As part of the restoration of the Arts Centre, the building was stripped back to its original form and strengthened. Free Theatre has occupied the building since September 2014.
The development of a strong ongoing Free Theatre Group in the early 1980s was made possible by the Project Employment Programme (PEP) introduced by the National government of the time. A wider scheme across multiple industries, it also allowed artists to work in the theatre with a view to developing skills that would contribute to ongoing employment.
This allowed for a dedicated ensemble to develop in the new Arts Centre theatre the company had built in 1982. A diversity of works were produced in line with the company's manifesto:
To stage old and new rarely staged European plays in original translations, new New Zealand plays, and classical English texts in an unusual and experimental style. Emphasis is placed on non-verbal action and high production standards, discouraging the star system and encouraging long rehearsal and training periods in a company context.
Productions through the early to mid 1980s ranged from works produced by Peter Falkenberg such as the company's magnificently gruesome King Lear, hauntingly beautiful Leonce and Lena and spectacular Lulu, to stagings of new works written by company members, including Nansi Thompson (Texts For Decomposition) and Stuart McKenzie (The Joffongract, A Letter from L, The Mortal Pleasure of Wanda Lust and The Rapist Over Susannah). Meanwhile, Robin Bond initiated with Electra what would become an ongoing series of productions of classical Greek texts that he translated and directed.
At the same time, a slew of imaginative new works emerged that exposed local audiences to international contemporary theatre through presentations of avant garde innovators from Brecht to Sam Shepard, Patti Smith and Peter Handke... Mahagonny, Cowboy Mouth, (both directed by Falkenberg), Action (dir. Carol Bellini-Sharp), Tongues (assisted by Bellini-Sharp and Falkenberg), The Ride Over Lake Constance (dir. Nick Frost), Red Cross (dir. Leonard Wilcox with Falkenberg) and Takeaway (dir. Falkenberg with Roy Montgomery). Alongside this, an education programme with immersive productions such as The Hunting of the Snark began to attract students. Current Free Theatre ensemble member Emma Johnston cites Free Theatre's Snark production as a most memorable early theatre experience.
These productions served as the foundations to the emergence of a special new voice of contemporary theatre in New Zealand. The Press Arts Editor Chris Moore, previewing Faust Chroma in 2008 said: "For quarter of a century, Free Theatre has redefined cultural horizons and shaped Christchurch perceptions of contemporary theatre". With daring and determination, Free Theatre established itself in the 1980s as part of a tradition of Christchurch arts organisations and artists in the visual arts, music, literature and film that developed new work that was distinct and influential in the wider cultural landscape of New Zealand.
We've yet to feature all Free Theatre productions on our website (its a big archive!) but below are a few pics from the productions mentioned some of which feature on the website (links above). You can also see images from productions over three decades in our archive gallery.
Texts for Decomposition
Leonce and Lena
Action / Tongues
The Hunting of the Snark
Every social order creates its own reality which is backed up by propaganda, whether it is subtle or obvious – things like the work ethic, the marriage ethic and the desire for happiness and security. Any individual who stands out against these myths is treated with suspicion or down-right hostility.