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