Free Theatre Flashback #2...The Arts Centre and making connections inside and outside Christchurch
One of the many very popular Free Theatre cabaret nights in the basement space.
At the same time, as the Free Theatre was gaining new audiences, popularity and notoriety in Christchurch, links were being established with contemporary theatre makers in other parts of the country. Conversations were initiated with Amamus, Red Mole and Theatre Corporate. Falkenberg also collaborated with other theatre-makers, most notably acting as dramaturg for Tony Taylor’s production of Big and Little (Gross und Klein) by Botho Strauss at Downstage in Wellington in 1981. The production was considered by critics to be a bold, new signal for New Zealand theatre to consider other possibilities beyond the usual English literary theatre. Strauss was considered a bright light of the German avant garde at the time. For the Dominion, Ralph McAllister wrote: “I’ll dream that Wellington audiences will flock to see this, one of Downstage’s finest accomplishments”. McAllister claimed that he and Bruce Mason attended on multiple occasions, running from table to table, “applauding, stamping and calling out 'Bravo!' in different voices”. Mason, reflecting on the relationship between art and theatre, had initially written a scathing review that seemed to scare audiences away: “Big and Little is an exercise in mountainous banality". However, in an unusual follow-up review in the Evening Post, Mason reconsidered the work, comparing it to the experimental work of John Cage and “credited it with making him consider afresh ‘just what a play should be and from what assumptions it proceeds. For this experience alone, I must thank Downstage’”. He would later conclude: “Finally, this production can be viewed as either a monumental act of courage or an equally monumental folly. I concede that it is the responsibility of a professional theatre to let us see, from time to time, a tough, thought-provoking even grueling play from Europe. I will end, therefore, by saluting Downstage for an act of courage”.
The production was, I felt at the time, even more meaningful than the one I had seen at the Kammerspiele in Munich and gave me an incentive to make theatre in this country. On the other hand, the excellent lead actress that met me during a Court production in Christchurch later did not seem to find any more challenging work in New Zealand that would have made her stay and shared stories about the season of Big and Little, where on one night the three audience members present applauded a rat that run across the stage upstaging the actors.
Most memorably, I played several roles in the four-hour-long production of Botho Strauss's Big and Little a visionary production inspired by Taylor's study trips to Germany. This was one of the first productions of this post-modern, existentialist epic outside of Germany and it demonstrated, not for the first time, Downstage being ahead of its time, a genuine leader in the arts in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Despite a desire to work together again, Falkenberg and Taylor were unable to make it happen in Christchurch. However, it has long been a feature of Falkenberg's work that he has attracted and been attracted to working with artists of high calibre with a view to really pushing the boundaries in search of exciting new work. It is one of the defining features of Free Theatre work.
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Free Theatre ChCh
Free Theatre Christchurch. Intermittent blogging. Thoughts. Enjoy.