Domestic dramas

Why our stories are being set on a bigger stage

Jason Smith


Historians would argue about which is the oldest genesis of the creative industries—is it cave art or fireside storytelling? Certainly by the time of classical Athens, organised scripted theatre had become a potent form of storytelling, an outlet for political and social commentary, a spectacle of bloody tragedy or a bloody good laugh. In many respects, not much has changed about theatre.

Modern New Zealand theatre is emerging with a distinctive voice that is putting more of our stories on stage. This trend is seeing the number of playwrights expanding, the production of increasingly diverse works, and more performances by larger numbers of trained actors assisted by skilled technicians. The result of this vitality is a new confidence among producers and audiences inspiring, for example, the recent revival of James McNeish’s controversial The Rocking Cave at its setting in Waipu, Northland. The Rocking Cave is about an unmarried mother who drowned her child in the 1860s; its impact was compared with seeing The Crucible in Salem, Massachusetts. Stories told in their context are as compelling as ever.

The trends in performance of New Zealand plays, presented in the first chart below, show that the most marked development over the last 15 years is the increase in New Zealand theatre on professional stages. While school and educational productions have remained constant outlets for New Zealand plays, the growth area in New Zealand is commercial professional theatre—which signals more than anything the health and vigour of theatre as a part of New Zealand’s creative economy.


Source: Playmarket NZ

Amateur theatre in New Zealand still accounts for the largest number of productions of Kiwi playwrights’ works, but the ratio between amateur and professional productions is changing.

There could be many societal factors behind this trend: falling rates of volunteerism, declining social capital, or a reduction in numbers of community theatres could be affecting amateur groups. Any decline here serves to highlight the increase in professional productions and to shift the balance.

While both amateur and professional theatres are mindful of the commercial risks behind any production by a relatively unknown local writer, their risk-taking is educating an audience to appreciate and seek out—rather than approach with a sneer—New Zealand stage works. With nearly four times as many professional productions by Kiwi playwrights being staged now as in 1990, the market demand is clear. This means more jobs for more people, right across the boards—from playwrights to stage sweepers. More professional productions deliver more royalties for playwrights in a virtuous circle, as the second graph shows.

Taking all this together, we may well be witnessing the curtain coming down on the dreaded cultural cringe. Not before time.

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