- A Democratic Mode of Production
Reaching the end of a career in theatre that began in New Zealand/Aotearoa in 1970, I am inevitably reflective, asking the questions that, at the time, one is too busy or too immersed to ask, let alone answer. I have usually worked in a theatre group, and devising has often been central to the group’s praxis. Within this context, when writing has been required, I have also performed the role of journeyman writer—the person in the theatre group who eventually writes the script. There are many questions: Why make the choice to work in a theatre group rather than as an individual employed by management? Why will the theatre group often choose devising as a means of generating a performance? What part does ideology play? What part does cultural context play? How does devising allow the community voice to be heard? What is the role of the writer in the devising process? Does the theatre group use devising to create an image of itself (as representative of the society it belongs to), or does it have a political purpose that it wants to share with or activate in others? This essay is offered as a small incision into this body of complexity.
After returning to New Zealand in the early 1970s, I met a group of young actors keen on forming a theatre group. We wanted to work as a group because we were ideologically under the sway of the counterculture. But there was also, for us, a pragmatism involved, in that there were few New Zealand playwrights at the time, theatres generally performing scripts written by British, American, and sometimes European writers. We were determined to create performances based on local content. This led to a fusion between the liberationist impulse and a nationalist impulse, which was shared by other New Zealand–based experimental theatre groups of the time. But there was also an element of creating ourselves via the group (which we called Amamus), as young and change-making New Zealanders.1
The content for the group’s play on a NZ childhood was gathered through a storytelling circle with the actors involved.2 From this material actors chose scenes to improvise. These improvisations were rehearsed, and my role as director-cum-journeyman writer was to mold the improvised scenes into a performance by finding an overall structure and the transitions between scenes. The research for subsequent plays on two historical events—the Great Depression,3 and the 1951 Waterfront Lockout occurring during the McCarthy-influenced years4—involved interviewing those who had lived through the respective periods, making notes from historical works, and studying photos. Performances were improvised, but for the Waterfront Lockout play, a rehearsal was recorded, with the transcription then tidied up to create a script that the actors learned. Improvised dialogue is seldom precise, and there was a need for a tighter dialogue structure in order to tell the complex story of negotiations and for there to be a veracity of the political positions portrayed. Performances of these plays took place on the margins of the professional theatre scene, with some attendance at festivals, a trade-union conference, and student-led events.
When Jerzy Grotowski’s text Towards a Poor Theatre arrived in New Zealand, we were impressed by his rigorous questioning of the purpose of theatre and thus moved toward a Grotowski-influenced [End Page 363] period of work. His acting methodology places the actor at the center of the devising process in order to create a performance “score,” both physically and vocally. This research agenda as the impulse behind performance is pan cultural, but he recognized the specificity of each culture. Grotowski writes that “[w]e are bound, consciously or unconsciously, to be influenced by the traditions, science and art, even by the superstitions and presentiments peculiar to the civilisation which has moulded us” (24).
This was at the heart of our nationalist impulse. But Grotowski suggests that the play should take as its content “the collective complexes of society, the core of the collective subconscious or perhaps super-conscious (it doesn’t matter what we call it), the myths...