Occasionally a peal here and there but certainly not in any clarion tones.So what if Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead found a home in the Vivian Beaumont for The Repertory Theatre in 1965? Or that Herbert Blau directed the inaugural production of George Buchner’s Danton’s Death? Or even that Arthur Miller was playwright-in-residence and had the opportunity to premiere his new play After the Fall here with company members Jason Robards and Barbara Loden? Maybe it just doesn’t really matter. Especially not to a small semi-colon nation located at the end of the world whose people are typically associated with small brown flightless birds.
But then again…
I arrived at 150W 65th Street this July for a three-week directors intensive with some trepidation and a flutter of proverbial butterflies. After an extremely long application process, I had been one of the fortunate international directors to receive a place at the prestigious directorslab. But, in all honesty, while acquainted with many of the names, and more than a few of the productions, I certainly wasn’t connecting the dots to realize that the institution itself was home to a series of esteemed artists who had made their debut here or indeed that there were eleven resident organizations one of which was the Lincoln Centre Theatre. This was a site of performance history and equally, if not more importantly, since the founding of Lincoln center’s directorslab, a site of generating an active forum of discussion and dialogue for directors in America and beyond.
The Lincoln Center’s directorslab was the brainchild of Anne Cattaneo, current head of the lab and dramaturg of Lincoln Center Theatre. A program for professional directors in early and mid-stages of their career to gain an opportunity to interact, engage and indulge in an intensive creative session of discussions, workshops; shows while building networks to be part of an international theatre community. Best part: it’s completely free! There are no expectations of formal training or grades but an in-depth application process that challenges and questions not just how we direct but what sculpts the choices we make during the creative process.
That mandate inspired me. And when I found out on the first day of the lab as I sat between a director from Tokyo and another from Minneapolis I had this incredible feeling; I’m here. Aotearoa/New Zealand is here. In this room, with 35 other international directors and 35 locals from across the length of America, we are here. This year made twenty years since the inaugural lab in 1995 and one of the main reasons I chose to apply at this particular moment in time was because the theme appealed to me immensely: Audience. As a stage director who is increasingly finding myself regularly involved as a dramaturg and expanding upon five years’ worth of stage criticism, it made sense that the theatre community, and let’s be explicit, the international theatre community, is focusing on the intrinsic pact between artist and audience more than ever before.
As the only New Zealander, and indeed, the very first to be offered a space at the directorslab, I was both humbled and honoured at the chance to be able to listen, learn and share. Those three weeks were akin to being at a festival. The hours were easy to remember (10am-10pm) and we had a host of different guests, companies and artists visit during the day and regular shows in the evening. We had Terry Teachout from the Wall Street Journal come and share his insights on stage criticism, Nilaja Sun perform excerpts from her one-woman show No Child, a brilliant session with designer Ricardo Hernandez and compelling performances such as Heisei Nakumura-za and Fuerza Bruta.And we weren’t let off lightly either. All participants were divided into groups of six and seven and asked to tackle different questions that dealt with the overall theme. I gained a far more comprehensive notion of the differences between immersive and interactive theatre; the force of popular-audience driven successes especially in America; the consequences of political momentum in shaping theatre and history; the different models and systems to engage audience and community and how these vary internationally and a very valuable appreciation of music and its role in drama, musicals and operas.
But these weren’t simply information heavy sessions. We saw Peter Brook’s direction of Carmen in the library as well as the very first production of Venus in Furs. The environment while taking place in the basement of the Lincoln Centre was always cognizant of numerous shows constantly taking place. The lawn in front where we would eat lunch was full of actors, musos and other working directors, all affable and friendly towards this bunch of people whose ages ranged from people in their mid-twenties to those who had returned to the theatre after another career and were in their early sixties. Here was a community, and it did genuinely feel that as varied and disparate as our experiences and knowledges; easily compatible and wildly awkward personalities; cultural, linguistic and religious affiliations – here we all were together as stage directors. Not hobbyists or drama students but seventy individuals who had committed to this ridiculously creative life and lifestyle.
And we need more of us. As Anne reminded us on our first day: “Theatre is created by peers- the peer to peer relationship is key – that’s how all theatre is created. A group of friends – a director, a writer, a designer, and some actors – see the world in the same way and stay up all night in a bar and decide to open a theatre.” She was right. Not once did I ever get to bed before 2am and, although I probably suffered sleep deprivation and liver damage, the conversations that I had with my colleagues (and I call them that with affection and respect) were some of the best that I have had the opportunity to share within this industry. It wasn’t just what was being ‘taught’, it was the unofficial learning, sharing, exchange of information that is fundamental to growing a new generation of artists and audiences, equally engaged and respected in making collaborative work.
All the international artists were invited to share work from their country and those sessions, where I had the chance to learn and engage with the latest performances from Uruguay in the morning, South Africa in the afternoon, Uzbekistan in the evening and so many more, were hugely revitalizing. It reminded me that despite our enormous geographical distances so many of our colleague are engaged in similar conversations: how to challenge institutionalized models which program only a particular ‘type’ of work, broadening gender representation, increasing youth amongst our audiences; debating whether subscription or membership models are more appropriate, how to create better touring opportunities; creating work for children that reflects their present needs, desires and is worthy of their imaginations. There was so much that we have in common but, then again, there were constant reminders that – in places such as Lebanon or in Argentina – the conversations are different. Work is developed in different ways. Process is valued and interrogated and audiences have varying levels of participation and this is different in Australia as it is in Uganda. Even across the United States, regional towns and big city centres have different responses and each are valuable, legitimate and part of the conversation.
In my session I spoke of the work being made by New Zealanders, including Briar Grace Smith, Victor Rodger and Arthur Meek; the various different approaches to audience and community development that were in use at Q, the Basement and Massive (informed through conversations with Angela Green, Elise Sterback and Rochelle Bright) and also the various approaches that we have to performance from kapa haka to The Factory and Generation of Z. The response was overwhelmingly positive; not only because the majority knew that New Zealand was more than a rugby-loving-more-sheep-than-people-nation but were genuinely interested in learning about how we make performance and where potential future collaborations could lead.
Having recently returned from The Edinburgh International and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, I am more convinced than ever before that New Zealand is a key player on the international stage – not only with other Anglophone nations but with audiences in India, China, Brazil, Greece, Mexico, Serbia, Russia, Rwanda – why should there be any barriers to what could be?
I am so inspired to be back on home soil. To return to New Zealand after six years of living overseas and having had the opportunities and privilege to be a NZ ambassador as an artist. I left Auckland in 2005 to go to Massey University in Palmerston North. I thought at the time my future career was fairly obvious: I would be a vet. Six months later I found you need more than a love of James Herriot to stomach dissecting dead animals in a biology lab. And that’s when I turned back to the Arts. Almost ten years later, I’m back in the city I call home. As Anne said, “Theatre is empathy, theatre is community, theatre is understanding, theatre is holy- it is the transcendent way of life. It crosses borders and represents the way we, as citizens of the world, will relate in the 21st Century.” And Auckland, right now, well there is nowhere else I’d rather be.