20 December 2010

2010: Another year of great theatre at Circa!

‘Tis the season to eat, drink and be merry, and reflect on the fantastic year of theatre that is rapidly coming to a close!

2010 started with the return of Dick Whittington and His Cat, a Roger Hall pantomime of epic proportions. Look out behind you!

Next, we saw another return season in Circa One, The 39 Steps. Back by popular demand, The 39 Steps took audiences on a hilarious and action-packed journey of spy-spoof fun!

Ninety kicked off the year in Circa Two, revealing that ninety minutes sometimes isn’t enough to heal a broken heart.

The Circa One season continued with the NZ International Arts Festival production of Mary Stuart, the thrilling story of the bloody feud between two of history’s greatest women.

The Letter Writer, Circa’s other NZ International Arts Festival submission, enjoyed a short season in Circa One and fascinated audiences with its story of suspense and transcendent love. Actor Peter Hambleton was recognized with a Chapman Tripp Award for his role in this production.

The Improvisors contributed a lot to Circa in 2010, the group’s 20th anniversary season. Gary Trotter and the Philosopher’s Whatchamacallit, Theatresports, Holmes Alone, Shakespeare – The Musical and three improv shows for kids: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Gnome on the Roam and Pirates. That is a whole lotta improv!

In April, we were introduced to the surreal world of Dead Man’s Cell Phone, where the adventure started with the ringing of a cell phone. Actor Christopher Brougham was awarded a Chapman Tripp Award for his role in this production.

Audiences couldn’t help tapping their toes and shaking their hips to the intoxicating music of The Nero Show, the show that brought ancient Rome to the 1960s, with all the style and flavour of America’s favourite political family.

We were treated to another melodic delight in June with the Circa Two hit He Reo Aroha, a beautiful story of love and music.

Who knew that stamp collecting could be so suspenseful? Audiences discovered just how much during Mauritius, in which the seemingly benign hobby showed its darker side.

Parlour Song took Circa Two audiences to the English countryside, and revealed that nothing is what it seems in suburbia.

The roaring 20s were brought to fabulous life in Circa One with the mid-winter hit, The Great Gatsby. In a flurry of sequins, glamour and gaiety, this tragic story of love and emptiness exploded the façade of the American Dream before our very eyes.

Did you hear the one about the man who was shipwrecked on a desert island where he discovered a treasure trove of pearls, learned to ride giant sea turtles and married a native princess, all the while accompanied by his trusty dog and sidekick, Bruno? If so, you likely saw the Circa Two hit Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, and were delighted by the tall tales of Victorian Fabulist Louis De Rougemont. Cast member Darlene Mohekey was awarded a Chapman Tripp Award for her role in Shipwrecked!

One thing that nearly everyone has in common is a First Time, and the Circa One extravaganza My First Time shared the first time stories of people from all over the world, revealing that we have more in common then we ever realized.

The BeatGirls returned to Circa in October after four years away, raising the temperature in Circa Two with BeatCamp as they dazzled their sold-out audiences with songs from The Andrews Sisters to Amy Winehouse.

Next up in Circa One was The Birthday Boy, a hilarious and poignant revelation of how life never turns out according to plan. This production was accented by birthday celebrations throughout the season, with the cast serenading lucky birthday boys and girls from the stage.

Me and Robert McKee revealed the inner workings of the writer and the writing process in this intriguing and exceedingly funny Circa Two sensation. Actor Christopher Brougham was recognized with his second Chapman Tripp Award of the year for his role in this production.

There he is! Oh no he isn’t. Oh yes he is! Roger Hall brings us another of his hilarious and thoroughly engaging pantomimes for the 2010 Christmas season: Robin Hood, the Pantomime. This show is currently delighting audiences of young and old alike, and will return in 2011 to continue the delight. Get your tickets by calling the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or go online at www.circa.co.nz.

Finally, the Circa Two season closes with The Second Test, the one-man exploration of courage and strength in the face of devastating loss. Depicting the true story of the 1953/54 NZ Cricket tour to South Africa, this show runs until 23 December and is not to be missed. Get your tickets by calling the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or going online at www.circa.co.nz.

We’d like to thank our patrons, sponsors and the Wellington theatre community for your support in 2010, and wish you all the best for 2011. We will close at 1 pm on 24 December, reopening at 10 am on 3 January.

Happy Holidays from everyone at Circa Theatre!

Cara Hill
Audience Development Director

13 December 2010

Wharfside Restaurant: And a Fantastic Year it's Been!

Well it’s that time of year again, Christmas is fast approaching and it is a busy time for all.  We wanted to finish up the year with an overview of our year at Wharfside Restaurant & Café. 


We wish to extend our thanks to our many loyal customers and corporate clients.  We have had a large number of successful functions this year for groups from Government Departments, schools and the education sector, professionals, banks, Returned Serviceman Clubs, Coach Services, Corporate sponsors and many more.  We also welcome those clients who were new to us this year and hope they found Wharfside and Circa a relaxed and well-organised environment for their functions. We hope to see you again next year!


We have had a variety of events we could really have some fun with this year including themed events tying into shows.  We had a 1920s theme for The Great Gatsby, during which the staff dressed in 1920s attire and with decorations and music to represent that era.  This was lots of fun for customers as well as staff, a real talking point.  We also had Mauritius – a suspense play about stamp collecting.  We organised a special wine in connection with the theme of the play after discovering a winery in Marlborough who do a wine label that depicts an adaptation of the 1989 Kiwi New Zealand stamp.  We also had a fundraising cabaret evening which was put on by some of our staff who attend Toi Whakaari (the NZ drama school).  This was an excellent evening and showed the talent of up and coming artists yet to come through to the main stage.  The Birthday Boy was another show that had a great theme.  We introduced birthday packages for this show, with many groups enjoying the bubby and birthday cake package especially.  We had quite a few stunned birthday boys and girls whose families had arranged a surprise birthday evening out with these packages and a happy birthday song sung by the cast at the end of the show. 


We had a new chef come on board at the beginning of this year and he outdid himself with two fantastic new menus.  The current menu has some old favourites as well as some new and exciting dishes.  With being located on the waterfront, we decided to have more of a seafood lean to our menu which customers seem to be really enjoying.  

Also just recently, as well as having our evening restaurant, we have opened as a daytime café with an a la carte menu together with savoury and sweet counterfood, scones , muffins, great coffee (of course!) and much more. 


We always celebrate Christmas with lots of vigour at Wharfside.  With two Christmas trees, plenty of decorations, classy Christmas music and, on request, themed Christmas tables for functions (and even Santa, if you’re lucky), it really feels like Christmas.  With so much going on at this time of year and not much down time, it is nice to come to Circa and Wharfside, especially with the kids, to enjoy a relaxed meal in a Christmassy environment and a wonderfully funny and engaging show – this year the Pantomime Robin Hood.  

All of us at Wharfside wish you a very Merry Christmas and a safe and Happy New Year.

Dee Ryan & Martin Halliday
Owners Wharfside Restaurant & Café

Wharfside will be closed from 24 December to 3 January, reopening on 4 January at 10 am with the daytime cafe. Bookings are recommended for evening dining, please call 801-7996 to make your reservation.

06 December 2010

The Second Test

After a sold-out season at BATS Theatre earlier this year, Circa is delighted to welcome The Second Test into the final Circa Two slot of 2010. Writer/performer Jonny Brugh takes some time to tell drama on the waterfront about what inspired him to bring this iconic story to the stage.

Jonny Brugh.
DOTW: What drew you to the story of The Second Test?

JB: The drama and emotions surrounding the story. I wanted to bring the story to life for today's younger generations to help put their own sense of being a New Zealander into context.

DOTW: What changes (if any) have been made for this return season?

JB: I wanted to bring the Tangiwai tragedy into the foreground, as initially I had been reluctant to show much of the crash. It’s an incredibly sensitive thing to work with.

I’d also like to bring Bert Sutcliffe into the foreground more, but not as the obvious hero. To paint a clear picture of the continuation of the tour and how the Tangiwai events effected the following months for the players and Bob Blair.

DOTW: What effect did Bob Blair’s attendance have on you and the show?

JB: Having performed the show in Auckland I knew what I had made and how the public had received it. More so from the men who have played cricket with Bob Blair and know him. I had pats on the back from a few very respected men of cricket's past. I was proud of it. I was confident the show would tell the story well and with theatrical effect.

I didn't know to what extent Bob Blair would feel emotionally, which had always been a major concern, that the play would bring up old emotions for him. Opening night at BATS was the most special and important night for me as a storyteller. As I warmed up to “Reserved- Bob & Barbara Blair And Family” across the entire front row, three nights in a row, I felt more calm and ready than I would have a year earlier. In some ways I felt understanding and closeness with Bob having had correspondence through 2009. After that opening night at BATS, Bob told me what it was like to be there on opening night and to have it bring up old emotions. He has given his blessings for me to use creative license in bringing the tale to life after having read the script. During the season Bob and I spent some time talking about the events in person but neither of us needed to talk too much about the toughest of events in 1953/54. Had I been a younger man I may not have been about to understand.

Jonny Brugh and Mr. Bob Blair.
DOTW: What’s your favourite part of the show?

JB: Being the team turning up for role call at the Wellington parliament buildings at the start, full of humour, dry wit and drawl excitement.

DOTW: What can our Circa Theatre audiences expect?

JB: A truthful tale of young men on their first OE, testing their skills against the best in the world. The excitement of that experience ripped in two by one of New Zealand's most tragic events. A window into 1950's NZ at a time of great national pride but told on an intimate man-to-man level. An energetic portrayal of a bunch of men full of Kiwi-isms and humour, ending with a reminder of how we saw ourselves post WW2. A depiction of how sport can be both a silly past time, an obsession and a telling reminder of the split personality of the Gentleman's game. In the loosely quoted words of Dick Brittenden: “If men are to be how we are -we could do a lot worse than play cricket.” 

Tickets are now available for The Second Test, on in Circa Two from 7-23 December. To book, call the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or go online at www.circa.co.nz

Announcing the 2011 Circa Season!

Circa Theatre is pleased to announce the 2011 line-up, our 35th season of plays! The annual brochure is now available, please feel free to stop by Circa to pick up your copy.

Roger Hall’s Robin Hood, the Pantomime, 4-15 January, Songs by Paul Jenden and Michael Nicholas Williams, Directed by Susan Wilson, Circa One

The Motor Camp, 23 January – 19 February, A comedy by Dave Armstong, Based on a story by Danny Mulheron, Directed by Danny Mulheron, Circa One

Heat, 25 January – 19 February, Presented by Ice Floe Productions, A play by Lynda Chanwai-Earle, Directed by David O’Donnell, Circa Two

The Improvisors 21st Anniversary:
Improv Cage Match, 22-26 February, Circa Two
Theatresports, Sundays 8 May – 10 July, Circa Two
Snake Oil, 15-18 May, Circa Two
Politics – The Musical, 17-21 May, Circa Two
Improvised Comedy for Kids, 18-30 April, 18-30 July, 10-22 October, Circa Two

The Dominion Post Season of Our Man in Havana, 26 February – 26 March, By Graham Greene, Adapted by Clive Francis, Directed by Ross Jolly, Circa One

Fairy Stories, 11 March – 9 April, By Paul Jenden, Directed by Paul Jenden, Circa Two

August: Osage County, 2 April – 7 May, by Tracy Letts, Directed by Susan Wilson, Circa One, Season proudly supported by Peter and Mary Biggs

BeatCamp, 16 April – 14 May, Presented by Total Entertainment (NZ) Ltd, Circa Two

Boomers Behaving Badly, 24 May – 11 Jun, Jane Keller, Michael Nicholas Williams on piano, Directed by KC Kelly, Circa Two

Meet the Churchills, 18 June – 16 July, By Paul Baker, Directed by Ross Jolly, Circa One

An Oak Tree, 2-30 July, By Tim Crouch, Directed by Andrew Foster, Circa Two

When the Rain Stops Falling, 30 July – 27 August, By Andrew Bovell, Directed by Susan Wilson, Circa One

Eight, 6 August – 3 September, By Ella Hickson, Directed by Simon Vincent, Circa Two

Four Flat Whites in Italy, 3 September – 7 October, By Roger Hall, Directed by Ross Jolly, Circa One

I, George Nepia, 8-17 September, By Hone Kouka, Directed by Jason Te Kare, Circa Two

He Reo Aroha, 21 September – 1 October, By Miria George and Jamie McCaskill, Directed by Hone Kouka, Circa Two

Sex Drive, 15 October – 12 November, By Lorae Parry and Pinky Agnew, Directed by Jane Waddell, Circa One

Roger Hall’s Aladdin, the Pantomime, 19 November – 23 December, Songs by Paul Jenden and Michael Nicholas Williams, Directed by Susan Wilson, Circa One

To book tickets to Circa shows, please contact the Box Office at 801-7992 or go online at www.circa.co.nz.

29 November 2010

Organized Chaos: Robin Hood, the Pantomime

A veteran of Circa pantomimes, Michael Nicholas Williams takes a break from his work on Robin Hood to tell drama on the waterfront about the musical side of the panto experience.

DOTW: First of all, please tell us a little bit about the music in Robin Hood

MNW: A mix of show tunes, 70s ballads and hey-nonny-nonny madrigals.

Jane Waddell and John Wraight in Robin Hood. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
DOTW: How many of the Circa pantos have you been a part of?

MNW: I’ve written the music and been Musical Director for all 6.

DOTW: What can you tell us about the pantomime experience?

MNW: I get to giggle a LOT.  It’s nice doing a show that makes people happy - instant gratification!

DOTW: What is like composing music for a pantomime? Does the process differ at all from composing for other shows?

MNW: I think I approach it the same way as other shows…  But in panto-land, if I drift towards cheesy-ness I tend to linger a little longer.  What I enjoy most is finding the music for the underscoring - which part of a song becomes a character’s theme, or how can I arrange this jolly tune so that it’s dangerous and threatening?    

Also I enjoy adopting a different style of music. For example, Aladdin had (quasi) middle-eastern music (which to tell the truth was nearer to Fiddler on the Roof…), Jack and the Beanstalk was country and Dick Whittington was Music-Hall.

(left to right) John Wraight (on ground), Jeff Kingsford-Brown, Jamie McCaskill and Kali Kopae in Robin Hood. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
DOTW: What is your favourite Circa panto memory? 

MNW: At the moment I’m enjoying my 4 bars of fame at the end of Act 1 - then the bastards tell me to shut up!  I look forward to the gooey romantic ballads, and the Dames always make me laugh - you never know what’s going to happen.

DOTW: How does Robin Hood compare to the earlier pantos?

MNW: I think that’s like asking me which one of my children I love most… 

DOTW: Finally, what can audiences expect from Robin Hood

MNW: Organised chaos.

Gavin Rutherford and Jamie McCaskill in Robin Hood. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
Robin Hood, the Pantomime runs until 23 December, and then returns in 2011 for a two week season, 4-15 January. Tickets are going fast, get yours by calling the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or going online at www.circa.co.nz

Celebrate Christmas at Robin Hood!
Bring your group of merry men or women to see Robin Hood and enjoy a specialty platter before, at interval or after the show.

The Friar Tuck (savoury)
The Maid Marian (sweet)
The Mother Hood (full dessert)

All are just $12.50 per person, not including ticket price. For more information, call Cara Hill, Audience Development Director, at 801-8137 or by email at carah@circa.co.nz.

22 November 2010

"It really is worth a watch": Me and Robert McKee

After taking the director’s helm of the nationwide hit comedy sensation Le Sud, Conrad Newport returned to Circa to direct the new Greg McGee play, Me and Robert McKee. He tells drama on the waterfront all about McGee’s newest play, which is “very witty as well as delivering a punch to the gut.”

DOTW: What is the general story of Me and Robert McKee?

CN: This is a story of two mates who have known each other since childhood. One is a successful banker – or Equity Entrepreneur as he calls himself – the other is a writer who survives as a teacher of a Writing Course at some un-named tertiary institution. Neither is enjoying a happy marriage to their un-seen wives. When an opportunity arrives to create a film script and attract some serious money they both readily agree – for very different reasons.

Christopher Brougham in Me and Robert McKee. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
DOTW: What was it about this play that made you want to direct it?

CN: It’s a beautifully realised script that satisfyingly explores the characters of a couple of New Zealand males. Both are identifiable to theatre goers as we’ve all met people like Mac and Billy and this script really gets to the guts of what makes them both tick. Surprisingly, that doesn’t always happen in contemporary NZ theatre writing. Greg really does know how to get under the skin of the male psyche. It’s very witty as well as delivering a punch to the gut.

The fact that it toys with our concepts of reality intrigued me as well. That things aren’t always what they seem is a major theme in the script and Greg has a lot of fun with this – he keeps us guessing. There are also enough twists in the plot to keep the story interesting so that we genuinely care about what happens to both of these men.

DOTW: Greg McGee is renowned for his first play, Foreskin’s Lament, an iconic New Zealand work; how does Me and Robert McGee compare/differ?

CN: When that play exploded onto our stage 30 years ago it was a major event. It was a very important statement about us as NZ’ers through male eyes. It had never been said so potently and provocatively before. Me And Robert McKee has the benefit of 30 years writing experience and Greg leaves no turn unstoned as he relishes mocking the very craft he has made a living at.  It is in many ways a subtler piece than Foreskin’s Lament though Greg hasn’t lost any of his anger or his insightful commentary on the NZ male.

Paul McLaughlin in Me and Robert McKee. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
DOTW: What can you tell us about the cast?

CN: I had never worked with either Chris or Paul before, though of course I had seen and enjoyed their work on stage and film. I had an instinct (an important Director’s tool) that they would be good for this play and I wasn’t wrong. These two deliver such incredibly strong performances and everybody has been commenting how much they enjoyed them both in their roles. It really is worth a watch.

DOTW: Were there any particular challenges in directing this play?

CN: Because it’s never been done before, every new play comes with a built-in degree of difficulty. Even before you start working on how to do things, you have to spend a lot of rehearsal time trying to figure out what the author is getting at – especially in a dense, multi layered piece as this one. Luckily we had the chance to have Greg in the rehearsal room and ask questions of him which proved invaluable. He talked - we listened, and vice versa, so there was some important re-writing going on. It’s a real privilege for this to occur.

DOTW: Finally, what should audiences know about Me and Robert McKee?

CN: It all sounds very serious and worthy on paper but it is actually a very funny play. The opening night audience – and others subsequently – was roaring with laughter at all the witty lines and the clever references so if you want to experience an intelligent new New Zealand play by one of its best writers then take a punt and have a go.

Photo by Stephen A'Court.
Me and Robert McKee is on in Circa Two until December 4. Book your tickets by calling the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or going online at www.circa.co.nz.

15 November 2010

Wharfside Restaurant: Daytime Opening, New Menu, Christmas at Wharfside

We wanted to talk about some of the great things happening at Wharfside over the next couple of months.    


We are very excited to announce that Wharfside, in conjunction with Circa, will be opening its doors as a daytime cafe from Tuesday 16 November. The cafe will be open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10am. 

We invite you to come in and try us out, whether it be for lunch, a sweet treat, or simply a tea or coffee. We also have an extensive NZ wine list so if you feel like relaxing over a glass of wine while enjoying the superb waterfront views, then Wharfside is the place to be.  

We have a variety of hot savoury counterfood items including vegetarian options, sandwiches, wraps and salads, cakes, slices, biscuits, scones and muffins. All items will be available to either eat in or 
takeaway. We will also be running a Sunday brunch menu which will include traditional breakfast options as well as build-your-own-brunch options.

For those coffee lovers, we have great coffee card discounts available for our regular customers: buy four get your fifth one free.  

We are a great summer and winter venue. On a beautiful summer’s day, sit in the conservatory with the doors and windows open or in our outdoor patio area and enjoy the sunshine and vibrant waterfront atmosphere and on a winter’s day sit in the warm while still being able to watch the world and the weather go by.

Wharfside has plenty of space with the choice of both the conservatory or the foyer and so is a great place to meet friends for a coffee or lunch or to have a business meeting outside of the office. Wharfside and Circa also cater for daytime functions and seminars.  


Our new menu also kicks off on 15 November. While still keeping some of the old Wharfside favourites, we have revamped the menu to include some fresh new dishes as well. We thought, as we are on the waterfront, we would have more of a seafood lean to our menu, but we still do cater for those non-seafood lovers as well. We also cater to those with special dietary requirements such as vegetarian and gluten free, etc. See the website for details of our new menu. 


Here we are again in the lead up to Christmas. Wharfside will be working in conjunction with Circa Theatre to provide great Christmas entertainment and dining. With a great Pantomime on in the theatre this year, it provides a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Christmas with dinner and a show. We also cater for Christmas groups, whether it be a staff or client function or just a group of friends or family, we can tailor an evening specific to your group.  We can theme your table to give you a real Christmas feel to your evening.   We provide a very affordable children’s menu if you are looking at bringing the kids along. So why not come in for a meal and see a family classic, Robin Hood, which is a favourite with everyone, as a Christmas treat.                                                                                                      

Well, as you can see, we have a lot happening at Wharfside in the next few months and we would love you to come and join us, whether it be for a daytime snack, an evening meal or just coffee and a look around to see what’s new.  

We look forward to seeing you down at Wharfside @ Circa soon.

Dee Ryan & Martin Halliday
Owners, Wharfside Restaurant and Cafe 

Wharfside Restaurant is open for pre and post show dining, in addition to the new operation of a daytime cafe. To make a reservation, please call 801-7996. 

08 November 2010

A good time with your family: Robin Hood

After delighting audiences throughout the country (including a season at Circa earlier this year) and around the world in He Reo Aroha, Jamie McCaskill returns to Circa to take the title role in Roger Hall’s Robin Hood, the Pantomime. He tells drama on the waterfront all about what it’s like to play that “good fulla” Robin Hood.

DOTW: Most of us know the classic story of Robin Hood – has anything changed in the pantomime version of it?

JM: All the typical characters are there apart from one of my favourites, Will Scarlett. We’re made outlaws because of the evil Prince John.  The Sheriff of Nottingham collects taxes, Robin falls in love with Maid Marian and he splits an arrow at the archery contest. That’s all there but I’m pretty sure that Robin Hood’s mother hasn’t featured this much in any other version of Robin Hood. This will definitely get the record for the most times “Nonny nonny no” has ever been said in a Robin Hood story, and the sheriff has a pet viking called Thor.

DOTW: The last time you were at Circa, you starred with Kali Kopae in He Reo Aroha. Now you’re back and starring together in Robin Hood – how would you describe/compare each experience?

JM: He Reo Aroha was a huge creative process for Kali and myself which made the experience of that show a lot more personal to us. Being in Robin Hood is relaxing in a way that we can keep it at arms length, we can have fun with it, we put in the hard work, but we’re not being effected by the pressure of presenting our own kaupapa in regards to story telling. We’re just enjoying being actors solely and putting 100% into that and bringing Roger’s script to life.

DOTW: How does it feel to play the title character, Robin Hood? What do you think of him?

JM: It’s pretty cool. I’m having a lot of fun and Sue gives us a lot of freedom in regards to working out our characters. Robin seems to be a bit of a good fulla who cares about the people. He likes singing and fighting in the bush. He doesn’t know what an orange is and he is an exceptional archer. What more can I say? I want to be him.

DOTW: What can you tell us about the rest of the cast?

JM: Loving working with Gavin Rutherford and Jeff Kingsford-Brown again, they’re cracking me up. I’m working with people who have years of experience in the craft so I sit there and watch how they work then steal their tricks. Weird thing is, Gavin seems to sing in an American accent. It’s just bizarre.

DOTW: What is the rehearsal process like for a show like this?

JM: It’s extremely frustrating until I get over myself.

DOTW: What can audiences expect from Roger Hall’s Robin Hood?

JM: They can expect a fast-paced, witty script with accessible humour. Crack up performances by actors I look up to, Kali Kopae singing beautifully, a smiling Michael Williams whose music you will be singing when you leave the theatre, and a good time with your family.

Nga mihi ki a koutou katoa

Robin Hood opens 13 November and runs until 23 December, returning in the New Year for a two week season, 4-15 January. Tickets are available by calling the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or going online at www.circa.co.nz

Celebrate the holidays with Robin Hood! Bring your family or a group of friends to the panto and enjoy a pre-show platter or dessert at Wharfside Restaurant. Platter (sweet or savoury) or dessert packages cost just $12.50 per person (beverages additional), on top of the ticket price. For more information, contact Audience Development Director Cara Hill at 801-8137.

01 November 2010

Me and Robert McKee: Playing with the Realities of the Real and the Written

Me and Robert McKee playwright Greg McGee on rugby, writing and his latest play ...

Born in 1950 in the South Island town of Oamaru, Greg grew up in a working-class family who never went to theatre. At Otago University he studied law. He was regarded as one of the top rugby players of his generation, twice trialling for the All Blacks. Tall and rangy, Greg has a genuine modesty.

Me and Robert McKee

DOTW: McGee interviews always seem to start with rugby so why should we be different? Your career was kicked off (pun intended) by Foreskin’s Lament, a play about rugby, New Zealand culture and generational conflict and that captured the zeitgeist of the time (1981 and the Springbok Tour).  Central to the play is the conflict between ‘intellectuals’ and rugby supporters.

GG: Those were the days. There was a period when anyone with pretensions to an intellect wouldn’t admit to having anything to do with rugby. When I reviewed Chris Laidlaw’s book Somebody Stole My Game for Metro magazine, I talked a little bit about how the attitudes to rugby in the general populace have changed. Rugby is now part of the entertainment matrix and rugby players are now celebrities, whereas in the old days you couldn’t actually be an intellectual and have an interest in rugby. It was very hard to do that and rugby was hated by a lot of the middle-class liberals.

DOTW: It was war.

GG: You know everyone was out on the streets protesting against Apartheid and so on, but there was also a huge anti-rugby sentiment there because rugby was perceived to be rural at a time when the rural marginals were perceived to be holding the urban seats to ransom through the first-past-the-post electoral system. It was rural, red-neck, misogynist and kind of Muldoonist, because the Rugby Union seemed to be in cahoots with Muldoon in refusing to be bound by the Gleneagles Agreement so I think the urban liberals associated rugby with all those really kind of prehistoric attitudes.

DOTW: You were a long-haired rugby player when a lot of your peers still wore ties and blazers.

GG: There was also an intergenerational thing going on. By the mid-seventies it was all afros and beads and everything changed so quickly. But for the few years before that, the fight between young and old was at its most terrible. The Tour was a touch-stone for that conflict as well.

DOTW: When and why did you start writing?

GG: At primary school, actually. I started filling exercise books. I’m not sure why.

DOTW: In the play Me and Robert McKee, the character Billy says writers are paid to tell lies.

GG:  I started early. I remember telling a tall tale or two at morning talk. I once told the class that my father used to let me back the van out of the garage in the morning, and it must have sounded plausible. My mother got a call from the teacher asking what was going on.

DOTW: Was school a positive experience?

GG: Yes, but it can’t have been all positive. As a five-year old, I ran away from Casa Nova School in Oamaru. The headmaster saw me escaping out the gate and sent the whole of Standard Four after me. We lived a kilometre away from school and it must have been a sight – this big group of kids tearing down the highway chasing me all the way home.

DOTW: The art and craft of writing is a strong thread through Me and Robert McKee.  It features Billy, a writer who teaches a writing course, and his best friend Mac, a banker and would-be producer. Mac offers Billy a screenplay to write. However the offer is not all it seems. What was the play’s genesis?

GG: I saw the bourgeoning popularity of writing courses and thought, how can I put a stop to that waste? How can I persuade more people to take up something useful, like merchant banking? Seriously, the impetus for particular stories comes from a myriad of elements, but in this case I saw – or heard - these two characters very clearly, and they seemed to have a lot to say to one another!

DOTW: Billy talks about the terror of the blank page. He makes writing sound difficult.

GG: Writing isn’t difficult. Everyone does it. Writing something worth a damn is extraordinarily difficult. As Billy says in the play – “Anyone can write…Writing is the great free market of artistic expression. There’s no prohibitive overheads, you just need pen and paper. There’s no professional organisation you have to join before you’re allowed to do it, no exams to pass, no subs to pay, no fees, no licence. It’s open slather. Entirely self-regulatory. You can do whatever you please. Like banking.”

DOTW: Billy talks about the importance of listening for a writer. What do you mean?

GG: When Billy talks about the importance of listening, he’s not talking about having an ear for dialogue, though you do need that as well. Excuse me for quoting my own play again, but Billy says it better than I could: “You won't write anything worth a damn unless you learn to listen. Unless you learn to open the channels. And pray that in that moment of quiescence, that moment of acute calm, Someone will speak to you. A character. And tell you things that you never knew you knew. A story. Everything - everything - depends on the authenticity of that voice. Character is destiny: destiny is story.”

DOTW: Who is Robert McKee?

GG: This is what Wikipedia says about the man who is probably the ultimate screenplay guru:

Robert McKee, born 1941, is a creative writing instructor who is widely known for his popular "Story Seminar", which he developed when he was a professor at the University of Southern California. McKee is the author of a "screenwriters' bible" called Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. Many of Hollywood’s active screenwriters claim him as an inspiration. Rather than simply handling "mechanical" aspects of fiction technique such as plot or  dialogue taken individually, McKee examines the narrative structure of a work and what makes the story compelling or not.

DOTW: How do you feel about the play?

GG: I really like this play on the page, the way it combines humour and emotion and plays with the realities of the real and the written. And I think it’s very theatrical, without being physical theatre, but the leap from the page to the stage is the big test and, as always, it’s both exciting and terrifying. I’m very grateful to have Conrad Newport at the helm and Chris and Paul bringing it to life.

Me and Robert McKee opens in Circa Two on November 6. For tickets, call the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or go online at www.circa.co.nz.

25 October 2010

A Wonderfully Observed Comedy of Manners: The Birthday Boy

Director Jane Waddell and Designer Andrew Foster take drama on the waterfront behind-the-scenes of The Birthday Boy, discussing the ins and outs of Carl Nixon’s hilariously relatable play and the challenges involved in staging it.
DOTW: What is the basic story of The Birthday Boy?
JW: The basic story traces the relationship between two men who have been friends since sixth form, it traces their friendship over a period of 25 years; it starts in 2010 and finishes in 2035.  They both take different journeys and what happens to them both is a result of the decisions they make and how these impact on them individually but also on their friendship.
AF: In a strange way, there’s a coming of age element to it. Their relationship is so solidly that kind of joking, playful, adolescent male bond, and it is questioned by those responsibilities that life throws at you, responsibilities which both of them have sort of chosen not to accept, really.
JW: Peter’s [Hambleton] character, David, says, “The choices I made piled up on my shoulder,” that’s how he explains what happens to him. When he asks Stuart [Phil Vaughan] what happened to him, he says, “You’re exactly the same.” In a way, even though David’s journey is much more chaotic and has some pretty awful consequences, his journey is much more challenging and therefore when he comes out the other end of it, he’s the richer for it. And he’s right when he says to Stuart, “you’re exactly the same as when you were 18.”
AF: At which point people will be saying, “Now hang on, I thought this was a comedy.” And I guess we should point out it is a wonderfully observed comedy of manners.  It’s a recognition of things that are so universally human that make it a really witty and light play as well as one with depth and that evolution of the relationship.
JW:  There’s something quite Shakespearean about the way Peter plays that drunk scene [in Act II], it’s quite extraordinary and very, very fine acting.
AF: It’s one of those great moments in theatre, isn’t it? And done amazingly by Peter.

(left to right) Peter Hambleton and Phil Vaughan in The Birthday Boy. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
DOTW: The set design is really intriguing for The Birthday Boy; can you tell us about the concept?
AF: It was born out of form following function, in a way. When we first started talking about the show, Jane was really aware that it was really tricky. It’s quite satisfying, because it has a structure very much like a sitcom or TV comedy, but in actual fact that makes it quite difficult to stage because it takes place in more than one location and over 25 years. So we were aware that we had to make something that had fluidity,  that could make the transformations really quickly, because with a comedy you don’t want to keep your audience waiting on the next bit to unfold. And we also wanted to do something that was a little unexpected in our approach. We actually picked up on a technology that we worked with last year in The Vertical Hour, which is a printing technology that prints onto billboard skins. We’ve been printing on the backs of these; it is a translucent skin that when you light through it, it has a fantastic glow. It is a really interesting effect and with it we created quite a naturalistic landscape of a tree in The Vertical Hour. When we got together with Ulli [Briese], the lighting designer, we suddenly thought, “Well, what else could we do with that?” Then we came up with the idea of panels that light up that could spell out different years, different times zones, and create a little bit of atmosphere. In a way, it’s a complicated way of working around a play that probably should have had a revolve. Although I’m really happy it doesn’t.
JW: I’m really happy it doesn’t too! I think this is much more interesting. I don’t know if this is correct, but personally, my expectations of a revolve is that the set has to be completely different every time it comes around. So it actually involves a lot more dressing and a lot more furniture. It also seemed to me like quite an old-fashioned solution to a play that in terms of its style – it is a two-act play – in spite of the fact that it spans 25 years, is actually an old-fashioned structure. 
AF: We really wanted it to be easy to watch and unfold quickly, like film, like television. And in a strange way, in order to do that you have to be quite clever and minimal. So the changes and shifts are apparent, but not huge and not distracting. Geri [Geraldine Brophy] said at the forum [first Tuesday performance of every Circa production], that something that is engaging about theatre is that it is a medium that requires the audience to read. You have to participate, to figure a few things out, and by participating in that way, it’s all the richer. It’s like the joy of reading a good book, it engages your imagination. I think quite consciously we were trying to do something like that, to be suggestive rather than completely realistic.

Donna Akersten and Phil Vaughan in The Birthday Boy. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
DOTW: What is the process between the director and the designer in developing a design concept for a play?
JW: The first time we met was back in May, and I had read it a couple of times and to be honest, I didn’t know how we were going to do it. But I know how talented Andrew is, so I was quite confident that he would come up with a brilliant solution! We talked about how to approach it and we talked about how we didn’t want huge, long scene changes, but at that time we didn’t know exactly what we were going to do.
AF: I think we were all aware that there were simple solutions and we wanted simple solutions. But we were also aware that the dynamics of the script were so complicated, that the solutions were going to need some road testing and trialling and erroring.  And so over the next few months, we threw different ideas at it.
JW: Yes, we had quite a few meetings, and Ulli joined us in June.
AF: And you research concepts, you start looking for clues by looking online – I looked at architecture sites and sites that look at designs for the future. We looked at how the other production – there’s only ever been one other production - how that company addressed problems.  And we followed a few ideas down the path long enough to recognize whether or not they were going to work.
DOTW: How similar is the design here at Circa to that used in the Court production?
AF: Well, I’ve only seen fragments of the one at the Court; Geri, I think, saw the production. I think we use some similar solutions, in that apparently they used projections to paint some of the scenes. But we don’t use projections, we use a series of light boxes and actually we’ve gone with a patterning, so our scenes are painted with abstract pictorial elements, while I think they used quite realistic elements. So I think the starting point for both was similar, that recognition of trying to do something that was very essential rather than super naturalistic. But I think they ended up being quite different.
JW: The bed was the last thing that Andrew resolved – and I think brilliantly, it’s innovative and unexpected – but I trust Andrew implicitly and I knew that he would find resolutions for every problem.
AF: It was like a big puzzle. It was really great, fitting in the pieces as we went – which is how it is to work with Jane – and I suppose, the more you work in theatre, the more you recognize that the people who approach stuff in this way, are really satisfying to work with. To make a credible allusion, it comes from a book I read by Edward de Bono, who wrote Six Thinking Hats, he’s a philosopher who’s been really embraced by the business world because a lot of his philosophical ideas sit really well as business ideas. But he wrote this book called Po, in which he said that in 2000 years, mankind has made technological advances that are just amazing but the system of thinking, the technology of how you solves a problem, hasn’t changed since the ancient Greeks. In that book he investigates whether or not there is anything other than binary logic in thinking processes. And the closest he comes is that he analyses artists, and he says that artists use a creative process that has a third stage, which is a kind of sit on the fence, where you allow yes and no to be possible for long enough that you get a feeling for which way to go. And that’s what it’s like working with Jane, she recognizes that you’re not going to know all the solutions to start with, but as long as you’ve got the skeleton in place, things may fall one way or the other, but if you put your faith in creative people, those problems get solved as you go along, and sometimes to the surprise of everyone.

Jude Gibson in The Birthday Boy. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
DOTW: You’ve already touched on some, but were there any particular challenges in terms of staging the play?
AF: Thousands! Every scene has its challenges. Some scenes will start after a huge party, and we had to determine how we were going to litter the stage in the aftermath of a party. A baby is brought on in one scene. In the future scene, people talk on futuristic video telephone devices. It’s challenging in that way that playwrights always talk about where they say, “I’ll just write it and they can figure out how to do it.” And he [Carl Nixon] has certainly written a lot of difficult staging elements.
JW: He has. And also in terms of the playing of it, it’s deceptively difficult. It’s a much more difficult play than it appears to be. It’s more challenging in terms of staging than it appears to be. You don’t want it to be hard, the aim is to make it look easy.
AF: A two hour arc, in real time, has to have a shape for the audience. But the actors are having to block it in 5 or 10-year blocks. And so that natural pitch that he is showing with the characters, that progression where they have to bring in the notion of aging and the huge blocks of life experience that happens in between the scenes to the stage is a tough challenge. But I think the cast do marvellously.
JW: I do too. One of the things I really like about this script is the role reversal, how the two women behave more in the way that you expect men to behave, and I think that is really interesting.
AF: For a comedy, there are a lot of thematics that are actually incredibly on the nose and current and questioning. I remember Peter said that his brother or someone came to one of the shows and found the whole role reversal between the parents just a little bit too close to home, because they recognize it’s happening in their own lives.

Peter Hambleton in The Birthday Boy. Photo by Stephen A'Court. 
DOTW: The Circa Theatre Meetup Group came to opening night, and after the show were discussing how everyone had something they could relate to in the play, whether in their own lives or that of someone they knew, there’s something for everyone.
Finally, how do you feel about the end result? What should audiences know in particular about the Circa Theatre The Birthday Boy?
JW: I’m really pleased with the way it’s evolved and what we’re presenting to the audience.
AF: I think it’s incredibly rich. It’s engaging as comedy and it makes you think.

The Birthday Boy runs in Circa One until 6 November. Get your tickets by calling the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or going online at www.circa.co.nz

Celebrate your birthday at The Birthday Boy! Group packages available, for more information visit The Birthday Boy or call Cara Hill, Audience Development Director, at 801-8137.

Peter Hambleton and Geraldine Brophy in The Birthday Boy. Photo by Stephen A'Court.