29 October 2012

The Naming of The Tigers of Wrath

Playwright Dean Parker talks to drama on the waterfront about the challenge of choosing a  title.

"There’s a famous disaster movie entitled Krakatoa, East of Java. A sea-borne salvage expedition heads to recover a cargo of rare pearls. It anchors close to the rumbling volcanic island of Krakatoa. The volcano blows. The captain’s mistress has a child on the island. The child has to be rescued. The crew becomes mutinous. So forth.

Krakatoa is actually west of Java. But “west”, the producers decided, was not really a saleable geographic garnish. “Krakatoa, West of Java”… didn’t have that ring.

Sometime ago I wrote a play about the post-war New Zealand diplomatic legation in Moscow. I gave it what I thought a reasonable enough title: The Moscow Legation. When I circulated the play I found theatres asking, “Who knows what a legation is?”

I came up with a list of pretty limpish alternatives, then, getting into the swing of things, suggested we call it after a Kenny Ball pop hit. It became Midnight In Moscow.

There was a TV series I worked on with Greg McGee, a series commissioned by TVNZ and set against the 19th century land wars and which we wrote without a settled title, thinking we’d leave that to the TVNZ head honcho so he’d bond with the show. This head honch was a fairly typical TVNZ import, “a big, booming Australian”—in the words of one media sleuth—“who said what he liked and liked what he said”. Greg showed him our list of possible titles, all of them taken from blood-thirsty lines in Macbeth, said we couldn’t make up our minds, suggested he choose one.  The CEO ignored all these and came up instead with “Greenstone” (he was an Aussie; to be fair, I imagine any Kiwi in a similar position in Australia would have come up with “Koala” or something). Greg then went and did a re-write job, inserting a totemic greenstone comb into the plot as he felt—ludicrously—a sense of accountability.

I felt no such tug of conscience with Midnight In Moscow—none of the scenes occurred at midnight, or referred to midnight, but Midnight In Moscow it became and everyone was happy. (And so they should have been. Recently I was watching a TV doco series on Woody Allen which ended with the unexpected success of Midnight In Paris. “I think it was the title,” said one of the participants.)

Round about the same time as the Moscow play I wrote another, set in Afghanistan, which I called Hindu Kush. I thought this had an exotic East-of-Java ring to it but I was wrong. “Are we going to need a geography lesson for this?” I was asked.  It became The Perfumed Garden—nudge nudge, wink wink.

A play that began with the honest and unadorned working title Muldoon ended up—at my own venal instigation—Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Later I saw the title intriguingly mis-spelled as Sloughing Toward Bethlehem.

With adaptations I’ve generally stuck to the original title. There’s an obligation. More important is the producer argument—“it brings its own market segment”. I do remember a Monty Python sketch about a movie adapted from a book. The movie was titled The Black Flag. Beneath the title was: “Based on the novel, Le Drapeau Bleu.”

A new play I’ve written, The Tigers of Wrath, which starts off in Red China in the 1970s, had China Reconstructs as a working title. Now this adequately enough described an important element of the play and was also the title of a well-known Peking English-language magazine of the time. But I knew it wouldn’t last; too, too, too prosaic.

I carried on writing and was well into the first act, in which a young kiwi Maoist touring China on a student trip declares his love for a fellow traveller, when I finally came up with the title it now bears.
During breaks in the writing I had been reading some journal or biography—I have a feeling it might have been to do with Dame Edith Sitwell—and in it someone recollected dreams in which they were talked to by horses, by a whole lot of Mister Eds. A terrifying thought.

But I figured it could be quite a sweet image, too, and I was at a stage in the script when I needed my fellow traveller to draw closer to her suitor by revealing something personal. So I had her confiding that at night she dreamt of horses that whispered to her. Upon waking she could never remember what they had said.

A short time after this I came across a mention of the tigers of wrath. I knew the reference. William Blake: “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” Already I had the horses of instruction in the script. Why not add the tigers of wrath? As the title?

It had resonance. My fellow traveller later becomes a Labour politician, while another of her comrades from the China trip remains a rank-and-file union stirrer. And a rank-and-file union stirrer is the place to be. Everyone knows a half-decent strike is worth a dozen pieces of handed-down Labour Party legislation. The confidence and lessons learnt during a strike are more important than anything to be gained from parliamentary politics: the tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

And thus did I realise what the horses were trying to tell my dreamer. It was the title of the play she was in."

The Tigers of Wrath opens on 3 November in Circa Two and runs until 1 December. There are $25 ticket specials on Friday, 2 November and Sunday, 4 November. To book, visit www.circa.co.nz.

24 October 2012

Cinderella Needs a Leg Up!

The crew of Cinderella - The Pantomime are in need of an item for their upcoming season and wonder if you might be able to give them a hand (or a leg ...)?

Needed as a prop for the season of Cinderella - The Pantomime, 17 November - 23 December, 2-12 January (although it might be needed a bit earlier for rehearsals) is the following:

- a mannequin leg, whole - thigh to foot - preferably female and elegant 

If you have this item and would be interested in lending it to Circa to be used in the production (in exchange for a couple of tickets and acknowledgement in the programme!), please contact:

Cara Hill
Audience Development Director

p.s. If you don't have it but can point us in the direction of someone who does, that would also be much appreciated!

Encore Restaurant Shares the Best Bolognese

Encore Restaurant owner Jacinta Saeki shares one of her favourite homestyle recipes.

Simple recipes have a way of warming the hearth and home and getting everyone around the dinner table without feeling like you’ve run a marathon. The following Bolognese recipe is just that, taught to me by a Sicilian many years ago, simple and delicious. The bonus is that it has lots of vegetables (that you barely see), it can be used in other dishes such as: lasagne, eggs on toast, pie; can feed many or few, and it always infuses a sense of full satisfaction that accompanies every good meal.  For a pot that will stretch for 2 meals you will need:

Bolognese Sauce

1kg lean beef mince
2 carrot
2 stalk of celery
2 onion
2 zucchini (optional including other veg)
2 tbsp garlic
3 tbsp olive oil 
1 cup red wine
800g tin peeled tomato
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tsp salt (to taste)
1/2 tsp pepper (to taste)

1. Finely dice onion, carrot and celery and fry in a pot with garlic and olive oil for 5 minutes.
2. Gradually break up mince into pot stirring after each addition until all mince is used and browned. 
3. Add red wine, stir, then crush peeled tomato through your fingers into the pot.
4. Simmer on low heat for 45 minutes to 1 hour stirring occasionally. The longer it cooks the better the flavour and texture.
5. When finished cooking season with salt and pepper and mix in chopped parsley.
6. Serve with your favourite pasta and cheese or use for lasagne.

Buon Appetito!

Encore Restaurant is open as a cafe during the day, Tuesday to Sunday, and for pre-theatre dining before the show, Tuesday to Saturday. On Sunday evenings, enjoy a delicious roast. Bookings are strongly recommended - call 801-7996 or email enquiries@encoreatcirca.co.nz

15 October 2012

The Mourning After

Watch playwright Ahi Karunaharan and director Miria George cooking traditional Sri Lankan kai and talking about theatre show, The Mourning After.

The Mourning After
October 16, 2012 presented by Tawata Productions

Written and Performed by Ahi Karunaharan

Tickets for Tawata's final production of the year in Te Whanganui-a-tara, 'The Mourning After', are on sale now!

Written and performed by Ahi Karunaharan, 'The Mourning After' follows Kiwi-born Shekar as he travels to his father's village in the pearl of the Orient, Sri Lanka. On his arrival Shekar discovers that the tsunami has swept away the village and all that remains is a single house and those left behind.

As Shekar sifts through the ruins in search of answers, the buried truths of his father's past are revealed.

Featuring sound design by Karnan Saba, lighting design by Laurie Dean and directed by Miria George, 'The Mourning After' is showing for a limited season at Circa Theatre!

SEASON: 7.30pm / 16 -- 27 OCTOBER 2012 

TICKETS: $40 -- $25 / GROUPS 8+ $25

BOOKINGS: 1 TARANAKI ST / 04 801 7992 / www.circa.co.nz

08 October 2012

The Truth Game: “The Truth is not always that simple".

Playwright Simon Cunliffe tells drama on the waterfront about the inspiration for The Truth Game.

Playwright Simon Cunliffe. Photo by Paul McLaughlin.
I didn’t formally become a “journalist’’ until I was in my early 30s. And by that time – the mid-80s – I had lived, travelled and worked in various capacities across the world:  plastics factory labourer in Christchurch; mine worker in Northern Australia; aid convoy driver in Kenya; development project tutor in Sudan, hotel assistant in France; warehouse man and cheesemaker in London

So you could say I brought something of an outsider’s gaze to the profession even as I embraced it and immersed myself in its intriguing milieu.  For the next-to-penniless would-be writer I was striving to become, it offered a good income and the opportunity to hone my craft. And though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, it began to throw up colourful characters and dramatic possibilities that would, a couple of decades on, seep into a play I had begun to write.

By about 1987, I found myself working casually at the Mirror Group in London. Its buildings straddled New Fetter Lane, just off Holborn Circus, which ran down to Fleet Street. Two of them were connected by a glass covered walkway above the street. It joined the satellite offices in which my colleagues and I worked to the labyrinthine maze opposite. This larger complex housed the newsroom of the Sunday Mirror. From the upper floors the magnate Robert Maxwell cast a sort of malevolent pall of dis-ease over his empire below.

It was the sort of building in which you could get lost. Indeed, it was here I first encountered that apocryphal tale of the editorial writer who, disoriented by the introduction of computers, was dispatched with his typewriter to “Siberia’’, an office on the dark side of a dark building which ordinarily you needed a road map to find -- and in which the editorialist’s crumbling cadaver was discovered a year or two later.

Below the offices of the Sunday Mirror Magazine, the launch of which I had been recruited to assist, there was a pub. It was dark, dank with stale beer and tobacco. Whorls of cigarette smoke hung in the air, illuminated by the occasional suffused shaft of light. A den of intrigue and internecine office politics, it was known as “The Stab’’ – short for “The Stab in the Back’’.  Here information was bought with a bevvy, liaisons initiated, careers begun and ended.

“Watch yours,’’ my chief sub used to tell me as we adjourned for a pint of  IPA. He was a gentleman, middle-aged, kind and learned, but, like that long-lost editorial writer, bewildered by the change that had overtaken his industry. For him, it was the end of the era. For me, eventually inheriting his job, it was just the beginning.

From his yacht anchored somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean Maxwell called up one day and demanded of a subordinate: “Sign three sub-editors!’’  Wishing neither to delay nor disappoint, the man shoulder-tapped the first three people who hove into view. I could have been the cleaner for all he knew; two or three years earlier, I probably had been.

I plunged into it with all the gratitude and zeal of the saved, regularly pinching myself. I drank in the lore, the stories, the conduct – hungrily. It seemed impossibly exotic: the two alpha male sub-editors bloodying each other’s noses over the placement of a serial comma; the  editorial “executives’’, back from a five-hour lunch, exorcising their booze-induced lust in the women’s loo, a crowd of  office eavesdroppers cheering them on.

I moved on to The Independent, still in its heyday. Here, the diversions were of a different order –  even the sex was more literary -- but in their own way, equally colourful.  Half expecting to be found out, and as insurance against that eventuality, I began acquiring keepsakes:  collecting incidents and observations like a magpie nicking  shiny trinkets, and filing them away in a slot called memory. 


One of the central conceits of my contemporary drama, The Truth Game, is that all the crises of the age come to a head during one night’s production of a fictional daily, The Advocate. It is in fact haunted by, though not based on, ghosts of people, places and events encountered over almost three decades in journalism.

In 1994, I returned to New Zealand, initially as a feature writer on The Press in Christchurch, a solid if somewhat conservative metropolitan broadsheet which had been recently taken over by the Murdoch-dominated Independent Newspapers Limited. A culture of “change management’’ was afoot in which, in increasingly senior roles, I played my eager part. But by the time I resigned as deputy editor at the end of 2002, small misgivings about the business of journalism had begun to gather.

It was these that got me started on the play, following a move to Dunedin. I began hawking round early versions of the script in about 2006, rewriting over the next few years as readings and workshops prompted advice from all quarters on how to construct the perfect drama. I was, initially at least, just as anxious that by the time it reached the stage, the fictional newsroom I had created, and the concerns of its inhabitants, would be laughably dated.

I was at that time fortunate to meet director Danny Mulheron, to whom the existence of this play owes a great deal. He loved newspapers; he loved the script, even in its earliest guise. He simply said: don’t worry, good things take time. We’ll get this play on.

He was as good as his word.


At the heart of The Truth Game is Frank Stone, “the last great snorting warhorse of print journalism’’. Acting editor of daily newspaper The Advocate, recently taken over by an international media company, he is an old-style print warrior for “truth’’, grammatical correctness and the watchdog role of “the Fourth Estate’’ – who finds himself at odds with his paper’s corporate masters.

While all around him marketers, managers and disciples of the new digital media  – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube – peddle their pervasive dedication to focus groups, loose-lipped trivia and the bottom line, Frank  tries to  reconcile the colliding demands of  principle and personal aspiration, while confronting the demons of his messy past, and mounting a rear-guard action for the very “soul’’ of news. Ambition, loyalty, love and betrayal act upon his careering orbit and on those surrounding him.


There is an old and clich├ęd piece of advice given to would-be authors: write about what you know. But, paradoxically, knowing too much can be a hindrance. Feedback on early drafts from journalists  -- “just like a documentary’’ --  and others, tended to confirm this. I also had to be reminded I wasn’t writing for my colleagues: they would form a tiny percentage of the potential audience.

The challenge was to turn my subject into compelling drama. And this meant learning about dramatic structure -- one not greatly informed by the exigencies of daily newspaper journalism. Sophisticated narrative form and feature writing apart, news reportage requires the conveyance of as much information as possible in the most economical way -- leaving nothing to chance and even less to suspense. On the other hand, newspapers and theatre both thrive on crises and conflict – it’s just that good drama offers its delayed gratifications in a series of stages as it drives towards climax and resolution.

I wanted to write a play set in a traditional newsroom besieged by the “crises’’ of the age --  before that newsroom disappeared entirely. In part this was to be an affectionate valediction, but also an interrogation of the confused and diffused role of the Fourth Estate in contemporary democracy. For if a well-functioning democracy requires the transparent and untrammelled passage of information – of “truth’’ –  through the media to the people, it is arguable that, assailed by a perfect storm of  falling circulation and splintered ad revenues, debt loading, changing ownership patterns and digital  consumption, that role has been increasingly compromised.

That’s the columnist and editorial writer in me: the now traditional newspaper man in control of his material who assembles facts and opinions and relays them – matter-of-factly. The dramatist within knows, however, that the theatrical substrate and the characters created don’t always want to play ball. They challenge you constantly, and haul you off in directions you might not have anticipated.

In his powerful indictment of the modern media, Flat Earth News, Guardian journalist Nick Davies suggests more than once that telling the truth is the proper business of journalism. But as even Frank Stone, its greatest advocate, is at one point forced to concede, “The Truth is not always that simple".

If it were, I suspect The Truth Game would never have been written, much less produced.

Simon Cunliffe
October 2012

The Truth Game opens on Saturday, 13 October with $25 Specials on Sunday, 14 October and Tuesday, 16 October. To book, please call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz.

01 October 2012

Manawa: Playwright's Notes and Audience Responses

Writer/performer/producer Jamie McCaskill tells drama on the waterfront about his history with Circa, and discusses his experiences with staging the first work through his new company, Tikapa Productions.

Kia Ora
Nga Puke ki Hauraki ka tarehu
E mihi ana ki te whenua
E tangi ana ki te tangata
E nga mana, e nga iwi, e nga uri o Hauraki,
Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa.

Jamie McCaskill
I first graced the stage at Circa Theatre in 2003 in When Sun And Moon Collide by Briar Grace Smith, directed by Keryn Palmer. I remember being in awe of the place and of the theatre practitioners moving around the building, intent on creating the best show possible. Since that time I have been involved at Circa as an actor, a writer, a set builder, an audience member and I’ve even played gigs in the foyer for opening and closing night celebrations with my band Smokey Feel.

My current role at Circa is another thing altogether as I come under the “Producer” banner, and I couldn’t think of a better environment to be in to try my hand at producing.

Tikapa Productions is a company formed by Kali Kopae and myself so we can have ownership on what stories we would like to tell.  Through our combined experience we have found a niche of storytelling, which we would like to explore and develop. Meeting our sponsors, Poutama, was an invaluable experience and I know our team had a fantastic evening with them talking about the show and also getting to know what happens behind the scenes of the Te Awe Maori Business Networks. I would like to extend a huge thank you to Carolyn Henwood for making that partnership happen. Staging Manawa has been both nerve wracking and exciting as we have pulled together a team of absolute professionals who have challenged us to put together a production of a very high standard. Working with high calibre designers such as Jennifer Lal and Brian King reminds us that we shouldn’t aim for anything less.

Kali Kopae
The feedback and reviews we have received about Manawa have been amazing, and as a writer I will continue to develop this piece, aided by the direction of Regan Taylor and my talented cast, to give it a long and healthy life.

Ma te wa
Jamie McCaskill

Audience responses on opening night:

“Fabulous, absolutely fabulous. I love the last line.” 

“Just incredible, really powerful but also funny” 

"The funniness of the characters and how I could relate to them freaked me out in a buzzy way” 

"I really enjoyed the performers. I laughed heartily. I really loved the scenes in Samoan." 

"It was beautiful and moving, it was beautiful to hear Samoan spoken on stage and pretty profound." 

Natano  Keni
Manawa is on in Circa Two until 13 October. To book, please call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or go online www.circa.co.nz.

Fairy Godfathers don’t do spells! ... or do they?

Fairy Godmother extraordinaire Peach Blossom (aka Improvisor Jennifer O'Sullivan) takes drama on the waterfront on a tour and tells us all about her wily assistant, the Fairy Godfather Rose Petal. Was he trying to order his own wand? Do Fairy Godfathers do spells? Find out in Fairy Godfather, on now during the School Holidays in Circa Two.

Welcome, welcome my dears! Welcome.
Welcome to the home of famed Fairy Godmother, the very lovely and magical Peach Blossom -aka, me! It is so lovely to welcome you here, to my glittery lair. I do love guests.
You may remember me from such fables as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Pinnochio. I weave my magical way through many such tales, spreading goodwill and enchantment wherever I go with my magical wand. You should have seen the dire straights Cinderella was in before I turned up and gave her the once-over! And poor Sleeping Beauty - the girl could barely get out of bed BEFORE she pricked her finger on that spinning wheel!
Anyhoo. Glad you could join me. Like I said I do love showing people around my home. Just keep an eye out for that adorable man, my personal assistant Rose Petal. He’s a Fairy Godfather - means well, but as we all know, Fairy Godfathers don’t do spells! He’s more of a pleasant person to keep around, than a helpful Harry.
He gets a bit cranky sometimes. Honestly, I suspect he may get a bit bored, what with being an assistant to someone with a magic wand! But really, it’s just so easy for me to wave my wand and get the washing done, or the lawn mowed. He has plenty of time to relax, and it is nice to have someone who can answer the door while I’m out visiting my god children. Though, would you believe it - the other day, I caught him on the phone pretending to be me! He said he was trying to order me a new wand as my current wand was ‘on the fritz’, or so he claimed... My wand has been fine, so I wonder what he was up to? He can’t have been getting his own one, because of course, as we all know, Fairy Godfathers don’t do spells!
Yes yes, that painting on the wall is indeed beautiful. Gifted to me by Pinocchio after he became a real boy and got a real job. Made his father very proud, he did. I think Rose Petal wishes he had the connections I do with the people of the land of fairy tales. But it’s a bit hard for him to be of any use to people, since we all know Fairy Godfathers don’t do spells!
It was very lovely to have you here in my home. Do drop in on me when I am visiting at Circa Theatre during your school holidays. I have some lovely stories to share with you, and I may even need your help to tell them! See you soon...

Fairy Godfather starts today and runs until 13 October in Circa Two, with shows at 11am and 1pm Monday through Friday and 11am Saturday. Tickets are just $10 per person. To book, call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or go online www.circa.co.nz.