13 January 2014

Becoming a playwright

Kings of the Gym playwright Dave Armstrong tells drama on the waterfront about how he became a professional playwright in New Zealand.

(left to right) Kings of the Gym playwright Dave Armstrong and director Danny Mulheron.
As a professional playwright, one of the questions I’m most commonly asked, apart from the ubiquitous ‘where do you get your ideas from’ is how did I actually become a playwright? When I was a kid growing up in Wellington the 1960s, there were no professional playwrights in New Zealand. That would only change in the mid 1970s with Roger Hall’s brilliant and highly successful Glide Time.

However, there was local content. My father would take me to ribald Sunday night revues at Downstage, not to mention the even filthier ones up at the university. At these venues, relatively unknown young actors with names like Ross Jolly, Sue Wilson, Ginette McDonald and John Clarke would do their thing. Luckily, in those days it was cheaper to take a kid to the theatre than hire a babysitter, so my parents also took me to more respectable plays at places like Unity Theatre (now BATS), but the plays performed were rarely by New Zealanders.

The closest I got to seeing something like a New Zealand play was the brilliant Front Room Boys by Australian playwright Alex Buzo. That play really spoke to me because it was in a language and accent I could easily recognise. It was funny yet political as hell. It was such a thrill to actually meet him years later at a pub in Sydney next to a racetrack. In those early years I did see an excellent devised play about the history of New Zealand and a great production of the Band Rotunda by James K Baxter at Unity.   

Believe it or not, the Country Women’s Institute was also another formative influence. My grandmother, who lived in Dannevirke, was a member and she used to write skits for them. She also won an amateur playwriting competition they ran in the late 1930s. When Nana found out that I was interested in theatre, she would send down comedy sketches she had written in the mail and I would perform them with a bunch of friends at school assembly. Before long I was writing two-page epics about American slavery, the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, and a host of other topics, and performing them at school assembly.

The cast of Kings of the Gym. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
I also attended after-school drama classes which were great fun. Being the liberal 1970s, you didn’t get taught how to act or learn lines. Scripts were only for cissies. The emphasis was on creativity and improvisation. I don’t know if that is a good way to train an actor but it’s a brilliant way to teach playwriting.
I was lucky enough to learn from wonderful teachers like Margaret McCluskey, Steven Tozer, John Banas, Craig Ashley, Ewen Upston, Peter Corrigan and Ralph McAllister. Ralph was a family friend and asked me to do props for a play at Unity by a young New Zealand playwright called Robert Lord. It was fantastic, at such a young age, to learn first-hand how plays were constructed.

I believe you don’t learn to write plays in front of a computer but on the rehearsal floor. That’s where the really interesting stuff happens. From Robert Lord I also learned that plays didn’t need to have realistic sets and be like television – they could be abstract and surreal if need be.

By the time I attended secondary school, I had no intention of being a playwright, but I did enjoy writing articles for the school magazine and making up skits with my schoolmate Danny Mulheron. We had a sort of ‘hidden file’ of sketches we would have loved to have performed one day but were far too scared. In fact, after we had both left school and Danny was at Drama School, he performed some of them at a public showing.

They went down brilliantly with the audience, though one sketch, lampooning anti-Springbok tour protesters, offended some old communists and one Leftie left in tears. ‘I think that sketch was one of Dave’s’ said Danny loudly, avoiding the blame, and thus starting a brilliant thirty-year tradition of fearlessly quoting some of my most extreme utterances when I’m not there. It’s so nice to be informed about them by other people later on.

When Danny and I left our respective tertiary institutions we formed the Unn-Co-operative, and performed sketch shows around the country. It was huge fun. I quickly forget critical reaction to my work, but one of those early revue reviews made an indelible impression: "Writing Crucial Flaw in Satire".

Acushla-Tara Sutton and Richard Dey in Kings of the Gym. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
My sketch-writing career with Danny next got me into writing for television, mainly at the Gibson Group, with shows such as Public Eye, Away Laughing and Skitz. I greatly enjoyed working at Gibsons alongside a number of bright young actors and writers with names like Ken Duncum, Cal Wilson, Jo Randerson, Oscar Kightley, Raybon Kan, Jemaine Clement, and Dave Fane. I always did wonder what happened to these people.

But writing sketches is a young person’s game. I wanted to write a whole play. Doing an adaptation is a great way to learn the craft, and I chose Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. During my career I have been lucky enough to co-write with a number of excellent writers but Charles Dickens is definitely my favourite: he produces great stories, he has a remarkable ear for dialogue, and best of all, because he’s been dead for over a hundred years, he doesn’t ask for a share of the royalties.

The success of A Christmas Carol inspired me to write original work – some of it solo, some with co-writers such as Oscar Kightley and Danny Mulheron. Just the other day, someone asked me what I did for a living, so I told them. ‘So, even though you do lots of different things, your main activity is writing plays.’ I’d never actually thought about it before. ‘Yes,’ I replied after a moment, ‘I suppose it is.’

Kings of the Gym returns to Circa Theatre for Summer 2014, opening on 18 January. To book tickets, please call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz

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