Playmarket, an organisation representing and marketing playwrights and their work, was founded in 1973 by Nonnita Rees, Judy Russell and Robert Lord. In 1980 Playmarket ran its first playwrights’ workshop. These events, seven to 10 days long, were held biennially from 1980 to 1994. Selected new and original scripts were tested by actors and directors working alongside the playwright, who was supported by a dramaturge (a specialist at developing plays for performance). These workshops brought together the literary and collective-creation methods, which had been widely separated during the 1970s. The gatherings had a strong impact on the development of plays, playwrights and play-making in the 1980s and 1990s.
Wellington’s Depot Theatre (later renamed Taki Rua) began life as an actors’ collective. Founding member Colin McColl says, ‘We wanted primarily something for New Zealand writers and also Maori and Pacific Island writers. That was the initial vision.’ During the 1980s the theatre adopted a policy of staging only New Zealand plays. Anthony McCarten’s first play, Cyril Ellis where are you?, was staged at The Depot in 1984, and his Ladies night (1987), co-written with Stephen Sinclair, was a national and international commercial success. James Beaumont’s startling neo-punk drama Wild cabbage (1985) also premiered at The Depot.
Dramatist Greg McGee attended one of the early Playmarket workshops. His play Foreskin’s lament (1980) is set in the world of small-town club rugby, with dialogue, accents and crudities more authentic than theatre-going audiences had ever encountered. It rapidly achieved an iconic status rivalled only by Roger Hall’s Glide time. McGee quit writing for stage in the 1980s (though he made a bold return in 2010 with Me and Robert McKee).
Another writer to emerge from the workshops was socialist-feminist playwright Renee (originally Renee Taylor), whose trilogy of historical plays about four generations of working-class women began with Wednesday to come (1984). Renee moved from drama to fiction in the 1990s.
Gender was a major concern of theatre in the 1980s. Issues of rape, incest, women’s prisons, marriage, pornography, childbirth, homosexuality and striptease appeared variously in such plays as Carolyn Burns’s Objection overruled (1982), Norelle Scott’s Promise not to tell (1984), Hilary Beaton’s Outside in (1982), Fiona Samuel’s The wedding party (1988), Stephanie Johnson’s Accidental phantasies (1985), Sarah Delahunty’s Stretchmarks and Lorae Parry’s Frontwomen (1988) and Strip (1988).
Second-wave feminism also picked up on the power of cabaret, initially with Kate JasonSmith’s The carefree show (1976) at Unity Theatre, Wellington. In 1988 JasonSmith created the women’s comedy show Hens’ teeth at Circa Theatre, a format that became an annual event for a number of years.
Other women playwrights
Not all writing by the new women playwrights was in such territories. Rachel McAlpine (Driftwood, 1985) and Fiona Farrell (Passengers, 1985) wrote for youth casts, though Farrell’s Bonds (1986) was for an adult audience. The women playwrights’ movement, later supported by the Women’s Play Press, diversified as an entity, notably with Jean Betts’s rearrangements of Shakespeare, such as Ophelia thinks harder (1993). This play was still regularly seen around New Zealand and overseas 20 years after its first publication, and may be the most widely performed New Zealand play.
Other notable women playwrights in the 2000s included Lynda Chanwai-Earle, Pip Hall, Jo Randerson and April Phillips.
It is a paradox that the culture that venerates Shakespeare pays so little attention, in the modern world, to playwriting as a literary form. In 1970 the Auckland critic J. C. Reid published an 80-page survey of New Zealand literature in a series of volumes about ‘literatures of the British Commonwealth’. He devoted just three pages to dramatic writing. When Patrick Evans wrote his Penguin history of New Zealand literature in 1990, he left dramatic literature out altogether. The Auckland University Press anthology of New Zealand literature (2012) allots 20 pages out of 1,068 to playwrights.
Male playwrights also introduced new sensibilities and aesthetic strategies. Michael Heath had plays staged at Circa and Downstage and overseas in the 1970s before his Salvation Road (1982) was produced at Circa. After the 1980s Heath moved into film as a writer, director and actor.
Simon O’Connor, beginning with Lift (1974) and Song of Johnny Muscle (1975), was another of these new writers. O’Connor also had a career as an actor and notably as a teacher of playwriting at Otago University from the 1990s onwards. Craig Thaine’s Today’s bay (1982), which dramatises the work of Katherine Mansfield, was written for the New Zealand Drama School.
Theatres rise and fall
The number of people writing for theatre increased in the 1980s, as did the sheer volume of activity in professional theatre. Old theatres collapsed (Theatre Corporate in Auckland in 1986 and Mercury Theatre in 1992) and new ones were born (The Depot in 1982 in Wellington and The Watershed in Auckland in 1990).
Hoar and Hawes
Stuart Hoar, whose first play, Squatter (1987), was aired at the 1986 Playwrights Workshop, has had over 30 radio plays and nearly 20 stage plays produced. Peter Hawes, whose work was staged at the Court, Mercury and Downstage during the 1980s, has not continued to write plays.