New Zealand’s first professional theatre, Downstage, opened in Wellington in 1964. Downstage staged plays by such local playwrights as Peter Bland, Bruce Mason, Warren Dibble (Lines to M, 1969) and Edward Bowman. The arrival of professional theatre, plus expanded opportunities in radio drama, promised playwrights a potentially continuous, rather than spasmodic, professional life.
Let’s do the time warp again
The musical dramatist Richard O’Brien is not often counted in the ranks of New Zealand playwrights. However, his camped-up musical The rocky horror show became a worldwide hit following its first production in London in 1973. O’Brien co-wrote the screenplay for the 1975 film version, The rocky horror picture show, and appeared as the character Riff Raff. He claimed to have seen all the characters for his show in the streets of Hamilton when he was growing up, and the show provides a musical allegory of Kiwi provincial Gothic.
Plays for radio
Alexander Guyan (Conversations with a golliwog, 1962) began writing for the stage, but then moved to writing solely for radio. On the other hand Joseph Musaphia, whose first play, Free, was staged by the New Zealand Players in 1960, spent most of the 1960s writing for radio before returning to the stage. In 1975 his new play, Mothers and fathers, moved to the larger venue of the State Opera House after a sell-out season at Downstage.
In 1976 a group of Downstage actors left and founded their own theatre in Wellington – Circa. One of their first productions was Roger Hall’s Glide time (1976), which, like Mothers and fathers, moved to the State Opera House. Hall and Musaphia both wrote broad comedy bordering on farce, with numerous local and topical references, and continued to do so in 2014. For more than 35 years Hall has been New Zealand’s most commercially successful playwright.
Robert Lord was one of the more formally inventive 1970s playwrights. His first play, It isn’t cricket (1971), premiered at Downstage and used farce for more thoughtful purposes than the work of Hall and Musaphia. Early plays such as Meeting place and Balance of payments have debts to absurdist drama. Lord’s last play, Joyful and triumphant (which echoed Bruce Mason’s The bonds of love), is a 40-year epic saga of family history as a reflection of national history.
Dean Parker’s first play, Smack (1974), an in-your-face dramatisation of the world of drugs, also premiered at Downstage. Still writing in the 2010s, Parker has demonstrated an ongoing left-wing political commitment in his work, as in the 2011 play Midnight in Moscow. Gordon Dryland went on to be a prolific playwright in the two decades after his first play, Dark going down (1966), was too sharp-tongued for straight commercial success. Dryland’s work confronted issues of homosexuality (If I bought her the wool, 1971) and post-colonial exploitation (Unlikely places, 1979).
Two notable plays from the 1970s were Brian McNeill’s study of Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, Two tigers (1973), and Craig Harrison’s vision of latter day Māori–Pākehā armed conflict, Tomorrow will be a lovely day (1974). Mervyn Thompson, a director and educator as well as a playwright, was inspired by British dramatists Joan Littlewood and Ewan McColl to develop the ‘song play’ form. His two strongest works are the collage-like picture of the economic depression of the 1930s, Songs for Uncle Scrim (1976), and Songs to the judges (1980).
Cabaret at Carmen’s
The mid-1970s saw a revival of cabaret. In 1977 alternative theatre troupe Red Mole took over The Balcony, the Wellington nightclub of transgender identity Carmen Rupe, and presented a series of cabarets that had queues stretching down the street. Cabaret capital strut ran for seven months and featured topless dancing and fire-eating. Almost 50 people appeared in the various productions, including Carmen herself.
A further development in play-making was the emergence of companies collectively creating large-scale original theatre, sometimes together with writers. Poet Murray Edmond wrote with the Living Theatre Troupe (The shadow of Lionel Terry, 1972, directed by Ken Rea); and Alan Brunton, also a poet, wrote with Red Mole, the longest-lasting of these experimental companies. Notable works of this sort include ’51 (1972) and Gallipoli (1974) by Amamus Theatre, directed by Paul Maunder, and The best of all possible worlds (1973) and Once upon a planet (1972) by Theatre Action, directed by Francis Batten.
From stage to screen
The impact of film-making on live drama also began to be felt in the 1970s. Another collective-creation company, the travelling troupe Blerta (1973–76), produced live shows with sketches and music, and also made films. Few New Zealand plays have been turned into films. Middle age spread by Roger Hall is a notable exception.