NZ International Arts Festival
Reviewer Mark Amery at the festival in Wellington

NZ Arts Festival: Thrill of a premiere shouldn't be underestimated

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There's risk in staging new productions, certainly, but that's part of the thrill of a festival. Photo / Supplied
There's risk in staging new productions, certainly, but that's part of the thrill of a festival. Photo / Supplied

This week in Wellington sees the highest concentration of New Zealand work during the international festival, synced to satisfy the professional needs of the world's roving club of festival artistic directors, looking for work that will fill the holes in next year's programme. Let's say, for example, to counterbalance the selection for their programme elsewhere of an Argentinian table tennis and ukelele playing dance troupe.

They're the sleek, silent ones in the theatre's best seats with the jetlag eyes and comfy clothing.

This festival's decision to focus more on re-presenting proven New Zealand work rather than premiering it has been much remarked upon.

It's something artistic director Lissa Twomey made a fuss about in her opening address in the festival programme as a "new initiative" called RESTAGE (the obsession with the caps lock button on our arts producers' keyboards for emphases has to stop).

Twomey wrote, "you'll see productions previously seen on NZ stages at their next phase of development".

This could also read as: "We couldn't afford to take the risk on as many unproven works this year", or "the local works we had in development simply weren't as interesting as the overseas works".

But I jest. Twomey is arguably making a smart move here, as numerous critics have said, applauding the initiative.

Critical commentary on New Zealand works in recent festivals has been dominated by pastings of large, expensive big-risk local works like Trial of a Cannibal Dog and Inside Out's Holy Sinner. Remember the stage version of Bro Town last festival?

The international festival however has previously held a preeminent position in the country as a development organisation, providing infrastructural support to the experienced acclaimed NZ artists (the Douglas Wrights et al) and rising strong producers to premiere large works they don't have the resources or audience base to easily do alone.

The 1990s programmes are littered with the world premieres of some of our most celebrated performance works. That decade saw the exponential growth of independent theatre making, and the festival became a key early mover and shaker in seeing works that are more than a maximum of four actors and couple of chairs.

The landscape has changed significantly since then, and for the better.

It would have been foolish for the festival not to adapt. Other festivals have grown, including Auckland, which premiered The Arrival (in Wellington this week to acclaim and now touring internationally) last year. Through their development programmes they helped initiate 360, premiering this weekend. Smaller festivals like Wanaka have gained a reputation for commissioning work (the runaway national hit Le Sud) and festivals are working closer together to help develop and commission work, to ensure its longer life and to spread risk.

This is all good. Whether it deserves to be called an initiative or not, this year's festival is sensibly presenting New Zealand works that have had an array of different well-strategised development paths.

He Reo Aroha for example had tours of duty in Hawaii, Canada and Taranaki before premiering to strong notices in its hometown this week.

Development doesn't end on opening night. Some would say it's just beginning; just as a band that has written and rehearsed a song hones it over touring.

But here comes the big but. He Reo Aroha is two actors and no chairs. What praise over the restaging philosophy risks obscuring is that our larger ambitious works still have to premiere somewhere. Currently that's at festivals because our theatre and dance companies don't have the resources of the likes of the National Theatre in London, particularly for large cast works (employing people being the performing arts' most expensive item).

Text-based works in particular risk missing out, as this sort of work is seen as the preserve of the established theatre companies. It was notable that, as far as I can recall, the New Zealand Festival didn't pick up any of the works in its own development programme, Show and Tell in late 2008 bar Me and Mark Twain in Maoriland, which is being produced by tried and true Festival partner, Maori production company Taki Rua. Many of those works, due to their size, will struggle to be put up independently, or to gain the showcase opportunity a festival provides.

The point is that if the festival isn't able to mount these works - and I'm not sure they should of necessity have to - the development investment from Creative New Zealand and others needs to go into those who are producing independently.

Such an investment should be a sign that our theatre industry is growing, as other independent companies are able to follow in the successful wake of the likes of Indian Ink.

Indeed CNZ funding decisions over the last year and the funding agency's development of a distribution strategy sees them doing exactly that - putting more faith with larger funds in the hands of now experienced independent producers.

As a festival-goer the thrill of going to a world premiere shouldn't be underestimated, however.

Sure, there is the risk that the work will be a stinker (witness the right critical kicking that the recently premiered Peter Brook production got this week in Wellington), but at least you can dine out on the fact that you were there for years after.

Many long remember that Kiri Te Kanawa pulled out an awful performance at the Michael Fowler Centre during the festival in the mid 1990s, and that Nina Simone was pissed performing back in the late 1980s.

I would also argue though that the risk is fairly minimal. Yes some works need more time, but acclaimed NZ works this festival like Apollo 13, The Arrival and Ship Songs were outstanding on premiere. I wouldn't have given up my tickets to last night's world premiere of 360 for anything.

The risk is part of the itching in the oyster shell that makes the pearl. It's an essential part of what makes the performing arts so exciting.

- NZ Herald

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