Chalk it up to tradition, but a belief exists that theatre is about stories told - however deftly - to a silent audience who applaud politely at the end and leave the building.

Theatre-maker Stephen Bain doesn't look like a man actively challenging those orthodoxies. Blond, boyish - Bain looks at least a decade younger than his 45 years - and neatly dressed, he is softly spoken and, although obviously busy, calmly focused on organising Auckland's newest festival.

The New Performance Festival (NPF) defies convention and is best described, as Bain and the marketing team do, as a genre-blurring experience designed to encourage people to rethink their ideas about theatre and the performing arts.

Reflecting a growing international movement, where performing arts disciplines mingle in one piece of work, the NPF pulls in 13 local and international artists whose work simply doesn't fit into defined categories.


So the nine-day programme isn't neatly divided into specific areas such as theatre, dance, comedy and visual arts. Bain says the works experiment with theatrical form and explore new ideas, look at the role of space in performance and how experience is as much about context, and aim to find meaningful ways to engage with an audience.

He likens the NPF line-up to a "mix-tape" of his favourite performers, eagerly observed during the past year or so at festivals and "weird and disparate places" such as church halls, cafes and apartments.

"Finding the work [for the NPF] was actually the easy part. I go to a lot of innovative arts performances and there's a hell of a lot happening around Auckland. I think it's the most exciting art form happening at the moment but ... it does not fit within a commercial model."

The audiences of German "reality theatre" superstars Rimini Protokoll, for instance, are active participants in the group's documentary-style theatre. Their Call Cutta in a Box explores, through a transcontinental phone conversation, the role of outsourcing in modern societies.

Audiences are asked to imagine they're buying a ticket at the box office for an individual show on a specific day. Instead, they get a key for a room and a sketch of how to get there. They open the door; a phone rings. Picking up the phone, a person with a strange accent strikes up a conversation and the story begins.

Like Rimini Protokoll, Australian artist Fleur Elise Noble has won international plaudits for 2 Dimensional Life of Her. Set in an artist's studio, the show uses a multitude of AV projection, animation and puppetry to bring to life the otherwise flat drawings, paper and two-dimensional characters that inhabit the art.

Noble, 27, was inspired by her own largely solitary experiences of working as a visual artist, locked in a studio making "drawing after drawing".

"For me, it was about watching something emerge from nothing. I got to the point where I wanted to create a space between the maker and the made where everything is in a state of flux.

"It's a show about the creative process, which is always changing but that's a lot like life, isn't it?"

Describing herself as totally computer illiterate when, three years ago, she began planning 2 Dimensional Life of Her, Noble taught herself computer animation and projection and created the show without any budget.

"There's this idea that you can't combine too much in one production; that it's got to be dance or theatre or visual arts, but I wanted to do it all so this is me rebelling against having to do one thing.

"Through wanting to do everything, I think I've created something unique and original."

Having appeared on the fringe of the 2009 Wellington Fringe Festival, Noble has performed at festivals in Europe, America and even Iran. She says the number of different processes highlighted in her work gives it wide appeal, even to children.

NPF also includes several local artists, such as Louise Tu'u and her We Should Practice company whose production Providence is described as performance activism. In 2005, Tu'u became the first New Zealand playwright to be invited to the Royal Court International Theatre Residency in London with her first play Le Tauvaga (The Competition).

Five years on, Herald critic Janet McAllister praised her third show, Providence, saying it "masterfully led its audience into 'experiencing a replica aspect of homelessness' feeling vague and confused and unsure of what was expected of them - by deliberately breaking the rules".

All of which thrilled Tu'u, 33, who says the aim wasn't to make a play about homeless people as such, but to encourage people to think about the disquieting nature of homelessness. The actors lead the audience into the theatre and repeatedly ask if they can have a break, which engages them in direct conversation.

Likewise, Wellington's Binge Culture Collective is concerned with how to make the audience part of their shows - and adapt performances around specific responses. Last in Auckland in 2010, the Collective returns with Wake Less described by spokesman Ralph Upton as a highly interactive production which aims to recreate the atmosphere of a dream.

"We start with the idea that the audience is having a dream and then create a world where things are slightly stranger than they would be if you were awake."

Using masks, Wake Less then becomes an examination of our need for entertainment as an escape with the audience expected to become part of the study and games played.

Upton says it's exciting for the Collective to be part of NPF and see what other performance artists are making. "Hopefully, we'll meet some of the other artists and be inspired to try new things with our own work."

Tu'u says it's "legitimising" to be part of an event like the NPF, which draws into the mainstream some of the most exciting and thought-provoking performance art forms around.

"When I saw Rimini Protokoll in Germany, I thought we'd never see a show like that in New Zealand because it was, well, so not theatre. It's awesome that NPF has come about."

Most NPF performances are in pop-up festival venues in the Aotea Centre. NPF also includes artist conversations, workshops, late-night music and even a ping-pong arena.

Each day, two artists involved in NPF will get together for a conversation and a game with an interviewer to act as a mediator and referee.

What: New Performance Festival
Where & When: Aotea Centre venues, February 17-25