No glide time involved for this prolific playwright

By Peter Bills

New Zealand's leading playwright, Roger Hall. Photo / APN
New Zealand's leading playwright, Roger Hall. Photo / APN

Roger Hall has seen many changes in NZ society during his long career in theatre.

Now imagine this. To go to work, you only have to cross the floor of your apartment. You can settle down at your desk, turn on the computer and off you go. If you get bored, well, you can change rooms and look right out across the beach at Takapuna. Or you can stroll down to the beach cafe and get a coffee to help with the inspiration.

Piece of cake this writing business, isn't it? Think up a storyline, put down a few lines of dialogue, pack up early for the day if you don't feel like it and, eventually, sit back while the dollars roll in as audiences roll in the aisles of the nation's theatres.

What a doddle, what a way to make a living.

No wonder Roger Hall, New Zealand's leading playwright, icily admits: "I blew my top at one journalist for not doing his homework before an interview".

So, in the interests of self-preservation, what follows here is a real insight into the world of the playwright and his endless wrestling with the written word.

"I do admit, when I am writing, I can't wait to get to the computer to start work.

"As soon as I get up I want to get underway. I may only do an hour - in the early stages [of a play] - sometimes that's all you can do because you don't know where you're going with it.

"It's the rewriting at the end where you have to put the hours in. You get sick of it. Middle Age Spread was difficult because of the time structure. Basically, it's the evening of a dinner party. Things slowly creep up and it all merges at the end.

"I do most of my writing here in Auckland. But if I were dreaming, I'd say I would like to have an apartment in New York. I do love New York."

He is far and away this country's most renowned playwright. Yet even for such men, the writing business still contains its disappointments. Take America.

"I have written plays that I thought would provide me with the big American breakthrough. But it hasn't quite happened and it is disappointing not to have broken through there. It's partly down to my sense of humour - my characters are more gentle, not so in your face as the Americans want. But it's not a festering sore."

America is, as he says, all or nothing. Middle Age Spread was nearly put on there. After its long run in the West End, a Broadway production was under discussion, directors considered, but in the end it fell through.

"It would be very nice, but it doesn't keep me awake at night," he says in a sort of matter-of-fact way.

To have had Middle Age Spread run in the West End of London for more than a year was the stuff of dreams (and a great thrill for his parents) and his plays are well known across the ditch in Australia. One of his recent efforts, Four Flat Whites in Italy, had a seven-week sell-out season in Sydney and Canberra last year.

If it's true to say that Roger Hall is not a man who suffers fools gladly then he admits the discipline he acquired as an adult, and which is certainly necessary to produce the plays for which he has become famous, was certainly not there as a boy.

"Writing was the only thing I was good at when I was at school. I wasn't really very disciplined as a schoolboy. But then, I had no incentive to work even though my parents begged me."

Intriguingly, he ascribes that lack of application in those days to what he calls "the English class system". He goes on: "It was so inhibiting. It was only when I came to New Zealand and threw off the shackles of the class system that the possibilities opened up."

He first arrived in this country in 1958, stayed for two years but came back in 1962.

He concedes without the slightest prompting that New Zealand has been very good to him. "It gave me a tertiary education and a decent standard of living, plus the freedom to do what I love doing."

And he does love it, no joking. "This is the life I dreamed of. I do have dreams/nightmares sometimes in the night where I'm in the theatre but haven't quite worked out what to do with the play."

And the seats are filling up, and the customers settling down and the deadline looms ... this all sounds horribly reminiscent of one of my occasional nightmares regarding my own work and an approaching deadline.

As Hall concedes, probably no one sets out to be a playwright. He didn't know what to do when he left school. A few people he met had started off writing or acting but quickly found they couldn't make a living out of it.

"Nobody considered the arts in New Zealand as a possibility to make a living. Things like writing you did in your spare time and a lot of writers were postmen or women, or teachers."

But times change, and Hall is astonished at the openings and opportunities now available. The number of new works being put on is phenomenal, in some ways like Paris in the 1930s, he says. Inevitably, the quality varies but there is still plenty of good stuff coming through, in his estimation.

"There are so many types of plays around. All these productions ... they're in pavement cafes, bars, people put on stuff almost anywhere. I couldn't have imagined that scenario when I first came here in 1958.

"The thought then was that professional theatre couldn't exist in a country with just three million people. Well, it had before television came but TV killed it just as it had British rep, too. But slowly the theatre re-established itself and acting became in vogue."

It offered Hall a crucial outlet and he seized it with great aplomb. He writes about issues that he sees around him or is often experiencing. Luckily, his audiences usually seem to be going through exactly the same sorts of things and recognise themselves or the situations.

Critics? "I get criticised but I write for a middle-class audience. It's a specific age audience. The great dollar is out there and they are people that go to the theatre. I know my audience and they know me. That may irritate young people but then, when I was young, a lot of people sneered at [Terence] Rattigan. Yet he was a bloody good playwright. And now his work is coming back."

Hall aims to produce one full-length play each calendar year. And if it's not quite right when you've finished it, you put it right, he says, leaving no room for doubt. It's the clinical side of the writer's business. As someone once said, you don't have the luxury of failing to hit deadlines or complete scripts.

It is, of course, a myth, this idea that any old soul can just jot down a few notes, sit in front of a computer and knock out an award-winning play by the end of the morning before heading off for a damn good lunch.

Sorry guys, it doesn't quite work like that and for one specific reason. Characters. Hall admits: "You have to get the stuff down but you know you'll re-write. So you don't want to be too harsh on yourself too soon. I write page after page of dialogue and the characters begin to form.

"It's very hard to establish the characters. Characters don't just fling themselves on the page - they slowly emerge. As that process happens, you need to stand back and ponder them in different moods, different circumstances."

When he's at home he finds it very hard not to write. "It's one reason that I travel - it forces me to stop. And I absolutely love it." It may be to go to Sydney, or the United States or over to Europe and London. Wherever it is, he revels in the intellectual stimulus to be found at every turn, each new location.

But when he departs these shores, how does he reflect on the land he came to call home? "It's 10 times more interesting a country now compared to when I first came here.

"But it has lost the egalitarian element on which it used to pride itself. And it's horribly disparate between top and lower incomes. That does reflect the world but for a long time there was hardly any unemployment here.

"That was good, but the bad thing was there was a monopoly. Just to get a phone put on took four or five weeks and shops were closed at the weekends. But family life was better because Mum wasn't working. So there was good and bad."

Would he live anywhere else in the world? "No, as long as I can afford to escape occasionally. I'd love to live in London if I could afford it. Three months there every year would be just perfect."

When he is home, he's an assiduous writer of letters to newspapers and participant in committees. He concedes he criticises things quite a lot but, conversely, also supports many projects.

A happy man, a contented man? Yes, he thinks so. And there's not an ounce of middle-age spread on him, which is even better.

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