Celebrating New Zealand theatre will help it survive and thrive.

It's been part and parcel of New Zealand social life since 1848, it attracts more people to watch than any sport other than rugby and earns $4.3 million per annum in ticket sales.

It's New Zealand theatre and with statistics like that, it's well worth loud applause, according to veteran playwright Roger Hall.

Hall is the driving forces behind the first New Zealand Theatre Month, which starts today to "celebrate and elevate" the work of Kiwi playwrights, casts, crews and venues.

Likening it to New Zealand Music Month, he organised the event having long believed the country's numerous professional and community theatres and our playwrights deserve greater recognition.

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"People told me not to do it because it would involve so much work — and it has — but I think it's very important to recognise and celebrate what is a nationally significant industry and pastime for many," says Hall, who's been helped by arts industry insider Malcolm Calder.

"Fewer and fewer plays are being reviewed, no museum in the country gives any space to theatre and we're forever reading about how well New Zealand novels do, but how often do we hear about New Zealand plays?

"Yet the paradoxical thing seems to be that thousands of New Zealanders take part or attend. Theatre seems to me to be something that is undervalued and underestimated."

This month alone two local productions — Valerie and The Basement Tapes — have shone on the world stage. Both won Fringe First Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival while comedian Rose Matafeo won the Edinburgh Comedy Award. The Basement Tapes' Stella Reid also scored a Best Performance Award from UK industry journal The Stage while Valerie was nominated for a mental health award.

Playwright Roger Hall is the driving force behind the first New Zealand Theatre Month.
Playwright Roger Hall is the driving force behind the first New Zealand Theatre Month.

Hall says theatre organisations, focused on making work and staying within tight budgets, often don't have time to come together and serve as a national voice or champion their own achievements.

"But maybe if we celebrate theatre a bit more, it will continue to survive and thrive," says Hall. "I hope the month will lead to more discussion about how big theatre is and, at the very least, people who wouldn't normally go will check out what's on at their local theatre."

He suspects Kiwis will be surprised by how much home-grown theatre they can see. Hall himself says he was overwhelmed by the response when he asked the country's theatre companies to stage locally written plays during September.

There are more than 100 events from Whangarei to Bluff, including performances of new New Zealand plays and revivals of others, readings, workshops, talks and tributes.

That there's an appetite for local plays is backed up by figures released by Playmarket, which arranges for the rights for New Zealand plays to be performed. Playmarket's survey of New Zealand play performances in 2017 counted those staged by professional theatre and producing companies and "receiving houses" (venues) that receive Creative New Zealand funding.

Of the 221 works performed, 80 per cent were New Zealand with nine companies performing 100 per cent locally-written material; no professional theatre staged less than 50 per cent NZ work and the number is likely to be far more if fringe, community and comedy events and venues were included in the research.

Miriama McDowell in a scene for Sam Brooks' new play, Burn Her, which sold-out at Q Theatre thanks to positive reviews and word-of-mouth.
Miriama McDowell in a scene for Sam Brooks' new play, Burn Her, which sold-out at Q Theatre thanks to positive reviews and word-of-mouth.

Award-winning emerging playwright Sam Brooks saw his latest play, Burn Her, sell out at Auckland's Q Theatre in August. Like Hall, Brooks believes New Zealand theatre is in a better place that it's ever been.

"The golden days of Downstage and our mainstages dominating might be gone, but in their place we've got people like The Basement, BATs, Te Pou and Two Productions across the country who are fostering a wider range of voices, talking to and for our communities who haven't really been seen on our mainstages," he says. "Ever since I started making work six years ago, the amount of work we're seeing from people who I think genuinely haven't felt empowered by mainstream theatre has exploded.

"There's a perception — largely from the old guard of theatre — that the good days are long gone and that's simply not the case. The form moves on and the ways we practice, make, market and consume the work have to change as well."

Brooks says the support systems for young people wanting to work in theatre are becoming more robust but more needs to be done to support mid-career artists.

"The idea that you get to a point in your career and it's smooth sailing is not the reality. I'd argue it actually gets harder — once you're no longer 'emerging' or 'young', all those avenues of mentorship and funding close up and the fresh smell of being new in your industry wears off.

"The hustle is real, whether you've put on a few plays or you're coming out of being artistic director of a theatre into being a freelancer, and I think once we realise that these artists are equally as worthy of support as those just emerging, the more robust our industry will be."

Hall says theatres themselves also have to look at the ways they do things, especially given competition from the likes of streaming services like Netflix. He's a supporter of play performances at more varied times, ensuring work is varied and relevant to a wide range of audiences, and ensuring theatres themselves are pleasant places to visit.

"In winter, especially, it might feel like it takes quite a bit of effort to arrange a babysitter, leave the house and drive to a theatre at night when you've got Netflix in the corner to entertain you."

New Zealand Theatre Month is officially launched at Parliament on Monday evening. This weekend, events include a tribute to playwright Bruce Mason. The a one-hour tribute includes a reading from Mason's play Hongi with a descendant of Hongi Hiki, Haami Piripi, in the lead role; a scene from Mason's last play and Hall sharing the "infamous correspondence" between Mason and disgruntled play producer Sir Donald Wolfit.