It started with a little red book. Actor, theatre producer and director Sarah Graham was visiting American stage companies which specialise in ensemble work when she popped into a bookshop and happened across a dictionary of lust. Graham, who co-founded Auckland's Outfit Theatre Company, reckoned it would make a fine present for fellow Outfit founder and producer Ema Barton.
Barton happily unwrapped the US$5 book and has been dipping into it ever since. Indeed, it's become something of a reference for Outfit's newest production, Sin.
Wanting to devise a new play for Outfit, Graham and Barton looked around for ideas and kept returning to the theme of the seven deadly sins - wrath, avarice, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony - with their interest particularly aroused by the book on lust.
"We wanted to get people to think about how they - we - all sin every day and the place of sin in all our lives," says Graham. "It's an intriguing subject because once these things were regarded as vices, but increasingly these things, especially pride, have started to become seen as virtues."
Barton adds that sins we are meant to avoid can actually spur and power achievement.
Gathering a 14-strong cast, the process of creating the story began with interviews with New Zealanders from all walks of life. Some were done face-to-face and others anonymously, with Barton and Graham quick to reassure that although there were some eyebrow-raising tales shared, no criminal activity was revealed.
"We're interested in how they affect and play a part for New Zealanders today and whether we should in fact embrace them."
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The story spans seven sweltering summer days, which weather forecasters declare are coming to an end with the arrival of a tropical storm. Against this sultry backdrop, the stories of "15 Aucklanders on the knife-edge of morality" are told.
"We think it's a topic everyone can relate to," says Barton, "and the production is not preachy or judgmental but fun. Everyone will have a different opinion on if and where characters cross the line and I guess it's kind of reassuring to know we all sin; that it's part of human nature."
With Graham in the director's seat, Sin features Outfit regulars as well as a guest ensemble. She says using larger casts creates an exciting energy both for performers and audiences as well as allowing the company to tell more wide-ranging stories.
Performing in Q Theatre's Rangatira, with seating for up to 450, is a step up for the company which has traditionally staged its work in smaller venues. That is part of Outfit's growing-up process, say Graham and Barton, which has been fuelled by wanting to have more clarity about the company's objectives and its place in Auckland's performing arts scene.
With a seemingly simple philosophy to create Auckland-based ensemble theatre they want to make and people want to see, Outfit has been around for the better part of seven years. At one point, it was staging up to five shows a year - a mix of scripted and devised works and all with large casts - which included a children's production, an end-of-year Christmas romp and a development season of plays written by ensemble members and collaborators.
That proved too much, particularly as many juggled jobs and had other acting commitments. In 2012, Graham won a place on the Auckland Arts Regional Trust's ArtVenture development programme for creative entrepreneurs. It provides peer support, specialist coaching and customised learning for those who want to contribute to Auckland's cultural and economic realms. Graham's aim was to build a more solid business structure for Outfit and, with an ArtVenture grant, she travelled to the United States to visit ensemble-based theatre companies in New York and Chicago, including the renowned Steppenwolf.
"I thought they would have it so much easier than we do, but I discovered they have the same issues with funding and marketing and audience development. We might not have quite the same audience capacity as they do, but I realised we can still make new work about today and right here, right now. We've re-evaluated a lot of our processes and I think we have a sharper focus and structure, particularly in rehearsals.
"The aim now is to go for quality work rather than quantity and whereas the US companies can afford to be more specific in what they do, we can mix it up and stage scripted as well as our own devised shows. There's a lot of different directions we could go in and that's exciting."