"I've been in this business long enough to know that there are good years and there are bad years."
Colin McColl, artistic director of Auckland Theatre Company, is reflecting on what he says has been a bumper 2019 with audiences lapping up the plays staged by New Zealand's largest theatre outfit.
This time a year ago – as McColl talked up those shows – he was acknowledging it had been a tough 2018 where adapted and re-worked versions of classic plays failed to fire. But a year can make all the difference and, introducing the 2020 season, McColl is in a buoyant frame of mind given the successes of 2019.
Next year, ATC will build on this by staging three new New Zealand works, a fresh take on Ibsen's The Master Builder, international dramas including one by a Pulitzer-prize winner and return to finishing the year with a glitzy summer musical.
That one will certainly appeal to those who like their musicals with more sass than schmaltz – directed by someone who's equally keen to challenge convention. Shane Bosher takes the reins for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, winner of multiple Tony Awards for its 2014 Broadway revival which starred Neil Patrick Harris as the titular Hedwig.
Packed with glam rock tracks – think David Bowie (who co-produced an LA production of the show), Lou Reed and Iggy Pop – it follows a transgender East Berlin rocker-slash-diva who arrives in New York seeking fame and fortune.
"If you'd told me a musical about an East German musician, who's survived a botched sex change operation, would be so completely extraordinary with so much great music, well I might not have believed it," says McColl, who describes it as a celebration of personal transformation, gender fluidity and self-expression.
"When I pick plays for a year, I don't start with any set theme in mind, but one certainly starts to emerge. I think it's fair to say that next year all the plays feature characters who are facing change and transformation in their lives."
ATC begins 2020 with the world premiere of Sir Roger Hall's Winding Up, the sort of play you can only write if you've got a back catalogue as extensive as Hall's to draw on. Thirty years after they first appeared in Conjugal Rites, the characters Barry and Jen return still married but now in their 70s and facing failing health, family estrangement, bereavements and the need to downsize.
McColl says comedies are perfect for tempting theatre-goers back after summer but things quickly take a turn for the provocative with ATC's second play.
Black Lover, by Auckland-based Zimbabwean playwright Stanley Makuwe and staged for the Auckland Arts Festival, explores the not-so-well-known story of ex-pat Kiwi Sir Garfield Todd. Born in Invercargill, Todd served as Prime Minister of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) from 1953 – 58 and did not endear himself to the British establishment who criticised him – and eventually removed him from power – for his vocal support of equal rights in Zimbabwe. He was labeled "Black Lover" and, at one point, put under house arrest.
The Haka Party, in July, could well be one of the most controversial. Created and directed by film-maker, writer, actor and director Katie Wolfe, it's a piece of verbatim theatre about events 40 years ago involving University of Auckland engineering students preparing for their annual mock haka down Queen Street and members of the activist group He Taua.
First performed as a staged reading in 2017, McColl says it's an Auckland story and a thought-provoking production which had audiences reluctant to leave the theatre after it ended: "What was interesting was the kōrero after the play which would finish but people would not move. They all wanted to talk about it."
Miriama McDowell, now established as a directing tour de force, helms the comedy By the Way, Meet Vera Stark by two-time Pulitzer prize winner Lynn Nottage. Described as semi-autobiographical, it focuses on the career options for Afro-American actresses in the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood.
Auckland Theatre Company's full line up for 2020 is:
February 11 - March 8
ASB Waterfront Theatre, before touring to Hastings, Hamilton, New Plymouth and Tauranga
March 6 - April 4
The Miracle Worker
May 7 - 23
The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen
June 11- 28
The Haka Party Incident
July 28 – August 15
By The Way, Meet Vera Stark
September 8 - 27
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
November 10 - 29