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March 15, 2004 | by  | in Features |
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Ryan Hartigan – cliché?

Walking into Astoria on a drizzly weekday afternoon, Ryan Hartigan exudes theatre. He doesn’t scream it – that would be too prima donna – or ooze it – too primal – the aura of theatre simply wafts around his slight, black-clad, goateed frame.

And then he speaks.

The spanner, “This takes me back to my law school days”, is thrown as casually into the works as his jacket is onto the back of his chair. Let the character study begin.

Last month, the Hartigan-directed After Kafka headlined at the Fringe Festival. Described as a “rich, darkly humorous piece” that “blends the dreams and hopes of Kafka into a haunting piece of choreographic theatre”, After Kafka is an exhilirating surrealist sort-of comedy in which Franz himself is aided in the writing of The Metamorphosis by a host of surreal muses. Talking about the project, Hartigan is visibly excited and, as will become the case throughout our interview, needs little prompting to pontificate on it. Not without good reason – the production represents a number of milestones for the 26-year-old Wellingtonian. As well as the launch of a new production, After Kafka signals the birth of a new company, Theatre Pataphysical, which in itself realises a dream of the fledgling director. “I had been hoping to form a company for a while, based on a collaborative ethos”, he tells me between sips of macchiato (“short, thanks”). “I wanted to find a structure in which to encourage and explore – to share skills and support each other – to engage in some ‘safe pushing’”. Pataphysical was never envisioned as a company that would approach scripts, development or performance in a conventional way. “It’s about dialogue and sharing and debate. It’s about returning to pieces.” The idea is that theatre is never “finished” or “complete”. Funds willing, we can expect to see another incarnation of Pataphysical’s After Kafka in the future, and even within a single run. “Every night, it should be happening for the first time.”

With these ideals in mind, all that Hartigan needed in order to form this company was the right material. “ I wanted a script on which we could build. I wanted a prospect for redevelopment.” The Kafka script, written by Hartigan’s Massey Theatre School colleague Angie Farrow, presented the perfect opportunity. Crossing genres and challenging perceptions, it had scope for a number of different stylistic approaches and attracted a company of actors from diverse training and theatrical backgrounds. “I don’t see a rigid line between mainstream and avant-garde”, says Hartigan. “Labelling [of genres] is an issue of convenience. After Kafka runs across many different genres. So we’re experimental, but we’re not po-faced about it.” He balks at the term “ironic” – Hartigan has a serious chip on his slim shoulder about post-modernism – but sees the goal of Theatre Pataphysical as striking a certain balance. “We’re playful and satirical, but we also care.”

Perhaps the hangover of Hartigan’s not-quite-complete law degree is evidenced in his search for theatrical equilibrium. Or perhaps this has more to do with his upbringing. Raised in the ethnic melting-pot that was the Newtown of the 1980s, where his was one of the few white faces in his class, Hartigan feels that he has always “trod between different worlds”. This continued into his university days, where he pursued degrees in Law and English. “I loved theatre,” he says, “but I spent a lot of time trying to avoid it in favour of the real world”. Fear that theatre was not a worthy intellectual pursuit, compounded by the difficulty of finding in-roads into the industry, had Hartigan, who eventually attained honours in English, setting unrealistic goals in order to try to force himself back into law. “I did some theatre papers, and I kept saying to myself ‘If I don’t get this part that I’m really not good enough, or not well-known enough to get, I’ll drop it and go back to law’ – but miraculously, I just kept getting them.”

Theatre lecturer David Carnegie, who Hartigan credits as being one of his key influences over the course of his undergraduate study, doesn’t think that there’s anything miraculous about it. “Ryan came into theatre studies with a strong background in literature, which really helped him to understand the material”, Carnagie says of his former student. “He was energetic, enthusiastic, bold and very talented”.

Eventually, Hartigan came to the realization that he wouldn’t really be happy doing anything else. “It kind of dawned on me – ‘This is what I’m doing’”. Moreover, he realized that he didn’t need Law to be true to his intellectual nouse. “Intellectually, theatre can stretch you as much as anything else”, he tells me earnestly. “Brecht once said that theatre is fun, but hard fun, it’s work – that’s how I see it.”

Certainly, Hartigan has an enviable knowledge of theatre and is extremely theatrically erudite – over the course of our interview he name-checks everyone from Buster Keaton to Euripides. However, this isn’t something that he asks or expects of his audience. “Audiences don’t need to be educated in theatre,” he says, “but they have to be open to the idea that a play is a gift to the audience. And it’s up to us as artists to widen the boundaries – if you put enough into it, even someone who walked in thinking that they were opposed to it in some way should be able to walk out saying, ‘It made me feel something’”.

Logically, then, should it follow that meaning is relative? Hartigan prickles over this one. “Yes, meaning is relative,” he finally concedes, “but that doesn’t mean that it should be avoided altogether. There’s this typical post-modern copout, that meaning is not what it seems. That’s bullshit – a good piece of performance art can and should have its own truth. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t have a series of different truths for its audience, as long as [the audience is] prepared to work for it.”

No one, I muse, could fault Kafka for not making its audience work, but Hartigan is happy to take this as a compliment. “There’s a saying, ‘democracy and TV are dangerous’. It’s the idea that if you give people what they want, if you don’t let them know that there’s anything else, they won’t expect anything else.” Hartigan believes that we are on the verge of a theatrical renaissance. “We’ve seen so much conservative, realist theatre,” he says, “which is great, there’s nothing wrong with that but we’re on the verge of a re-energising cycle, a break from conservatism”. Contemporary audiences are currently insufficiently familiar with non-linear narrative, he admits, but it is “waiting to make a comeback. It’s an acknowledged classic.” What we need, Hartigan enthuses, is to give new life to the kind of theatre that we tend to take for granted. “We know that Shakespeare can be brutal, energetic, really now”, he says. “And young people are doing this! It’s immensely exciting.”

Hartigan nods eagerly at Salient’s commitment to making theatre more accessible to his generation. He believes that “there’s no rigid demarcation between high and low culture – just unfamiliarity.” So why, then, aren’t the young people coming? Hartigan’s response is characteristically passionate, forthright and articulate. “There’s this terrible indie-rock aesthetic,” he laments, “where groups say ‘we only like certain types of fans’. I think that New Zealand theatre has been guilty of that. Bringing youth to theatre should be a victory! Don’t condescend to them – that’s why they’re not coming! We need to say, ‘we know you’. That’s how to bring young people to theatre – by making it a gift for them.”

So bluntly put, Ryan Hartigan, are you a cliché? “Well,” laughs the young director, “I am definitely a goateed black-wearing dark theatre type.” But in the end – “If you’re that passionate, fuck cliché. We avoid it through fear, but when you’re that passionate, that excited, that driven – that’s where great theatre comes from.” And surely, a smattering of Law papers can’t hurt, either.

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