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May 27, 2006 | by  | in Theatre |
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Catherine Downes

I am sitting in the upstairs foyer of Downstage Theatre with Catherine Downes and everything is happening: tradesmen, actors, designers and publicists are zipping in and out, all enveloped by a blanket of beautiful music emanating from the stage above us.

So, how are rehearsals going?
Oh it’s fantastic…it’s lovely, really lovely, and the cast are having a blast. It’s an extraordinary play to rehearse actually. It is an uplifting and nurturing event, maybe it is because it’s central theme is about how music can uplift, reignite and recharge the spirit. In the play of Mum’s Choir the death of the mother brings a rather disconnected family back together for her funeral and her wake. The house was always full of music when the kids were growing up and they come together in the spirit of music, as you can hear upstairs now (the cast are singing that perennial favorite We’ll Meet Again). The play is full of songs and it is the music that brings them all together. There is much more to Mum’s Choir than meets the eye really. You think you are going meet it and its going to be a naturalistic comedy drama about a family coming together to celebrate the life of their mother who has just passed away. Actually it’s much more than that, it’s about how the spirit of the dead can enrich the living. The play begins with a house which is in darkness, and is silent, and ends with a house full of life, laughter, song, love, unity and harmony. It’s a real New Zealand story, its great.

Alison [Quigan] wrote it after the death of her own mother, when the family came together, so it is a really personal show and I think that is a powerful reason why it translates so universally. It seems to me that when people write really intimately about their own experience, that’s when you touch everybody. It’s cool and it’s been a really gorgeous, gorgeous thing to rehearse. And it’s neat because I am finally in the rehearsal room.

I have been here at Downstage [in my role as] Director of Downstage wearing a very management orientated hat, and over the last few weeks this play has taken me back into the rehearsal room which is really where my heart sits.

Are you enjoying your role as Artistic Director?
It’s fantastic, but it’s Director actually – I am the Artistic Director and General Manager so it encompasses the whole gamut. It’s a great challenge and I love it. I mean, Wellington is my hometown and Downstage is my home town theatre. It’s the first theatre I remember going to as a kid and now it’s my turn to look after it.

What does the director of Downstage do [aside from directing shows]?
I don’t direct as many of shows as I would like to because, essentially, I am a director and an actor, so that’s where I most passionately sit. However, due to five years experience as Artistic Director at the Court Theatre [in Christchurch] I have learned some fairly heavyweight management skills, which is fortunate, or I would not have applied for this job, let alone have had a show of getting it. Because the director of Downstage directs the whole gamut here. I am responsible for everything. Everything stops with me, with my approval. So, anything and everything about the building is ultimately my responsibility. And I am very fortunate to have a very skilled and committed team working under me in all aspects of the theatre duties. We’re small, feisty and committed.

I need to be there for everyone, and I also need to be there for the actors and the public. I want Wellington to really celebrate this precious theatre Downstage. And it’s my job that Downstage is worth celebrating and that it does reach out to the community, and the community responds by filling our houses and enjoying coming to Downstage as a destination, as well as a place to see plays.

I want people to say “What’s on at Downstage?” rather than “Where’s that play on?” Do you know what I mean? There is a difference isn’t there?

So that one assumes there is going to be something fabulous on at Downstage all the time and even in the rare moments that there isn’t a play on there will be something on – a play reading or a workshop. And I want to reinstate late night shows as well. I have reinstated Friday drinks, with a happy hour open to all comers, you students as well.

And I have also, as part of opening the Downstage doors to the industry and the public, invited drama students to our final dress rehearsal free. The cast is terrified. They will be coming on Thursday evening and the cast is more terrified because I have opened up the Friday afternoon first preview to be a special preview open up to all members of the performing arts industry for five dollars. I think that it is really, really important that we all see each others work anyway, whether we are a student or a practitioner. And sometimes we are prohibited from doing that.

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Salient is a magazine. Salient is a website. Salient is an institution founded in 1938 to cater to the whim and fancy of students of Victoria University. We are partly funded by VUWSA and partly by gold bullion that was discovered under a pile of old Salients from the 40's. Salient welcomes your participation in debate on all the issues that we present to you, and if you're a student of Victoria University then you're more than welcome to drop in and have tea and scones with the contributors of this little rag in our little hideaway that overlooks Wellington.

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