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April 23, 2007 | by  | in Theatre |
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Theatre Militia: From Victoria graduates and beyond

Wellington theatre company Theatre Militia is known for its hard-hitting, political, devised work and a collaborative company ethos. In a time in Wellington theatre where the professional theatres are working hard to make ends meet, Theatre Militia are about to celebrate their third birthday. At the same time, its highly-anticipated new show A Bright Room Called Day by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) opens at BATS on April 26. I sat down with creative directors Rachel Lenart and Felix Preval for a chat.

Theatre Militia first formed when Lenart and Preval wanted to remount their show Wordvirus. In 2003, Lenart and Preval had devised Wordvirus as part of the 300 level theatre paper ‘Collaboration’ at Victoria University Theatre Department. They remounted the show at BATS in 2004 and Theatre Militia was born.

Wordvirus was based on the beat poets of the 1950s. Lenart: It was a “cut up of beat poetry. We took all the poetry from Ginsberg, Burroughs, Jack Kerouac’s prose, Diane DiPrima – chopped them all up and put them together into five acts that reflected America, 50s politics and the artists.” Apparently it received a great review in Salient.

Theatre Militia’s most successful and recognised work to date has been Bouncing with Billie which premiered at BATS in July 2005 and prompted Wellington theatre reviewer John Smythe to comment “Theatre Militia has come of age with this production.” It was a work “which came to us” (Lenart), in the sense that Fergus Collinson approached Preval and Lenart after their show Wordvirus in 2004 or by other accounts accosted them with a copy of his book. The play is based on the life of Fergus Collinson, a deaf Wellington poet. The title is prompted by his love for Billie Holiday, and according to Wellington theatre reviewer John Smythe “the non-naturalistic multi-media show delivers an intensely insightful social history of New Zealand from a Queer perspective.” It was a particularly difficult piece of work as it was written whilst being rehearsed. Preval was both performer and writer, whilst Lenart directed the show. Lenart: “we started rehearsals on the second draft, and then when the show began, the final draft was the eighth rewrite. Felix was constantly having to jump in and out of writer/performer,” a task particularly difficult with such an enormous role.

It’s a dilemma not often faced by most professional theatres or companies. Lenart: “Often it’s the question of ‘can you be a writer-director, but for us, it was ‘can you be a writer-perfomer? Can you separate yourself? Felix was really good at being both. He could sit down and argue the text with his writer hat on, then stand up as a performer and he was removed.” Preval argues this alternative way of working “comes out of the trust that we have in each other as a company.”

After all they have been working together for three years now, after the core of the company all met at Victoria University Theatre programme. I was curious as to how this training ground had contributed to the group? Lenart and Preval both felt that going to Victoria “definitely” contributed to the amount of devised work that Theatre Militia produced. ‘Devised’ work being work created as a group, for a particular performance, as opposed to a ‘set text’ which a playwright has worked on by themselves before being picked up and rehearsed by a company. Lenart acknowledged that they worked with people from all training backgrounds but “Victoria graduates are the easiest to work with because they have a holistic understanding of the theatre, they can put up lights, understand what it takes to be a stage manager, they think the whole picture.”

Devising a piece of community theatre in Bouncing with Billie was something Lenart and Preval had both experienced when they took the Theatre Honours paper ‘Community Theatre’ in 2004. The paper requires students to go out into the community and make a piece of theatre with and for that community group. Lenart worked with teenage mothers in Upper Hutt and Preval worked with a group protesting about the building of the Bypass.

Although the group have done lots of devised work “and will again” (Lenart); their next project is a set text. Lenart: “We felt before we found it that the next challenge for us would be a text. We felt that we had already come a long way in our devising process and we were ready for a new challenge.” So what text to choose? Jean Sergent, who plays Zillah, in the piece, asked Lenart to read A Bright Room Called Day by Tony Kusher, claiming it was perfect for Theatre Militia. Unable to get hold of the script and with only snippets from Amazon.com to guide her, Lenart committed the company to the play. She finally read it sitting on grassy knoll in Berlin, a perfect setting as whenever she looked up, she found she was sitting amongst the history the play deals with.

Set in Berlin in 1932, in the home of celebrated actress Agnes Eggling an ensemble of comrades gather to discuss, dispute and deride the events surrounding the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. A character based in the 1980s is the eye into these past events – Lenart: “Zillah is a way into the history. She gets drawn into the action of the room and of the house. By the end of the play, she’s no longer an objective observer; she’s really implicated in the history.” It’s a similar concept to that explored in Bouncing with Billie where Preval as writer/performer “was really able to reflect on the writing process which meant the show ended up being about the writing process in a way.” Lenart agrees “In a way, we wrote the making into it which is similar to Zillah in this play.”

Kushner’s script aims to portray parallels to the Reagan administration. Written in 1985, I wondered how the eighties’ character would be portrayed. Lenart: “We’re using her as an allegory. Tony Kushner says feel free to update her and use whatever current political wrongs are happening. We decided to keep it in the Reagan era, and let the audience draw their own conclusions about the current political administration. I don’t think we need to do any more spelling out than that!”

Theatre Militia is known for the varied use of theatrical styles and A Bright Room Called Day will be no exception. Wordvirus used the actors’ voices as percussive instruments, drum sound effects, recitation of poetry, jive talk, expressive dance and jazz. Lenart: “It’s something we do always. We love the mix of naturalism, poetry, movement and song. Theatre should be about entertaining, and having a fucking good exciting show!” Based on the premise that “naturalism works best in contrast to other things,” within A Bright Room Called Day we will see melodrama, intense naturalism, German expressionism and Brechtian devices. Another reason why Kushner’s text was perfect was the way the styles were already woven into the text. Lenart: “Stylistically, Kushner pushes the direction by having Brechtian elements. Although scenes are written naturalistically, the language isn’t.”

Preval, who plays Husz, a one eyed Hungarian cinematographer, says his character works between naturalism and poetry – “Hungary is a nation of poets.” How would he cope with the mix of theatrical styles? “As a performer, I really enjoy the challenge of different styles of performance in a single show; it’s something that we’ve had in all of our previous work.” And how does a set text compare to devised work? “An absolute relief” laughs Preval, “it takes a lot of pressure off!”

A Bright Room Called Day also incorporates large multimedia elements, something which has been a fixture of the company throughout their shows. Their second show Sstimuluss was more of a production job, where they worked on the projected imagery for live band Sstimuluss, with music composed by Emile de la Ray. Ray has worked with Theatre Militia as a musician on other shows. Sstimulus also recorded backing tracks for Bouncing with Billie which incorporated video imagery and the text itself projected. However, this will be their largest multimedia project to date – fitting as Militia interprets the play as an exploration of visual history. There will be three AV screens projecting slides, contextual information and a television feeding footage from the time, as well as a live feed.

It’s quite clear that Theatre Militia are a political theatre company. All their works have focused on a much loved Theatre Militia thematic, the responsibility of the artist to its society. But is it something that has evolved or was set up from the beginning? Lenart: “Evolved definitely. We are a political theatre company but we don’t really put that first. We’re trying to bring a more gentle symbolism, microcosm to political theatre.”

For a political theatre company, I figured there must be a personal connection to the work, a compelling reason for doing the show. Lenart: “that’s one of the first things I considered after I read the play because I do believe that you should never make a show that you don’t feel needs to be made and for a long time I couldn’t figure out why this show needed to be made, I just knew we had to make it.”For Preval, “it’s the political provocation of the play as well; it feels like it’s a relevant voice. The reflective voice of Zillah (1980s character) could be in any time and place. The play stands as a warning, in a lot of ways, that complacency is always going to be dangerous.” Lenart disagrees slightly saying that it’s more about “history. History will repeat itself, but we can fight, we will fight, we have to fight.” Lenart and Preval are keen to point out that although that’s their interpretation, “there is no clear message and you can take what you want from it.”

Theatre Militia are part of a small number of critically and box office successful Wellington theatre companies who are consistently doing shows with a definite political bent. Lenart puts the small number of these companies down to a lack of support, “the problem with Wellington theatre is that companies like us don’t have anywhere to go, after BATS.”

BATS Theatre’s purpose, as stated in their strategic plan 2005 – 2007 is “to provide a supportive, professional and accessible theatre venue that fosters the development of practitioners, audiences and New Zealand performance work.”.They aim to be “New Zealand’s most accessible professional theatre for both audiences and practitioners.”

However, for the last three years, shows at BATS have won Production of the Year (2004: Albert Speer, 2005: ID, 2006: Yours Truly) at the Chapman Tripp Wellington Theatre Awards. This would suggest they are consistently producing the best professional work in Wellington, from a theatre that is supposed to develop practitioners. If the professionals can’t get work programmed elsewhere, then BATS can’t produce as much developmental work as it would like from new and emerging practitioners. On the other hand, you can’t turn away the professionals and stop the best work from being produced. This year, BATS received twice the amount of proposals this year that they have ever had and they can’t program everyone. We joked, that in a sense you need two BATS – one for newcomers, and one for those already developed.

I asked about Circa 2, which in past years has been seen as a stepping stone for successful BATS shows, to reach a different audience. However, the flow of BATS shows across town (Wheeler’s Luck, The Ghost of Woody Allen, Golden Boys, It’s a Whanau Thing) seems to have ceased and debates rage on Theatreview (www.theatreview.org.nz – a Mecca for theatre nerds and industry professionals) about Circa’s ability (or inability) to reach a youth audience (20 – 35). Is it due to their high ticket prices? Programming? Atmosphere?

It’s not something Preval or Lenart are worried about, they don’t want to be relegated to Circa Studio (recently re-branded Circa 2) – “The studio isn’t actually a great space. I’d much rather sell out at BATS than do a show in the studio.” However, on the current state of Wellington theatre, Preval did have this to say: “The bums on seats mentality that is dominating in Circa and Downstage at the moment is undermining itself, they’re putting on shows that they think will be big money spinners, but they’re not.” It’s a policy that means directors like David O’Donnell (Victoria University theatre lecturer and Chapman Tripp winner for Albert Speer and Yours Truly – both BATS shows) is “producing work that’s absolutely world class but he also has nowhere to go but BATS,” because he can’t get programmed downtown.

Wellington theatre politics aside, Theatre Militia are thinking about their future and have big plans to tour. “We want to tour Bouncing with Billie, re-work it, and take it around New Zealand and Australia. Obviously that’s quite an enormous plan.” It’s something that’s hard to achieve when working in a professional mould artistically but not financially – “everyone is working full time, so we’re rehearsing nights and weekends, it’d be great to take two or three months out from that to develop a repertoire.” Lenart and Preval are no exception, as they are both tutors at Victoria University, tutoring film and theatre. They are lucky among many arts graduates to actually have jobs in their field “inspiring another generation of theatre makers.”

And that’s what Theatre Militia do; they’re more than performers, more than writers. They are theatre makers and theatre creators.

A Bright Room Called Day

Written by Tony Kushner, Directed by Rachel Lenart
26 April – 5 May
BATS Theatre, 8:30pm
Bookings: 04 802 4175 or book@bats.co.nz
$18 / $13
Starring: Hannah Clarke, Richard Dey, Kate Fitzroy, Bex Joyce, Liz Kirkman, Felix Preval, Chris Reed and Jean Sergent.

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About the Author ()

Well hello there. Eleanor was the Theatre Editor in 2007, now she writes the Women's Column and just generally minces about the Salient office. Eleanor is currently an Honours student in Theatre (with a touch of gender). She also has a BCA in Marketing but she tries to keep that on the d-low (embarrassing, because she loves academic integrity and also perpetuating the myth that she's a tad bohemian). If you've got a gender agenda, woo her by taking her a BYO Malaysian. She lies, if you show any interest at all she'll probably tackle you in the street and force you to write a column.

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