On the eve of the Auckland Theatre Company's upcoming revival of Roger Hall’s classic You Can Always Hand Them Back playing at SKYCITY theatre from 31 March – 16 April, Glory Days Creative Director, Rose Jackson, was fortunate enough to interview playwright Roger Hall. With over forty plays in his oeuvre, Hall is one of the founding fathers of New Zealand theatre and we got to find out about what theatre life was like when he first began writing and the potential horrors of grandparenthood!
What got you into writing for theatre? I read that you started you career in Wellington.
Long story. So long in fact that I have a talk called “Fifteen Years to be an Overnight Success”. Suffice it to say I paid my dues: acting in revues and cabaret; writing sketches and performing them; writing plays for television and getting them rejected; writing plays for television and getting them accepted. Plays for The School Journal. Then finally writing my first stage play, Glide Time. Which was such a success, it changed my life. (Readers can find out almost everything in my autobiography, “Bums on Seats”. Out of print, alas, but in most libraries).
What was the creative mood of the time back when you started?
Professional theatre was just getting established. Downstage started in 1964 and clung on by its fingertips. Other theatres followed soon after: Court in Christchurch, Mercury in Auckland, Fortune in Dunedin, Centrepoint in Palmerston North, and even Wanganui (Four Seasons) and in Tauranga had professional theatre companies (now now).
Was there much financial and audience support for the arts and for theatre or were you having to run on the smell of an oily rag to small audiences?
No one made much money then. Ticket price for Circa’s opening night was $2.50 ($1.50 students). Actors did more shows per year then and, at Fortune for example, if they weren’t in the current show, they were helping back stage, or with publicity, props or wardrobe. No one was idle. And I think every theatre made sure they did shows for children every school holiday.
Was there a lot of collaboration in the creative arts 40 years ago? And how is that different or the same these days?
Not sure about collaboration, but in the late 70s and 80s there was a huge excitement about NZ plays throughout the country. “Glide Time” and “Middle Age Spread” helped, but “Foreskin’s Lament” was a sensation, as was, but in a different way, Renee’s “Wednesday to Come”. Now people take New Zealand plays for granted. (Which is how it should be.)
When I look back at older issues of Glory Days I cringe a little, as each time we significantly move forward in the quality of both the writing and the design. Does it feel the same way with a play you have written years ago or does it become a fresh new piece of work in the hands of new actors and directors with new sets to play in?
I don’t think the writing is any better than before. But the amount of writing and production these days is extraordinary. By mid-February this year, Theatreview’s website had reviewed one hundred productions. Auckland has so many theatres and productions. Civic, Q Theatre, ASB, The Herald, The Basement; those are the venues right in the heart of the city. (Soon, ATC’s brand new Waterfront Theare.) Add many throughout the suburbs. Auckland is the country’s theatre capital. It is like a drama festival all year round.
Playwright, Roger Hall
Is it hard to hand your work over to be played out by other people? Or can you easily let it go off and be it's own entity?
Rehearsals are where you hand it over, often rather slowly. If it’s a new play, then I go to a few rehearsals to check, suggest, and receive suggestions. But there comes a point when the cast needs to be free of the author and just get on with it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the work is then set in concrete. Often I change a script for the next production. Sometimes, even during the first production. For “Who Wants to be a 100? Anyone who’s 99” I realized the first half was too long, and the cast, bless them, after the second night, agreed to cut out two short scenes which improved it a lot.
How have NZ audiences changed over the years? Have they become more sophisticated in their tastes? Harder to please? More diverse?
In the 70s and 80s a lot of husbands had to be dragged to the theatre. Now a lot of them come more willingly. But God bless NZ women; they probably keep NZ theatres going.
Who and what do you look to for inspiration when you are writing?
The IRD. No... I just enjoy writing and like to put in an hour or two every day…
My mum has recently become a Grandma and it's been really interesting watching a completely different side of her personality come out! Was You Can Always Hand Them Back based on your own personal experience of becoming a grandparent?
Yes, but I did talk to a lot of other grandparents. People’s experiences are pretty universal, which is why audiences in other NZ centres –and in UK—enjoy it so much. They can identify with it completely.
Many of our readers are not yet at Grandparent stage... will they still enjoy the show?
Let’s say anyone who has children and who realise that grandparents are there to be exploited for baby-sitting purposes will enjoy it. The show goes through the whole range: from babysitting for an evening after the child has been put to bed to looking after them for two weeks. Each stage has its potential horrors.
Being a grandparent seems like such a magical role and a real treat after going through parenthood! Would you agree?
No comment. See above.
Glory Days has a double pass to give away to You Can Always Hand Them Back on Monday 4th April at 6.30pm at SKYCITY Theatre. To enter the draw, tag a person who is or would be a great grandparent on our facebook page before Friday 1st April at 8pm!
About You Can Always Hand Them Back...
Maurice and Kath's kids have left home; the nest is finally empty and a life of gin, golf and overseas jaunts awaits. That is, until the grandchildren arrive. With grace and good humour (and a little song and dance), old rhythms are given new life as they embrace the delights and demands of bath time, babysitting and bundles of joy.
To celebrate forty years of smash-hit success, Roger Hall puts the grand into grandparenting in a charming and tuneful collaboration with UK musical legend Peter Skellern. Packed with laughter and tinged with tears, You Can Always Hand Them Back is a vintage Kiwicomedy with a heart of gold that no grandparent will want to miss and no would-be grandparent should.