The craft of storytelling

Director and longtime theatre stalwart Phillip C. Gordon talks to Renee Liang about the past and present theatre climate, storytelling and his current project Some Explicit Polaroids.


Director and longtime theatre stalwart Phillip C. Gordon talks to Renee Liang about the past and present theatre climate, his current project Some Explicit Polaroids, and developing his craft as a storyteller in TV and film.

“Each role has its unique craft and different demands, however it is the telling of stories that connects them all.”

Some Explicit Polaroids, by British playwright Mark Ravenhill, is at The Basement in Auckalnd from June 14-23.


We hear a lot about how much theatre in Auckland has changed from the days of venue-based, professional theatre companies (Theatre Corporate, Mercury). Was it really the 'golden age' or do you see some advantages in the current theatre climate?

The period in Auckland of the late 70’s early 80’s was one of growth and momentum.  Companies enabled us to work together over long periods of time developing an approach to theatre.  We came to understand each other’s rhythms and personalities, which meant we could work each other on stage.  We could play and build the intent of the piece with a natural ensemble approach.  Having a permanent home gave us scope to learn and practice our craft continuously. 

To say it was the golden age is to say what is going on now has less chance of flourishing. I think that a company with no permanent space or company is faced with the challenge of building cohesion each time it mounts a project.  In the current climate theatre relies on its ingenuity to survive.  This in itself can be a productive force, as it demands we question each project carefully to build the culture of a company.  The longevity of a company requires rigorous attention to the nature of its existence.  Theatre is flourishing in its own right always; it is a language that expresses the moment we stand in. Ideas are not dead; there is a desire, a willingness to keep alive the pleasure of dramatic form. No matter what structure a company works with there is always the need for resource and funding.  People in the end make theatre and there are people making it here. 

You started in theatre but then moved on to film and TV, quite a common progression. What prompted your move?

The first time I worked with any professional continuity was in television on Close To Home.  I did not make a choice to return to television, however it was already a familiar medium that I was comfortable in.  Film was a further development of my craft as its demands are greater, by its very nature, than television.  Film and television certainly became my focus, I responded to working the relationship with camera for story telling, I became suited to their forms. Both mediums had enough familiarity within them to keep me engaged, have fun and learn, trying to stretch myself with each project.  There is immediacy in these forms that I like.  I have not ignored theatre, though my exploration has taken different forms than that of a traditional space.  I think what I have been doing is developing my craft as a storyteller in as many mediums as possible.

What do you find exciting about theatre?

Before the play there is an idea of space, any space that you are able to enter in any way and capture with story.  I love that you can strip a space back to bare bones and play a piece that will transport an audience into a world of dream, a world of ideas and experience.  It is an organic live canvas asking to be painted anew each time you enter.  Theatre has a smell like nothing else; it makes me walk in a certain rhythm, breathe with different contemplation. 

What drew you to directing Some Explicit Polaroids?

Firstly I responded to the energy of the play, to the contradictions between what is real and what is illusion.  There is a question in this play that asks about human relationship beyond our ideals and beliefs, beyond the set of conditions that define life for us.  The characters in the play are struggling with their own values, with meaning that comes out of them rather than imposed by circumstance or society.  They are dynamic people with lives filled with contradiction. 

What aspect of the production are you most excited about?

What has engaged me in this production is the willingness of the company to create an ensemble approach, to build cohesion and explore the world of the play before we dive into the production.  We decided to do a piece of theatre and not just put on a play.  We have endeavoured to take the play back to its essence and let that speak, to conceptualise and stylise the production in a way that brings an audience directly to the heart of the piece.

Why do you think it will resonate with NZ audiences?

I think that every country, every culture, every era creates an illusion that becomes the focus of its existence.  Our task is to shake ourselves awake and discover what is true and real.  I see our country at this time asking important questions about who we are and what we are going to do with that.  This play is questioning the way we relate; the way we connect, it questions sexuality and sexual preference, questions social and economic structure.  These are aspects of life that will always require our attention; they will always be relevant concerns.

You're a 'jack of all trades' in the dramatic world... having acted, directed and dramaturged. Do you have a favourite?

What I am is a storyteller.  As long as a project engages me and I am able to bring my own sensibilities to it I am fulfilled.  Each role has its unique craft and different demands, however it is the telling of stories that connects them all.  It is not so much the role for me rather the project. 

Is NZ a good place to make theatre?

Anyone can put on a play.  To make theatre we need to have the courage to find ourselves and express that through vehicles that resonate.  Do we have the passion and drive to be involved in theatre for the love of it?  Are we willing to find our voice and give form in a way that is unique to us?  Are we willing to keep learning and pushing each other further than the place we have arrived at?  That is for me what makes a place worthy of participation.  New Zealand is a natural environment for discovery.

What are you up to next?

I am currently developing several projects for cinema and will be taking them to their next stages.  My thinking is toward creating a company of actors to make theatre and film.  I want to develop an approach that is as intrinsic as the productions themselves.

  • Further information

Some Explicit Polaroids
Rebels and Robots Productions

When: Thursday, 14 June - Saturday, 23 June
Where: Basement, Greys Avenue, Auckland

Written by

Renee Liang

13 Jun 2012

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.

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