Arguments in the foyer

Aroha Mai
Alice Kirker (left) and Katie Longbottom at Te Pou Theatre. Credit: Daniel Brunskill
On the eve of their first production, we talk to a new theatre company about challenging the audience, encouraging playfulness and putting mental health at the forefront.

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There is an expectation in theatre that you will be working long hours for little or no pay, that extreme emotional vulnerability fosters the best art, and that one must sacrifice every other aspect of life in the last mad dash to opening night. These are the sacrifices you are expected to make for your art.

There have been some changes to this stressful working environment in recent years in the industry, but without an industry body or union to ensure healthy and safe working conditions, there is no standardisation of this just yet.

When actor and playwright Katie Longbottom started her theatre company The Oddballs with her best friend Alice Kirker, she knew she wanted to run things differently, making mental health an important aspect of all of their work.

“That’s something I’m passionate about as a company in general, is putting an end to this concept of the creative arts as this place where… mental health falls to the wayside a little bit.

“I’m really passionate about looking after people and making sure working environments are really, really positive and healthy and fostering this idea of whānau and how that can work in theatre.”

The company has been putting this idea into practice by having a check-in with the cast and crew at the start of every rehearsal.

“That can mean whatever the actors and crew want to bring to that, so it could be personal, it could be about the show, but just making sure we’re communicating on where we’re at,” she says.

Another of The Oddballs’ priorities is encouraging playfulness among the company’s members.

“We really wanted to convey that sense of fun and play, and even (when) we do serious work, we wanted people involved in the company to come and enjoy themselves.”

Katie and her Oddballs co-founder Alice met in high school. They started their theatre company earlier this year purely because they love working together and share a lot of the same views on, well, everything. Using a theatre company as a platform to springboard off “seemed obvious”, Katie says.

“We’re both also quite passionate about giving people voices to talk about things that might not normally be talked about, or people who might not get to talk about them.”

Knowing each other so well and starting a company together has its ups and downs, she says.

“It’s hard because we are so close. It’s hard to separate personal from professional so that’s been a journey that we’re discovering currently but it’s also really nice because we can be really open with each other.”

Being a small start-up means the co-founders have to wear a lot of hats, and so do the cast and crew.

“The people in my cast have been amazing. We’ve got one girl who is doubling as a stage manager. The lighting guy is also the sound guy. In a small company, in a startup, you need to be open to that.

“But I’m also really passionate about paying people for their work, but we can’t afford to do that upfront because we have no money, but am working on a profit-share model at the moment. That’s as good as we can do right now.”

Aroha Mai is the 10th show in Rangatahi Season at Te Pou Theatre, which runs for three months. Te Pou is “super passionate” about developing artists, Katie says, and its rangatahi season brings together emerging artists with industry professionals.

“It’s about giving young artists a platform to develop and present their work where they may not otherwise be able to do it. There’s no upfront fees for using the space, they take it out of the box [office], so it’s really awesome for young artists to be able to do that with so much less risk”

The makers behind each of the shows in the rangatahi season met up for workshops and artist development, and collaboration with each other was encouraged, Katie says.

“We had a big hui with all of the groups that were doing it and talked about who had what skills and if we could collaborate with each other and use each other’s skills for each other’s shows and promoting each other’s shows, which I think is a really cool model, as opposed to this almost competitive element that you often get.”

Aroha Mai is Katie’s first time writing a script. The play explores human relationships and morals, and our own conflicts with these morals, she says.

“It’s about decisions and when it is okay to make a decision for yourself, versus when you need to think about how your decision might affect everyone else around you.”

Katie says she loves entertaining people and making them laugh, but that she also wants to make people – particularly the audience – ask questions. This is the idea that drove the writing of Aroha Mai.

“I really would love people to ask questions, rather than leave a show, thinking okay… ‘statement’. I want people to argue in the foyer.”

“I really would love people to ask questions, rather than leave a show, thinking okay… ‘statement’. I want people to argue in the foyer.”

Instead, she wants them to ponder if it was wrong, or if it was right, and ask what they think about it.

“To themselves and to their friends. I want them to challenge their ideas and I think as an industry in New Zealand we do that really well. That’s one of our strengths and I am keen to follow the path of others who have gone before me.”

Aroha Mai opens at New Lynn’s Te Pou Theatre tonight (Wednesday 2 May), and runs until Saturday 5 May.

Written by

Ellen Falconer

2 May 2018

Ellen is an arts and culture journalist based in London.

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