Hall draws on those around him

The Fortune Theatre opens its 40th anniversary season on Saturday with a new play by Roger Hall. Charmian Smith talks to New Zealand's best-known playwright about his new play and his long association with the theatre.

Rehearsing for the Roger Hall play Book Ends are (from left) Phil Grieve, Julie Edwards, Richard...
Rehearsing for the Roger Hall play Book Ends are (from left) Phil Grieve, Julie Edwards, Richard Huber, Geoffrey Heath, Dougal Stevenson, Barry de Lore and Peter Hayden. Photo by Peter Jaquiery.
Roger Hall thought each of the last five plays he's written was going to be the last, but each time he's been wrong. His latest play, Book Ends, is about to be premiered at the Fortune Theatre, opening its 40th anniversary season.

''I always think [play writing] is such a tough business I can't go through it again but I have, so there we are,'' he said in a phone interview from his Auckland home.

''I think I'm probably happiest when I'm in the middle of a play - it's very satisfying to have something you are working on. It has its ups and downs and hitting the wall and all that, but it's a satisfying process and exciting and funny and stressful and all those things. I could stop if I wanted it, but if an idea comes along that's begging to be done ...''

He agrees with British playwright Michael Frayn who says it's no use searching for a play, a play will search for you.

''I've had a year or more when I was searching for a play and had several false starts and it's very frustrating, then eventually an idea comes to me,'' he said.

This one, however, took two to three months to write and he became particularly driven to get it finished. When he's stuck he always goes back to the beginning and things develop that he hadn't expected to be there, he said. Hall, now in his mid-70s, is celebrating 50 years since his first paid piece of writing, when he had a short story accepted by the Listener and almost 40 since he started writing stage plays.

Born in the UK, Hall emigrated to New Zealand in 1958 and worked in a Wellington insurance office before training to be a teacher. He wrote skits for college and university and late night shows for Downstage. One of his flatmates switched from teaching to being a television producer and asked him and Joe Musaphia to write sketches for a show called In view of the circumstances.

Roger Hall. Photo by Don Donovan.
Roger Hall. Photo by Don Donovan.
That led to more work writing for television, including Buck House and Pukemanu, and as an interviewer. The breakthrough to writing for stage came then he received an arts council grant to study television writing and attended the Eugene O'Neill Memorial playwright's conference in New York.

''It's a big deal - of the plays that got workshopped there at least one or two went to Broadway. An actress who was yet to be famous, Meryl Streep, was one of the people acting and a whole lot of that calibre. As I watched the plays being performed and being highly praised, I thought 'I could have a go at that' and began writing a play set in an office while I was there.''

That play developed into Glide Time (1976), which gave rise to a radio show, a television series and a sequel.

Hall's association with the 40-year old Fortune Theatre goes back to when he came to Dunedin as Burns Fellow in 1977 and 1978 and continued while he was teaching a play writing course at the University of Otago. The theatre has premiered nine of his plays and three of his musicals, as well as staging many others - although, ironically, Glide Time was rejected until it had become a success in other theatres around the country.

''They were actually the last theatre to do it but it was so successful they had to cancel the next production and keep it running. That was nice for me,'' Hall said.

Hall was also on the Fortune board for several years and became chairman when the theatre was in one of its difficult periods.

''It was a thankless task, being on a theatre board when the Fortune was hanging on by its fingernails, as most theatres have from time to time. I did a couple of big fundraising things, like celebrity auctions, as ways to raise money for the Fortune, and its profile, as a lot of people do, but it was a lot of work. The city council came to the party and has been very supportive over the years,'' he said.

Book Ends is based on a group he set up about 12 years ago, the Cabin Fever Club, which meets weekly on Tuesdays for coffee.

''It's called that because it's more or less for men who work at home. I guess the common interest between us is books. Some are writers, like Graeme Lay the novelist, former publishers, an advertising man who has also written books.''

It started in Ponsonby but now there's a franchise that meets on Thursdays in Devonport, he said.

''We talk about what we are reading but everything - politics, the world, ageing and all those things. Today Geoff Chapple played us a song he'd written and recorded.

''Graeme Lay wrote a book called The Secret Life of Captain Cook. It took him about two years to write and during that time he would talk about it, the problems and historical facts. A couple of the guys knew quite a lot about all this and chipped in and made comments and he dedicated the book to the Cabin Fever Club, which was very nice.''

Book Ends is about a similar group of men, including an actor, a playwright and a novelist, because there are members of those professions in the club, he said.

''It's the occupations and what they represent, rather than the individual foibles of those people. One character I have added is a poet. We don't really have a full-time poet, and he's quite a feisty, irascible character. It's very funny.''

His characters evolve as he writes, although naming them is difficult because he has written so many characters over the years he is running out of names and professions, he said with a laugh.

The play is in four scenes, each a meeting of the club a year apart. At the first one, a member arrives with a Kindle.

''The others all scoff, saying it's too expensive, it won't catch on, and so on. Over the four years the impact on the book industry of Kindle and other things is revealed, so the theme, to some extent, is the death of the book - hence the title.''

The group has mixed abilities when it comes to technology, some are good at it and others can hardly handle a cellphone, which leads to amusing moments, he said.

The play was workshopped and had a public reading at Auckland Theatre Company last year. Members of the Cabin Fever Club came and were still speaking to him afterwards, he said with a laugh.

''We had a large audience and people really enjoyed it. It was funny and sad and prescient and all that sort of stuff I do.''

And no doubt he will keep doing it, as it appears another idea has found him and there's the possibility of another play, although it's too early to talk about it, he said.

See it
Book Ends, by Roger Hall, premieres at the Fortune Theatre, on February 8 for a four-week season. Directed by Lara Macgregor, it features Dougal Stevenson, Peter Hayden, Geoffrey Heath, Richard Huber, Phil Grieve, Barry de Lore and Julie Edwards.

Lunchtime Bites: A sample of Book Ends, today at 12.30pm, ground floor, Dunedin City Library.

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