Year of good Fortune

Fortune Theatre company (from left) Lara Macgregor, Peter King (seated), Miguel Nitis, James...
Fortune Theatre company (from left) Lara Macgregor, Peter King (seated), Miguel Nitis, James Higgs, Jeremy Smith, Roz Hobbs, Else Besuijen, Matt Best, Maryanne Wright-Smyth (obscured), Maureen O'Brien, Lindsay Gordon, Rebecca Tapp, Jenifer Aitken.
Last year was a tough one for the new management team and staff at the Fortune Theatre, but this year they can start enjoying it, says Lara Macgregor, the theatre's artistic director. She tells Charmian Smith about the new programme and many other initiatives they are looking forward to.

Lara Macgregor is buzzing with excitement. Not only have she and her team at the Fortune Theatre launched their programme for the year, they are looking forward to enjoying it and the fruits of last year's labours.

She and general manager Jeremy Smith were both new to the theatre last year but they have turned its fortunes around, had it removed from Creative New Zealand's "at risk" list, secured funding for this year and next, and finished last year in the black.

"It was a 14-month process we had to go through to get that [funding], and that's an exhaustion on top of what we have to do, so I'm glad we don't have to do that this year. It will be there next year, but that's OK," she said.

They also had to repair relationships in the community and put various operational things in order, but they came out in the black financially and have strong new sponsorship from the community, she said.

"People are calling us, wanting to be part of it. It's a big shift from where we were at the beginning of the year, which is so encouraging."

This year the theatre is looking forward to producing seven main-stage productions, hosting 10 visiting shows, including five for the Fringe Festival in March and three for the Otago Festival of the Arts in October, a couple of initiatives for young people, and a fortnightlylate-night improv show Comedy Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The curtain rises next week with The Motorcamp, by Dave Armstrong. As in his The Tutor which was staged last year, a left-wing teacher meets aright-wing redneck.

This time, with their wives and children, they camp next to each other. Hilarity ensues as they try to keep their hormonal teenagers apart and are at loggerheads politically. It will be directed by Wellington-based Conrad Newport, Macgregor says.

"It seemed like a natural way to keep celebrating summer and open the season that's fun and vibrant and entertaining. Dave's always good because he has those underpinnings of other things going on. It's not just pure slapstick," Macgregor said.

She gets visibly excited as she talks about Red, by John Logan, which won the Tony Award for best play last year. It's about American artist Mark Rothko when he was working on the murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building in New York in the late 1950s.

He produced them, then removed them, because he didn't feel they were being viewed in the way people should view art, she says.

"Rothko believed that art should reflect the human condition and what he meant by the human condition was that you should have an emotional response, quite a visceral emotional response when you look at a piece of work.

"It should reflect the angst, the heartbreak, the depth, the difficulty of what it was to be human, and he dedicated his whole life to ensuring that people viewed art in that way," she said.

John Bach, better known for his roles in television and film, including The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, will play Rothko.

Macgregor likes to alternate light and dark shows, so she follows the dramatic Red with Two Fish 'n' a Scoop, by Carl Nixon, about a well-educated Chinese girl who works in her father's fish-and-chip shop and falls in love with a Pakeha boy who also works there.

There are underlying themes of cultural differences and two actors play 17 roles between them. It will tour Otago and Southland in June.

In conjunction with the International Science Festival "What makes us tick" in July, the Fortune is staging In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), by Sarah Ruhl, also nominated for a Tony award last year.

It's about a new cure for female hysteria, the vibrator, invented by a doctor in the 1880s. His wife, who feels unconnected to her new baby whom she can't feed and her unsympathetic husband, puzzles at the noise going on in the next room, the doctor's consulting room.

"It's really a look at science versus nature in a global sense, but you've got this wonderful costume drama approaching a subject that is as uncomfortable now just as much as it was then.

"With the invention of electricity and so many people unsure of what that was and what it would bring, it adds this wonderful sense of vulnerability for all the characters in that piece.

"I love all the layers in it and it takes a look at female sexuality on many other levels, too. Visually, it will be very sumptuous and lush and rich and with seven people and intense costuming, without going down the path of a traditional period drama."

In the July school holidays, Dan Bain will present A Paintbox of Clowns, a silent piece full of colour, light, fun and physical theatre, she said.

In August, Macgregor will direct Heroes, "a sweet French play" by Gerald Sibleyras and translated by Tom Stoppard, about three World War 1 veterans planning their escape from a veterans' home.

"There's something that really moves me about this piece. There's a reasonable amount of comedy in it but there's something really haunting that says a lot about loss to me.

"They fantasise about the young girls who are passing and the value of their place in society when they were fighting the war and how they are forgotten and hung out to dry. I find it quite sad but beautiful."

After the visiting arts festival shows, the theatre winds up the year with a Christmas extravaganza, Calendar Girls, by Tim Firth.

It's about a group of ordinary Women's Institute members who pose for a (tasteful) nude calendar to raise money for leukaemia research, as one of their group has lost her husband to it.

Beside the main-stage shows, Macgregor and her team are excited over the theatre's behind-the-scenes initiatives.

As part of its commitment to making the theatre more accessible, it is offering special performances for the visually impaired with Anna Henare and support from Arts Access Aotearoa, which were successfully trialled last year with A Shortcut to Happiness.

Patrons arrive early, meet the cast, go on stage and touch the props, then during the show they listen to a description of the performance on audio sets.

The theatre has put aside funds for a dramaturg (script adviser), director and professional actors to workshop two new plays, Richard Huber's St Joan on Broadway and Oamaru playwright Paul Baker's Night visitors, with a view to producing them in future.

There will also be a 10-week young playwright initiative in which four young playwrights and two emerging directors will work every weekend with a dramaturg to develop 15-minute pieces to be performed in the studio.

"To me it's really vital that our young directors are garnering the skills. It's just as important for directors to understand the dramaturgical process and what that means working with a new work.

"A lot of theatre writers these days are writing scenes shifting from one place to another and back and forwards in time, which is easy to do in the movies, but not so easy in a theatre."

A dramaturg looks at the structure of a play and ascertains what needs work. They are like a third eye to ensure the right questions are asked for the playwright to come up with the solutions themselves.

Even well-published playwrights go through the process, narrowing down, editing, rearranging, making sure the structure is strong and that all the characters are clear and you know the journey of each of them before the play goes into production, she said.

"Young, Wild and Fortunate" run by young people for other young people was trialled last year and will continue this year with three professional directors mentoring the young directors. The group will perform in the studio from time to time.

And for those who want to hear new New Zealand plays read aloud, Stage South offers public readings every six weeks on Saturday afternoons.



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