All Your Wants and Needs Overseas: An Interview with The PlayGround Collective

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Robin Kerr and Eli Kent discuss the finer points of staging their show All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever internationally, playwriting vs. theatremaking, and theatre culture in New Zealand.

All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever is an incredible show, both quintessentially Kiwi and wholly universal. Using a range of metatheatrical devices, The PlayGround Collective explores the existential struggle of a young man coming to terms with his father’s death in a way that is both hilarious and breathtaking.

First performed at BATS theatre in Wellington, then at La MaMa theatre in New York City, and finally returning to do an Auckland season at Q Theatre, the local theatre company is now taking their award-winning show to the Vault Festival in London later this month.

I talked with two of the core creatives, Robin Kerr (director) and Eli Kent (writer and star), to discuss the role international stages and long-term development have on New Zealand theatremakers and their works.

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NATHAN JOE: Tell me about the decision to take the show to the UK.

ROBIN KERR: It’s something that’s been going for nine years. We’ve been looking for opportunities overseas for a while. We’re lucky because we got to take it to New York in March last year as part of the New Zealand New Performance Festival, where we were going as part of a much larger group of acts from New Zealand. And it was really when Molly O’Shea, our producer, came on board that we found an opportunity to take the show to a festival, in a way, on our own back, with the support of Creative New Zealand. But it was after going on Momentum, a programme Creative New Zealand offers to try and get New Zealand work to the United Kingdom, that I had a chance to go to the Vault Festival and meet people behind it. With Molly being in the UK it really helped us make that connection. It actually happened quite quickly on the back of our Q season.

NJ: And had the Q season been pre-planned to happen regardless of the New York?

RK: Yeah, the Q season was initiated around the same time as New York. I think we had the opportunity to pitch for “Q Presents” during a time when they were both up in the air. And then we got this amazing opportunity to do them both in one year. And then, of course, the London thing tumbled quite quickly on the back of the Q presentation. Literally the day after rehearsal in New Zealand I was in the UK on Momentum. So I came back and had to get through rehearsal incredibly jet-lagged before we opened. I think it was like two nights before closing that we got an offer from the Vault. So we had this nice moment where we took everyone past the crew downstairs and showed them a video of all of the interviews we’d done with them, privately, about the show and the process of working on the show… and then the announcement that we have the fortune of taking it to the UK. It was a really special moment for everyone involved, to know before closing night that the show had a future.

NJ: And how important is it to you that the show has a future? This is the fourth production you’ll be doing of this particular show. Is that the most any of your shows have done?

ELI KENT: We did The Intricate of Actually Caring, kind of our second show if you count Rubber Turkey. We toured that for ages. And that had several different incarnations as well. We did it in my bedroom first, then at Downstage with a very lavish, full set. Then we eventually consolidated it down to using just OHPs, which we could tour around the country with. We did 93 performances all up of that show.

RK: So, really an extensive tour that I don’t think we’ll match anytime soon. But one thing I think was a catalyst for this one is that it’s a larger show. We had loftier ambitions, in a sense, which was to get it overseas more. And that’s become something I‘m interested in, personally— getting an opportunity to not only showcase our work abroad but, more broadly, to be part of a global conversation. I think New Zealand is, for obvious geographic reasons, quite isolated. We don’t often take our work overseas. But even with our limited experience so far, of going to New York, we and the audiences we showed it to were pleasantly surprised as to how well it sits against work that’s happening in the ‘major places’. My feeling is that we, as a country, or an industry, don’t give ourselves enough credit for the caliber of the work we’re making. If more people knew their work would stand up overseas we’d see a bit more touring. But, again, the geography is hard. It’s not even easy to trip across the Tasman, you know? We don’t share any borders with another country so you can’t just load it in a van as you can in a lot of places.

NJ: In terms of how audiences respond, have you found there has been a distinct difference between how they did in New York versus Auckland (and even Wellington)?

EK: I was really scared of New York. And I’m scared of London, as well, in a different way. But there’s so much in the show that’s about New Zealanders filtering the world through American pop culture. So it’s interesting to present that to Americans and go, “Here’s our world. We, especially kids of our generation, grew up on your pop culture.” That was scary to me, but no one batted an eyelid. They just accepted it and were really excited. We just got such amazing feedback from people who were at the theatre, at La MaMa, and all the American press who came to see it. They were completely supportive, connected with the themes in a really cool way, and wanted to talk about the heart of the show and dissect it.

RK: I guess that’s the thing—we can’t know until we go. And that’s the grand mystery. You just have to sit there and bite your fingernails and hope they like it. But my hope is that the response won’t be so different. My feeling is that Kiwis like to think, for some reason—maybe it’s like a hangover from tall poppy syndrome—that real theatre and real theatre goals are overseas. I think, from my limited experience so far, that it’s just the same. It’s just bigger.

EK: There’s also the insecurity of being a New Zealander. And there’s a different kind of insecurity going to America than there is going to Britain. America is… we’ve seen all this pop culture and whatever. But Britain, there’s this real sense of being a colonial country and we came from there. We’re the children of this country and will they judge us? I feel like New Zealanders have a real insecurity around that stuff. Which is partly where the exaggerated tall poppy syndrome comes from in New Zealand. It’s this sense of, are we worth anything? And we totally are. This show is universal and has universal themes, and you’re going to connect to it no matter where you take it.

NJ: In terms of actually building an audience overseas or having an audience overseas, how difficult did you find it in New York? Because obviously, publicity is limited. You don’t have that much time to build overseas. You’re reliant on the venue generating their regulars and, hopefully, some modicum of hype from any publications you may manage to find. But you’re not going to get, for example, The New Yorker going to the show and doing an extensive interview that a widespread amount of readers are going to see.

RK: Yeah, let’s be honest, it’s the hardest part. We work really hard to get an audience in Auckland. We’re really putting all the focus on that right now trying to get people along. And not just general punters but also members of the industry who might look into us in the future as well. But, again, having Molly on the ground in London, working from that end, is just so invaluable. So with her comes a lot of industry contacts.

Another thing we discovered in New York is Kiwis abroad and tapping into expat networks. Last time we worked with Kea, which is an organisation for expat kiwis abroad. There’s sort of a bizarre loyalty that Kiwis have in foreign countries where they team together and support when we come up.

NJ: Since you guys are originally based in Wellington, how do you feel about having left your sort-of home city as a theatre company?

EK: It’s something that naturally happened. There’s part of me that misses Wellington, but you’ve always got to move on. I came up here because of where work was, in terms of being a writer. I’m not too sentimental about Wellington in terms of theatre. I’m sentimental about it in terms of it being my home, but most of the people I knew down there are up here now. Some people are still down there making really great work, but a lot of people came up here.

RK: We just got caught in a shifting tide, I think. Within our cohort or age-group there was a distinct move up to Auckland. To some degree, not only was it our colleagues but our friends. So we started getting opportunities up here. Like There’s No Tomorrow, which we did at The Basement in partnership with Auckland Theater Company, was… sort of our introduction to Auckland, as a company, as The PlayGround Collective.

EK: My main collaborators were all here. When it comes to making theatre and making film, I need to be with my buddies. That’s what really brought me up. That, and just needing a change of scene.

RK: I love that Wellington theatre is on the up again. Especially theatre refurbishment and revitalisation. But there was a little bit of a dark period after Downstage closed where it felt uncertain if there was a space and a sector. And there were just growing opportunities in Auckland which I think are still expanding. We’re still on shifting ground but there are a lot of opportunities. So it’s great to be here. I was really blown away by the sweep we had at the Auckland Theatre Awards when we went in with a few nominations and then we walked out with five wins. That was a resounding vote of confidence. Not only from the judges but the people’s choice. So I guess I felt quite happy about it… that we found a place here.

NJ: Are you more interested in perfecting your current show before moving onto the next one?

RK: Definitely. There’s a toxic culture—especially in the independent theatre community, though I suppose it’s represented by the major corporates too—of pouring a huge amount of time and effort into making something, putting it on, debut season, maybe three quarters there, and then abandoning it. I think it’s one of the awful aspects that makes our sector unsustainable. One thing that’s been a stake in the ground for me is trying to get sweet equity for the work. So that you reap the rewards equitable to the work you put on. Because it honours the people you work with, the time and commitment they’ve given, the heart and soul they’ve put into it. To carry it forward and see the work realised and seen in a way that equates to the amount of effort that’s gone into it.

It’s also been an interesting learning process with this work, because with each iteration the level of detailing became much more specific. Whereas last season was very much looking at the design and changing a few major elements of the story. This one, when we take it to London, is going to be much more about this word here, that line there, the timing or delivery of this bit, and so on. It’s really getting down to the finesse of it, which I feel like most shows don’t get the opportunity to do. But oddly, in the same way it takes less effort each time to work on it. And getting more specific with it, the returns or rewards are getting so much bigger. We first developed it over four or six weeks. When we took it to New York we had two weeks of development. Auckland was like one week. With each iteration the response we’ve gotten from audiences is just been so much better. The difference between good and great… it’s amazing.

That’s why I say people only get three quarters of the way there. I just don’t think a lot of shows get the recognition they deserve because they don’t have that level of polish, which we’ve been lucky enough to invest in.

EK: The first draft of anything is never the best version of it. And often the first draft of production is looked at as if it’s the final draft of the script. But the first draft is really the first presentation of production. I always think about that with theatre. Like the first draft of a film is really the first cut once you’ve shot everything. Then you spend ages editing it and finessing it. People think, “Oh, we’ve got the third draft of a script and then once the opening night happens the show is complete.” But really, it’s great to be able to look back on it, like you would with a script, think about the design and everything, and ask yourself: how does that feel as a first draft of a show, of a complete show? Now that it’s up on its feet, is this segment here saying the wrong thing, or is the lighting here is not doing the right thing? It does all work together.

NJ: I suppose that’s the distinction between playwriting and theatremaking.

EK: I’ve always maintained for years that people try to think about playwriting in the wrong way a lot of the time. And, of course, often you don’t always have the luxury of a really great collaborative process. But even with playwriting, the process of taking the script and working it up to a production standard should be as collaborative as devised theatre. The script can change completely up to opening night. That’s how I feel.

RK: Or after it.

EK: And after it. Through the season. I always love working with actors who are comfortable to do that. People get scared and want to lock themselves down. But we always like to work with people who are playful—so even if we tell them not to change anything they’ll keep changing things.

RK: Eli and I, we’ve been working together for about nine years now, with the PlayGround Collective. So there are some very unique habits that we’ve developed. For example, often, with the first iteration of a show, the script won’t arrive until about two days before it goes on stage. And that’s mostly for the operator.

EK: I don’t know what show it was, but there was a certain point where I learnt to step back in production week, because I’d be there all the time being a dick, getting in people’s faces, and wanting to change lines. I think it was with All You Wants and Needs—we had the [talking] lightbulb whose script had to be set in order to be programmed in. There would be improvisation and tweaks during production, but there came a point where I couldn’t change anything, because the lines needed to be on the computer. There is a certain point where you have to curb that behaviour because the show needs to go on. It’s still really good to be finessing and perfecting as much as you can, right down to the line. It’s hard but it’s so much more rewarding.

NJ: Why do you think a lot of other theatremakers only get to that 75% mark and then feel that pressure or choose to move onto the next project?

RK: I don’t know. That’s a really important question for us to plan on. And I don’t mean us, I mean us as in the sector. It’s a wicked problem—a problem that has multiple aspects to it. I don’t think there’s one main reason. The thing I’m really big on at the moment is the culture that we ourselves as an industry have—the “what are you working on next?” conversation that keeps happening in theatre bars and foyers from opening night onwards. You look at companies like Indian Ink who have built a fantastic reputation out of creating, owning, and then touring a stable of works. There’s unfortunately few examples like them to list. But if the arts is to be in any way sustainable and, to some degree, for works to be effective—and I don’t mean just financially, but artistically—then we really need to challenge that culture in ourselves and in other people. And not celebrate the new thing. Celebrate work that goes the distance.

‘All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever’ will play at the Vault Festival, London from March 2-6, 2016.