Dave Armstrong on scripting the lively relationship between Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn for the stage.
As he prepares to chair a session on playwriting at New Zealand Festival Writers Week, I caught up with Dave Armstrong, the funny three-time winner of Best New Zealand Play, who discusses his latest theatre project, Rita and Douglas, this year’s New Zealand Festival, exploring historical figures, and New York stories.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: “I also suffer from the problem of people thinking I agree with what my characters say.” Has this happened since I last profiled you?
DAVE ARMSTRONG: Yep. My wife Caroline usually proofreads drafts of my plays—and often produces them as well. But she hadn’t read Kings of the Gym. When Laurie, one of the characters, came out with a tremendously sexist (but funny) line on opening night I got a big punch. My protest of “it was Laurie not me who said that” fell on deaf ears.
AB: “I was laughing at the way white politicians try to get down with black people and usually do a dreadful job. Check out David Cunliffe speaking at the Avondale Markets on YouTube in a cuzzie-bro accent to see what I mean,” you said last year. Now Cunliffe hires Matt ‘tax trouble’ McCarten as his chief of staff? Election year is good for satirists? Our new government is going to be anti-gay marriage but pro-incest marriage?
DA: McCarten has said the tax problems were because he was AWOL with cancer and that it’s been paid back. Nevertheless, it’s like David Cunliffe’s trust, Shearer’s offshore bank account, and Winston’s undeclared $200,000. Even though it’s peanuts compared to what those on the Right get away with in tax avoidance and other stuff, it’s not a good look. Election year is wonderful for satirists. It’s a pity there isn’t any satire on TV. I would love to be a fly on the wall at a meeting between Key, Craig, and Whyte post election. When Craig and Whyte get going I almost feel sorry for Key having to work with them. Of course, National’s natural coalition partner is Labour. They’re far more similar than different when compared to other parties on the scene, but one is not allowed to say such a heretical thing in two-party New Zealand.
AB: After Tess’s Blue Heelers premiere, an angry old lady clobbered Caroline Craig on the noggin with a bag of frozen peas at the supermarket queue and said, “You killed Maggie Doyle!” Tell me about a colourful experience you’ve had with an angry member of the public?
DA: In my play The Tutor there’s a scene where a teacher uses a women’s magazine sex survey to teach a kid about pie graphs. I had to attend a performance to meet and greet a few VIPs but after that scene, about 15 minutes in, my wife and I slipped out for a meal—we’d already seen the play heaps of times. As we left, so did a very conservative-looking older couple. The old woman came up to my wife Caroline and said, “quite right dear, you don’t have to put up with that filthy rubbish.” Without blinking, Caroline said, “yes, you’re absolutely right.” We laughed all the way to the car park.
AB: Rita and Douglas is about relationships, like Spike Jonze’s hilarious Her. Is there a connection between Rita and Douglas and Her?
DA: I haven’t seen Her but I’ve heard great things and I’m looking forward to seeing it.
AB: Tell me about a more recent film that’s influenced your creative philosophy?
DA: Of late, a beautiful Lebanese/Canadian movie called Incendies showed me that plays can be turned into amazing movies. Stanley Kubrick’s movies, especially Barry Lyndon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Clockwork Orange showed me how effective classical music can be in supporting a drama. Half of Rita and Douglas is Douglas Lilburn’s beautiful piano music. It accompanies Rita Angus’s wonderful images, and sometimes her words. I’m sure Kubrick’s movies had an influence on that creation somewhere.
AB: Rita and Douglas is about the struggle of the artist’s life. Is there a link with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s devastating death?
DA: Rita battled addiction and mental and physical anguish. She was an amazing artist. So yes, the parallels with Philip Seymour Hoffman are definitely there. The difference is that Hoffman was living in a world of art and movies and money; Rita was in a bach in Sumner or a cottage in Thorndon, often feeling isolated and unvalued in the hostile place that was New Zealand in the 1940s and 1950s. That said, there’s a bit of a myth that because New Zealand didn’t have a lot of official cultural organisations back then, there wasn’t a lot of art and culture going on. That is not true—we had amazing artists like Angus and Lilburn as well as a whole host of others like McCahon, Brash, Wollaston, Glover, and Baxter.
AB: Is Gary Shytengart someone you’d enjoy a beer with?
DA: I have read Shytengart’s Absurdistan and Russian Debutante’s Handbook and they’re fantastic, funny and touching. Shytengart understands America really well, possibly because he was born outside it. And he’s a very funny writer—he seems to successfully combine the style of Russian writers like Gogol with contemporary American humour.
AB: I think Robert Lepage’s humour is one of his delightful qualities.
DA: I’m quite a fan of Lepage. I’d heard a lot about him before I saw any of his plays. Because he is idolised by so many theatre folk, I expected his plays to be very serious and ‘important’. I was pleasantly surprised by the genial nature of much of his writing and his use of humour. I thought the infuriating hotel phone calls in Needles and Opium were very funny, as was the scene in the recording studio when he was voicing a documentary. In fact, that scene was probably my favourite scene of the whole piece—you’re laughing and laughing and then something happens (him being unable to say “love of his life” without choking up) that was incredibly sad and poignant.
AB: Do you agree with Jim Moriarty’s kaupapa on theatre’s social role?
DA: I agree with Jim Moriarty that theatre has a social role, and I love the way Jim and Helen achieve it. Battalion is a really good, and in my opinion, under-rated play. However, I don’t think every single play should consciously have to ‘point the way forward’ as the old communists used to say. If you try too hard to make a social point you can sometimes bore or alienate your audience. With Rita and Douglas I only realised as we got to the end of the creative process that we were making a social point. It started as a sort of biopic about Rita Angus, and then, thanks to the sage advice of director Conrad Newport, it morphed more into a play about her relationship with Douglas Lilburn. However, on the way we realised it’s also about the place of the artist in New Zealand society and the enormous struggles many have faced, both back in the 1940s and 50s where Rita and Douglas is set, and today.
AB: Downstage has collapsed. Are you hopeful about Wellington theatre’s economic future?
DA: If you write or produce a play that a lot of people want to see you can make good money. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a good play. Yet if you set out only to make money you’ll probably fail. But not all plays are fiscal disasters. When my wife Caroline and I started out on Rita and Douglas we said to each other “this is a labour of love and we should be prepared to not make money as this is quite a high-brow play that won’t attract a broad audience.” The exact opposite happened and people came. Other times we’ve done so-called ‘surefire’ plays that haven’t done so well. One of the delights about theatre is that you can never tell what’s going to fly with an audience and what isn’t.
It’s the big-budget disasters losses that kill most theatre companies. If you’re going to do a big-cast musical with lots of technology then make sure you have money in the bank that you can afford to lose.
AB: I think go local, distinctive. Should someone adapt Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley?
DA: I loved that book. I interviewed Danyl Mclachlan last year for a writer’s session at Te Papa and it was loads of fun. I reckon Unspeakable Secrets would make a great movie, though it could make a good play as well.
AB: Regarding satire, isn’t this sharp?
DA: Yep, and quite uncomfortable and just what we need in a country that pretends it can laugh at itself. I love The Civilian. It basically predicted the latest Peter Williams making up his own online criticism scandal back in January.
AB: I loved the theatre scene in New York. Have you had a chance to enjoy it?
DA: Yes, though when I was in New York, many years ago, I was more into music than theatre. Nevertheless, I saw weird fringe plays in Soho lofts and loved them. I also saw Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring with set design by David Hockney. I saw Dizzy Gillespie play trumpet live and was the only person in the bar more interested in Gillespie’s trumpet playing that the fact that John Belushi was in the audience. The Big Apple is amazing, and I would love to go back.
Jennifer Ward-Lealand in ‘Rita and Douglas’.
AB: How is Rita and Douglas funny?
DA: Rita and Douglas does have its funny moments. Rita could be very temperamental and difficult, to a point of hilarity. For example, when Lilburn was appointed to a university teaching job, it was a dream come true for him, as it would be for any composer. But Rita was furious as it would mean he wasted time teaching instead of composing. I think she wanted him to starve in a garret for his art like she had. And heaven help him when she caught him kissing a cellist in the street, even though they weren’t ‘together’. Rita’s response to reviewers who didn’t like her work is also hilarious: “I will cancel my subscription to your magazine and buy paint with the money instead.”
Jennifer Ward-Lealand is a superb comic actress as well as a superb dramatic one, so she can play the humour really well. She was in the Auckland Theatre Company production of my play Le Sud playing a closet heterosexual and she was hilarious.
AB: How might it surprise audiences?
DA: Motor Camp it ain’t! People have been surprised that a writer who is principally known for broad comedies would come up with something as serious and beautiful as Rita and Douglas. But I haven’t really written this show. I’ve edited and dramatized Rita’s letters to Lilburn, so the words are all Rita’s. Probably the biggest surprise that audiences will get is the poignancy of the relationship between these two feisty artists.
Another surprise for audiences has been the beauty of Douglas Lilburn’s piano music. Many New Zealanders are already aware of Rita’s amazing paintings, but Lilburn’s music comes as a very pleasant surprise. A lot of it is very melodious and euphonious—not plinky-plonk avant-garde (though plinky-plonk comes in handy when you’re trying to portray the breakdown of a relationship). I’m really proud that this show has caused a lot of people to become more interested in Lilburn’s music. Michael Houstoun recently made a CD of Lilburn’s piano music, much of it music that we used in the show, and it won the classical section of the recent New Zealand music awards.
AB: You started off as a classical music composer, so this is a fine homecoming?
DA: It’s the best possible homecoming. I studied classical music performance and composition at Victoria University, including with Lilburn for a brief time. I was lucky enough to play the trumpet in the world premiere of Lilburn’s Quartet for Brass Instruments so I got to know him a little. It’s been great to get to know his piano music so well, and to hear it played by such a fine pianist as Michael Houstoun.
AB: What do you hope an audience take away from Rita and Douglas?
DA: They will find out about an incredibly dramatic, poignant, funny and unusual love story. They will see over a hundred projected images of Rita Angus’s, sometimes as she talks about them. Sometimes they will see and hear Rita’s images and words over the beautiful piano music, played by Michael Houstoun, which Douglas Lilburn wrote. Sometimes he wrote about the same places that Rita painted, such as the Port Hills in Christchurch.
The audience will also get an insight into the artist’s life in New Zealand during the 1940s and 50s that could, at times, be very difficult. I like to think of Rita and Douglas as a poignant love story where music, art and words just sort of wash over you.
AB: Tell me a funny story about director Conrad Newport, what makes his approach to comedy interesting?
DA: Let me say straight away that Rita and Douglas is a drama and a serious one at that. Conrad is a fantastic director of drama, as his productions of my King and Country and others show. However, Conrad also does comedy very well and he has a wicked sense of humour. I first worked with Conrad on my adaptation of Margaret Mahy’s Singing Bus Queue. Conrad played a bullying, tone-deaf rather dim policeman and he spent most of the chase scene yelling insults at the kids in the audience. “You little buggers are trying to put me wrong you? I’ll get you!” The kids absolutely loved him even though he was meant to be the bad guy.
‘Rutu’, 1951. Self-portrait by Rita Angus.
AB: What do playwrights owe to the histories that inspire them?
DA: I am a big fan of history and do quite a bit of freelance work in the museum and history field. Of course, Rita and Douglas is a historical piece, quite faithful to history in a way, as we present Rita’s letters in quite verbatim forms. And the projected photos we use in the show give a nice account of how New Zealand looked in the 1940s and 50s.
I’m also a big fan of more liberal accounts of history. My play about New Zealand soldiers and nurses in World War One, King and Country, was a work of fiction, yet quite a lot of the content and dialogue in the play was taken from, or inspired by, first-hand newspaper accounts, letters and diary entries of real soldiers and nurses. But even though you ‘see’ the truth in front of you, in a work of fiction you sometimes manipulate it to suit your own and your characters’ ends.
Also great fun is rewriting history. That’s what I did with Le Sud.
AB: I enjoyed Le Sud. Parisians are rich comic material. Needles and Opium’s Marc Labreche says, “They don’t allow you to be witnesses of their true persona. It’s always, my God! They’re playing games all the time.”
DC: I assumed the French colonised not only Akaroa but the whole South Island and it made for lots of comedy. But I did a lot of historical research, especially about the French in Aotearoa, to write the play.
AB: I’m hoping to attend your Writers Week forum Based on a True Story, interviewing other festival writers about how they employ Kiwi history.
DC: Stuart Hoar has a lot of fun in Pasefika imaging events in both Paris and New Zealand as they might have happened, rather than as they actually happened, even though some of his characters are real historical figures. And I enjoyed the way [Paniora!’s] Briar Grace-Smith uses real history—in this case the Spanish heritage of a Maori family—to create a drama which fuses kapa haka and flamenco styles, amongst other things.
AB: What did you think of Harry?
DA: Hallelujah that we saw characters that weren’t all middle-class palagis from Grey Lynn or North Shore. We all know Oscar Kightley can write well but Harry showed New Zealanders that he is a fine actor as well. One of my favourite New Zealand plays is Naked Samoans Go Home. In it Oscar plays Dallas, a Maori foreman who got 53% in School Cert English. It remains one of the funniest, saddest, most wonderful characters I have ever seen in a New Zealand play.
AB: I was impressed by Dallas, too. Anything else you’d like to say?
DA: Just that I’m delighted this show is finally coming to Wellington, after playing all around the country. Rita and Douglas first met in Wellington at the French Maid Coffee Shop in Lambton Quay in 1941. Rita spent a large part of her life here and painted many paintings here—the old Bolton Street cemetery, Makara Beach and, of course, the iconic Island Bay fishing boats. Lilburn lived here since the late 1940s.