The Roger Hall of Fame: The playwright picks his unsung heroes of NZ theatre

by Roger Hall / 31 August, 2018

Roger Hall. Photo/Ken Downie

As the curtain rises on the first New Zealand Theatre Month, we asked its founder and the country’s best-known playwright Roger Hall to shine a light on those he considers unsung heroes of local theatre.

All these unsung theatre heroes have worked with me, have made my life easier or more interesting, and have contributed greatly to our theatre scene. They are in the order they came into my life…

Joe Musaphia

Joe and I wrote collaboratively for TV’s Australia A-Z, the happiest working time of my life. It involved some writing and a lot of laughing.  But freelance writing was too insecure, so Joe bought a fish and chip shop. And here’s the point: between getting everything ready each morning and the first customers coming in, he sat a table and wrote every day. The result was Mothers and Fathers.

It played at Downstage (Joe was in it), sold out, and then transferred to Wellington’s Opera House. This was a very big deal, not only for Joe, the cast and Downstage, but for the public.

“We could be at the West End!”

Joe Musaphia.

Joe Musaphia.

It then toured Australia.

I thought if Joe can write a play in a shop, what excuses do I have?

Joe went on to write many more plays.  He’s now in his eighties and is still writing, and had a play on this year at Circa. I’d love to write with him again.

Campbell Thomas

Campbell loved almost everything in theatre except being in the limelight.

He took over as artistic director at Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre in the 1980s after a particularly messy departure by the previous incumbent.

Campbell had worked for many years in USA, and was not only a director but a passionate set builder. He was exactly the steady, and thrifty, hand that was needed, and he stayed for fourteen years, Fortune’s longest serving director.

My particular thanks to him are for steering the opening production of the musical, Love off the Shelf (co-writers AK Grant and Philip Norman) after it had been inexplicably rejected by The Court) and made it a smash; building a replica parliamentary chamber for  The Hansard Show (not a smash); plus premiere productions of The Share Club, After the Crash, Social Climbers and By Degrees.  

It was only after I left Dunedin that I realised how much I missed his help steering a new script onto the stage.

Alister McDonald.

Alister McDonald

Alister McDonald probably knows more about New Zealand plays than anyone else in the country. He certainly knows more about mine than I do.

Almost every role he has played in connection with theatre has been unappreciated and thankless: Fortune Theatre Board member for more than thirty years (now there’s a poisoned chalice); Playmarket Executive member; The Fortune’s Dramaturg for 33 years.

It’s his passion for New Zealand plays that earn him his place here. A teacher of English and Economics at Taieri College he usually spends his holidays travelling the country seeing as many as he can. He has a collection of several thousand programmes – an archival gold mine.

For The Fortune, he could analyse the box-office success or failure of every production – a useful predictor of what plays would, or wouldn’t, work should a director wish to use this. Theatres should have him on call.

Alison Quigan.

Alison Quigan

Best known as receptionist Yvonne Jeffries in Shortland Street, Alison Quigan may not exactly be “unsung” but that is very much the tip of the iceberg of her varying roles in theatre.

Any person who can be artistic director of a theatre in Palmerston North for eighteen years has more than paid their dues. No disrespect to Palmerston North but it is always a struggle to get the numbers in. This was why she (together with Ross Gumbley) wrote Five Go Barmy in Palmy, followed by (among others) Shop till You Drop, and The Newbury Hall Dances. These, clearly, are not polemic plays, audiences know what they’re getting when they see the title and turn up in big numbers as they almost certainly will for her Mum’s Choir at The Court this month.

Fourteen plays plus plays for kids means she is one of our leading playwrights, but how many know this?

Murray Lynch.

Murray Lynch

Playmarket has been my agent since 1976 (it represents most other New Zealand playwrights).  Murray Lynch has been its head for eight years. Before that he’d covered many roles: teacher at Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School; associate at Theatre Corporate; ran Centrepoint and Downstage and founded Tantrum;  mostly a director of  plays, which he still does from time to time.
As an agent, Murray has that great knack of making one feel you are their only client. If I get into a tizz (as I have a lot this year) I can ring Murray who will calmly talk me through it. Shades of Sybil Fawlty at times: “ I know. I know…” Sometimes that’s all it takes.

New Zealand Theatre month runs throughout September. See www.theatremonth.nz

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