Finishing a season of a play is always a complex moment: there’s relief, sadness, plus a certain emptiness. Praxis (having a meaningful project in the world) disappears. Back to the humdrum of normal life. The wonderful presentness of theatre, like a brief but intense love affair in a foreign country, recedes.
The Measure Taken has been a special project. A play with the unlikely topic of the transition economy, it has involved a cast of twenty to thirty people, needed a creative collaboration, and been received with enthusiasm. A need is there. But how to sustain that need in real life?
The performances revealed the micro cultures of the Coast. Greymouth is unclear, a mix of health, education, bureaucrat and franchise business people, plus a couple of working class suburbs, tending toward the urban, but not big enough to gel, except in small pockets. Yet large enough to justify several performances. Hokitika is more arty and life style confident, but underneath there’s the suburban lurking. Westport is serious, with greenie-extractive conflict and survival an issue. And last Saturday, we were in Reefton, a small town devoted to its heritage.
We played the Oddfellows Hall, in which nothing seems to have changed since 1870, other than the toilets. It’s musty, long and narrow, a rough stage at one end, with lodge paraphernalia on the walls and impressively high narrow doors. There was a drum kit on the stage and a remarkable mix of chairs. I’d been to have a look at it and spent the succeeding days brooding on how to stage the play in there. There was no obvious solution.
We arrived and tried the rostra in various arrangements – to no avail. And then the penny dropped. Reverse the spatial arrangement, stage at the back of the playing area with the audience having to enter through the set. It worked. There was a good crowd and a sense that the hall came to life again. Afterward, local artist, Alison Hale, told us that the hall was where the miners had their relief depot during strikes.
The play is interesting culturally, for after moving through Coast history, selecting some key moments, it moves into the current world, with stories of migrant workers and refugees, before including progressive Coast voices. The trajectory works, for without this perspective, this changing of the spatial arrangement, Coast heritage is as routine as the old photograph and reminiscence to be found weekly in the community newspaper. Sartre called this dead weight of the past, the practico inert.
I am reminded of a theatre project in Tokelau during the 1990s. In Tokelau, the main cultural format is the faitele, which consists of two groups challenging each other in song and dance performance. The songs always start slowly, then get faster, moving to a rousing conclusion. After a couple of occasions it started to seem routine. But when we did a play first, a play about current issues facing Tokelau, after the discussion a faitele would inevitably follow, the cast being challenged by the locals. Now the traditional performance had a new vitality, because those present had tackled the issues.
A play leaves a memory, that’s all. That is one of the virtues of theatre, it doesn’t contribute much to the practico inert. But after each performance of Measures we interviewed members of the audience about the economic programme which was suggested. There was ambivalence about regional independence, but remarkable consensus about the need for a Universal Basic Income, organic dairying, a hemp industry, growing our own food, having our own energy supply, processing raw materials here, a Living Wage and welcoming refugees.
Why is this programme not out there, being more widely discussed? This is where Sartre’s concept becomes resonant, for it is the practico inert (and neo-liberalism is now a key element of the practice inert) which stops the praxis which is necessary for a healthy society and a healthy planet.