ONstage: EnsembleImpact’s Power Plays for the Young and Hungry

The power and the passiON. IMAGE: EnsembleImpact.

The power and the passiON. IMAGE: EnsembleImpact.

ANNABEL WILSON reviews the new show from EnsembleImpact – extracts from five Arthur Meek  (Bruce Mason award for Playwriting) plays stitched together under the ensemble-focused direction of Leo Gene Peters(Best Director 2009, Chapman Tripp Awards).

When I recall visiting ‘theatre in education’ troupes that came to my high school, I cringe a bit. Often these fully-funded touring shows were heavy-handed in their use of drama as a tool for social change. Sex and drugs were prevalent themes and the messages were often preachy. Imperatives for ‘how to live a healthy adolescent life’ were tied in a neatly packaged bow by the time the lunchbell went: Make safe choices! No balloon – no party! DARE to say no to drugs! The over-the-top, all-too-earnest shows were the ones we laughed at, and not in a good way. The shows that managed to engage a hall-full of hormonal teenagers were those that kept it real.

Power Plays is a piece that engages its high school audience by mocking some of the ‘theatre in education’ tropes its cast experienced as teenagers.

The show begins with a piss-take of educators fumbling with the admin and jargon of NCEA. There’s the talk of course outlines, achievement objectives, the Drama Matrix and meeting the standard all too familiar to today’s youth. There’s also a lot of alienating academic speak which deliberately makes the ‘educators’ inaccessible – a wry comment on the confusing elements of our current education system’s constant assessment and prerogatives.

Set in traverse, the performance relies on minimal props and no additional sound or lighting other than the space provides. This makes the piece adaptable to the various venues of its two month tour. It’s a neat fifty minute mosaic – a quintet of bits from Arthur Meek plays woven together by a cast of four. The ensemble employ a smattering of movement, chorus, puppetry, character-breaking, asides and a smartphone to keep things interesting. Strewn about the floor are paper and files used as transitions into each vignette. The first is a hilarious sequence from ‘The Cottage’ – an LGBT comedy set in a nightclub. Addressing issues of sexuality, relationships and gender, the scene provides an in-point into the pluralities of identity in a tongue-and-cheek manner:”I’m 96% straight…How gay are you, Brendon?” Because the two protagonists are hostellers; the dialogue is accessible and the story relevant, the excerpt delivers on EnsembleImpact’s wish to “be part of a live conversation with our audience, to bring light into dark spaces, to transform and illuminate”… starting with schools.

The other two more resonant extracts tackled were the pieces from ‘On The Upside Down of the World’ and ‘Sheep’. Set in colonial New Zealand, ‘On The Upside Down…’ was written as a solo piece based on the diaries of Mary Ann Martin – a pakeha settler navigating her pathway through a fraught period in Aotearoa’s history. Here, Toi Whakaari graduate Johanna Cosgrove shines as Mary Ann, a Victorian woman in a foreign country with an absent husband who wishes to “rid myself of a whaleboat of a dress”.

In ‘Sheep’ too, the metaphoric potential of clothing is explored. Through clever use of paper costuming, this nostalgic extract investigates how people ‘wear’ the roles of societal expectation. It’s 1966 in Masterton. As the annual Golden Shears contest heats up, tensions are high. Two sisters face dilemmas as the sexual revolution hits rural New Zealand. One falls pregnant; the other tries to get the contraceptive pill as an unmarried woman. The patriarchal nature of the provinces back in those days is called into question with the simple line “Where would we be if we didn’t work for our fathers?”

Power Plays’ strengths lie in the way it poses questions, rather than instructions or answers. The resolution segues back into NCEA-sphere as the hand-out with the key to life is unable to be found: “Let’s just move on!” Sitting on the floor with the audience at the end, the actors make time for korero. Students are encouraged to ask their own questions, and there’s a sense that we’re all on the level, in discussion, together. Which is true to the nature of devised ensemble work. Power Plays is best suited to those who have studied Meek’s work and/or those taking senior Drama. EnsembleImpact provides a helpful guide for people in this category. This latest offering – powered by the indispensable Young and Hungry Arts Trust – hinges around an honesty and tenacity which should strengthen during the tour.

  • Annabel Wilson

Touring NZ 2 May – 1 July 2016

For ON-the-ball support with previews, promotion, advertising, interviews, reviews and photography for your cool happenings and concepts, contact annabel@onmag.co.nz.

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