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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 14, No. 13. October 4, 1951

James Bertram on... — Towards a Little Theatre

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James Bertram on...

Towards a Little Theatre

The V.U.C. Little Theatre—now firmly christened—is, of course, a misnomer: it is not a Little Theatre, and it is very doubtful, as yet, if it belongs to Victoria College. But probably no single addition to the buildings of the college establishment since the war has made so great a change to student life in the imprecise field of "cultural activity."

Blasphemous producers have reviled its stage design and equipment; carefree athletes of- Section T have bounced volley-balls on its virgin pinex; an unsteady Drama Club operator in search of a spotlight has already put one foot through its ceiling. Yet—In less than three years—it has seen productions of Aristophanes and Shaw, of Congreve and Goethe, of Cocteau and Anouilh, of Norman Nicholson and Christopher Fry. Certainly it deserves better of college audiences, than that they should try to bum It down.

How Things Began

For the record—since fresh generations of students can hardly be expected to know about these things—a brief note on its history may be useful. In 1948 a new "temporary" building for overflow Teachers' Training College sections was approved by the Education Department. The building was to be on V.U.C. property, carefully avoiding the site of the projected Chemistry Block; and It was to be used jointly by W.T.C. and V.U.C. On completion, very conveniently. It was to become the home of the newly-formed Political Science Department.

While the plans for the building were still in blueprint, representations from various interested persons as to the needs of college drama were sympathetically received by the Principal of those days, Sir Thomas Hunter. To the astute diplomacy of that incomparable negotiator college students owe whatever benefits they have received from the Little Theatre as they know it. Its shortcomings—, more familiar to dramaturgists than to spectators—are to be blamed on no one man, not even the architect: they are the result of the inevitable New' Zealand compromise.

Am Odified Lecture-Room

No authority was ever given to V.U.C. or W.T.C. for the provision of a theatre. But it was agreed that the largest lecture-room in the new building (whose ground-plan could not be altered) should be equipped with a stage, and something was done to provide a basement workshop and dressing-rooms. It must be obvious to anyone who explores from U 1 that, for a relatively small additional cost, a genuine little theatre might have been obtained, with adequate stage height and wings with a raked auditorium. But the plans and those who must approve them said firmly, lecture room.

This is the simple explanation of most of the theatrical inconsistencies of our Little Theatre—it even accounts for those substantial plywood screens (which, I believe, few students have ever seen in their proper place) intended to make a sound-board behind the solitary lecturer on the stage, and to keep the draught—often formidable enough—off his neck. It accounts for the elaborate cyclorama and switchboard, and the inadequacy of almost everything else. Yet thin very inadequacy should be a challenge.

Delusions of Grandeur

It was hoped, when the plans for a (suitably disguised) college theatre were being discussed, that this might be only the first step in a whole programme of drama development. Why should there not be a Lecturere in Drama, a member of the Arts Faculty who was a trained and experienced producer, to give expert supervision and direction? Such an appointment could hardly be made in an overcrowded college with no facilities for rehearsal or production: once a theatre existed, it became possible. There was strong support for the idea from several college departments.

Even the University of Oxford, it was pointed out, had been flirting with similar notions. In the last year of the war, with the aid of a grant from Sir Alexander Korda, a four-man Drama Commission from Oxford visited the U.S.A. to sec what was being done with drama in American universities. The report of this Commission, with a supplementary architectural report by Frederick Gibberd, was published in a handsome volume by the Oxford University Press in 1948. (The book is in the college library, and should be consulted by all who are interested in the serious study of drama—the plans for an Oxford University Theatre, embodying a brilliant adaptation of classical, Renaissance, Restoration and modem stages in a single building, are quite fascinating. Unfortunately, the building would cost at least £200,000!

Practical Possibilities

To return to Wellintgon, and the Old Clay Patch. Whatever view our university authorities—and ultimately the Government, which would have to find most of the money—may take of the value of improved drama training and equipment at Victoria College, there are certain positive gains already made, and others in sight. The present Little Theatre does exist and is very much in use—there la hardly a night in term, or a weekend, when it is not booked for rehearsal, performance or meeting by some student society. In vacation it is in demand with the W.E.A. and the Community Arts Service, and we may fairly claim that it has already made a significant return to the cultural life of the community for the very modest cost of its adaptation. Those lighted windows above the clay bank on Kelburn Parade—easier to find now than at the time of the College Jubilee—have become familiar to more and more Wellington citizens as a kind of friendly symbol of a university with something to give to the town around it. This is a small but desirable gain along a front that badly needs development.

The challenge of inadequate equipment. Here, surely, is the real test for those who use the place. The best productions the Little Theatre has seen—Pat Evison's Wedding, Chris Pottinger's Phoenix, Margaret Walker's Antigone—have represented so many collective triumphs over environment. Elaborate stage sets, with the delays that those impose on a cramped stage, have usually proved flops: there should be a moral for producers here. If the size of the hall calls for intimate theatre—well, isn't that the best choice of theatre for college societies, anyway?

I am aware of a certain casuistry in this argument; I am aware, too, that V.U.C. Drama Club, unlike the Training College, has preferred to take its major productions, at vast expense, to city theatres. But the case for as many plays as we can get, simply mounted, performed within the college, seems to me a very strong one.

And the equipment can be steadily improved, if we work on a sensible plan. This year the College Council has very generously offered a subsidy of 3 for 1 any sum not exceeding £50 contributed by those using the Little Theatre, for the purpose of improving stage fittings. The response from college clubs has hardly been overwhelming, but it appears that the £50 has been secured. So now £200 may he spent on a full set of stage curtains, and on the provision of workshop wardrobes.

Nothing will come of nothing. The more students are prepared to pot into the Little Theatre, the more intelligently they use it and the more carefully they cherish it, the more support they may hope to get for its general promotion.

The Longer View

But of course this will never be a real theatre. It can't compare even with the Shelley Theatre at Canterbury; or with the Melbourne University Theatre, which has recently advertised for a professional producer. The very building which houses it is described as "temporary"—though it is likely to last as long as the Old Gymnasium, at the least.

What of the future?

If the long-delayed Student Union building (which now has priority number two after the Chemistry Block) ever rises on the rocky bank prepared for it, it may include something rather more impressive. But there is a real danger here too—the danger of falling between several stools. Victoria needs so many things. It needs a college hall, for formal and informal occasions. Students know only too well what it needs in the way of social rooms for recreation. It needs—if drama, music and the seroius study of the film are ever to flourish within the college itself—a small, properly designed, properly equipped theatre that can also be concert-hall and cinema.

The point is that no single auditorium will serve all these needs; and the temptation may be very great to revive the old New Zealand compromise, and try to combine them in one. I hope that temptation will be firmly resisted; and that our true College Theatre, when it comes, will be a theatre and not an auxiliary refectory or cabaret—though I do not see why it should not be chapel, cinema and concert-hall as well.

Meantime, the Little Theatre remains, with its very real opportunities. And what we can do with that, in the next few yearn, will be the best practical demonstration of what we might do with something better.

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