Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 17. July 18th, 1973
Theatre Action was originally composed of five ex-students of Ecole Lecoq, a Parisian mime school, who came to New Zealand with what might be called a pioneering spirit, Francis Batten, the New Zealander who leads the troupe, felt that both the barren (theatrical, and possibly cultural) country' and the actors would benefit from the immensity of the challenge. Initially he set the group a deadline of two years in which to establish themselves and explore the territory.
Their first production, Gwayne and other Things, brought a round of applause from the theatre brigade for their imaginative use of mime, masks, and above all, movement. However, the works did not have much in the way of content: the themes too familiar, and the presentation tended towards repetition.
Once Upon a Planet, their next major production dispelled my anxiety. Quite simply, it's the best performance I've ever seen, a work that can be taken on several levels ranging from physical comedy to intellectual intro-spection: it's a play for all audiences, an incredible feat. It was like the rare books written for children which jolts the adult reading them to an awareness that confuses his neat ordering of his life, making him aware of other, more exhil-erating, if more demanding, possibilities. The books are notable for their lack of self-consciousness, in other words, an over-developed awareness of their audience. Children and clowns allow the possibility that the adult audience will be forced to use a mode of thinking distinct from everyday anaylsis in order to comprehend.
Francis Batten is interested in the "interior revolution", in which theatre becomes a means to enlarge the audience's minds and increase their ability to relate to each other. The troupe has tried political theatre (more in Auckland than down here), and found that "non-propaganda" theatre is far more effective. This is partially because the group has no particular line to plug and certainly offers no means of salvation, apart from a general need to love your neighbour which presupposes an acceptance of yourself, a self-awareness. Francis goes so far as to say that "whatever the theory or revolution, if it doesn't have love, then society will be shit", (love here meaning not some vague tweeness, but more a tolerance of different directions, even a celebration of their coexistence). The kind of theatre the group aims at is not intellectual or easily accessible to analysis — which would defeat their intention of subverting the mind into new directions, no matter who their audience is.
Possibly the group is best described by its attitude, its "commitment" rather than trying to talk about them in terms of 'masks, movement and mime', which is what their image largely consists of. Their new production, The Best of All Possible Worlds, now playing at the Concert Chamber, is more structured than the earlier performances, which were more a "loose constellation of very individual beings", and draws on a group enlarged by several New Zealanders. However, the same process of creation has been utilised: inspiration and research from individuals, trial improvisations, with Francis Batten acting as an "outside eye", rather than omnipotent director.
He secs the strength of Theatre Action lying in the commitment of each member to search into himself, which avoids the need for compromise, what he calls "group gray ness". It is important that the group want to do something rather than self-copsciously seeking for something to do. I imagine that Best of All Possible Worlds came about partly through changed composition of the group — but still, and importantly, not all Kiwi, and not all sharing the same experience, and partly through the events and non-events of the last year. The play is a mosaic of the Kiwi, a look to see how we got where we are today. Francis compares it to a musical composition, with motifs, harmony, discord, things which make sense retrospectively. It's an attempt to understand rather than criticise, and thus uses a melange of styles.
The themes underlying the play, avoiding blatant statements. Francis talks about the "tension of hopes" which arc "the driving forces of reality". He sees New Zealand character as a parallel to the landscape-placid, subdued (i.e. farmed) exterior, hiding a volcanic substrata. The quest for security means repression, the fear of instability creates it.
New Zealanders are unable to take or give criticism; they don't commit themselves to others because they aren't committed to themselves. They apologise for spouses, jobs, for being afraid of losing ourselves that we never discover ourselves, clinging instead to the outer shells of defining ourselves in terms of what others think, what they do. We tend to breed fanatics and what Francis calls "the mashed- potato feeling", an unwillingness to take risks, to see what lies over the other side of the garden fence — something frequently encountered by Theatre Action. He talks of gutless, incompetent administrators, with cramped imaginations and a fear of the novel, which they regard as a risk — meaning that nothing new can happen; more interested in measurable, status objects such as lavish buildings (e.g. the Hannah Playhouse) than on what goes on inside them. There arc also employers (e.g. the City Council) and members of their audience who get afraid of the masks, the clown image, partially a reflection of the puritanical element in the Kiwi character.
Theatre Action are at present the only professional and certainly the most imaginative and energetic of the 'alternative theatre' groups. There's very little of the usual theatrical egocentricity and game-playing in their work, and the audiences they seek are not the usual elite. One can expect far more than mere entertainment from a group whose commitment to certain ideals allows them to give theatre a validity it does not usually enjoy, and to reach its audiences along novel, enriching paths.