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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. [Volume 39, Number 19, 1976.]

[Letter from Mervyn Thompson]

The Editor, Drama Review, Salient, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington.

Dear Mr Rowe,

I don't know why I bother, but here goes. The reason that I wrote to you in the first place was to present you with a few facts about our operation. I know that facts are distasteful to you; they are distasteful to most student reviewers, whose sole mission in life seems to be to knock everything the established theatres ever present. If it's established, then it must be bad, effete, right-wing etc., etc. The typical student reviewer comes to a place like Downstage wearing his preconceptions like a badge. His first instinct is to look round for a fur stole. Once he finds it, he sighs with relief; for now he can write off the whole audience as unreal, insincere, uncommitted to theatre, and filthy rich. And settling back piously, he can now write off actors, production, choice of play and the rest. What then develops is the unfortunate tendency to score cheap points, to play arrogant little games with what in many cases has involved hundreds of hours of work and commitment from everybody involved in a particular play. (When, as happens, in too many cases, the reviewer's own bourgeois roots show in everything he writes, one begins to doubt his radicalism. Still, it's an acceptable pose among his peers, and it gets him noticed.

But to state the facts. The vast majority of our customers (who pay an average of $2.75 per seat to see our presentations) are there to see the play. If you doubt this, then why does the "fur-coat brigade" stay away in its thousands whenever we do anything that is radical, experimental or unfamiliar? Because, I assure you, Mr Rowe, that they do. At plays like "Songs to Uncle Scrim", "First Return", "Waste", and "Marat/Sade" for instance, they were conspicuous by their absence. Dinner sales dropped markedly; play only sales improved. And contrary to academic opinion we do not cater for the audience you hate unless, as maybe happens once or twice a year, we have to. It's all very well to throw up one's hands in disgust or piety; but the fact is that one of our priorities is to create employment for actors. And the more radical audience we would prefer to play to 52 weeks of the year is neither large enough nor reliable enough to sustain full employment for professional actors.

The truth is that every play attracts its own audience. And our audience moves along a very y wide spectrum of humanity. Admittedly we have not yet realized the dream of attracting a working class audience in great numbers. Who has? However, a very high proportion of the 77,000 people who attended our plays last year were certainly not Mr Rowe's "typical Downstage audience". Apart from our own more experimental work, there was the fact that we left our doors open to many other groups, whose clientele would have warmed the heart even of Mr Rowe (if such an organ existed). The names of Amamus, Theatre Action and Blerta spring immediately to mind. One of these groups has received administrative assistance from Downstage in the past year another is now negotiating for similar assistance.

Finally, Mr Rowe, you must stop calling people liars when they claim not to fit your simplistic categories. Our theatre has been and is carrying out a community programme (at no charge) in prisons and pension houses. We have recently performed for a political conference. We are about to launch a factory programme. If you haven't noticed these things it is because you were not looking or did not wish to see.

Yours etc.,

Mervyn Thompson,

Artistic Director.