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Interview with Alison Quigan. Interviewer Ian Johnston, in Palmerston North.

Alison Marie Quigan is a New Zealand actor, director and playwright. Quigan was the artistic director of Centrepoint Theatre in Palmerston North for 18 years from 1986 to 2004. She directed over 60 plays during her time there. In the 2001 Birthday Honours, Quigan received a Queens Service Medal for "public services to theatre".

Interview mainly talks about Quigan's time as Centrepoint Theatre's Artistic Director. Also includes specific mention of getting involved in local theatre, Theatre Corporate Drama School, acting at Centrepoint and Court Theatres, and makes mention of many local and national actors and directors.


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Alison Quigan QSM: Interview 2004.

Interviewee: Alison Quigan
Interviewer: Ian Johnstone
Transcribed by Leanne Hickman

IJ: Alison Quigan, Centrepoint Theatre. So here we are 2004. Almost at the departure Alison Quigan?
AQ: A day away actually.
IJ: A day away.
AQ: I hand my key over tomorrow.
IJ: It’s been a long time. Now Alison you’re actually a local aren’t you?
AQ: I am. I was born here. I went to school here and I lived here until I went overseas in 1973. Yeah.
IJ Before we get to the theatre thing. Just a very brief recollection of Palmerston North as your childhood.
AQ: I was brought up here in the 50s and 60s, so for me it was home and I guess it was quite typical of New Zealand at that time. It was very family based, my upbringing was incredibly – the larger Quigan family, cause the Quigans were quite a big family in this area and so it was the big family and it was also the Catholic Church so our lives were pretty well dictated by the Catholic Church at that time and so that was our life really. And a very safe and happy childhood.
IJ: As many of us remember from that era. Theatre. When did your first interest in theatre arise, do you remember?
AQ: Actually it was when I was at 2ZA. I worked at radio 2ZA, when it was in George Street. And that would have been in ’69 – ’70, and one of the announcers there Grant Bridger, he was involved in theatre and he said: ‘Why don’t you come along?’ And Audrey Green, I think, I can’t remember whether she was slightly before that or slightly after that, but she also was involved in theatre and encouraged me to go along. So I went along and tried out for the Palmerston North Operatic Society, which it was at the time. And so I got into amateur productions at the time, Round the World in 80 days, and Brigadoon and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the whole fun aspect of been onstage and been part of a bit team and yeah my involvement became then. Started then.
IJ: As many people did dabbling in amateur operatic, amateur dramatics. You went overseas and travelled around and saw the world, did the OE.
AQ: Yeah absolute classic OE.
IJ: What sorts of things did you do while you were travelling around.
AQ: Oh, you know, I went from Palmerston North to London and had no problem fitting in. When I think back a bit, I think: ‘My gosh, how on earth did I – how did I transition? But no, I went from being a terrified driver in Palmerston North to being an absolutely on to it driver in London, you know. It’s the ignorance is bliss. It’s blissful ignorance, It’s just extraordinary how you just sort of walked into London: ‘Yeah I know this place, see that’s fine yeah I can drive here, no problem.’
IJ: Read the book, seen the maps.
AQ: I don’t think I’d even deny them. It was just blissful ignorance. Got in there and had a wonderful time. You know, went there got a job, walked into the first temp agency that I saw, walked in, got a job, started on Monday, worked out how I had to get there and started work. I mean it was the absolute brash confidence of us at that time, I think. And that was fantastic. Went off on trips as everybody does, went to see Amsterdam, the red light district and the beer festival in Munich and all that sort of stuff. Went to Greece, loved Greece. Went back to London, kept working and then thought: ‘I think it’s time to go home now.’
IJ: Done that.
AQ: I missed the grass and the ice cream and ‘It’s time to go home now.’ Came back to New Zealand and thought: ‘oh what did I come home for? My god, it’s so empty, there’s no one in the street. I’m so sophisticated and they’re so dumb.’ So it was that usual transition of: ‘Why did I come home?’ and then I went up to Auckland and I did some more productions up there for amateur societies like the Mairangi Players when I was starting to think, I’ll go back to London and somebody said: ‘Well if you go back, get some training as an actor.’ And I thought ohhh. So, I decided that I would try out for the New Zealand Drama School in Wellington and they didn’t want me. They took one look at my photo and said: ‘No we don’t want her.’ I remind them of that a lot. And there was a new drama school starting up in Auckland called Theatre Corporate Drama School and was its first year as a drama school. And the people starting it were really, really exciting. And I didn’t know that at the time, but I went in there and I got in much to my horror, really. It was a totally new world and my world changed.
IJ: Who were those people who started Theatre Corporate?
AQ: Raymond Hawthorn was the main person and his wife Elizabeth Hawthorn, Elizabeth McRae, Ilona Rodgers, Linda Cartwright and they’re all still in theatre now and I was shocked by the amount of work that it required. I mean we had to attain a level of almost military fitness to do the work and it just changed my life.
IJ: Theatre Corporate had a particular structure, a particular basis, slightly different from other places didn’t it.
AQ: Yes it did, in that it was driven by Raymond but everybody did everything, you know. You actually had to turn around and then take the set out and put the set in and move the costumes. Yes it was much more hands-on I think, than other theatres at the time. But I mean, it was my only experience so I didn’t know any different.
IJ: I remember meeting you at that stage in Gisborne. You were touring through Gisborne with Theatre Corporate and I remember you saying then how much fun it was and how busy it was and hard work. But you were learning everything. Every aspect of theatre from, sort of, planning production, directing, acting, as you say, building sets. It was everything in there.
AQ: It was actually, you’re quite right. It was, I mean – when I met you in Gisborne we were touring the schools and it was totally exhilarating because the immediacy of working with school students was extraordinary, you know, if they didn’t like you they let you know. So you had to be good every time. There was no slacking off, you couldn’t phone it in, it was one of those – it was an incredible learning curve. I mean, you sort of thought you’d learn the first year and the second year you go out touring but – and it would be easy. It wasn’t easy, it was hard. And the younger the students, the harder it was.
IJ: And you were working to a certain extent an involuntary audience, I guess.
AQ: Yes, dragged in, kicking and screaming some of them. And sometimes the teacher said: ‘Now I don’t want to hear a word out of you!’ And you think: ‘Oh no, they’re not going to laugh, they’re not going to do anything.’ And usually they were just exhilarating to do things for.
IJ: Would have been a great background to the whole theatrical experience.
AQ: I guess it opened my eyes – going around the schools, when I think back – since I’ve been writing in the last 10 years, I looked back at that time and I knew that I was observing so much of what was going on. I remember the question/answer thing at the end of every show was – that was probably the most revealing about a school and also about the generation that we were talking to. The kids would used to say: ‘Do you ever get the browns.’ I went: ‘I don’t know, what the browns?’ ‘You know, you know, embarrassed, do you ever get embarrassed?’ ‘Oh no, no this is what we’re trained to do, this is what we do,’ And one particular school they said: ‘Which one misses out?’ And we went: ‘What?’ ‘Well, there’s two girls and three guys, which one misses out?’ ‘It’s all right, none of us are together, it’s ok.’ ‘But you all live together.’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Mmmmmm.’ But it was great. They’d also talk about – one of the programmes was about violence, it was about peer pressure and it was about violence that young people have to deal with. And it was quite revealing sometimes, during the production, you could see some people suddenly go very, very quiet, as though they were dealing with something they didn’t want to tell their friends about. So it was incredible doing shows like that.
IJ: So, were the shows at that stage specifically targeted for a school-age audience, or were they more general theatre?
AQ: Oh no, we had five shows, I think it was five. We had a new entrant one that was just for primary schools and it was mostly story book stories. And then there was an intermediate one, specifically for that mad time of intermediate which is – you know it was Roald Dahl – not Roald Dahl – it was Edward Lear, you know lots of wordy, funny, rude, almost rude types of programme. It was called Stuff and Nonsense. And then the school programme, actually the high school was five – so it was seven programmes. There were five in the high school and there was one especially for that nerdy time of third form, you know, when your into science and all that sort of stuff. Then the fourth form programme was violence. And it was about that really horrible time in fourth form, you know how your not a third former anymore but your not a fifth former and there’s a lot of peer pressure. Sometimes there’s a little down time, too much down time in the fourth form. The in the fifth form we went into Hamlet, Katherine Mansfield and Behind the Tattooed Face which was about New Zealand literature and it was great because we could explore all those areas. And for us as performers there was a huge range to work in and it was quite revealing. I mean Hamlet at quarter to eight – no – Hamlet at quarter to nine in Tararua College in Pahiatua was an experience, you know. We were young people! So quarter to nine and you’ve done your warm-up which was a cup of coffee and a bit of a cough. I didn’t smoke but the others did and it was like they had a they had that cigarette and a cup of coffee and went on. But, you know, it was a huge learning experience.
IJ: So it would have put you – that experience would have firmly put you in this strange world, that is theatre.
AQ: It also made us aware of the roll that performing can actually take, in that we can be a facilitator for particular subjects like the violence programme. That was a great one to set it up as a conversation-starter. I could see where there are lots of programmes that have gone that direction since. But also it provided a fantastic service for students who were studying Shakespeare, because our particular Hamlet was done in several different ways. We would do a couple of scenes and we would say: ‘Do you want to do see that done again? Do you want somebody else to play that role?’ Cause we could do that, one of the girls could do a ‘to be or not to be,’ to see what it’s like for a girl. Or so and so could do it and do it a totally different way just to see. So we challenged them to think outside the square and to go: ‘Well Shakespeare can be done and begin in lots of different ways and we’re just standing here in front of you and it doesn’t have to be done with costumes and sets and so on. We’re using the bits and bobs that we’ve got but have a think about how else this could go. What else does this mean?’ That kind of thing. So, it was a challenge to them to not to just stay in severely fixed ideas of what Shakespeare should be.
IJ: So, how long were you working with Theatre Corporate. How long did that process

AQ: Three years. And then I came back to Palmerston North actually. They offered me a job for a year as an actor here at Centrepoint. So, I came back for that.
IJ: And how was that, moving from that moving world of Theatre Corporate to almost static for a while.
AQ: Well I’ve always had resistance when I’ve come back to Palmerston because, you know you’re from here – I’m from here so I kind of think: ‘ Oh, I should be somewhere glamourous now.’ And I came back to Palmerston North and it actually was fantastic for my career. It allowed me to grow as an actor. From the very guided way that we had been working at Theatre Corporate, you know, working with our tutors and so on and it meant that we had been you know, you’re still in a classroom situation. Your still learning and actually you never stop learning. But coming into Centrepoint it just gave me so much more freedom. And working with Murray – Murray Lynch who was here when I started and then working with Jan Prettejohns who was the director in 1982 and they gave a huge amount of freedom. And they just kept on encouraging me to grow as an actor. I discovered my funny bone here at Centrepoint. I discovered that I could be funny. And what it meant to be funny for an audience and for me as a performer. So it made greater contact between the performer and the audience and more risk, of course, cause you can get it wrong. So Centrepoint for me has always been this place where you can, as a young actor, come in and actually develop your craft. You’ve had your training now you need the freedom to grow and work out how you work. I mean I did a production, I was in a play called Hedda Gabler here and I remember people were very complimentary about it. But I remember in the rehearsal period thinking: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ I was so busy thinking about: ‘Now if I lift my voice here and I drop my voice there and I emphasise a bit more here and I point that line there.’ And I was thinking so technically about the whole – about every single word that I just wasn’t seeing the woman, I wasn’t playing the character. I was so busy doing it technically and then one day at rehearsal I thought: ‘Stuff it I’m not going to think about that stuff any more’, and I just went out there and I listened to what everybody else said to me and I just said the lines, I just responded. So, it was a classic lesson in: all you have to do is listen and then the words will come. And they are the right words, you know, you’ve learnt enough of them to know that they are the right words. But it’s just that freedom of being able to go: ‘Oh so your saying that to me, so I’m going to say that to you.’ You know you are literally listening so you can respond. It sounds easy but actually it takes years to actually get rid of the: ‘I need more volume here and I need less volume there, I need you to point.’ Trying to keep all the clutter out of your head so you simply listen.
IJ: But you need that clutter initially to know – to be able to do it don’t you.
AQ: Oh yes because, I mean, the audience has to hear what you are saying otherwise they can’t respond. And so yes you need all the technical aspects but there a point in your work, in your working method that you actually have to throw all that out the window and trust that it is there. Just trust, yes I know you can walk and talk, but can you act?
IJ: So that moment of truth came in that period of time.
AQ: It did actually. It allowed me to just respond to what was happening on the stage so then I was open to what people were throwing at me and that was a big moment for me.
IJ: So, that was the actor Alison Quigan developing at Centrepoint at that stage. You were here for a year.
AQ: Two years actually. Eventually I was here for two years. I mean, I have seen that happen time and time again at Centrepoint. For young actors who come here and they arrive thinking: ‘Oh well I’ll just going to do a job.’ And then because there’s a certain freedom here there’s not the restrictions of, you know – your not in Auckland or Wellington or Christchurch, which are really sort of big theatre cities and there’s a lot of pressure to get it right first time. Whereas here they do get it right, but they also have – they don’t have the pressure of: ‘I’ve got a radio call in five minutes so I have to rush away,’ you know in the big city you’re trying to keep all the balls in the air at the same time. And I’ve got a radio ad or I’ve got a TV advert that I need to do or a film or something. And here because there’s no other work they just concentrate on the work that’s in front of them. And I think that the theatre has grown with that and has given actors such opportunities in that time.
IJ: After your time here then what happened? Where did you go?
AQ: I was invited down to The Court Theatre in Christchurch1 and I went down for – in ’83, ’84, ’85, ’86 – so I was there for four years, off and on. I mean I wasn’t performing at The Court all that time but I went down to The Court for ’83 and most of ’84.
IJ: It was in Elric Hooper’s2 day was it?
AQ: It was. Oh yes, in his heyday.
IJ: A legendary director in New Zealand theatre.
AQ: Oh I learnt a huge amount from Elric. I mean Raymond and Elric were both master teachers, real master-class teachers. With Elric I learned how to finish a play. I mean he’s fantastic at structuring a whole performance so that the audience builds its understanding through a whole performance and he’s fantastic at finishing a play. He used to say things like: ‘The last bus is about to leave what are you gonna do about it?’ And it was such good advice. You know, you don’t dribble off at the end, you finish. You know to finish. And he also taught me how to do scene changes. I mean I know it sounds banal but he actually never allowed the audience to sink into that: ‘Oh well they’re changing the sets so we can have a bit of a chatter now.’ He always kept the momentum going, he always had – his scene changes were often more entertaining than the play. You know, if it was a dud play he could actually do a scene change which was even better. So audiences loved the scene changes that he did. He never went to blackout. I talked about it with Ross Gumbely3 years later and we both agreed that blackouts were theatrical twink. It’s a full stop and you don’t want to have a full stop because the audience is so used to television and film, they expect the thing to continue. And Shakespeare never required blackouts either. He always had one scene finishing and another one just beginning. So that you as an audience are still on that thought and then there’s something else happening now. I’ve always admired that with Elric and he was fantastic at comedy. He understood the articulation required to make a joke work. To make something funny happen on stage then you’ve got to have something really clear. The audience has to hear it, to make the connections, so I learnt a huge amount from Elric.
IJ: And who were the people that you were working there with at that time, as well as Elric?
AQ: Well Elizabeth Moody was one of the actors there, Judy Douglas , Jonathan Elsom actually came through at that time, he was in England at the time, and he used to come through for performances. Richard Mays was an English actor that came out and he did The Dresser. Stuart Devenie, and he was the director here for a while. And, oh there was so many people, Sandra Rasmussen, Geoffrey Heath, there was just, you know a lot of people that came through there.
IJ: Because it was a very – and still is – a very vital part of New Zealand theatre.
AQ: Yeah, it’s the most successful New Zealand theatre. Because it has a structure – an extraordinary structure and real support from it’s own community which I think is fantastic.
IJ: Just as an aside, how do you gauge success in a theatre?
AQ: Well there’s several gauges, there’s several measures. One is artistic excellence, but there’s also financial viability, the fact that you can pay the wages, that at the end of the day you can look at the books and say yes we did make overall – over the end of the year we made a surplus. Which is what Arts Council requires. They do require you to make a surplus, and so does the bank and so does the community really. You do need – the theatre needs to be financially viable. I don’t mean it’s much more that a small business but it does need to actually – you need to see that there are people are coming in the door. I mean it’s the box office is really the success factor. I mean, what do they say? There’s KPI’s – Key Performance Indicators. Well my KPI’s here have always been that: is the phone ringing? What’s the average ticket price? And what’s the percentage? What are we paying at the moment? Are we paying 60%, are we paying 30% we’re in trouble. If we’ve got our average ticket price is really low then we’re in trouble. So, I mean we can tell on a daily basis whether or not our KPI’s are working.
IJ: From Court Theatre, you spent a period of time there as you say, working partly full-time and doing bit and pieces around the country. Then 1986, I think it was, you came to Palmerston North – back to Palmerston North. How did that come about? What was the

AQ: I saw the advertisement in the paper and I applied. I mean, I was out of work at the time. I’d been working in Christchurch for a PEP scheme that they had at the time and I was working for the City Council down there as an artistic co-ordinator of groups. You know they had a percussion group, they had a performing arts group and I was the director of the performing arts group and I sort of over saw - had to look at the percussion group as well. I think there was another group who’s name escapes me but at that time, I was employed for a year and then that contract ran out. I think those schemes started to kind of disappear. And, so the job came up here and I applied. I mean, I needed work so I applied. I had no idea really what I was in for. I mean, I just thought: ‘Oh well, all right, why not?’ I think I’ve always felt like that. I don’t really see the problems, I only see the opportunities. And I think I read that about myself more recently and thought: ‘Oh, yes ok. That’s probably a good idea.’ I don’t look behind, everything’s just in front.
IJ: So you were successful in your application to the job. What was the state of Centrepoint Theatre when you arrived here in 1986?
AQ: There was several states. Financially it was fine. Financially there was money in the bank and they owned the building. Culturally there was a problem in that there was a lot of friction between the Board and the management, the previous artistic director and so it was a dysfunctional family in lots of ways. So my aim when I came in was to try and continue the momentum of the successful programme that had been in place, but also to learn from the experiences I’d had at The Court. I mean Elrick is a master programmer in lots of ways. At his best he has been fantastic. I just drew on so much of what he had done in the past. Similar audience although not the same, in Christchurch as to Palmerston North and so I tried to put a programme together that had elements of successful plays but maybe also plays that could see us through artistically as well. But also I had a lot of repairing of relationships to do when I first arrived. But I had a lot to learn as well as, you know, how to manage and my work – my previous work – years and years ago when I had been a typist in 2ZA and worked for other construction companies as a secretary and all that kind of administrative experience I’d had, it actually came into play then. So I was the only one who could type and knew how a letter should look, so that was useful. And we had an electric typewriter in 1986 so, you know, we were advanced. I used to call it a manual typewriter with a lock, really cause it wasn’t much better. But it was a lot of repairing to do within the theatre. So there was a lot of – I needed to set up meetings so that people could talk to each other and feel confident that we were still going in the right direction. And needed to set up sponsorship deals. There was a lot or repairing to do within the community as well. I noticed that some people were off-side with Centrepoint at that time because things had been borrowed but not returned in a fit state and no reparation had been given. There was no respect for the theatre with the Mayor. He was totally off-side with the theatre at that stage and so we needed to kind of repair lots of relationships that I thought were useful.
IJ: So this was, as well as being the artistic director of the theatre.
AQ: Well that’s a bit part of it yeah.
IJ: You had all this work to do. So you launched into it. How did you go about it? What was the sort of, initial stage. You – what was the first production you did? Had the programme been set before you arrived?
AQ: No. Nothing.
IJ: So you had to start off with a blank slate.
AQ: Yeah the first thing was – in those days we didn’t have to do a year’s programming. Nowadays – there was a budget that we had to work to but there was no actual programme presented. You know, like nowadays we do a brochure and everything has to be in place by October hopefully, so that you can actually say to the marketing person: ‘Ok we’ve got all these plays, you need to write some blurbs,’ all that sort of stuff. So it’s a big marketing job to do now. At that time we could almost do it on a play-by-play basis but we needed to do at least a six month programme for our own sake, for the budget. So at the time, I think the very first production we did was Side by Side by Sondheim. And I remember I worked through the summer holiday, so called, because I just didn’t know what we were going to do and made a decision about this Side by Side. I asked somebody who I had met to be the director. We were actually trying to – I wasn’t going to be in the first production and I’d asked Michael Williams, who I’d worked with before, to be the musical director. And he sort of said yes. So he was auditioning all sorts of people and we found Jennifer Ward-Lealand, in Auckland, who was really keen to come down. I auditioned her in Auckland and Ross Gervin, he must have come up from Wellington, I think he’d just finished drama school at that time. And – I suppose the very first thing I did when I got the job – I went up to Auckland and I auditioned lots of people who were graduating from the Theatre Corporate course, which is what I had been in and so I wanted to see what they were like and I also managed to see the graduating production at Toi Whakaari – it was just called the New Zealand Drama School at the time. And they came to me which was quite delicious. Five of these gorgeous young men straight out of drama school, they came up and they all auditioned at once. And it was – I was a bit blown away actually, because they were all fairly fantastic and most of them have gone on – in fact I think all of them have gone on to really important careers. And so it was great to see them. And then I’d see all these actors from Auckland. So I sort of, built a programme around those actors in lots of ways. I mean brought Jennifer down from Auckland and John Rait from Wellington, Tim Homewood from Wellington and I sort of, kept on the back-burner these actors that I’d really liked. And I guess I built a programme from plays that I had seen. Side by Side by Sondheim, I can’t remember when I’d seen it, but I’d seen it somewhere, I saw it in Auckland at some stage and it might have been at the end of ’86 but I can’t remember. So that was my first production. And I wasn’t going to be in it, but in the end they couldn’t find a singer who was going to be ok. And Michael turned to me and said: ‘Can you sing?’ I said: ‘Oh probably not very well.’ And so he took me through and said: ‘You have a lovely voice, lovely.’ And I thought: ‘You’re only saying that because I’ve given you a job.’ But as it turned out I really enjoyed it and it was a good move. It was a happy accident really because it allowed me as the new artistic director to show my stripes and say: ‘Hey, look this is my show and this is how I want to run it.’ And so I was leading from the front really and I can look back and say that but at the time I just sort of thought: ‘All right I’ll do it.’ And so we had a great team to start with – to start the whole year off with. So I managed to keep a lot of those actors through that first year. And I think by the end of that first year, that must have been when we did the Share Club. Was that 1987, yes it was. So at the end of that first year, 1987 we did the Share Club and that just – although through the year, we hadn’t been doing that well, we were doing alright but not that well and we were starting to worry a bit by the time I put Bent on, which was about the Jews in the Second World War at the concentration camps and then after that we put on the Share Club and it just took off, made a fortune, so it was like ‘Whew’.
IJ: So that must have given you, that first year, given you a good insight into what was needed, what sort of, background was needed to just keep the theatre rolling.
AQ: Yes, I mean, I think in that very first year I learned that you needed a play at the end of the year that was actually going to fill the coffers , so that you can pay the wages that you can actually balance out the year’s books. I mean, now I can look back and I can say, well the years that have been successful we have had at least two plays that have made 80% box office. And you need that cause of structure. Ideally you need three: you have one slightly at the beginning of the year, you have one in the middle of the year, one at the end of the year and then between those plays you can do almost anything. You can do all the experimental stuff on either side of those, so that the audience feels that there is a variety of work. I mean that’s part of our constitution that there has to be a variety of work. You can’t just do one thing. And I think that’s quite important.
IJ: Because you do, you present a wide variety of material and have done at Centrepoint right through. That Christmas show too I guess, it good from a PR point of view, in that, people are on a high and if they have a high time at Centrepoint at Christmas it’s

AQ: I think it sets us up. I think emotionally it’s really important for people to have a positive end to their year. I mean, people are so busy and often so stressed at that time of the year. If we can provide something that gives them an out, that gives them a lift at the end of the year and that’s why we started writing, is because I couldn’t find plays that didn’t have that rather nasty sting in the tail. I wanted plays at that end of the year that people could just relax and have a good time. They weren’t – didn’t have to be a brain teaser, I didn’t want to be educating anybody at that stage of the year. And I just think it’s such an arrogance to think somehow or other we can teach the audience a nice lesson here. I didn’t want to do that, I think that people deserve a good time. It’s Christmas, they’ve got enough on their plate, they’re busy, they’re stressed, they need an adrenaline rush really and that’s what I think we can give them.
IJ: So, theatre provides a whole lot of roles in the community.
AQ: I think so. I mean, what we found over the years was that – it was important, we became the storytellers of this particular community and that was something that I feel so proud about. I think that we actually became a facilitator for people. I mean, we did a play called Boys at the Beach, which was about repeating the same summer holiday every year and it’s partly because my brother and my sister and all off our families all went to the beach – the same beach, the same camping ground and we did the same things every year. And it was religious almost, you know. We got there, your watch was ripped off you, you were tied into a sarong or lavalava, the book was put in your hand and the beer in the other and there was you deck chair and you stayed there. And that was it and it was bliss. The biggest conversation of the day was: ‘Will I have a jelly tip or an ice-block.’
IJ: Serious stuff.
AQ: That was the wonderful thing and we still treasure that, you know. We still sometimes we repeat that holiday and that was really the essence of the play. And at the end of the play, at the end of the season, I have had so many people said to me at that time: ‘I can’t wait for my summer holiday now. We always do the same thing, all my family goes too’ You know, and it was great. If we can do that for people. If we can say to them: ‘Gosh this is what our – I’m really looking forward to this.’ Then we’ve done our job.
IJ: Over this period of time a couple of feature stand out for me. One is the development and support of New Zealand theatre at Centrepoint has put on stage and also actively supported. How did that come about?
AQ: In 1992 I went overseas to a workshop – a theatre workshop in London and people from all over the world were there and we saw plays on the way there in San Francisco and New York and in London, of course. We saw plays every night and it was fantastic, you know, ‘wow, wow we’re in the theatre capital of the world!’ Amazing. And what I came away with – and sorry, the night that I came back to Palmerston North, I was away for six weeks. Came back to Palmerston North, was the opening night of David Geary’s play Pack of Girls. Which I’d had nothing to do with apart from casting it before I left. And I was struck by the difference in audiences. In London the audiences had been: ‘Bravo. My word, awfully good night, fantastic, brilliant.’ That was the extent of their euphoria. And in Palmerton North, they fell on the floor, the audiences owned the production so much, it was their story. It was: ‘That’s you, you know.’ They were hitting each other, they were digging their ribs – each other in the ribs, they were screaming with laughter. The women were thumping the tables, because at the time, we had a restaurant at the time. And the women were thumping the tables and they were asking the box office after the show: ‘I want that speech – I want that speech where the woman tells her husband off. I want that one.’ And it was blissful watching that audience, the tears rolled down my face, not from laughter sometimes, but just from sheer relief that this had actually happened here. That they owned this performance so much, it was their story and they wanted their story told. So, after that point our marketing manager at the time Andrew Stanbury, he sort of said, we had to decide what, we wanted to do with our theatre and one of the things that we talked about was you know, we have to – what’s our point of difference? What is it that we can offer that no one else can offer? And he said what about New Zealand work? And I said: ‘Oh yeah, I love doing New Zealand work.’ And he said: ‘Well why don’t we do more of it?’ And I said: ‘Well, you know cause we were really only allowed to do one or two a year.’ I said: ‘You know, the box office and stuff.’ And he said: ‘No hang on a minute, hang on, I can show you all the figures. The figures are that the best box office has always been New Zealand work.’ ‘What!’ And, I’d never ever looked back and thought: ‘Well why don’t we do more of that?’ I mean Roger Hall obviously – it was a huge money spinner for Centrepoint theatre, but also another storyteller. An extraordinary storyteller and then of course David’s new play was a complete turnaround for us because he was a new writer and it worked first time. He was a new local writer, much more important. He was actually somebody who was from Feilding, from Rangiwahia. He put his name on a play and all his friends would come – family, friends, old friends and it was fantastic. So, we started – and of course by then we’d already done Ladies Night and that was a huge money spinner, eleven weeks of full houses. I mean, they were queuing around the corner. Short skirts, blond hair, the lot. Dragged in by the short and curlies, very – but definitely what I used to call ‘hands on theatre.’ Anyway, it was glorious. And he said the most successful work has been New Zealand work for a very long time. ‘Oh, ok so why don’t we do more of it?’ I thought: ‘I don’t know why.’ So, that’s when we started to look at what we really, really wanted to do and we decided that was our point of difference. That was what we could offer that no one else in this area was going to do and that was New Zealand work. And the very next year we did a completely New Zealand programme. We didn’t actually do it deliberately. We did it because these were all the plays we were interested in doing. We got special funding to do a Maori play called He Repo Haka. And we also got funding for the first time from BNZ. They gave us a principal sponsorship, which was fantastic. And so a lot of things happened in 1993 which was a major change for us. So the whole New Zealand programme was great. The media ignored it actually. The national media just went: ‘Oh yes well it’s probably just comedy.’ Like that’s easy! I mean get a life. And so the whole point of doing a whole New Zealand programme was accidental but I felt it was really important. The following year, the other thing we had to deal with, was that coming through the Centrepoint – coming through Palmerston North was a very large scale production of other plays and I can’t remember what it was. But I think the amateurs were also starting to do things like Les Mis and other big productions that were going through. And I could see what the attraction was for the audience, they wanted to see lots of people. It’s like value for money there’s so many people onstage, it must be good. It doesn’t necessarily figure but at a stage when a lot of New Zealand theatre was being paired right down to ones and twos. I thought – and audiences get tired of that. They sort of feel: ‘Well it must be cheap because there is only one person on stage and it can’t be very interesting
how can I watch one person all night. It’s not going to be very interesting.’ Of course it always is because that one person just blossoms. But I could see what the audience was looking at and the other thing that I was quite keen to develop was becoming an asset to our community so that they felt: ‘Oh it’s important, I need to do this because of my exam.’ So I went back to doing a Shakespeare. I’d only been involved in Shakespeare when I was touring schools in the late ‘70s. So here I was in the early ‘90s thinking: ‘Well I’ll do a Shakespeare.’ Didn’t know how, but I thought: ‘I’ll just approach it like a normal play. Just, you know a modern play. It’ll have to work it must be working, it lasted this long it must be good.’ And so I decided we would do a Shakespeare and of course, we talked to the schools and said: ‘Which one’s good for you?’ And the schools said: ‘Well Romeo and Juliet, if you could do it, it would be fantastic, because we’re all studying it.’ And that gave us that in to schools. It allowed us to become this really important asset for the schools to use as a resource, so but also it allowed me to – if I say to the national community I’m going to do a Shakespeare, and no one was at that time apart from Elric down in Christchurch. If I’m going to do a Shakespeare all the good actors in the country put their hands up and say: ‘I need to be able to have this on my CV and I need to do a Shakespeare. So I want to be in it.’ And so it was a fantastic draw card for more experienced actors to come to Centrepoint theatre and give their skills. So it was good for them, good for us, good for the audience and good for the schools. So that was why we suddenly started doing the Shakespeare.
IJ: So, this was all part of the evolution of the programme. Certain New Zealand plays and the Shakespeare. And I have to say my recollection of Centrepoint Shakespeare’s is that you present Shakespeare with Oomph. Rambunctious. Alive.
AQ: Well I mean, because I’m actually not a literary student, I actually only ever approached them as a production. And so I don’t have any truck with being, you know, politically correct with it. I just put on a good play. And what I love about the Shakespeare’s is that he understood theatre. He truly understood that you have to arrest the audience at the very beginning and, you know, with Romeo and Juliet, it starts with a fight! Starts with a fantastic fight. And the best advice that I got, it came from Ross Gumbley who was here at the time, and he also encouraged me to do the Shakespeare’s, cause he’d been involved in them in Christchurch and lots of things changed when Ross came in, cause he was an improvisor, he was an actor who had worked at The Court and he’d been involved with the Shakespeare’s and so he was somebody who says: ‘Well why can’t we do it? Let’s just do it.’ And it was: ‘Ok. Not looking behind, let’s just look ahead.’ And so we did it and he – but the best advice he gave me was: we have to get somebody to do the fight choreography. So we brought in Casey Kelly who then introduced us to Tony Wolf – who Tony Wolf also worked with the Lord of the Rings people a few years later. But at the time he was a fantastic stunt choreographer, he was an ex-wrestler and tiny – an absolutely tiny guy. But fantastic, he speaks very, very softly and then does the most wonderful fight scenes. And so Casey and Tony arrived on the first day of rehearsal and they said: ‘Is it ok if we set the first scene, because it’s easier if we do?’ I said: ‘Sure.’ I’ve no idea what I’m doing , I’m just going to follow. And so they set the first scene and it was a fantastic fight scene, just outrageous, you know, oranges flying everywhere and they said: ‘What we need is props. What about a whole thing of oranges and that’ll be really spectacular. What about a whole things of rags, as though they are selling clothes or something?’ ‘Yeah sure ok.’ Boom and that hit the deck and that was great, you know. So this huge amount of testosterone just filling the room. And you realised, of course, it is about testosterone, it was about heat and it’s about passion and about people who won’t let go, rivalry, vengeance. And so it’s about people who won’t let go and should and need to be given a slap around the ears. And so the whole thing just came together so quickly. But that was the same year, ’94, that Ross and I started to write. And so that was the most fantastic year. We did our first Shakespeare and we started to write plays.
IJ: That brings up an interesting point and Ross is one of the key people I guess. Ross had, and still does at times, has had a very long and strong relationship with Centrepoint. How did that come about?
AQ: We were given funding by the Arts Council which we applied for, of course, to have an assistant for me. So I would have an associate artistic director, but first of all we were allowed to employ him and were funded to employ him as a trainee artistic director. Because the industry - they were aware that the industry needed more people coming into a management style so that the industry wasn’t going to be left high-and-dry when people left and also because of course, people tended to stay in these jobs for quite some time, by the time they left there was this absolute vacuum left and the next person had to just reinvent the wheel, as it were. So, it was great that we were able to offer him the job and he brought in so much energy and fitted in so well, it was fantastic.
IJ: And he did, and he had a major role, as you say, in many plays in the theatre and everything. Another one is Jeff Kingsford-Brown and Jeff, of course, is still involved in the theatre.
AQ: That’s right.
IJ: And he’s had a long association with Centrepoint.
AQ: Yes actually, I think longer that I have, I think. Twenty years anyway. He was here, I think, in 1983, must have been just after he graduated. I think that’s right or was it 1984? And he was here in 1986, earlier than I took over and then he was back again – it must have been in 1989. He’d been overseas in the middle time. So he, yes he’s had a long association, as an actor, as a director too.
IJ: Who are the other key people? I mean obviously there’s been hundreds of people that have worked through the theatre, but are there any other names that really stand out?
AQ: Oh gosh I can look around this room and I can tell you, Lucy Schmidt was a big influence, probably just after Ross? No about the same time as Ross. See Ross and I started writing in ’94 and Lucy and Simon Ferry were in that first – very first production. And then they were in one two years later when we did Boys at the Beach. And so they had a big influence, you know, they were quite young at that time and they were quite – very, very new and Lyndee-Jane Rutherford also had a big influence. She’s from here as well, see Lucy’s from here, Simon’s from here, Lyndee’s from here and Peter Hawes also. I mean Peter Hawes demanded to be in Boys at the Beach and he knew what I was writing about, which was real people. I was writing about my brother, my cousins and a guy called Coops, who was a friend of my brother and he says to me – cause he’d met Coops – no he hadn’t met him, he knew about him and he knew he was big and Peter said: ‘I will be playing Coops, I don’t care what you are doing, I will be playing Coops.’ ‘Oh ok.’ You couldn’t say no. And so Peter has had a big influence as well. Because I did one of his plays earlier in 1992, we did a play of his called Aunt Daisy and that was fantastic. That was our first association with Peter and he’s been back and forth. And then he started working as an actor, must have been in 1988, I think it was, yes he came in and did Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. He played ‘Bottom’ of course. And then we wrote him into the end of the year play. The other person is Shirley Kelly. Shirley Kelly started here in the early ’86, when I did a production just a freelancer for Torch Song Trilogy. Did that in early ’86 it was. And then she came back many years later for a production of Social Climbers, which she had done the original production in Dunedin and so she kept coming back and Ross and I kept writing her into plays as well at the end of 1998 we wrote her into Shop Till you Drop at the same time as we wrote Peter into a play. Kate Louise Elliott is somebody who has worked a lot here especially over the last five years. And Rachel Nash who an actor who was a real star here in the ‘90s when she did – in ’92 she was here, but she was here basically from the late ‘80s, through to about ’92 then she got married and she went away and came back again when we were doing April in Paris, she did the most beautiful production and then she did the Taming of the Shrew. She was quite extraordinary in that. So she’s somebody who’s been a wonderful friend to the theatre. That’s just in my time. I mean people like Michael Morrisey, Paul Minifie, Murray Lynch and Stuart Devenie, they are all and Jan Prettejohns, they’ve all been directors here and, you know, really important influences. Paul Minifie was extraordinary influence on this theatre and those sort of people have been amazing to the theatre over the years. But for my time, those are the ones – you know, David Geary was a major influence. But Ross, I guess was a very strong influence through quite a large chunk of that time.
IJ: Those are just a few names in the myriad of names.
AQ: I mean Duncan Smith was amazing. He was in a production with me called The Farm but was also in Hamlet. He directed the first production of Pack of Girls here and he was an amazing influence in the theatre. I mean, as you see, you look around the theatre, around these photos that I have in my room, there’s just all sorts of people that have made a difference. And not just actors, you know, it’s people like Bobby O’Fee who was our administrative manager for quite a few years and Andrew Stanbury, around the same time, they were both here in the early ‘90s and they did shape my way of thinking through that period in that Andrew sort of challenged and said you know: ‘Why don’t you do more New Zealand work?’ And Bobby was fantastic too and she was great in being able to say: ‘Why don’t we just buy it instead of hiring it.’ You know, she actually built up our reserves and was fantastic. But actually probably the most person I haven’t mentioned at all is Bruce Graham, and Bruce has been our designer for the last 18 years. He happens to be married to me so he wasn’t allowed to leave. But he’s been our designer, our production manager and it’s through his influence that we’ve managed to get really important developments in the theatre like air conditioning, like a computer system that is networked right throughout the theatre, that is state-of-the-art in terms of graphics for design elements. So people like – Bruce has been an extraordinary influence on this theatre. I mean, blood, sweat and everything is being put in this theatre by him and by me and several other people. Julie Barnes is our administrator at the moment and she is an amazing influence in that, you know, she is a great interface between us and the Board and the City Council, Arts Council and all the staff. I mean there’s so many people that have made an impact here.
IJ: Highlights for you looking back over those 18 years Alison. What would they be?
AQ: I think the, being allowed to write our own plays. Starting with Ross, working with Lucy as a writer as well and then actually developing my own thoughts and my own way of writing, that has been a major plus for me. Being able to work on the Shakespeare’s, that was fantastic. Magic moments individually – I mean, doing Mum’s Choir earlier this year was a major thing for me and my family in that we – when mum died three years ago, it was a huge event for us in our family. It wasn’t a sad – it wasn’t a shock or anything, it was something that we wanted and that she wanted when she died. But there’s always that thing when somebody that close dies and who was a major influence on me. You know, she was a huge inspiration to me and when she died there was that sense of: ‘Gosh are we actually going to be an extended family like this again? Are we only coming together because of mum?’ And I think the funeral just cemented those relationships so amazingly. And for us that was such an important week, month, you know a whole year later, it was just a fantastic time. And so when I was starting to write earlier this year and I was guided by another writer Jenny Patrick who said to me: ‘Why don’t you write about the funeral?’ Cause I was going to avoid the funeral. She said: ‘Why don’t you write about that because there’s your strong thread, there’s your theme.’ And I thought: ‘Oh ok.’ So I wrote to my family – you know email’s a wonderful thing, I could just write to everybody at once and say: ‘I’ve got this idea, what do you think?’ And they all just went: ‘Yes go for it. This is it, this is the one.’ And for me that was. It was a culmination of all the skills of wanting to make an audience laugh, at the same time as cry, at the same time as weep, and yet at the same time as wonder. So, I wanted all those elements in the play, which is what happens in life. I mean, I’ve been inspired by funerals for a long time and as my brothers and sisters say: ‘We’re good at them now. We’re quite good, we know what to do, we can make it a good one.’ And you learn through aunties and uncles and grandparents and then your own parents when you know it’s your time, your going to get this one, you’re going to nail this one. By the time we got to burying mum we were good at it. And to me the – I guess a huge highlight is that I’ve been allowed to – and encouraged, and persuaded by audiences to actually explore the things that touch me, I’ve been allowed to be put straight back on the stage, and I have been told again, and again, and again, you’ve written my life. And actually I was writing some of mine, but they’ve told me that was their life. And that’s what I’ve loved, being able to actually tell those stories back to the community.
IJ: And the community owning those stories.
AQ: Yes. I mean, Mum’s Choir was the perfect example of that, but actually The School Ball on a much lighter way was also that and the Newbury Hall Dancers also. Ross and I just didn’t know what we had hit when we did the Newbury Hall Dancers. I mean, two days before we opened he said to me – because we knew at the end of the production we wanted the whole audience to dance. We wanted them to get up there and do the Gay Gordons and he said to me: ‘Alison. I’m an improvisor, you’ll never get 140 people on that stage. They just won’t do it. We’re going to have to re-think the whole end of the play. I said: ‘Trust me, they will do it.’ And I don’t know whether it would happen anywhere else, but this community knew those dances backwards, you know. I don’t remember the last time I went to a dance. I went out and everybody got on the floor and did the Gay Gordons, I mean that doesn’t happen, I suppose it happens at weddings. But this community, they knew it and got up there and said: ‘Oh gidday Alison, oh my god it’s been a while since I done this aye.’ And they did everything the same, you know, their hands were still rough from dairying, you know, dairy farming and they still pumped your arm like it was some sort of milking machine, and they stood on your toes, and they wheeled you around too fast. Or the old guys got up and they danced properly, it was just glorious. So yeah, it was – that’s been my highlights is actually the Newbury Hall Dancers was a fantastic party every night and The School Ball was also great to hear those wonderful waves of laughter and recognition and seeing young people go: ‘I don’t know why you people are laughing but this is not funny.’ And the middle-aged people, my age were going: ‘Oh god I remember that, that’s just so true.’ And then seeing in Mum’s Choir people – sometimes there was no sound in the auditorium at all and we sang the Agnus Dei, and just about every night – there was only two nights I think where people felt they should clap, but every other night you could just feel this silent weeping happening as people recognised what was going on, and had channelled their own feelings into it at the same time. So there was that perfect symmetry of everybody being in the same space at the same time. Usually you can achieve that with laughter, but when you achieve it with tears, and then it goes to laughter – I never leave the audience too long in that state because I think it’s too cruel. I want them to feel it, cause it’s a wonderous sort of feeling, and then I want to take them out of it. I want to lift them out of it. My original thought on the play was actually to finish the play there, cause we’d sort of achieved what we set out to do and then Laughton Pattrick who was – he is extraordinary. He’s an amazing musician. I don’t know if you know him, but he’s the most extraordinary musician, and facilitator for music. I just thought he was – he taught us how to sing basically in four weeks. And he got us singing everything from On the Good Ship Lollipop to Agnus Dei in perfect acapella, and he sort of said: ‘You cannot finish the play there, you cannot. Besides I’ve got all this wonderful music I want you to sing.’ But he said: ‘Apart from that,’ he said, ‘You’ve got to give the audience something to take home.’ And it was this wake, this sense of: this is a family who is going to recover and who are already on their way within a few hours of the funeral. Which is life! You know, you go to the funeral, you weep buckets, you look a mess. And then by the end of the night, you’re having a great conversation and the piano is going, the guitars are going and you’ve got a party. And there’s a party that looks back and says: ‘A few hours ago, I was distraught, now I feel amazing.’ But that’s life.
IJ: Just a couple of other things and we’ll come back to this in a moment. But relationships within the – you mentioned when you came to Centrepoint, there were a number of relationships that Centrepoint has with it’s community that we’ve just talked about with the plays and that’s a vital part of it. The relationships with the city, with the Council and they’ve been up and down over the years, haven’t they. What has been the state of relationships with the city and the Council.
AQ: Well, at the moment it’s very good. But when I started it was quite hostile actually. There was a sense that theatre was a dirty place and we had a lot of bridge-building to do there to make sure they understood what our role was. And I think also, we had to develop a programme that was supportive of its community and not going to poke the finger at it all the time. So, I guess we started by doing the programme and by consistently doing works that were going to support Palmerston North in a direction that they felt they wanted to go. And then towards the early ‘90s, we had Morva Croxson on our Board, and she suggested that we should go to the Council and she knew how, she knew the road, if you like. And it was fantastic having that, sort of, guidance. And she went straight to the Mayor, she went straight to Paul Riegar and sort of said; ‘This is what we need. Do you value Centrepoint and do you want it to stay?’ Because, you know, without the City Council support, we’re not going to stay. So at the time Jill White was on the Council and Paul Riegar was the Mayor and so they took us seriously. And that was fantastic. They suddenly sort of went to us, they looked at us and said: ‘Yeah, we want to support you.’ So for three years they did support us. They gave us a grant. And then at the end of 1994, oh no the end of 1995, we received some funding from the City Council and from the Lotteries Board, and from Eastern and Central. We received several bunches of money which allowed us to make major physical changes in the theatre. Again, Andrew Stanbury was an amazing facilitator in that he was our marketing manager and he sort of said: ‘Look, the physical part of this building is a problem.’ He said: ‘People have to walk right up to the window to see whether or not it’s open, let alone whether they can get in.’ He said: ‘The door is heavy’, he says, ‘I have seen elderly people walk up to that door and actually hurt themselves trying to get in the building. Because the wind is so strong up against that building.’ So he said: ‘We’re creating barriers for our audience and we’ve got to get rid of them.’ And I thought: ‘This is so clever.’ But then he got up with Bruce who said: ‘I think we’ve got to do better than a door, we’ve got to put windows right across the front, we’ve got to re-shape the whole foyer.’ ‘Oh jeepers! Ok!’ “We’ve got to get the piano in, so let’s build the thing. Let’s change things so much.’ Anyway, between Bobby and Andrew and Bruce, and a local architect, we actually created this – we actually created this whole new foyer. And when we had actually had put it in, that’s when the City Council said: ‘oh you don’t need our help anymore, we see you’re actually doing ok. See ya, bye.’ Which was a real – it was a disaster really. So as it happened we did really well with a couple of programmes after that particular time. So what we actually did – we tried, and tried and tired to get back on side with the Council, but all of their focus was going towards the Regent Theatre. So therefore, all of their performing arts type money, arts money was going into the Regent Theatre. They spent millions, you know, getting that one up to speed. And they needed to cause it was – it is a great facility. But we’re the ones that lost any kind of profile with them at that time. So we finally got back on-side with them this year, 2004, we finally managed to actually get some sort of traction with them. And that was through the influence of Creative New Zealand actually coming physically to Palmerston North and sitting in the Mayor’s office and actually telling him what he felt – what they felt was important and because Creative New Zealand have said for ages, you know, unless your community says they want you here why should we support you. And they made it a stipulation that the local authority needed to show some tangible evidence that they wanted you here. So we needed to be able to say to the City Council, we need your support, we need it financially, we need it on paper, we need it in actually folding money please. And they finally came to us this year, which was great.
IJ: Another relationship is the theatre and it’s Board. And again, that’s a vital one. And the Board over the years, I mean, over 30 years of theatre and the Board has changed. How’s that functioned over those 18 years.
AQ: I think from the very beginning actually, we had a good relationship. Keith Thompson, that was the other person who has had a major influence on Palmerston North, I mean, I wasn’t then thinking of the Board. Keith Thompson was a major influence. Ivan Booth as well. Ivan was the Chairman when I first came on board and he was fantastic, you know. He made the figures, which looked like gobble-de-goop to me, he just made them make sense. You know, he could explain it to me on a house-wifely basis, if you like. And he was fantastic in showing me the rules, I suppose. And Keith was also marvellous at extending the way the programme could go. I mean Keith is somebody who appears to be – he’s died now – but he appeared to be somebody who liked high-brow art but he was the one who encouraged me to do Ladies Night and strip. He said: ‘We’ve got to do them, they’ll make money. They’ll will allow us to do this. Let’s do them. ‘ And he could see the value, he could see how much fun they were for people, that’s how much of a door opener they were for people. We’d got people in the theatre who hadn’t been to the theatre before. And that’s our role too, to open that door for people and say: ‘Hey look, it’s not as mysterious as it sounds.’ And that was another reason we had to change things administratively in the theatre when we put the new foyer in. was because we wanted to be able to say; ‘We’re not a private club, anyone can come here.’ And we still get people saying: ‘Is there a dress code? Do you have to wear certain clothes?’ And you think oh, you want to embrace them, you want to take them in your arms and say: ‘You can wear jandals, it doesn’t matter. You come in your jamas, I don’t care as long as you come!.’ And you know, that was an important thing, was to actually make sure that people understood that it was actually for everybody. And so yeah, Keith Thompson was an amazing influence. Derek Walker is our current Chair and has been our Chair for quite some years now and he’s also a great businessman but he also allows the company to do what it does, but he gives really, really good advice. So, actually the Board has actually been quite consistent most the time that I’ve been here. There’s actually only one new person on.
IJ: I guess you need that mix of business, artistic community, the whole thing and a Board to get a balance don’t you?
AQ: Yes, you employ the artists to do what they do and really the Board needs to be a good community representative. But they also have their roles to play. We went to lots of courses at Creative New Zealand over the last 18 years and one of the most useful was: ‘Cast your Board in the same way as you cast a play.’ You know, everyone’s got their role to play. And so , you know, there’s Anne Hancock – she calls herself the ‘fluffy slippers’ Board member. She’s working from a community base. She’s done a lot of retail. So it was great because I was able to say: ‘Are things slow in town? Are things hot in town? You tell me how things are going.’ ‘Oh’, she said, ‘people haven’t sold anything for ages, you wouldn’t believe it, there’s sales everywhere that’s a good indicator.’ So, she was able to say what’s happening on the street, how’s the money flow going. Bob Lissington is a businessman and he also has good knowledge of management systems and so on. Graham Slater is a practitioner and he’s also working at the university and for a while he was at IPC. He had great skills to offer, he can come in as a lighting designer whenever we’ve needed to. And John McFarlane is a lawyer and he could look at a contract anytime but also he’s a practitioner worked Ngaio Marsh, so he also has other things to offer. And Katherine Parsons is an accountant, but they all love theatre, they love being part of it. So what they give has been an extraordinary guidance. It’s been a network - their ability to work within Rotary and all of that, I mean they’ve being able to bring all those kinds of networks into the theatre as well. But good business practice as well.
IJ: The other relationship in New Zealand theatre is with Creative New Zealand. And there was a very black time in Centrepoint history before you took over as artistic director where Creative New Zealand withdrew funding for that year. But what is the ongoing relationship with Creative New Zealand and Centrepoint?
AQ: Well I think Creative New Zealand has – it’s a bit like a child saying to a parent I think: ‘You’ve learnt a lot dad.’ And I think I can say that to Arts Council New Zealand, ‘You’ve actually learnt a lot guys.’ But I’ve seen so many, is it, revolutions, so many changes happen through Arts Council, so many changes of policy. In the 18 years that I have been here, I mean initially when I was first involved here it was very divisive. You know we used to get people from Arts Council coming to here and saying: ‘Well we have to close one of the theatres, so it could be you this year.’ It was incredibly divisive. So you were fighting for your corner the whole time. And then they sort of grew out of that and they decided that wasn’t actually a very good idea. I think we attacked them actually at a meeting, all of us together, we said: ‘We actually do what we do.’ And for some time it had been quite abrasive as a relationship. And so I think that had to change. You know, things had to move. And certainly with the current regime, there is a sense: ‘Look we’re all in this together.’ I mean at the end of last year the Arts Council staff and a Board member came up to Centrepoint and challenged us and said: ‘You know you’ve done really badly. What are you going to do about it?’ And saying to the Board: ‘What are you doing? This theatre is going to go down unless you do something about it.’ And so we all got one hell of a fright, but it was probably quite a useful fright in that we had to pull our straps up. On the other hand, you know, none of us were stupid enough to actually let it continue and we were well on the way to recovering in a number of ways. Because I was a week out from opening The School Ball I knew it was going to sell. I knew it will resold. So I was a bit insulted at the meeting. There was a suggestion – somebody said: ‘Well we’re not here to fund comedy. We’re not here to fund the Palmerston North people to have a good laugh you know.’ And I thought: ‘Well, make up your mind, do you want people to come through the door, or do you want me to put on plays that nobody wants to see? I can do both, but actually only one of them will keep the door open.’ And so I was pretty annoyed. So I challenged them, I said: ‘Actually, you don’t know anything about my plays, you’ve never seen them. Not one person from City Council – from Arts Council has ever seen one of my plays. So, how dare you judge it.’ And they said: ‘I’m sure we have. What was the name of the one we saw.’ So I said: ‘I know you haven’t. I know you have never been to Centrepoint theatre and seen a play that I have written.’ And so they went ‘Ooooo, in that case I suppose we could and make our way to Palmerston North.’ And since them they’ve come to all of them. So they had to. And I think they were pleasantly surprised. They came twice, I think, to see Mum’s Choir. But I was annoyed that sometimes there is a very high-handed attitude towards theatre. And it’s a bit like school report time, isn’t it, you sort of feel like no matter what you do you’re not going to do it right. But the real judge of any theatre is the audience, is the box office and it’s our own community. And that’s the one that we’re working for. And I think the relationship with the Arts Council, they need to see it in work and that’s why I insisted with them. But I also said to them, you know I said: ‘I want you to do something for us.’ I said: ‘You have publications several times a year and we don’t get a mention. We’ve been a client of yours for 30 years in 2004. Thirty years! I don’t think we’ve ever had a feature in one of your articles, one of your publications. You’ll happily publish something – a one-off from another artist, but 30 years of productions and you’ve never given us a mention. You don’t rate us. So, why don’t you do something for us?’ ‘blub, blub, blub, I am sure we have done something for you.’ Well they did after that, but they hadn’t done it before. I mean ok so we’d financially gone to the wall, but our community said very clearly to us that they wanted us to stay.
IJ: And that brings us - this amazing survival of Centrepoint theatre as the only provincial professional theatre, one of the longest lasting theatres in the country, 30 years just celebrated this year, which is a magnificent milestone.
AQ: I think it’s amazing.
IJ: Why?
AQ: In the end it comes down to the community. I mean in 1982, there’s the Creative New Zealand removed the grant and I was here at that time, I remember being at the meeting and the community was furious that it was removed. And it was removed for the wrong reasons. Nowadays Arts Council doesn’t remove the grant. They really work hard to make sure that the companies stay there. But at the time there was a decision to remove the grant here, so that they could give more money elsewhere. But what happened at Centrepoint was that the Board, Phil Monk who was the extraordinary Board Chairman at that time, he said to the Arts Council: ‘If we are still going in a year’s time, will you fund us?’ And they said: ‘Oh yes of course.’ I think hoping like hell that we wouldn’t be. Well the community turned around and just were extraordinary. The community – they brought in productions from Wellington, they employed directors from around they country. They had Simon Phillips here. Simon Phillips now runs the Melbourne Theatre Company. They had Tony Taylor here who used to run Downstage, later on he ran Fortune Theatre in Dunedin. I mean they had great people that came through. Maybe just one-off productions, Simon Phillips did several actually. The beginning of his career, which is what Centrepoint has been all the time. People at the beginning of their career. Doing extraordinary things and then move on to be bigger fish to fry. But, yeah so the community stood by it. How has it survived? It’s survived by, on one hand, pointing the programme towards the community and the community buying it. So it’s the community that makes it survive.
IJ: 18 years Alison, in this chair, in this – not in this little office all the time. It’s been a magnificent effort. And I personally think that part of – a lot of the survival is you and the work you’ve done. Your finishing with Centrepoint now in this role. We may see you back – who knows!
AQ: I mean, obviously it’s a big wide world out there. Who knows.
IJ: You’re moving to work in television now and Simon Ferry is taking over, who’s been part of Centrepoint at various times. Centrepoint for the future? I guess it’s in good heart. Very much a part of the community. So, I guess on behalf of the community, thank you very much for all your work and all the best for the future and, of course, your not taking just yourself, but you’re taking a production manager, set designer, [i.e. husband] and a daughter as well.
AQ: Who’s our stage manager, she’s going as well. So I am taking most of the staff with me, unfortunately, which is not, you know, we have always said that the theatre is not just one person. I mean it makes it – people suggest it’s somehow all me, but it’s not really. It’s actually a group of people and a group of like-minded people as well. And through the 18 years, I guess one of the things I’m really proud of is the people that have started here and then grown enormously as performers, and then stayed. I mean, Simon is from here and he will take over and that’s fantastic. And I remember the first day he arrived. He arrived in farming gear and came to the box office and said: ‘Um I’d quite like to be an actor, what do I do?’ I said: ‘What do you do now?’ ‘I’m a dairy farmer.’ And I said: ‘Well you have to train.’ Cause I thought: ‘I’m not going to fool you.’ I said: ‘I don’t really take actors seriously, in fact, I don’t employ them unless they’re trained. Because that way’, I said, ‘you’ve made a commitment to actually getting yourself up to speed.’ And I said: ‘I can’t train you and get you to be in a play at the same time. It’s just takes too much effort and I would, you know, it would be wrong. The audience expect professional performances and I need you to be a professional.’ ‘Ok. Where do I go?’ I sent him to Wellington, he trained there for two years and as soon as he finished I took him on as an actor in Five Go Balmy in Palmy, which is
He hasn’t looked back. I mean, he has integrity, he has skill, he’s been running the theatre school, you know the Ucol theatre school for the last – oh I don’t know how many years. And through his tuition he has brought through some fantastic young actors, who are in my current play, which is Girls Weekend Escape. So, I think he has been very successful in passing on those skills and that’s a big part of this job too. So I feel very confident that the future is very strong and in a funny sort of way, he is the age that I was when I took over. So I think he’ll have all that energy and all that bewilderment, no doubt of: ‘What do you mean I have to do that as well?’ So I think he will have a good sense. He’s got good sense and sensibility. So, what more can you ask.

[Transcriber’s Note: For further reading on the history of Centrepoint Theatre see: Hawes, Peter, Forty Years of Centrepoint Theatre: The History According to Hawes, Manawatu Heritage:]

1 The Court Theatre:
2 Elric Hooper:
3 Ross Gumbley:

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