300 plays and counting by Madelaine Empson
Murray Lynch ONZM began his career at Four Seasons Theatre in Whanganui in 1973. He has been involved in over 300 plays in the nearly 50 years since. Whether as a director, producer, or reluctant actor (“prior to 1976”, he laughs), his work has been seen at every major theatre in New Zealand.
Currently the director of Playmarket, Lynch has served as director of Downstage Theatre, artistic director of Palmerston North’s Centrepoint Theatre, and associate director of Auckland’s Theatre Corporate. This year, he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to theatre and became a 2020 finalist in the arts category of The Wellingtonian of the Year Awards. I’ve only scratched the surface of his awards and achievements, so I best let him do some talking!
You were initially enrolled in the BA programme as a bonded teaching student at Massey University before becoming ‘distracted’ by theatre. What was it about the artform that appealed to you then?
I think it was about creating different worlds and different realities. By then, I’d already experienced live theatre. My mum had taken me at a pretty young age to see the local repertory company.
Do you remember what the show was?
I’ve still got the programmes! They were kind of obscure British dramas and/or comedies. One of the really strong experiences for me was seeing the Palmerston North Operatic Society production of The Music Man… It was just magic for me. I imagine I was about 10.
After close to 50 years in the industry, is it the same thing that appeals to you about theatre now?
I think so. I’ve read a lot more plays than I was able to see. I think it’s bringing a script to life that really excites me.
When you’re reading a play, do you see it as it might appear on stage?
When I’ve been advising new directors or running a directing workshop, one of the key things is that you have to have that ‘click’, that vision of what the play is. Sometimes there are plays that I cannot penetrate, I can’t get into. But hopefully, it’s about imagining the play as you’re reading it. Trusting the writer to take you inside it.
Is that vision part of what makes a good play?
A good play is something that speaks to you. To me the great experience of a play is dialogue that easily flows between the characters, and building up the world of that character, without having to be too explicit. If you can write dialogue, you can write plays. But the skeleton that it hangs on, the structure of a play, is so crucial. It doesn’t have to be a traditional, well-made play, but there has to be something satisfying, some kind of journey.
I imagine the dialogue would play a huge role in playwriting compared to, say, writing a novel.
We’ve all said ‘I read that book and the film’s terrible.’ That’s because the novelist is actually feeding you so much information about the world on the page, whereas in film, you’re telling the story visually. I guess theatre is a mix of both. But, like the novelist, it relies on the audience’s imagination to build the world.
Which shows that you’ve worked on most stand out to you and why?
I had the opportunity to direct both Torch Song Trilogy and As Is at Theatre Corporate in Auckland at the peak of the political period of homosexual law reform. During the season of Torch Song Trilogy, I was one of those ten thousand people marching up Queen Street. Definitely Waiora by Hone Kouka, and Small Change by Peter Gill. I formed a company called Tantrum in Auckland in the 80s, and our first production was Bruce Mason’s The End of the Golden Weather (a company version, not the solo version). We developed it together, and I’ve had the privilege of doing that twice more since then. It’s a glorious piece of writing. The most satisfying work I’ve done has generally been New Zealand work. It’s of here, it’s speaking to us, it’s about us and our concerns. That’s why it was such a pleasure to have had the opportunity, at the right time of my life, to take on Playmarket.
You were associate director of Wellington’s Downstage Theatre from 1991 to 1992, and director from 2000 to 2005. How did you feel about the iconic theatre closing?
I thought it was very sad. The funding to Downstage had dwindled. It’s chicken and egg, you’ve got to prove you can pull an audience to garner the kind of funding support a theatre needs, but you need the funding to prove that you can do it. It’s a conundrum.
What more can we do to further the lasting power of our major theatres?
I think what’s important is that the major theatres are responsive to their environment. It’s true that they are doing that. I’m very excited that BATS and the Basement now have this co-pro model – a new model of partnerships with co-ops going into their theatres. I think Circa has been very responsive in its shift in programming over recent years. In terms of audiences, there’s a lot of work that doesn’t get the audience it deserves. I completely understand that there are so many options of home entertainment that people can be reluctant to commit to buying a ticket to a show. But when they make that effort, so many people are absolutely surprised at the joy of a live event.
Do you think that COVID made a difference to the way we value our live experiences?
It’s quite hard to say, because in Wellington we opened up as soon as went to Level 2. It feels like theatre’s been quite well supported in Wellington, but that’s not been the same case in other cities.
What was the first play you went to after lockdown?
The Artist at Circa Theatre.
Same! The atmosphere was so –
It was wonderful. Onto your current role – you’ve been director of Playmarket since 2010. What does Playmarket do?
Okay! We’re an agency representing playwrights, we licence their work, we collect royalties on their behalf, we promote their work to producers, we help develop their plays. We publish, we produce an annual, which is an overview of theatre in New Zealand for the year previous. Then we also have a discourse role. We’ve done State of our Stage, which we toured around the country and had conversations with practitioners about how they saw what was happening and what needed to happen. We’ve published five guidelines, including on cultural practice in the theatre space. We run various other masterclasses, workshops, a playwright’s retreat every year.
What’s exciting for me in terms of the development of Playmarket is that it’s had a huge influence on the impact of New Zealand work on our stages, on the professional stage initially and now on the community theatre stages. It exactly parallels my career, it started in 1973 – the same year. It’s been amazing to have felt that shift that’s been helped markedly by Playmarket and to have been a practitioner through that.
What is your all-time favourite work of theatre and why?
The Seven Streams of the River Ota by Robert Lepage’s company Ex Machina. The show is seven hours long and I was so moved by it I went back the next night to see it again and would have gone a third time but I had a commitment the next evening that I was honour-bound to make. Nothing has affected me as much emotionally.