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The Frogs photo (c) The Bacchanals

the frogs
by aristophanes
Tuesday 29 February - Saturday 11 March 2000
Outdoor Amphitheatre, Studio 77; 77 Fairlie Terrace, Wellington


To save the city of Athens from artistic death, Dionysus (God of Theatre) and his trusty servant Xanthias travel to Hell to bring back a dead playwright, because all the living ones are crap.

cast:
Taika Cohen (Dionysus), Carey Smith (Xanthias), Charlie Bleakley (Heracles, Pluto), Thomas McGinty (Corpse, Chorus), James Stewart (Charon, Second Landlady, Elderly Slave, Chorus), Eve Middleton (First Landlady, Chorus), Rebecca Lawrence (Aeacus, Chorus), Jemaine Clement (Aeschylus), Bret McKenzie (Euripides), Abigail Margetts (Maid of Persephone, Chorus)
Music composed by Jemaine Clement & Bret McKenzie; Greek dancing choreographed by Miranda & Vana Manasiadis; Frog masks constructed by Carey Smith; Text adapted and directed by David Lawrence

In December 1999 I returned to New Zealand after living in the UK for two years. Aside from working as a lighting tech during the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe, I'd done virtually no theatre and my then-wife and I had worked in various jobs where we had a lot of isolation and spare time - so while our theatrical output was nil, it was occupying my every thought and we discussed again and again the idea of setting up a theatre company if and when we returned to NZ. I'd had a pretty aimless time after finishing university waiting for my career to start itself and learnt the hard way that if I waited for opportunities to come up, I'd be spending most of each year unemployed. We were working in the middle of nowhere, at a bed & breakfast/campsite in North Yorkshire, over the English winter. Once the sun had set at 4pm each day there was nothing to do bar eat, watch telly and read. During that winter I decided that I was never going to make it as an actor and that I found technical work (of which I'd done a lot in the lead-up to leaving NZ) unfulfilling nine times out of ten. I'd always imagined that once I got older I would forgo performing in favour of directing, which I'd already done a lot of, but that winter I realized that directing was what I loved and enjoyed and seemed to be better at than anything else.

We shifted down to London and I sent dozens of CVs off, answering most of the advertisements in "The Stage" requiring directors, but was inevitably offered other work on the productions I wanted to direct. "Sorry, we've already appointed a director, but we still need a lighting designer and see from your CV..." or "We already have a director but our lead actor has pulled out and we see from your CV that you have played Macbeth before..." It seems ridiculous in retrospect, but in every case I stamped my foot and said, "No, I only want to direct! I'm not doing anything else!" What it always came down to was that professional companies didn't want to employ someone who hadn't directed anything in the UK before, and amateur companies didn't want to employ someone who considered himself a professional director. I contemplated applying for some of the courses that the nicer companies suggested, but the brochures made it look like the equivalent of learning to crawl when I was already capable of running. And the idea of doing 18 months' training and being allowed to direct one show at the end of the course when I wanted to be doing stuff now seemed as ridiculous as taking a course to learn something I already knew how to do anyway. The clinching thing was re-reading Peter Brook's The Shifting Point in which he says directors are self-appointed. When someone asked him how you become a director, he said, "You decide you're a director and convince actors to work with you."

By the time I'd grasped this logic we had already made plans to return to NZ and, fuelled by those discussions that winter in Yorkshire, I'd decided to overcome my fears and plunge straight into a show. Correspondence with friends in NZ like Carey Smith, Taika Cohen and Charlie Bleakley had indicated that they were bored with the general state of things at home and itching to do something that would be both challenging and fun. I was reasonably confident I could assemble a strong group of actors for what I hoped would be the first show in an ongoing series of work that would be firmly rooted in text-based theatre, rather than all the devised work that was so popular at the time but often seemed to me to be vitally lacking in narrative or clear direction. I wanted a style of theatre that engaged the audience directly, that abandoned any fourth wall or tried to maintain any pretence of reality. I wanted a style of theatre that celebrated being theatrical.

I had wanted to try a production of The Frogs ever since studying it at high school and had thought that the outdoor amphitheatre at the theatre and film department of Victoria University would be the perfect venue. The amphitheatre had never been used for public performance (and is now the home of the Summer Shakespeare) and the department seemed happy for the first occasion of its use in this context to be someone else's risk. Because we arrived back in NZ well after the deadlines for all these things, we had to fit around the shows already programmed inside the theatre, which meant an early evening season.

We'd caught up with Taika in Berlin just weeks before we and he returned to NZ and he had been cautiously interested in the idea of forming a company - or at least of being in the first show and seeing where things might go. Carey and Charlie had both agreed months earlier when I talked about the hypothetical plans in letters. As I'd feared, the minute I got home I had cold feet about the whole idea, helped doubtless by jet lag and illness, but the first time I left the house I met with Jemaine and his enthusiasm for the idea was enough to make me go ahead and pay the registration fee and get the ball rolling. With the others on board, Bret took little convincing. Straight away Taika and Jemaine mentioned in a Capital Times interview that they'd be appearing in The Frogs and the journalist was so disbelieving that she made a big point of it in the published article.

The dropped jaws I was always greeted with whenever I told people of the planned show and its preliminary cast confirmed that the idea was perhaps a little crazy. Within a few days of getting back to Wellington I began work on Margaret and Vanessa's Xmas Special, a show Carey was directing at Bats. The enthusiasm that members of the cast of that show had for the idea of The Frogs made me decide to swell the numbers somewhat, and have a proper Chorus who would also play the smaller roles. The commitment of two members of the Xmas Special cast particularly caught my attention. Eve Middleton seemed to be doing numerous jobs that went well beyond her jurisdiction and more concerned about the standard of the show than some of the people running it - and she had just finished a degree in Classics. James Stewart had the smallest role in the show but was always the first to arrive and the last to leave, and gave his all to every moment he had, no matter how many hours he sat around waiting.

I'd hoped to have enough money to get someone impressive to do a rewrite of the script but realized swiftly that the quickest and cheapest way would be to do it myself. The question of translation was initially an important one - should we modernize all the political references to retain their topicality, or try and make the original jokes work? I was in favour of the former, wanting to replace the ancient Greek names with contemporary politicians and public figures, but one session sitting at a café table while Jemaine and Taika did absolutely hysterical readings from my battered old Penguin translation convinced me that comedy and not topicality was the reason the play text had survived over 2000 years. So over Christmas and New Year's I quickly bashed out a script, using five different versions of the play and picking the best jokes, as well as putting my own slant on it. I spent a week on the first ten minutes, and then rushed through the rest of it in a day. This meant that up until the entrance of the Chorus of Frogs everything had been very carefully crafted, whereas everything from thereon was rushed and really just put down so we'd have something to rehearse with. The cast I had could make even the worst script funny, and every single ad-lib improved the writing tenfold.

The first read-through was painful (I have always hated read-throughs) but the first rehearsal was great fun and we managed to retain an air of casualness the whole way through that never made it feel like we were working too hard. Jemaine and Bret willingly spent hours coming up with music for the show and Carey made enough frog masks for all.

The show's 'poor theatre' style grew out of circumstance rather than intent. A 5.30pm performance meant there was no need for lighting, and why have a sound system when all the show's music can be live? The only set that seemed necessary was some sort of cloth for the actors to hide behind when not onstage. I have never been the remotest bit interested in costumes; all that concerned me was that the actors had phalluses and were comfortable in whatever else they were wearing, so it ended up being jeans and t-shirts (apart from Taika, who wore a suit). We had no advertising material bar our entry in the fringe programme and some photocopied flyers - my feeling was that posters are generally a waste of money and that generating a strong word-of-mouth campaign would be a better marketing ploy. All up the entire show cost $281 to put on, much of that figure being the registration fee and hiring the three scaffolding pipes that held up the red backdrop.

We talked to D-Vice about using some of their sex-toys for comic phalluses, but they were concerned about under-16s seeing the show and we knew that school groups would be a big part of our audience, so opted to go with socks and other simple-to-create alternatives.

The script underwent continual cutting right up until the last moment - because there were shows on inside Studio 77, we could not be longer than an hour, and the first full run of the show was nearly 90 minutes. The only segment that defied the "no modernized references" rule, the Chorus Address, was the final casualty - while it may have been the most important part of the show to the ancient Greeks, for us it was sadly the bit that did the least to advance the action, so we dropped it two days before opening night, with a note in the programme saying we might reinstate it if the running time of the show improved over the season. The Chorus Address consisted largely of me moaning about all the things that made me annoyed - chiefly the amount of taxpayers' money being injected into the America's Cup and the stupid bollard & chains that changed the way the pedestrian crossings on the corners of Cuba and Vivian Streets and Cuba and Ghuznee Streets worked. The removal of much of these segments lessened the amount of my bile in the show, because I suppose I thought I was making some sort of impetuous point in staging a play that deplores the state of theatre to the extent where the protagonist has to go to hell before he can find a decent playwright - but the consensus seemed to be that the casual, laid back style of the show was what made the biggest impression.

We were totally unprepared for the huge audiences that filled the amphitheatre as the season progressed. School groups came from as far afield as Palmerston North and Wanganui and the last four performances had nearly twice the venue's imagined capacity of 100 at them. And the greatest peril of outdoor performance - the weather - was of little concern to us. It rained once over the whole fortnight and had cleared well before that evening's performance (although at the show in question Bret leapt forward a section and cut five minutes off the running time!). The success of the season allayed most of my fears and, rather than proceed cautiously, we were already making firm plans for the next production over drinks at Boston Terrace after the final performance.... David

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