James Wilson, Chief Executive of Q Theatre talks with Alex Bonham about spaces, bringing new ideas to life, and supporting emerging artists with the Matchbox Development Programme.
Q’s chief executive James Wilson is friendly, bearded, the picture of a British enthusiast right down to the cup of tea and his admiration for the technicians behind the scenes. The windows on the back of the loading dock are there, he tells me, so people can watch the crew at work. For me, a fan of market traders and fishing boats, this idea of everyday spectacle is extremely appealing. Unfortunately the technical crew often close the curtains, or the glass is covered with decal ads. So the backstage crew have been filmed as they change the theatre around overnight, and the video is played at double speed down in the foyer for all to see. ‘I think it’s cool,’ says James, ‘There are so many stories playing out in this theatre everyday, and so many of them you don’t know about.’
Not only the technicians, artists and creative teams currently working at Q hang out in the bar/cafe downstairs, but producers and actors meeting to plan new projects, theatre-lovers catching up before a show, travellers straight off the Sky Bus lurching in for a coffee, and city workers looking for a cosy couch to chill out for a bit. Q is much more than a theatre for hire, and with changes to revenue streams and the moving on of the ATC to their new waterfront home, Q management is getting more and more involved in creative collaboration, working with artists with potential and great ideas to help them transition to a larger stage. Even before this year though, a space had been carved out of a schedule dominated by festivals and the big companies for the Matchbox Programme.
You may not have heard of this development programme, but you will recognise the shows that came out of it. Recently, Titus was restaged at the Pop-Up Globe and Daffodils will be performed at the Traverse Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Festival, and you can’t get much better than that. This year’s Matchbox shows are Everything Anyone Ever Wanted, a dance show presented by Black Sheep production that has just closed; Leilani, coming in August, which incorporates contemporary masks but in a very different way to Indian Ink, more commedia dell’arte, or rather ‘Aotearoa dell’arte’; and a version of Don Juan at the end of October that turns the dynamic between performers and audience on its head.
The point is to develop artists further, to expand the potential of the theatrical form, to do something that will take full advantage of Q’s chameleonic spaces. Competition is intense. The closing date for submissions for this year’s intake - that will present new shows in 2017 - is 5pm Monday 11 July. Those shortlisted will do a thirty-minute pitch to a panel made up of Q staff and an experienced external director, and, of them, the most exciting three, four, perhaps even five will be selected. A key question is whether the emerging company is keen to collaborate with Q on the show, and while it is daunting to reveal a work in progress to a panel of outsiders, it is also an opportunity. As always, it seems in New Zealand, vast wells of talent and experience are waiting to be tapped under even the most unassuming of exteriors.
Wilson trained as a theatre director at Rose Bruford College and then started his professional career at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, moving onto the Lyric Hammersmith. He also worked at the Tate Modern and he has consciously tried to recreate the community hub feel that the Tate had. I remember this. It was the sort of place you would go because something would be going on there – not unlike Selfridges a century before, but a good deal cheaper (unless you went in the shop, in which case all bets were off). He moved to Auckland 11 years ago (Kiwi girlfriend), became the General Manager for Massive Company in 2007, got married in 2008, and joined the senior management team at Q theatre as Head of Programs and Development before it opened its doors in 2011, and was promoted to Chief Executive a little over a year later. He is now an Executive Board Member of PANNZ. A number of the rest of his team have one foot in administration and another in their own creative projects, so they know the stuff.
Q’s fifth birthday is coming up and they are feeling proud and, yes, they will have a party. Wilson is excited by the way that the Basement, Q, Auckland Live, and the Pop-Up Globe too, have helped transform this part of town into a vibrant theatre district for all sorts of plays, all sorts of performers. Now they just need the 1200-seater St James’s Theatre to reopen and the offering will be complete. If only it had been there for the James Plays, we agree, that had got rather lost in the ASB.
He talks more about opening up Q theatre even more, to be something for everyone. He asks if I have seen downstairs, the wall of signatures. I have; I signed it myself. He thinks I mean when I directed a play here, but it wasn’t then and the conversation moves on before I can explain. My (Kiwi) boyfriend proposed to me on the Rangatira stage three years ago and after I said yes – a lighting operator cheered from the shadows – James asked us to sign the wall, and gave us a bottle of fizz on the house. Just another of the many stories at Q Theatre that you wouldn’t normally know.
Leilani opens on 4th August and Don Juan 27th October at Q Theatre.
For more information on applying to the Matchbox Programme. Submissions close at 5pm on Monday 11 July.