Outside a church hall in Kingsland is a sign inviting people to come in and watch Massive Theatre rehearse. This is not usual. Rehearsal rooms are usually carefully guarded safe houses from which nothing emerges until the show is ready to triumph. But then, I discover, this show is the antithesis of all that. Inspired by the work of Brene Brown, whose TED talks on vulnerability, shame and worthiness have been viewed over 30 million times, Massive Company are celebrating 25 years in the business by tackling what it means to be wholehearted. And that means coping with vulnerability and imperfection and feeling worthy.
Inside the hall, pages of wisdom are taped on the back wall; on another side, a row of technical crew watch and plan, and the performers, in the middle, work on their physical language to tell more directly stories of heartache and courage. It looks like you are filling the music, says director Sam Scott to an actor at one point, I want the show to start. The girl works to find something better and a moment later everyone’s eyes return to their laptops.
Provocation upon provocation. It is a way of working that actor Thomas Eason – at 28, one of the more experienced cast members – relishes. Given reams of writings by Brown, he was sent away to come back with a movement piece ‘that shows a feeling’ that is then tweaked, accepted or rejected. The rehearsal period is long at six weeks and quite intense. There is no plot in the traditional sense but there are lots of stories that work towards a theme. Because they have devised it themselves it is always a work in progress, things can shift even in performance – when you have a script, he says, you are more bound to it. Robert LePage, he tells me, does his shows differently every time.
This sounds terrifying to me, but for Tom, it is what he always wanted to do since he signed up at the New Zealand Drama School, Toi Whakaari. Since then he has appeared with Red Leap, worked down in Christchurch, been in work essentially. He has a wonderfully expressive face with slightly hollow eyes that give him a chameleonic quality, sometimes handsome, sometimes evil, both old and young. He could play a biopic of Peter O’Toole with no make up and age sixty years by the way he holds his back.
I find devising work fascinating. To me, having had an old-fashioned British drama training, creating a long form show from scratch seems extraordinarily difficult and dangerous – succeeding magnificently or not working at all – and yet this is the sort of bold production that takes NZ theatre companies to international festivals. Eason agrees, ‘This is a real New Zealand style of theatre that doesn’t abide by Western story structures: it is exciting and surprising. This is work that comes from the heart.’
Back at home I watch Brene Brown for myself on TED and realise that when she talks of courage, she is talking about revealing yourself to the world as you are, being honest, compassionate, accepting your imperfections. To your own self be true... as a famous writer of scripts once put it. I had hoped going to watch Massive rehearse would show me the secrets to their magic, and like all magicians, and theatremakers, there is trial and error, they put in the hours, and work hard. There are different ways to grapple theatrically with the innate struggle of the human condition and I look forward to seeing how Massive Company, with its mighty reputation and commitment to creating original work, do it. They open on Saturday.
Mangere Arts Centre until 24th March, then Q Theatre until 10th April