The Pop-Up Globe will be popping down at the end of its 2020 season and setting off overseas. Sam Brooks talks to its founder, Miles Gregory, about where the future of the company lies.
More than 650,000 tickets; 17 productions; 1206 performances; 212 acting jobs. Regardless of where you stand on the Pop-Up Globe, the company has become a pillar of the New Zealand theatre scene, headed by artistic director Miles Gregory, who has directed eight of the 17 productions staged by the company.
Which is why it is something of a surprise to hear that the venue is coming down after its 2020 seasons – where it will stage an all-new production of Romeo & Juliet and its production of Much Ado About Nothing from 2017. It is going to tour internationally, in partnership with Live Nation, to Perth in October of this year.
The company is beloved by audiences, but less so by parts of the New Zealand theatre scene. It courted controversy with its all-male productions for two years straight, which came to a head when an all-male production of Taming of the Shrew (the famously sexist one) was announced last year, with a press release full of clunkily hashtagged references to #metoo and #timesup. It was so controversial that the company, and Gregory, made it to The Project after a piece on The Spinoff by Penny Ashton sharply criticised the company’s marketing (“Simultaneously evoking a tidal wave in the affairs of women whilst erasing them from the stage shows a tone-deaf audacity of Trumpian proportions”), and the gender breakdown of their casts (13 men and three women in 2016; 26 men and four women in 2017). To the company’s credit, not long after this controversy, they affirmed their commitment to 50/50 casting, which they’ve stuck to for their seasons since, even when doing new productions of shows that were previously all male.
The theatre landscape has changed since the Pop-Up Globe debuted in 2016. The venue and company have become an Auckland institution, but the rest of the industry hasn’t dried up as a result as some feared. The company now has 17 Shakespeare plays in its repertoire, mostly crowd-pleasers like Othello and As You Like It. This year, for the first time, there was a winter season, including the Pop-Up Globe Youth Theatre Company’s debut production, and a nationwide tour. If there’s any question of the brand strength of the company, it’s that it’s managed to do a tour without the aid of the pop-up venue that gives it its name.
A month ago, where there was nary a hint of upping the very literal sticks, I talked to Gregory about the place of the company in the Auckland arts scene. We sat in the ramshackle Pop-Up Globe office which has taken over what appears to have been a former members’ club at Ellerslie Racecourse. With disused set pieces, costume drawings, and chintzy art all around, it looked like an old set from Elizabeth. Fitting.
What I found in Miles Gregory was half what I expected from the local churn of gossip – the cheesecutter hat, the love of grand sweeping statements, the vaping – and, half the time, a guy with whose ideas I agreed, despite our differences in background. For everything he said that made me raise my eyebrows, he said something else to which I found myself nodding in assent.
To wit: “Artists need to be encouraged to make whatever art they want. I don’t believe any constraints should be put on artists. I think artists are answerable only to their audience, actually.” Eyebrows raised; I’ve heard this deployed in the defence of some very questionable art.
And then: “I think the true arbiter of theatre as an art form is ticket sales. There is no other real arbiter. I supposed one could say longevity, in terms of how long a production is remembered. One of the reasons Shakespeare’s such a great playwright is because he stood the test of time, isn’t it?” Eyebrows lowered. Fair enough.
Our discussion ranged into common areas of interest and agreement (the lack of artistic director-led venues in Auckland, the need to appeal to an audience) and into areas of polite differences of opinion (the place of Shakespeare in the curriculum in New Zealand). More importantly, I found a guy who had heard the public criticism – some valid, some not – and appeared to have grown as a result of those critiques, or at the very least acted upon them. He said, “We’re very lucky to have people who are very passionate about the work we make. And to give us passionate feedback when they feel that our work is not what they want. I think all theatre companies have that. We listen to our community.”
His biggest point, and my biggest takeaway from that interview, was something he said repeatedly: “I think Auckland needs to encourage independent producers to make more work. Bigger risks.”
What bigger risk is there than going international? Other than Pleasuredome, but let’s not speak ill of the dead.
In the midst of writing up that interview, I was given a news tip: the venue known as the Pop-Up Globe is coming down, the company is retaining its base here, but will be touring its repertoire of work internationally. My sceptical hackles were raised once more.
Would they be abandoning their audiences, and more importantly to me, the New Zealand artists who had stuck by them? There’s that number again: 212 acting jobs over three and a half years, to say nothing of the behind-the-scenes department. In a country of New Zealand’s size, that’s a significant chunk of all the paid, mainstage, theatrical gigs around. To lose them overseas would be a blow to the industry.
The first thing that Gregory makes clear to me in our second interview outside Auckland’s Q Theatre (not popping down as of yet), is that the company always had international ambitions from the very beginning. “One of the core discussions we had was about whether we had made sufficient repertoire to be able to not make new work in Auckland for a while, and we felt we did. We have 17 plays in our repertoire now, 17 of Shakespeare’s best, and that means we have sufficient repertoire to tour internationally for some time to come, which is great.
“One of the focuses has been, for several years, on our Auckland theatre and making that the best it can be, giving our audiences a great experience. The other one is on international touring. The reality is that our team’s split focus is actually not conducive to us having the time to do either as well as we need to. So, a decision had to be taken about which one is closer to the mission of Pop-up Globe, and the mission of Pop-up Globe is, as we said right at the start, pop up, do amazing stuff, pop down.”
The second, and to me, the most important thing, is that the company retains it commitment to New Zealand creatives. Gregory is emphatic that the company is not leaving New Zealand. The shows will rehearse here, the wardrobe, props and set will stay here, and they’ll continue to offer educational opportunities here – which will be announced in due course. The venues comes down, the company does not.
I press him a bit on this, for clarity’s sake. It’s a lot of jobs, it’s a lot of work, and theatre isn’t known for its abundance of gigs providing a sustainable income, let alone gigs that provide a living wage. More importantly, some of the established shows have roots that are stuck clearly in New Zealand, like the use of te reo Māori in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the South Pacific setting of Much Ado About Nothing. No doubt it’d put a sour taste in any New Zealand artist’s mouth to see those performed elsewhere, by people who don’t whakapapa to New Zealand.
“If you look at the work our company has made, much of our work has a very strong New Zealand flavour. So that work is now in our repertoire. To make that work with integrity, we will have to work with New Zealanders. I’m very reluctant to give firm, permanent commitments to anything. It is possible that if the Pop-Up Globe tours to a country where local union regulations mean we have to hire local actors, we can’t do anything about it, then what can we do?
“We are opening in Perth in October, and almost all of our actors are New Zealanders. Not all, because we’re an international company, and we’ve always said that 75% of our cast would be Kiwis and 25% would be internationals. Internationalism is part of what we do. In Perth, for example, over 75% of our acting company are New Zealanders. In future seasons, I would expect that to remain unchanged.”
Gregory finishes up by reiterating that this was always the plan for the company. He compares the venue’s run here not to a series of shows, but one long show – a 165 week run, 85 of which are performance weeks. “Now we’ve posted a closing notice, and we’re going to take that show international. I think that’s a wonderful thing, it’s an inspirational thing. It means that you can make a theatre show in Auckland that you can export globally, and on a far bigger scale than has been achieved before.”
And one final sweeping statement for the road: “I think it’s the right time for us to go and fulfill our destiny. We’ve got to do it, we’ve got to make it work for New Zealand as well as for Pop-Up Globe.”
Those stats don’t lie. 650,000 tickets. 1206 performances. With those numbers, with a promoter like Live Nation, why wouldn’t you go international?