Today, as part of a week-long series chatting to Wellingtonians about what they’re up to in the windy city, Alex Casey talks to Jo Randerson and Thomas LaHood of Barbarian productions about making theatre on the fringe.
Here’s the beginning of a comedic Wellington setup for you: a viking and a clown walk into a bowling club… I don’t know what the punchline is but if, Jo Randerson and Thomas LaHood are anything to go by, it’s less of a joke and more of a great situation where they gently take over said bowling club and mould it into a creative utopia. “I always imagine this place like the Game of Thrones opening credits,” Tom says, mapping out an imaginary Wellington beneath his fingertips, “we’re in this area up on the hill, slowly building this barbarian stronghold above the city.”
They aren’t of course, real barbarians – at least I don’t think they are – but a duo of theatre makers whose connections to Wellington are as strong as the fortress of Castle Black. Jo moved down from Auckland with her family when she was four years old, after her father joined St Peter’s Church as a priest. Tom was born at the St Helen’s maternity hospital right before it burned down – he says the two are unrelated – and grew up in the heart of Aro Valley.
Between then and now, they’ve both raked up a bevy of impressive titles. Jo is an award-winning writer, playwright, director and once Billy T nominee. Thomas is a fellow theatre maker as well an internationally-trained clown, putting his performance skills to use in everything from children’s hospitals as clown doctor to being a dwarf in The Hobbit for roughly two seconds – still the highest paid job he’s ever done. These accolades are nowhere to be seen at Vogelmorn Bowling Club, the dusty cabinets still laden with bowls awards and the odd taxidermy deer.
Far from the heyday of Friday night bowls and beers with the old boys, Vogelmorn now works somewhere in the middle of a community centre and an arts centre. There’s a strong creative presence in the rehearsal spaces, but there are also things like predator trap-making sessions and mushroom foraging workshops just as readily available. In fact, we had to wrap the interview by three o’clock to make room for the local school’s soccer practice, and people were milling about prepping for Lōemis, a winter solstice banquet planned for the weekend.
Between the oranges for soccer practice and roast chestnuts for the neolithic feast, the Barbarians remain primarily concerned with carving out more development spaces for artists in Wellington. For two weeks, they throw the space wide open for artists to come in and rehearse in a programme called ‘Let’s Make Work Together’. “You’ve got awesome venues to put on shows, like Bats,” says Jo, “but where do you actually make that show?”
In the heart of the space, sitting in a welcome stream of afternoon sun – the warmest I had been in Wellington – Jo and Tom told me about making their work, the alchemy of the Taika Waititi days, and how on Earth they manage to make it all work.
Talk me through Barbarians’ inception. What does it represent in the Wellington theatre scene? Are you… fringe? Sorry, is fringe a cringey word to say now?
Jo Randerson: No, it’s a good word! We started in 2001 when I made my first show Banging Cymbal, Clanging Gong. I’d just been back to Denmark and found my roots – that we used to be Vikings who were rough, strong and fierce and didn’t always do things super well. As a New Zealander among a lot of softly-spoken Europeans, I was very loud and walked too noisily. Based on that, I made a solo show about reclaiming more of those unsophisticated and uncivilized aspects of yourself. We had to give ourselves a name, so we called it Barbarian Productions.
Thomas LaHood: We did comedy and sketch shows for the first years, then toured around New Zealand and also internationally – Australia, Prague, Berlin, Edinburgh. By the time we got home, we had a real ambition to make larger scale shows. We put on a show at the Hannah Playhouse that was called Goodnight To End in 2009. From there, the company started having a more authorial drive, the work has since then gone on to be a lot more ambitious, scale wise.
We’ve had crazy shows with 60 people, using lots of volunteers and engaging communities as participants. We’ve also gone outside of theatre venues, getting into public spaces and transforming them. We’re really trying to create a sense of togetherness and the radical, fun energy. It’s about changing the framing of theatre. We don’t just want people to go to a particular place to experience a particular thing, and then get up and clap and leave. We want to integrate it more into people’s lives.
JR: I think a real driver for me was when I studied directing for a Masters in Theatre Arts at Toi Whakaari. I had been struggling with the question ‘what is this form?’ You know, I grew up in a church and I saw congregations shrinking, ageing and not engaging anymore – and I was seeing the same thing in theatres. Audiences were dwindling and ageing, and there was no regeneration of younger people coming in at all.
That’s when we realised that maybe everything needs to change: maybe the venues are wrong, maybe the time is wrong, maybe the ticket prices are wrong, maybe the shows are wrong. Maybe you don’t need to just get a better poster, maybe you need to do a different show altogether. There was quite a radical shift for me as a playwright, to look at what other people had to say rather than, you know, be the ‘solo genius’ playwright. That’s what we’re interested in now – what do other people have to say?
What’s an example of a project Barbarian has worked on that speaks to that? Whose voice was being heard?
JR: We just did a project called Sing it to my Face, where we got different generations to tell us what they thought of other generations. We assembled it in this sort of documentary data project about what intergenerational prejudice looks like, and then we got volunteer singers from each age group to sing that back and forth to each other, in front of a live audience. We like groups rubbing shoulders with each other, rather than being separate. That’s like is – we’ll be working with Weta one day and then the Change Makers refugee forum the next.
T: I think our purpose has expanded massively from a self-serving interest to something more encompassing. What is the value of theatre? Who does it make a difference for? There’s a newfound social purpose that we really strive for. The truth is you can’t really do one or the other, you have to do a range of different possibilities on the spectrum. You have sell tickets, you have to tackle the social issues that councils want to fund. You have to cover everything and be very versatile. It’s not because that’s the only way to succeed, it’s because the purpose of theatre is to be versatile.
So when you take things outside of the traditional theatre and into the community around Wellington, where could we expect to find you?
TL: Sing it to my Face was first premiered inside the Wellington Cathedral, and we sat the audience in the choir stalls and the singers in the space in between. We’ve done a performance on the waterfront in a container ship. We’ve taken over the whole state opera house for Grand Opening. We took people in off the street as if they were coming to this big grand opening night of a show, sold them a ticket and then the ushers weren’t able to get into the building so took them around the back.
As we toured people through the back structure of the building, we had all these community art groups in the space doing crazy shenanigans. The audience actually ended up in the middle of the stage in the opera house, having to do a bit of a performance themselves. We wanted to turn the whole thing upside down. We’ve also done a walking tour around the waterfront and through the Mt Vic bush, with hidden actors stationed all along. They were both equally ridiculous.
You mentioned Bats as quite a crucial theatre space earlier, I understand it’s had a pretty big overhaul in recent years. How have you seen that space evolve?
TL: It’s been through a real evolution, Bats. It’s still the go-to venue for the independent sector, because they only take a cut of the box office and so risk-share with you. They’re quite supportive for new independents coming through, and it’s quite an achievable space for a lot of smaller companies just starting out. It’s a lot more presentable now, which has undeniably changed the culture and raised the bar a bit. Now there’s a bit more professionalism, back in our early days it used to be a bit more wild and punk.
JR: I think Bats really aims to stay accessible with it’s ticket prices, and it does achieve that. They have two upstairs venues now, so suddenly during fringe and comedy fest time, you’ve got this venue with six shows on a night – or more. I think most of the action is happening there. Hannah Playhouse has got stuff happening too, and spaces like Te Hau Kainga which is the home of Tawata Productions and Takirua Productions and The Conch. So you’ve got three awesome production companies there, all with their homes and rehearsal spaces on Taranaki Street.
For me, that is massive, to have a new space with these companies right next to each other is exciting and inspiring. There’s a lot of venues to use in Wellington already, but it’s good to see more of a carving out a space to nurture and support artists. You know, mental health isn’t great in New Zealand broadly, but artists are always in such an insecure living situation and getting such sporadic work. You never have any idea where your next job is going to come from.
TL: It’s the original precariat, the artist.
I wanted to ask you about sustaining that actually, because the two of you have managed to be career creatives, which not many people get to be. Have you ever thought about throwing in the towel?
JR: There’s definitely been lots of times of questioning for me. I started studying theatre at Victoria and I loved it, so I immediately dropped everything else. Then in my late 20s it started it to dawn on me, that feeling of ‘what the hell? Why did nobody tell me that this is a terrible career choice?!’ I guess I had the quarter life crisis, especially around the indulgence of it. As an artist, you are just going around and saying whatever you want to say, and nothing is about the struggles of the world or anything.
It was after I found a company called Circus Ronaldo overseas that I saw the joy in people, and I saw why theatre still made a difference. That pulled it all back together for me, to always be interested in theatre and art as well as social justice. I say that I am artist and I do love art, but I reject a lot of the ways that artists do business. I don’t like this model of always being poor and not valuing what you do. I hate that assumption that you’re never going to make any money and I think that shouldn’t be the case. I might have to die on that sword but, you have to try and make it work.
TL: We’ve definitely had to learn to acknowledge that our art is a business, and along with that come all the difficulties that any small business faces. We don’t quite have enough revenue to bring on extra staff, we have to pay ourselves less than we would like to keep the company. We want to grow and make those things less concerning, but in the end we still want to be a model for other companies – that this is totally achievable. To do that though, you have to get out of that mindset that if you’re making ‘important’ art, you are definitely going to succeed. There has to be a bit more give and take than that.
JR: I hate seeing my friends and colleagues not being able to put money on their phone. It can be self-destructive sometimes, like if you’re in the middle of producing a show and you can’t put credit on your phone… you have to figure that out. You have to be able to make calls to people. I’m very passionate about finding ways that we can support people in the arts to have better business models and structures around us. Why don’t we have contracts like builders, where we look at how much time a job takes us and charge for our time, or give people quotes?
I think there’s a lot of small business skills that artists maybe don’t want to learn or aren’t taught about, and that creates a real gap. There’s a real need for those skills, especially because I can feel lots of other organisations currently looking towards theatre and creative industries. You see corporates running these mindfulness and theatre workshops and I’m like, “c’mon arts, get in here!” If we’re creative people, why aren’t we thinking out of the box about this?
I’m obsessed with this vision of golden era Wellington when Taika and Phoenix Foundation and you two and the Conchords were assumedly rocking around like a big brat pack – was that what it was like? What was happening around that era in Wellington that spawned that kind of creative success?
TL: The Phoenix Foundation guys are my peers and Taika and Conchords are Jo’s peers, there’s about a five year turnaround between those two tiers. I think our group is a slightly less ‘celebrity’ group perhaps. There was the famous WACT space – Wellington Arts Community Trust – around in the early 2000s. In there was Jo and Mel from Barbarian, Taika Waititi and Loren Taylor.
JR: We had all just been floating around Wellington, and then this giant warehouse space opened up next to Te Papa. We all paid 50 bucks a week to take over the space and sign up for a whole year, which was terrifying for us. I do think that was a really formative, magic time because there was no-one over us. I’m always a bit suspicious of these arts hubs that are kind of set-up for artists to get put into. This was a space that us artists found ourselves, paid for, set up ourselves. So much great work came out of there. We loved having the open space, having control and having parties.
We all knew it was coming, when we found out it was being pulled down, it really did feel like the death of something. I remember Toby Laing saying that having us all together was like a really strong batch of Raro. We were really concentrated, creatively, and things just got diluted. I remember when Taika was making Two Cars, One Night in there. You’d go in sometimes at eight in the morning and Cliff Curtis would be asleep on the floor. I remember helping Taika frantically stuff the DVDs to send packages out to the Oscars or whatever. Yeah, it was really special, and then it was all gone.
TL: That’s also where we hooked up.
JR: That’s right.
Is that the kind of creative environment you’re trying to return to now with this Vogelmorn space?
TL: That’s right, it’s almost come full circle. Because people forget that people like Taika came from the fringe, Bret and Jemaine came from the fringe, The Phoenix Foundation were like a high school band. I definitely think there’s something happening in Wellington where it’s possible to cross from the fringe into something quite big, because of the scale of the place. But it’s great because a lot of the successful people in Wellington like to stay very humble and very much a part of the community. You do really have to work against status anxiety in Wellington though, because someone like Taika’s success is ridiculous. It’s awesome, and completely deserved, and totally ridiculous.
JR: I’ve been trying to think of anything that doesn’t originally come from the fringe. I remember hearing Madeleine Macnamara talk about the Corona, which is the ring around the sun, and it’s always the hottest part. You know, what’s around the edges is always hotter than the middle, more dynamic, more interesting. Even Bill Manhire has that line in one of his poems that’s like “I live at the edge of the universe, like everybody else.” We are all at the edges of our own universe, so when people start talking about the middle and the edges of stuff I don’t believe it so much anymore.
And what’s next for Barbarian in your takeover of Vogelmorn, Wellington and the world?
TL: We have some big ambition to tackle inequality in our work, and we really want to investigate that in a more complex and interesting way than we’ve ever done before. That’s probably all we can say about that. We’ve got another major project evolving over the next two years, which is a national roadshow exploring identity that we want to take around the regions. We want to have the dialogue that didn’t happen around the flag referendum – who are we here in New Zealand, how would we like to describe ourselves?
JR: I’d like to see this place thriving and being used by all different kinds of people. There’s a lot of really exciting things happening in this city, in this country, and globally, and I’d like the arts community to feel bolder, stronger, and be able to pay their bills. I’d also like to see the arts in national conversations more – not just this little item on the end of the news with some people in a funny costume.
It’s intimate. It’s exhilarating. It’s life, served fresh.
If you’re looking to live, and work, with a little more spark, and a little more balance – find out why Wellington… is personal. At
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.