Thursday, October 29, 2015

In praise of: Roger Hall

Last Thursday night, 22 October, I was in the Grand Hall at Parliament for the Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement 2015 to see Roger Hall (photo above is by Ross Giblin/Fairfax) receive the award for fiction. It was a very convivial night: I managed to talk to Dame Fiona Kidman; Owen Marshall; Chris and Barbara Else; Elizabeth Knox and Fergus Barrowman; my co-novelist Linda Burgess (Safe Sex, 1997); my favourite CNZ operatives, who must remain nameless; Jane Parkin, the editor’s editor (she has edited two of my books and as Wordsworth would say, “Oh, the difference to me!”); award selectors Paul Diamond and Morrin Rout; NZSA president Kyle Mewburn — and Ashleigh Young. Ashleigh Young! If you have you not read her debut poetry collection Magnificent Moon, do so immediately.

Before the speeches I sat down beside a kindly looking old gent. He said he thought he had been invited because he had written in support of Roger’s nomination. I said, “Me too.” We got chatting. He had no idea who I was – why would he? – but I certainly knew who he was: Bill Sheat. What a cultural hero that man is. He didn’t invent theatre and film in New Zealand, but we wouldn’t have what we do without him. He said he knew Roger from directing student skits at Victoria University written by Roger and Steve Whitehouse. I said, “I know Steve, he’s a friend.” So we got talking about what these two were like when young. The things one learns! Talking with Bill Sheat alone made the trip worthwhile.

But the main event for me was Roger getting the fiction award. It was a great result all round – the other winners were Bernadette Hall (no relation) for poetry and Dame Joan Metge for non-fiction; spookily, all three are published by Victoria University Press – but Roger’s award was special because it was the first time a playwright has won. They have always been eligible, but until now it has always been novelists and short-story writers. Roger winning opens the door to Renee, Greg McGee, a bunch of others.

What follows is an edited version of Roger’s acceptance speech.
These days I sum up my career as follows: 70 years a theatregoer; 50 years a writer; 40 years a playwright.
I’m honoured to be the first playwright to receive this award, and while it feels slightly strange getting it for Fiction I’m certainly not complaining. Someone said in fact I should have got it for non-fiction, as Glide Time was a documentary.
To all of you here, you have no idea how much this award means to me.
I’d like to thank Dianne and my wonderful family (many of whom are here tonight), but if I were to thank everyone in theatre whom I should, then we’d be here all night. So let me instead pay a tribute to New Zealand theatre as a whole.
In the late 1970s and 1980s there was a huge excitement about new New Zealand plays that were popping up all the time. Bruce Mason helped pave the way; Mervyn Thompson with O! Temperance and Songs to Uncle Scrim; Joe Musaphia’s smash hit Mothers and Fathers, which transferred from Downstage to the Opera House; Robert Lord’s Heroes and Butterflies and Well Hung; Glide Time and Middle Age Spread helped pushed things along. Renee’s wonderful Wednesday to Come and Pass it On. Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament took the country by storm (occasionally I still get congratulated for writing it); and the box-office daddy of them all Ladies’ Night. And there were many more.
We have a wonderful theatre history dating way before the 1970s and 80s, back in fact to Victorian times, but as far as I know not one museum in the country gives any display place to theatre at all.
If it seemed active then, that’s as nothing compared to now. There are now on average one and half new productions every day. Last year Playmarket alone issued more than 360 licences for New Zealand plays.
A check on the website Theatreview, which reviews all professional theatre productions, reveals that on a few days of this week (17-20 October) there were 10 productions. (An astonishing number of people still don’t know about Theatreview.)
And I’m not going to miss the chance to point out that in a few days there should be reviews for daughter Pip’s play Ache which opens at Circa on Saturday night.
Despite the fact that our theatre scene is so lively, prolific, varied and vigorous, I see little national pride in what our theatre is achieving.

I can almost certainly tell you what I was doing right this minute 40 years ago: sitting in my study in Karori typing on my Olivetti working on what was probably the third draft of my first play, which would eventually be called Glide Time.
How come I was writing a play? Because I had been at the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre’s playwrights’ conference in Connecticut at the insistence of and with help from Robert Lord.
That workshop was a big deal. Top US theatre people were involved each year (that year, Meryl Streep and Christopher Lloyd) and it usually produced a couple of plays that went on to Broadway.
I hadn’t intended to write a play for the stage — TV was still my ambition — but seeing what was on display, what received lavish praise there, I had that light-bulb moment: “I could do that. I will write a play.”
But — and this is the point where I have come full circle. The reason I was in New York, and had been in London the previous three months, was entirely due to a grant from the then QEII Arts Council to travel to England and the US to further my experience in writing.
So I thank Creative NZ for tonight’s award, and the QEII Arts Council for the one all those years ago. It led to Glide Time and changed my life.
Bernadette Hall’s acceptance speech is online here. With all due respect to Roger, she had perhaps the best line of the night, presumably improvised as it is not in the official version. When thanking her husband, she said, “There is nothing worse than someone becoming a writer.”  


jules older said...

If ever there was a well-deserved honor, it is this one. Congratulations, Roger. And Aotearoa.

Rob Hosking said...

Re: the last line from Bernadette Hall - it isn't quite apposite, but it reminded me of something - have you ever read Malcolm Bradbury's essay on the wives of writers? Recommended. V

Stephen Stratford said...

Rob: must have, because I did read some Bradbury essays but don't recall this one. Will hunt it out.