12 September 2014
London

This month, Allen Hall Theatre, my university’s resident theatre teaching and performance space, celebrates its centenary. I take a stroll back down amnesia lane, and recall my early experiments wielding a poison pen.

For an aspiring artiste at Otago University in the 1990s, there was only one place to be: Allen Hall Theatre. Even now, the name conjures images of dry ice-filled decadence and grandeur, as pungent as my first cup of coffee from Ombrellos or a stolen kiss under the University Archway in the rain.

Allen Hall’s Lunchtime Theatre on Thursdays and Fridays was where I and the other woolly jersey-wearing squares from the English department trouped, earnest and wide-eyed, to see a tribe we longed to be a part of. As we climbed up the creaking stairs and waited on the landing to be ushered into the inner sanctum, we encountered a place of mysterious creatures and fabulous beasts. Everything was big – gestures, voices, play titles, and pronouncements on the future of theatre, often delivered with a sibilant S and a mocking laugh. The women shaved their hair, not their armpits, and displayed tattoos, and quite a few were rumoured to be lesbians. The men had 80s New Romantic hair, thin wispy moustaches and a tantalising air of sexual ambiguity. Everyone smoked (roll your owns, naturally – bought cigarettes were commercialised and bourgeois). Here at last were the people my mother had warned me not to associate with. It all felt thrilling and dangerous, with none of the anaesthetising safety of Home.

Frequenting Allen Hall was an easy way to establish your cultural credentials and separate yourself from Dunedin’s boorish lad culture of rugby and beer. For a $2 koha at the door, you were allowed to enter the Temple of Thespiana and watch as long-limbed whippet-hipped people in tights visited travesties on the classics that would have made our English professors break out in hives (if they had ever bothered to come). Hamlet’s speeches were decimated and thrown back and forth by an onstage chorus like a high-speed volleyball match. Chekhov was reset in the Wild West or put into the mouths of men dressed as Marlene Dietrich. Jacques LeCoq’s psychoanalytical theatre work was terribly chic in those days, and so many a thespian crawled into a foetal ball on the floor, moved towards existential beams of light shone through doorways, or leapt around on stage finding their character’s power animal.

In retrospect, a lot of it was earnest and pretentious and probably more fun to perform than to watch. I suspect that quite a lot of the “devised plays” and one-woman shows I sat through were a cheap form of therapy for a thespian relationship break-up, and I’ll be quite happy if I never see a pair of black leggings or hear the words “found space” or “multi-media” ever again. But in those early days, anyway, it was dazzling. I’d been raised in the genteel and passive-aggressive world of provincial Speech & Drama classes, with weekly drilling in how to master a BBC newsreader’s accent, and pious deference to the calcified British armchair school of acting still on display in regional repertory societies. To me, the wild feral children of Allen Hall – slurring their words, moving like dancers and guilelessly incorporating karakia and haka into classic texts – were nothing less than revolutionaries.

Despite many flirtations, I never quite found the courage to throw my lot in and become a fully-fledged scarf-waving theatre luvvie. Instead I took up residence on the margins, acting occasionally in friends’ directorial pieces, and slowly found my voice as a theatre reviewer for the ever-encouraging student newspaper Critic and student radio station Radio One. Allen Hall was my first point of reference, and the place where, for better or for worse, everyone knew my name.

Like all artists, critics need time and space to find their feet and practise sharpening their claws, though fledgling reviewers and baby thespians don’t always co-exist happily in the same playpen. My early attempts at Dorothy Parker-esque criticism lost me a few friends and earned me more than a few cold shoulders. One lady director purred coolly in my ear one night at a friend’s party that my review of her Hamlet had scarred her so deeply she’d considered giving up directing. I learned later that she got into NIDA’s directing course, so the damage can’t have been permanent – a useful lesson in not taking a thespian’s cries of outrage too seriously. Though it was often a bumpy ride, for me it was the start of what most critics dream of – being an influential voice in an artistic community and contributing to a dialogue about what art is for.

Over the years I learned, slowly, to wean myself off the taste of blood, and practice the more nourishing art of constructive criticism. I learned to spot rubies in the dust – an enchanting performance by a promising thespian in an otherwise dull play, or a new writer wading fearlessly into unmapped territory despite the best attempts of the cast or the director to unravel their words. I concluded that a passionately-staged mess of a Philip Ridley play could be more appealing than a bloodlessly-executed Restoration comedy at the Fortune (at the time, a graveyard of creativity where good theatre went to die), and that even the most enthusiastically workshopped piece would fail if its makers didn’t think about the result as well as the process.

Through it all, the Jedi of Allen Hall – Lisa Warrington, resplendent in one of innumerable mohair sweaters; Richard Huber, murmuring something unintelligible about Chekhov into the bottom of an empty coffee cup; and Hilary Halba, a firebrand of relentless enthusiasm – whispered muted encouragement. My reviews were being read and discussed in class, they told me me – if only as a cautionary tale for students, all the better to steel them against the cruel realities of their future lives as “theatre practitioners”. That term itself always made me laugh, with its almost-ironic attempt to make acting sound professional and corporate, rather than the self-indulgent fun it always appeared to be.

But it wasn’t all hi-jinks and talking stick circles. In my years at Allen Hall, I was fortunate enough to watch the flowering of some extraordinary creative talent. Among much sweating and chafing in the chorus lines, a few luminaries stand out: playwright Duncan Sarkies, actors Anna Cameron, Genevieve Maclean, Rachel More, Gemma Matheson, Edwin Wright, Serena Cotton and Amber Todd, directors Fiona Pulford and James Hadley, and lighting designers Jen Lal and Martyn Roberts. Many of them have gone onto bigger and better things, and some I’m still fortunate enough to count among my friends – vanquishing the cliché of the critic as a solitary and unloved Anton Ego-type character.

Though many of us have gone our separate ways, we are all united in our fondness for Allen Hall, and appreciative of the freedom we were given there to watch, to explore, to flirt with reinvention and try and work out what kind of iconoclastic ground-breaking multi-media artistes we wanted to be. It’s the kind of freedom we once took for granted and claimed as of right. Now that we’re older, wiser and a bit more battle-scarred from the exigencies of life, we realise that the freedom Allen Hall once provided us with is rare and very precious.

Theatre is by its nature, fleeting and ephemeral, and near-impossible to recreate in more permanent form. The history of theatre is, therefore, a history of ghosts: the recall of half-remembered conversations, straining to remember names and dates, and humming bars of half-forgotten music in the hope that the rest will return. It won’t return, of course: time goes only forward and the past is mostly irrecoverable. For those of us who wafted through Allen Hall at some stage in our formative years, we might not remember every line of every play we sat through or performed in. What we will remember is the exhilarating rush of live performance, the excitement of encountering a great playwright’s insight into the human condition, and the sense of limitless opportunity that only life in a university theatre can provide.

I congratulate Allen Hall on its anniversary, and thank its harum-scarum inhabitants past and present for the good times. I hope that its battered halls may long stay open to inspire more scarf-waving among new and perky generations of thespians, and instil the same love of theatre in audiences as it did for me.

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