In Conversation with Jason Te Mete
This week we talk to actor, musician and director, Jason Te Mete. Jason received outstanding reviews for his performance as Mitch Albom in the NZ premiere of ‘Tuesdays With Morrie’ (Newmarket Stage Company), and his recent performance and musical direction of the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival season of ‘K’Rd Strip’, Okareka Dance Company’s highly acclaimed devised work received 5-star international reviews.
Kit: As both a director and an actor working in New Zealand, what do you think are the challenges that face young creatives in regards to a career in Musical Theatre?
Jason: If we are talking about producing musical theatre in the traditional American style (from Rogers & Hammerstein to Sondheim, and the more contemporary stuff from Schwartz to Robert Brown etc), the biggest challenge is the cost. A published musical is much more expensive to produce than a play – the performance rights are more expensive, you need to employ a musical director and a choreographer, you have to factor in musicians, and there are sound requirements and subsequent costs amongst other things.
From a performer perspective, the biggest challenge is the lack of professional opportunities in NZ to gain experience through performance. I mean you can do hundreds of lessons, workshops and little concerts here and there, but it is the journey through a whole work that is the most satisfying and effective way to develop and hone your craft as an actor, singer and dancer.
Kit: So are there opportunities in New Zealand at all? What channels are available to people out there?
Jason: There are two main channels. There’s the amateur scene that in many ways is our biggest musical theatre industry; that’s where you get the majority of opportunities. However, although I consider many of these productions to be priceless opportunities for growth and development, as a professional pursuing musical theatre as a career it can be difficult to commit to the often-lengthy rehearsal commitments without a pay check.
Professional companies Auckland Theatre Company and The Court Theatre in Christchurch offer one musical a year (usually). There are very few other professional opportunities.
Kit: Would you say there is less pressure in the amateur world?
Jason: Maybe. Perhaps not ‘less’ pressure, but it is a different pressure for actors. An amateur production is exactly that – amateur – a cast and crew who do it for love, have a huge amount of talent and nerve, and a much longer rehearsal period (usually after hours). Therefore, their investment in the show is to do their best to make it successful, have a great time, and then go back to their day job when it is all over. If the show bombs, of course it is a shame, but actors move on and get on with their lives – and will audition and/or volunteer to be part of the next one and see how that goes.
As a professional, your paycheck and your career is on the line. A production can make or break a performer, particularly if it flops. Even if the individual performance is really good, people can be like “oh you were part of that show, we heard all about it. You can’t have been that good if it flopped.”
From a producer perspective, the pressure is simply the same:
Good show = good profit = success.
Average show = break even = lessons learned.
Crap show = debt = fail.
Kit: So, do you think we should or shouldn’t be telling American or foreign stories?
Jason: I don’t think it matters where the story is from, I just think that we need to be creating or producing musical theatre that is relevant to us here in NZ, and communicating those stories in a way that is familiar to us.
Kit: Are there kiwi Musical Theatre stories? What do they look like?
Jason: Yes! Heaps! We just need writers to write them. But of course that is not as easy as it sounds! The workshop process of any new work takes years and years, and there is definitely a need for more programmes designed to assist writers’ getting their stories onto the stage.
Kit: What’s something you’d like to see turned into a musical?
Jason: I’d love to see the Prince of Egypt turned into a stage musical – it has songs in the film, but I’m not sure how anyone would build the pyramids and part the Red Sea on stage very easily though haha. Who knows…
But there’s a lot of great stuff already out there. The style of musical theatre is changing a lot too. In a lot of the more modern shows, the songs aren’t as catchy as individual songs but in the context of the whole show they work incredibly well. Whereas in big classics, like Oklahoma, everyone knows, for example… (Sung) “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow”.
Oklahoma was one of the first shows to start segueing the dialogue into music (scene to song). That was a big stepping-stone in musical theatre, trying to create a seamless transition, not scene scene scene scene and now we’re going to sing a song just because it’s pretty.
Kit: I wanted to ask you about what is being done in the current market to create new works. We’ve seen the success of the That Bloody Woman by Luke Di Somma, which has now been picked up by Auckland Theatre Company. Tell us a little bit about that and other material being created.
That Bloody Woman is a great example. Luke studied musical theatre writing/composing in New York at Tisch School of the Arts. That Bloody Woman is a collaboration between him and Gregory Cooper who wrote the book, the great story of NZ’s very own Kate Sheppard and her influence on the political world. It’s a great place to start, you’ve already got a solid character and a musical version (Luke’s forte) seems only natural! I haven’t seen the most recent version but I was Musical Director and adviser on the first two workshops. Every version has been considerably different – keep and master the bits that work, ditch the bits that didn’t work. Musicals take years before making it to Broadway (if they’re really really good), that’s the reality. A little bit of the kiwi mentality is, if it doesn’t work the first time, scrap it.
Kit: It sounds a little bit like the ‘too hard basket’. So are there any opportunities to learn about musical theatre writing here in New Zealand?
Jason: I don’t know what tertiary programmes are taught around NZ, but in reality our industry is quite niche and for anything severe to happen with regards to musical theatre, it is a much bigger picture. There needs to be a cultural shift in the way the New Zealand public view musical theatre – they should want to go because of the story, and connect to the music, not go because a Shortland Street star is the headliner. That’s not an easy fix and it will take a long time.
When I was in London last year, I would wander around Leicester Square wanting to get tickets to something, and although there were at least 20 big shows on, in 2000+ seated venues, they were all sold out every night (or over £100). So there is a huge market for musical theatre over there.
We (in Auckland) don’t have that; we have the occasional musical at the Civic for a one/two-week season, and a handful of smaller chamber works at Q or the Basement.
Kit: Why is there such a difference in our industry, and what do we need to do?
Jason: I think we’re doing it the wrong way. Instead of trying to force people to like musical theatre as we know it and as it is traditionally expected (whether you like it or loathe it), we should be creating our own stories in a way that resonates with kiwi’s, which a lot of people are starting to do. It’s about exploring different ways and styles – shows like Daffodils and K’Rd Strip have been extremely successful. They’re new, kiwi stories with well-known kiwi pop-songs lyrically entwined into the story so in a way it is musical theatre; it’s just not the format that we know.
Kit: Oh absolutely. There definitely is a move towards writing musical theatre & cabaret that uses existing music/pop songs.
Jason: Yeah, but I think there is definitely a whole industry of writing that is untapped. I think it goes back to what I said before, if it’s got potential, keep working at it and only ditch it if you have truly had a good go at it. Which you haven’t.
Kit: Do you think we can retell stories in our own narrative? Can we adapt foreign stories to be relevant?
Jason: I think so, as long as the integrity and the purpose of what the writer has intended is preserved. There are a lot of published American and English musicals that don’t require a particular ‘setting’ – nor do they have any references in the text or lyric to any certain place. So why not set it here, and use our own voices, and our own setting? I’ve had a recent conversation with a couple of musical theatre professionals from the US who’s opinion was “if you are going to make that story more relevant to your audience, of course it’s going to become a more successful work for the writer.”
I mean ultimately connecting with the audience is what theatre is all about. Have a reason for your story. Want to say something. Need to say something. Make people think. You could make something that is pretty, gorgeous, sounds good and everything is nice on the surface. Audiences will go away thinking just that. My mantra is if you don’t make someone walk out of the theatre thinking “holy shit I need to make some major changes in my life, and I should probably call my mother tomorrow”, then you haven’t done your job properly.