The Kiwi behind the Pop-up Globe is taking Shakespeare globalby Clare de Lore
The only child of Auckland fashion designer Trish Gregory and her husband, James, he has fond memories of crawling inside huge rolls of fabric at his mother’s studio and spending hours there quietly reading. He went on to excel in English at secondary school, then at 17 left for England, where he studied history at Durham University.
He met his wife, Barbara, in the UK and since returning to New Zealand in 2012, they and their children have been living in both Auckland and Melbourne.
With business partner Tobias Grant, Gregory is the founder of the Pop-up Globe. The New Zealanders’ dream of staging Shakespeare in a temporary replica of Shakespeare’s second Globe (which was demolished in 1642) became a reality in 2016, and a second successful Auckland season this year caught the attention of international promoters Live Nation. The Pop-up Globe is now playing a three-month season in Melbourne, and its third Auckland run starts in December.
When did you first encounter Shakespeare?
At King’s College, when I was 14, we had to edit a scene from a Shakespeare play, and I loved it. I edited a scene from Romeo and Juliet, the fight scene, Act 3 Scene 1. But Shakespeare was something I never found alien. My father used to quote from Shakespeare – these ritualistic words, words with a power beyond mere expression – so when I encountered Shakespeare at school, it wasn’t a foreign language, it was something I knew was important. I never had any trouble understanding it.
Why did you leave New Zealand at 17?
I was disappointed by the athleticism and obsession with sport, which is a feature of most Western society, although I had thought it was solely a New Zealand thing. So I went to England as soon as I could and found at university an incredible group of like-minded people. I was looking to be part of a group where I was the stupidest. I felt I was walking through a garden with a long wall at one end and overgrown ivy and I was looking for a little door that would have an exciting world beyond it. At Durham, I found that door and walked into a different world. I made lifelong friends, many of whom work in similar fields.
What about that world captivated you?
I had long been looking for stimulating and challenging people who loved learning and education, and who were good fun. I found the right group. I used to say I was going to be a lawyer, but I fell in with the wrong crowd and they all liked theatre. There is no drama department at Durham. There are 13 residential colleges and each has its own theatre company and there are many independent companies. So Durham has about 27 independent theatre companies. All of those were run by students and each put on up to three shows a year. I was part of the Durham Revue, which is like the Cambridge Footlights, and that taught me a lot about producing theatre and making theatre that sells tickets.
Why did you come back to New Zealand after a career as artistic director for UK theatres?
I came back to help my parents with their business. I had spent just over three years as the chief executive and artistic director of the state-funded Maltings Theatre in the north of England. I was taken on by the board to turn the theatre around. We did that over three years, quadrupling audiences, and got an increased grant from the Arts Council at a time when most grants were being reduced or cut. It was an amazing conclusion to my time there, but I was very tired.
Now you’ve collaborated with an old friend, first on the Pop-up Globe in Auckland and now in Australia. Is it a risky business?
This whole project is a result of fairly deep connections at the heart of the company. I met my business partner, Tobias Grant, at King’s prep school when we were four. I met the other directors at Durham 20 years ago. Those connections create an atmosphere of trust in a company and the ability to make important theatre work fun in a safe environment. It means we can take big risks and speak honestly to one another. No creative project can be made in a toxic atmosphere.
Has the risk paid off?
It is extremely rare for theatre to sell this many tickets. In fact, it is almost unprecedented. The only possible comparison is Cirque du Soleil. After six years of touring Cirque du Soleil in the US, they were selling 260,000 tickets a year, and that was some years back. In our first 20 months we sold more than 230,000 tickets, and counting. So, something unusual is happening with this project.
What is that?
For a long time, Shakespeare has been regarded as an elitist high-art form, a bit like opera, but it’s finding a new audience. This is such a large expression of that popularisation that it is more like a movement, which is very unusual. In a lifetime in the theatre, you see only one or two projects gain this kind of momentum. Another cultural phenomenon might be Les Misérables, and the Pop-up Globe will continue to be one as long as we can keep working.
How important is the replica theatre to the venture’s success?
It’s very important, but building a building is a mechanical process. You have a plan, it takes work and research. It is a painstakingly exact replica of the second Globe Theatre, which has never been reconstructed before. It is a world first.
How is it different from Shakespeare staged in an ordinary theatre?
The noise in the Pop-up Globe can be heard from hundreds of metres away. It is unlike anything I have ever heard, except perhaps a football or boxing match. That’s very different from the theatre we’ve grown up with. The theatre we make is non-naturalistic, it involves direct address, it is about the actors connecting directly with the audience and telling the story together. That sounds quite simple, but actually most directors and actors are trained in naturalism and we have to untrain them to make this kind of theatre. It is also directly inspired by Elizabethan and Jacobean staging techniques – the theatre we make is concerned with spectacular dances and fights and litres of stage blood. At all times our touchstone is what the Jacobeans did – how they made theatre changed the way theatre is made. This theatre is about noise, abandon, liberation and a groundswell of energy from the audience.
Does it make money?
You would be crazy to go into theatre to make money. Theatre never makes money. If it does, it is a one-in-a-hundred chance. It’s mainly about how you avoid big losses. But this company is making art that sells tickets. We do require sponsorship and, at the start, significant personal investment. I put my family’s house on the line and my business partner put everything he had on the line. We believed so much in what we were doing, we said if we are going to fail, let’s go down big time. But we haven’t failed, we’ve succeeded, and we are carrying on.
Could you have more Pop-up Globes around the world?
If there is demand around the world, why not? There is something exciting about seeing Shakespeare at the Pop-up Globe – thinking you didn’t like Shakespeare, that it was boring, but then finding it’s great art and his work is comprehensible. That is life-changing. People say they don’t understand Shakespeare or it’s boring, but if you see it performed properly, it is very interesting and what you see on stage stays with you. You can gain great comfort and insight in your life from Shakespeare – he mirrors our lives so well.
What’s the greatest insight you’ve gained from Shakespeare’s plays?
Most of them are about death and love, with many of them about bringing people back to life, so people you thought were dead, you find again. For all of us in life, the desire to raise the dead, to undo loss, is the most powerful thing. It’s based on love, which is the most important human emotion. In Shakespeare’s plays, he allows us to see characters recover their loved ones. When twins are reunited after believing each other dead, when statues of dead people come back to life, those are very powerful moments, very theatrical moments, and I gain solace every day from Shakespeare. Hardly a day goes by when I am not struck by some incident in life that makes me think of Shakespeare’s words.
This article was first published in the November 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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