Jonathan Hodge is an actor, writer and theatre maker based in Auckland. He is producer and collaborator on A City of Souls, the maiden production of new theatre company Catalyst. RENEE LIANG caught up with Jonathan via online chat.

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RENEE: So you’re an actor, producer, director, theatre maker? Tell me what you’ve done so far.

JONATHAN: I’ve been working in professional theatre in Auckland for a few years now. Mostly as an actor for hire. I trained at Unitec and was lucky enough to work with Auckland Theatre Company in my third year. After leaving I’ve done quite a few small productions. I’ve worked for SmackBang Theatre on both seasons of PlayRight and also been in a production up at the K Rd space earlier this year called My Name is Reg.

I also worked for the Silo during the last festival as part of the Ensemble project which was invaluable to me as a creative artist. Working with Oliver Driver on Based on Auckland has helped endlessly with the creation of Catalyst’s work. Also working with Michael Hurst was great for me as an actor. They’ve been a great company to watch over the years and Shane’s theatrical choices are something I admire – both in his programming and his directing.

R: Tell me a bit about the theatre scene in Auckland at the moment. Is it active?

J: The theatre scene in Auckland is beginning to really grow again in my view. With Silo stepping up to the challenges of a bigger space The Basement is now a great new space and ripe for new companies to try their hands. I think it’s very important that we support these fledglings (like us!) because they are the source of both the new work and the new audiences. I think it’s an exciting time to be in theatre.

R: Are there any opportunities you’d like to see more of?

J: I think it’s time to try to tell our stories again. NZ had a great crack at it over the years but I feel like the NZ plays I see now are for an older audience. I’d like a youthful voice to be heard. I also think I’d like to see more theatrical theatre – I believe we do different things to film on stage and because of that we can go to other places. I’ve enjoyed watching people like Backlit (contemporary dance company) try new things and I’d like to see a growing body of perhaps more physical theatre about.

R: So now seems a good time to tell me about Catalyst....

J: We are basically a group of friends who started out looking for a play to put on as we were tired of the waiting game. After reading a few we decided that while they were good they weren’t really speaking for us. We started to write with no agenda and the results elicited a common theme which over time turned into A City of Souls. We have worked on this play over the last six months but at the same time attempted to create a framework and structure by which the company can continue to exist beyond our first work.

Our aim has become to create brave new work that is driven by passionate professional practitioners. Planning exists for future projects but right now to be honest we are swamped with the first one...

R: What was your working process for the play? Is it “devised theatre” in your definition?

J: We didn’t ever get up on the floor and improvise scenes or build characters. We did it all on paper and then tested it thoroughly on the floor. Everyone contributed to the writing and editing but Ben Van Lier was taking the lead in building structure. We have used the term “devised” as it suited our purposes but probably a more accurate description for our process on this play has been “collaborative writing”. We have no attachment to any method as such. This was simply the one that grew with this play and others may come along in future.

R: Can you tell me about the other people in Catalyst? Are there some people who are more actors and some more writers, or do you all do everything?

J: Catalyst is made up of Ben, Sam Berkley, Ora Simpson, Kura Forrester and myself. We are all actors first but keen to learn new skills. Also the help of Hayley Dallimore as writer and actor on this project has been invaluable. We all have certain strengths that we add to the pot. Ben took a lead on writing this project but we all contributed material to this. I’ve operated as producer with significant help from others. Ora works heavily on the technical side of things (creating videos and websites) and Sam on the design side. Kura has been invaluable on the direction side. Many thanks also to Tainui Tukiwaho for his direction and dramaturgical assitance too!

R: A City of Souls is a suggestive name. Ideally where would you like to go with the play, and do you see it as having relevance to audiences other than 20-something Kiwis?

J: We liked the title as it had many different ideas within it. Obviously there seems to be an Auckland reference there but that was almost an accident. The play is about growing up and how we hold on to hope despite the way the world buffets and pushes us around. I think it’s a pretty universal theme.

Like a lot of the plays we read when forming the company I believe it has elements that will be recognisable to many young or adventurous people in the western world (if not elsewhere) so I have high hopes to take it out of our fair city and see if it flies. Firstly locally but then maybe overseas. I think the themes in the play will be familiar to an older audience as well. Growing up may be different every year but many things remain the same. I also think that it’s a shame if a play goes on in one city within NZ and then dies (especially if its good) as the work is so great for such a short run. I would love to see our small emerging companies enabled to tour these sometimes fantastic works.

R: Which brings me to my next question. We all know that funding is notoriously difficult to get for the arts, especially for new start-ups. Can you offer some hints on how you’re funding this? The usual no. 8 fencing wire and door knocking, or did you have some helpers and mentors along the way?

J: We’ve had great help from many people. There is certainly a great deal of DIY involved. We have been lucky to have great people volunteer their time and expertise on many things, our designers and photographers. Our acting friends. Also many people in the industry have given us invaluable support and advice. We like to refer to these people affectionately as The Catalyst Mafia.

Alongside all that we’ve had fantastic support from STAMP at THE EDGE® and also The Murray Hutchinson Creative Trust. Funding through traditional channels has been all but impossible to get so our access to both these organisations’ funding and support has made it all possible.

R: Oh yes, it’s hard to get anything done without the Mafia … Seriously though, are there any pitfalls and lessons from this that you’d like to share with our young and impressionable audience?

J: I suggest as with anything theatre you just book the space and then you have to make it work! In terms of pitfalls and lessons, they have been innumerable. We worked from deadline to deadline. Apologising genuinely when we mucked up and trying not to. I think the biggest thing we did was just keep going. There have been heaps of times when I felt like walking away but we didn’t. We’ve been turned down for funding from some organisations. We look at it as an investment in getting it next time. The biggest plus is that applying for that funding (whether we got it or not) drove our creative process forward. We needed drafts and synopses etc for funding proposals and then marketing briefs and all these things kept us moving. If it hadn’t been for the first application we’d have never booked the space and probably still be writing and telling ourselves it wasn’t good enough. We didn’t get that money by the way. The whole process still mystifies me a bit...

R: It’s really good advice, to just keep trying anyway if you believe in it enough. I think it works for most things, not just theatre. And also to have a strong group of people who work well together (and like each other!) Any last words.... what would you like to “catalyse” next?

J: We do work well as a team and although there are some big opinions and we don’t hold back, it all comes out in the wash. We are all mates first!! As for the future we’ve got our eyes on some cardigan lovers from West Auckland... watch this space.