Kiwi director Kip Chapman says theatre companies need spectacles to keep audiences coming

Auckland Theatre Company/YouTube

When Kip Chapman was eight years old, he became a choir boy, singing as loud as his small voice could muster in the Christchurch Cathedral.

For the next six years, he headed to the lofty cathedral several times a week, donning a costume and singing church songs with the cathedral choir.

It may not seem a likely connection, but the 35-year-old actor and director credits those years with where he is now, a formative time that instilled in him a passion for performance and for being on stage. "You're putting on a costume and singing beautiful songs, and listening to speeches and sermons. It was in my blood."

Kip Chapman is drawn to magical, large scale productions.

Kip Chapman is drawn to magical, large scale productions.

* Review: That Bloody Woman
* Review: Apollo 13
* Apollo 13: an international hit

He also looked out at the church congregation and watched them joining in. His childhood was formative in other ways – the spectacle of the year was Telethon, when he would huddle around the television in his PJs, glued to the box all night with his family.

And so began his interest in immersive, interactive theatre, for making the audience as much a part of the act as those on stage. It's a formula that has worked for this theatre pioneer, who has created spectacular productions that have filled houses and left audiences buzzing. His most famous one is Apollo 13 – an interactive theatre show, where the audience become journalists, astronauts and mission controllers, joining in for the 1970 mission to the moon. Launching the show with his friend, the industrial designer, Brad Knewstubb, New Zealand audiences had never seen anything like it when it debuted in 2009.

Mission Control creators Kip Chapman, left, and Brad Knewstubb.
Claire Hamlin

Mission Control creators Kip Chapman, left, and Brad Knewstubb.

"I always want the audience to feel like they are part of the show," Chapman says, voice rising down the phone, virtually spitting that it is "no excuse" for theatre shows to be boring. 

We are speaking just days after the opening night of the Auckland Theatre Company's production, That Bloody Woman, which he is directing. Chapman describes it as "a super theatrical rock concert on stage that's accessible too". The rock and punk musical hovers around the life of Kate Sheppard, one of New Zealand's most famous woman, although at one point, the audience take part in a Donald Trump march.

That Bloody Woman will head to Christchurch next month and Wellington next year. Chapman is excited about bringing the show back to his hometown. The Court Theatre also holds a special place in his heart, for it was where he made his stage debut at the age of 12, playing the lead in the French play, That Red Balloon. "I fell in love with theatre at Court Theatre. I got paid $4.80 an hour for that role," he laughs. "I went there to watch Christmas shows, shows like The Wind in the Willows."

Kip Chapman.

Kip Chapman.

Growing up in 1980s conservative Christchurch and attending the private boys' school, Christ's College, theatre was, he says, "my window into creativity". As a teen, he joined the Court's long-running improv, theatresports group, Scared Scriptless, being part of the weekend night shows. Theatresports was his entree into the interactive style of theatre that he came to love and to pioneer. But it was only in his last year at Christ's College that the traditional boys' school finally employed a drama teacher – David Chambers, who was the main reason that Chapman is where he is today. "He said, 'Go for it'." 

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Chapman is driven and likes a challenge. Apollo 13 played to packed houses at the Sydney Opera House over three weeks in 2010, with the Sydney Morning Herald listing it as one of its 10 top shows that year. Being performed over 200 times since, it toured throughout the United States, where Chapman stresses, he never advertised it as a New Zealand production. "Our goal wasn't to get people to come along because we were Kiwis, but we wanted it to standalone on its own."

While it hasn't been performed for four years – the current set can't handle any more shows – he says: "We wanted to offer an experience for people who wouldn't normally go to the theatre. I always have my Mum, and now my Mum-in-law test. Would they want to see the show? Is it accessible?"

That mother-in-law is the mother of his new husband, actor Todd Emerson, who Chapman married two months ago in a ceremony in Port Waikato. Emerson is currently on screen in Westside . He also starred as Peter Hudson in Chapman's other acclaimed production, Hudson and Halls Live, an immersive theatre show based on the 1980s New Zealand cooking show.

Chapman knew he was gay from a young age, but didn't come out till he was 22. "I only came out when it was safe to do so. I grew up in a conservative family, in conservative Christchurch. It was a journey for my parents. We had this wedding that was like a 1920s school camp. Mum made meringues."

On their honeymoon, the couple went to Broadway, where Chapman was blown away by world-class musicals and productions, a trip which confirmed his career direction. "The Colour Purple had a set which was just this wall of chairs, 20 feet of them.

"But there's no point having spectacle unless you back it up with emotion."

Seven years ago, he founded the Auckland Theatre Awards, and he has jumped between stage, film and TV acting over the years. "Acting is my first love and I still love it, but 15 years into my career, I now only want to work on special projects. As an actor, I want to be creatively challenged. There's a saying, 'Don't do something if it's not going to challenge you'."

Picky with his acting roles, he's currently growing a beard for the role of Luke Mitchim, in Jane Campion's mini series Top of the Lake. After time in Christchurch, he will head to Queenstown for filming. "In theatre, I always play the young doofus, but on TV, I often always play the dodgy guy, the drug dealer," he laughs.

Of the current state of theatre being produced here, he is openly scathing. "I'm super surprised that more theatre companies haven't made more immersive works. TV and film is so good these days. Why would you leave the house?"

"Theatre has to be seen live, and we have to engage with the audience, and to say, 'This can only be seen live'."

He believes theatres like Wellington's Circa are out of touch. "Circa Theatre needs to be challenged. They're not engaging with youth, they're not engaged with modern audiences. It's not good enough for Wellington."

Talking with the same fiery passion he brought on stage running Mission Control in the Apollo 13 show, Chapman won't let it drop. "I have no problem going on the record and saying that Circa should pull up its socks. It's even more relevant now than in 2008, when we did Apollo 13. Theatre has to do something that's unique, compared to the brilliant offerings in TV and film. We have to engage with an audience in a way that TV and film can't."

For their own part, while Circa Theatre's Circa Council co-ordinator Andrew Foster agrees with Chapman's assessment that theatre isn't TV or film, he cites examples such as its Devising Residency programme and collaboration with the likes of Everybody Cool Lives Here, as proof that the comments aren't a fair assessment of what Circa have been doing in terms of engaging with young and modern audiences through its annual programming.

Chapman though, has a chance to put his talents where his mouth is during this year's World of Wearable Arts. As associate producer of the show for the first time this year, he will shadow the show producers, Mike Mizrahi and Marie Adams, learning their expertise. He has wowed audiences of 230 people a night through Apollo 13. Through WOW, he has the potential to move so many more – 4500 per show, in what is the country's biggest theatrical production. "They've been the inspiration for the kind of work that I've wanted to make since I started this 10 years ago. The thing I love about WOW, and what Dame Suzie does, is that even though we live in this small country, they believe in this concept of thinking big. I saw it last year and it was intimidatingly impressive."

Reeling off his bucket list, he hopes to run a Commonwealth Games opening, a Telethon, a ceremony like the New Zealander of the Year.  "I'm really happy with the journey I'm on and I've got some exciting challenges ahead."

"I want to make productions as theatrical as possible. I love bringing people together and celebrating the good things. I'm into engaging with communities and making them happy."

 - Stuff


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