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Arts and Identity, Interview

Performing Arts and Cultural Diplomacy


Gareth Reeves was born in Christchurch New Zealand. He trained as an actor at New Zealand’s national Drama School in Wellington, Toi Whakaari: The New Zealand Drama School for 3 years, graduating in 1999. Gareth spent years working consistently in theatre throughout New Zealand and Australia with a strong foundation in Shakespeare and modern classics. His entry into television and film saw him win a best actor award at The New Zealand Screen Awards for his role in The Insiders Guide to Love and a nomination for his first lead film role in A Song of Good.

During his visit at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, we had the chance of interviewing him (interview conducted by Mark Warman & Moushumi Bhadra) and ask for his opinion concerning how arts can help in fostering mutual understanding between cultures and the role that film industry plays for the development and promotion of a country.
The interview can be read in the following.

As an actor, how do you think we can use artistic expression to strengthen intercultural relations? Has this been done in New Zealand? Have you got any examples?

The first thing that springs to mind is a project that I’m doing when I go back to New Zealand later in the year. We’re taking a play by William Shakespeare called Othello, which is about a Moor living in a white man’s world.However, we’re subverting it and setting the story as a film prior to the influx of Europeans in New Zealand and it’s going to be about a white European. I’m going to be playing Othello, so I’ll be playing the role traditionally played by a black man.The project is being done to protect and use the indigenous language of New Zealand and it’s being funded by a non-governmental organisation and a public trust. The indigenous   the country is used in the film and also on the set as well.Also there’s a village in New   is using the money to create a tourism opportunity and to create traditional village buildings which will be used practically but we’re going to get in there first and use it as the set for the film too. So the project is bringing together a whole bunch of people and it’s primarily about treasuring the language and giving the language another chance by getting more people to speak it and presenting it to the world.

How do you feel that theatre is used for cultural exchange in contrast to film? What opportunities do you have in theatre?

Thinking about Shakespeare again, these are stories that the whole world owns and that every culture interprets according to its own parameters and what it thinks is important. Theatre is such an ensemble art form and because the stories are always to do with conflict, you have to explore those conflicts as performers. So as a group of performers you really have to ask some pretty hard questions and face up to some difficult things. Of course, whether that translates to the audience depends on how good the production is.  Play writes about big things and big ideas and we go to the theatre to see people go through things that we hope we won’t ever have to go through or maybe that we have gone through or our families have gone through and to remember and respect and hear from another side. I certainly have learnt a lot about empathy and compassion from working in the theatre. I had never met an openly gay person before I worked in the theatre and I grew up in a town that was fairly homophobic, probably because it was a small country town, and so the theatre really opened my eyes to gay people.

In terms of the role a film industry plays in creating an image of a country, you mentioned earlier The Lord of the Rings and how that’s affected New Zealand. What role do you feel a film industry plays in general for a country?

I always come back to a quote by George Bernard Shaw. He came to New Zealand in the 1930s and recommended the creation of a local film industry otherwise, he said, “you will lose your souls without even getting American ones.” I think that because American films have such a big reach around the world, some people see it as imperialism but people love film and they also have a hunger to see their own stories and if Hollywood encourages that then that’s great. I think that the most successful films from each country that are seen around the world are usually about family because it’s something that we all have in common.Even though they maybe culturally specific, they are always universal. I think film has a powerful role to play because it reaches the most people and if you’ve got something to say you can do a lot worse than making a film.

In the economic climate that we’re emerging from we’ve often seen that the arts is the thing that gets cut from government funding the most. What affect do you think this has had on the potential for the arts to be used for cultural exchange and their influence at an international level?

Well, the arts has always been pretty shafted in New Zealand. It’s never had a massive amount of support from the government and so I think the situation is playing out a little differently in New Zealand in comparison to other countries. The film industry has become such a major industry now,I think it’s right up there with meat, dairy exports and wine,because Peter Jackson has brought Hollywood and all its money to the back doorstep.He does really well in using the labour workforce in New Zealand and improving them. He’simproved the skills of a lot of the crew who work in New Zealand and he also provides his facilities for local work and projects, so he’s quite rightly a national hero. So I think film is very healthy in New Zealand, as opposed to a country like Britain where the film council has been completely disbanded by Cameron’s government. I imagine that this will have a potentially devastating effect on the film industry in the UK. A state funded film commission always has parameters that you have to work within and they always have an idea of what film they think you should be making. In New Zealand, when one film becomes successful,for example, when Whale  Rider became really successful, suddenly every other film has to be about cultural identity and all that kind of thing. State-funded film commissions are vital to create the work but some of the best work is done by the people who don’t have the money and who work outside of the parameters of the government. However, it’s an expensive thing to make film and government support is important. Theatre is always going to be around and I think in this world people are going to hunger more and more for live contact and to see real human beings talking to them, rather than 3D blue aliens. There is a time for that now andI’m all for it, but hopefully it will have a good roll on effect on for theatre.

I don’t know if you can always reconcile the two. I think that theatre is seen as something for educated people, especially in Britain, and maybe as society has become a bit more politicised and economic problems pull harder on people’s purse strings, maybe people become a bit more interested in theatre.

Yeah, it’s always been an expensive thing to go to the theatre and that’s the problem. I can’t afford to go and see plays usually but there seems to be a move towards more community orientated thinking. I’ve been thinking about this with regard to food and the new ideas put forward by chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. I think that there’s definitely a burgeoning awareness about food, for example if you’re eating local food then you’re supporting local producers as well. I think that theatre could potentially also be tying into that with more community orientated projects, particularly documentaries. The rise of documentaries is amazing and they are giving voice to communities which otherwise you might not ever hear from.

The Berlinale is interesting too because the films that are attracting attention are the political films. There is an Iranian film director who was supposed to be on the jury and who now can’t be there and the Berlinale have just left his seat empty and put the letter that he published on the seat. In many ways this Berlinale has become a lot more about politics than the films. I don’t know whether that’s because the films aren’t very good this year or not, but it seems to be that in this film festival, art and politics have become intertwined like I have never seen before.

Center for Cultural Diplomacy Studies Publication
Institute for Cultural Diplomacy

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We are the Blogsphere Team of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. We are the interactive part of the web resources of ICD. We spread culture and mutual understanding among cultures through blogs.


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The London Art as Cultural Diplomacy ConferenceAugust 21st, 2013


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