Hotel is the first production of the recently-formed company Site- Specific, which takes as its starting-point a particular location, and devises stories and characters around that site in order to stage it there. After seeing the play for myself, I met with producer Paul McLaughlin to talk about the ethos of Site-Specific and Hotel itself.
Hotel is staged in the opulent surroundings of the Museum Hotel – opulent being the operative word here – I’ve never seen so much gold paint and chiffon in my life. Considering that they proved a particular fascination to the other audience members on the evening I went and have been commented on elsewhere, I can’t help but drop in a word about the bathrooms. “White” doesn’t even begin to describe them. I felt like I’d walked into an off-screen bathroom in the final scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The audience is, for space reasons, kept down to a group of twelve. We leave the foyer of the hotel to go up to the second floor in the lift, and then follow the hall down to the tastefully luxurious and slightly more pared-back Room 217, where the play proper is staged.
The audience walks into the room, past a chemise crumpled on the floor by the bathroom door and, a few steps later, a woman soaking in a milky bathtub. We go through into the bedroom, where the double bed hosts both a spooning couple and a florally papered hatbox. We then sit in a row against the wall, facing into the apartment, and players begin coming in and out of the room.
Hotel runs until March 4, so I don’t want to ruin the stories for you, as a lot of the pleasure of the play comes from the various twists in the unfolding stories of the characters and their reasons for being in the hotel.
There are, however, a young woman brimming with anticipation, a sharkish businessman, a couple indulging in some intriguing behaviour, an apparently uptight, germ-phobic woman (someone should have directed her to the pristine bathrooms in the foyer), and, fleetingly, a prostitute. The characters do not intrude on one another’s space initially, but as the play progresses their overlap increases, and we witness how they share their loneliness, isolation, and transience just as much as their hotel room.
The all-New Zealand soundtrack reflects this, as, in a lovely twist, the lyrics of certain songs connect several seemingly distinct and different characters. According to McLaughlin, the music had an influential role in developing characters.
McLaughlin says he developed the ideas behind Hotel as a way to explore how space defines behaviour. It is tailored around its particular room in Wellington, but could easily be adapted to any luxury hotel room in any part of New Zealand.
Indeed, Hotel has already received invitations from hotel chains, and festivals around the country. The audience is given a chance to be the much-envied fly on the wall, but there is, of course, a limit to how much a fly gets to see. Characters don’t break into monologues, and so certain details are left unexplained, most frustratingly and hilariously the puzzle of a knife stored in the freezer for the duration of some characters’ stay.
In his producer’s notes, McLaughlin mentions the “filmic style” of the piece. This style comes through in the intimacy between actors and audience that comes from their physical proximity, and calls for a lot of subtlety in the acting, which the actors delivered on.
The acting was uniformly excellent. Even with several actors in one room playing out different storylines simultaneously, I never felt that the delicately layered stories were jostling for attention, but they allowed for a smooth flow between different characters standing only a couple of feet apart. This filmic element was also created to appeal to today’s high level of film literacy.
In the present theatre environment in Wellington, there is little space for actors between achieving success in the “emerging talent” forums of BATS and Toi Whakaari and the more commercial theatres. McLaughlin is keen for the company to expand, as he wants to encourage these young actors who currently don’t have much of a middle ground to work in.
McLaughlin is interested in making theatre appeal to those who don’t usually go, and emphasises the importance of slickness in marketing and style in order to get these people in. Although the usual defence for the safe programming of most theatres in Wellington is that young people don’t have the money to go to the theatre and therefore shouldn’t be targeted, McLaughlin makes comparisons with the fashion and music industries, which have been focussing on their New Zealand origins and do target youth. Both have been flourishing in recent years.
As an audience member, although I have seen a lot of very exciting, edgy and unquestionably excellent work in Wellington in the past few years, most of it hasn’t been in the commercial theatres, and I do appreciate seeing a show that is at once slick, glossy and professionally devised and acted, and innovative and firmly anchored in a local and contemporary setting.
The marketing of the play reflects this philosophy. The posters and programmes are beautifully designed, as is the website, which offers much more to the browser than most productions staged at professional theatres in Wellington these days. McLaughlin stresses the importance of the role that all of Hotel’s sponsors have played, but especially those of Neogine Communication Design and Silverstripe, the website designers.
Although the company are well-established professionals, Hotel was part of the 2007 Fringe Festival in order to attract a Fringe demographic. Hotel is a success, both in its larger goals and as a piece of entertaining and involving theatre. I look forward to Site-Specific’s next endeavour.