What does it mean for a city to be well-functioning? How do we balance the need to address the climate crisis with the conditions faced by our populations? And what would be the consequences of the choices we make? From March 30th to April 1st, groups of visitors to the quaint studio on the first floor of the Basement Theatre, just moments away from the grandiose halls of the Aotea Square, are left to grapple with these questions in the Northern Lights’ production of An Extraordinary Meeting. Upon entering the space, audiences are given a pen and directed to their seats, where an agenda of the night’s event lies, along with a piece of card with a green tick on one side, and a red cross on the other; the show has already begun.
Written and directed by Alex Bonham, a PhD candidate and member of the Waitemata Local Board, and performed as a part of the Auckland Fringe Festival, An Extraordinary Meeting follows a small cast of characters as they run a meeting of the newly elected Auckland Council, which is comprised of the show’s audience. The Council is seeking to adapt the Auckland 2050 plan to meet the expectations of the government’s newly formed National Policy Statement on Urban Development. In doing so, the group is made to consider the nature of the society in which they exist; their values guide the play to its conclusion. Moments into the show, the council members are reminded that whether they participate or not, the group is collectively responsible for its conclusions.
Combining scripted monologues, requests for audience participation, and brief presentations by experts in the fields of Urbanism and local government policy, the play dually serves as an educational experience, and an appeal to the public to participate in their democracy. Throughout the evening, the audience hears from various speakers, some fictional and others not, that detail the impact a city’s design has on its population. The show’s writer makes a cameo to discuss the importance of play-spaces for kids, a speaker from Women in Urbanism explores the benefits of medium-density housing around schools, and the fictional characters Dakota and Chloe each speak to the impact of the housing crisis in different ways.
Though the tone of the show occasionally veers towards that of a high-school civics lesson, albeit a highly entertaining one – perhaps there’s a metaphor, intended or otherwise, buried in there – or a trip to MOTAT, the scripted portions of the show are as perfectly written as its interactive sections are perfectly designed to engage the audience. The fictional monologue by Chloe is an especially beautiful moment within the show, where the character provides a poignant description of the effects of homelessness.
While the play’s limited scale enables its high level of audience participation, it does produce a few challenges; the need for actors to jump between characters throughout the play limits the weight of the scripted words, given the brevity of the monologues themselves. Similarly, while the beginning of the play is perfectly timed, its limited run-time forces the show to a rather abrupt end, though this is entirely dependent on how the show unfolds on any given night.
Although the play would likely benefit from an expanded cast and an extended run-time, An Extraordinary Meeting serves as an exceptional example of participatory theatre, and educational theatre.