“I always wanted to work in the theatre”, McColl confesses. His affinity with the arts began as a young boy, thanks to an aunt who would regularly take him to productions. “She was a mad theatre fan,” he recalls, explaining that this drove him to eventually attend drama school.
After trying his hand at acting, however, McColl decided it wasn’t for him and embarked on an OE in the UK. It was here, with production after production of Hamlet and other great plays, that his interest in theatre really grew. “The idea of becoming a director sort of flourished,” he remembers, and after managing several different theatre companies in Australia and New Zealand – including Perth’s Hole in the Wall Theatre and the Wellington Performing Arts Centre – McColl took on the role of Artistic Director at Auckland Theatre Company (ATC) in 2003. “I was only going to stay for three years,” he says. “So I must be enjoying it!”
It’s the culture at ATC that McColl loves most. “Every day brings new challenges and delights,” he says. “It’s quite mad and irreverent here – and professional, but you’ve got to have fun. There’s always laughter.” This is coupled with an undeniable shared passion for the arts. But why do we need theatre in the rapid, digital world of 2018? “Why was it ever needed?” McColl questions. “It keeps us sane, especially as the world fractures and there are fewer places to sit still. The theatre is a calming place, a place for reflection and also laughter.”
And while there have been major changes in the arts over the past decade – most notably in terms of increased accessibility for art forms such as photography – the magic of the theatre remains unchanged. “There have been big technological advances, for example all of our support, our lighting and whatnot, is digital now,” McColl notes. “But I think there will always be a place for the live person telling a story. It’s the artists we remember, after all.” McColl puts it down to the rawness of live theatre. “That thing that happens between an actor and an audience’s shared experience, you can’t quantify it. It’s electric.”
This electrical current is something ATC hopes to continue creating for years to come. And with 2018 marking the company’s 25th season of productions, it’s likely they will be successful. “It’s a terrific achievement”, McColl says modestly. “We take our role seriously as the theatre company of Auckland.” On this note, he adds that it is important to respond to technological innovation and changing audiences while also recognising classic works of art. “Auckland is incredibly diverse and multi-cultural; we need to acknowledge that in our shows.”
The 2018 schedule certainly reflects this notion, featuring a collection of interesting productions across different genres, mostly centred around the theme of family. Mrs Warren’s Profession explores taboos around brothel keeping in contemporary New Zealand, while Still Life With Chickens, by Samoan playwright David Mamea, examines the strength of small communities.
Then there’s The Cherry Orchard, reimagined in a Maori context and directed by McColl himself. “It’s my third time directing it,” he says, admitting his love for Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s final work. “It’s one of the ten great plays. It’s gloriously funny and sad and poignant.” Which, he maintains, is exactly what how theatre should be.