14 April 2014


"His show is a feast I would love to devour again and again"- Theatreview

He's Bach! Well, not quite.

Award-winning performer Thomas Monckton is back in Wellington with 
The Pianist and the countdown is on to opening night! Fresh from selling out across Finland The Pianist is about to land here in the Capital. Bookings have already opened and with Monckton's cult following after award-winning Moving Stationery, it is selling fast! Equipped with a grand piano, our finely tuned impresario is ready to amaze audiences of all ages.

But really, Acrobat versus Grand Piano: where does a zany piece like this originate from? The Pianist is created by the electric duo: New Zealander Thomas Monckton, and Sanna Silvenoinen of Circo Aereo, Finland.

Sanna Silvenoinen 
Silvennoinen graduated as a dancer from the Amsterdamse Hogeschool voor de Kunsten and since then has worked with several Finnish groups both as a dancer and as a circus artist. She worked as a choreographer and a performer in several of the most internationally acclaimed Finnish circus performances. In her work, she has focused on the integration of the elements of contemporary dance with aerial acrobatics. Improvisation, use of space and close interaction between music and movement are the distinctive traits in her work as a director and as a performer.

Meanwhile, Monckton had reached his ceiling of physical theatre in New Zealand so went to L'École Internationale du Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, the world's finest school of Physical Theatre. There Monckton fortuitously met and flatted with two Finns. This eventually lead to working with a Finnish circus in Helsinki and then with Silvennoinen, Artistic Director at Circo Aereo, which is at the forefront of the Finnish contemporary circus scene.

Monckton & Silvennoinen's work on The Pianist is certainly physical theatre at its best and highlights each of their specialties. Their concoction of The Pianist is a magical contemporary circus theatrical adventure.

Don your finest attire for a night of high society entertainment at Circa and wait with bated breath to see if everything goes as planned...

The Pianist opens on Tuesday 22nd April and tickets ($20-$35) can be booked through
Circa on 801-7992 or www.circa.co.nz. Getting in early is definitely the key with this one (okay we'll stop now).

07 April 2014

Other Desert Cities: A Family History Lush in Secrets

Jon Robin Baitz’s funny, fierce, and immensely entertaining Other Desert Cities was one of the hottest tickets in New York. Baitz, creator of hit TV series, Brothers & Sisters, took America by storm with his Broadway debut. Nominated for five Tony Awards, this award-winning play, which has just opened to rave reviews in London, now makes its New Zealand premiere at Circa, opening on Saturday 19th April, with a stellar cast of CATHERINE DOWNES (The Year of Magical Thinking), MICHELLE LANGSTONE (The Almighty Johnsons), JEFFREY THOMAS (The Hobbit), EMMA KINANE (Tribes), and PAUL WAGGOTT (Red).

Baitz talks about himself and Other Desert Cities in this PBS Art Beat interview from last year:

Some background on JON ROBIN BAITZ:

Jon Robin Baitz is a celebrated American playwright and is perhaps best known in this country for his internationally successful TV series, Brothers and Sisters, about a wealthy Californian family who grapple with love, loss and living in the modern age, which ran for five seasons.  Other TV work includes PBS’s version of Three Hotels, for which he won the Humanitas Award, and episodes of West Wing and Alias. He is also the author of two screenplays; the film script for The Substance of Fire(1996), and People I Know (2002).

Baitz’s  is a founding member of Naked Angels Theatre Company, and on the faculties of the Master of Fine Arts program at The New School for Drama, New York, where he is Artistic Director of the BFA division, and is also visiting professor at University of Southern California's Master of Professional Writing program. His version of the Australian TV mini-series, The Slap begins filming for NBC this Summer.

His plays include Other Desert Cities (Pulitzer Prize Finalist 2012, Tony Nominee, Drama League Award, Outer Critics Circle Award), The Film Society, The End Of The DayThree Hotels, A Fair Country (Pulitzer Prize finalist 1996),  Mizlansky/Zilinsky, Ten Unknowns, and The Paris Letter, as well as a version of Hedda Gabler (Broadway, 2001). He is the recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Award, a Drama Desk Award, is a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for both A Fair Country and Other Desert Cities

Other Desert Cities opens in Circa One on 19 April and runs until 17 May. There will be a $25 Preview on Friday, 18 April, and $25 Special on Sunday, 20 April. To book, visit www.circa.co.nz or call 801-7992.

31 March 2014

Helen Moulder: 'one of the gutsiest theatre artists around'

'…received a standing ovation' Laurie Atkinson, The Dominion Post

'Helen Moulder as Gloria is a marvel' Lucy Pickering, Keeping Up With NZ

Helen Moulder has been described as one of the gutsiest theatre artists around, never afraid to try new things, always throwing out challenges.

In her latest work she plays six characters, including 2 men, sings several songs from Mozart’s Magic Flute and performs some magic tricks. Learning the magic was quite a departure for Helen but she and director/co-writer Sue Rider felt that it would be very appropriate for the play. This was a first for Helen but never daunted by a challenge she called on her friend John Glaisyer, an amateur magician in Nelson to give her a few pointers. “He was a tremendous help,” Helen said “and got me well on the way.”  When she started rehearsing in Wellington she asked Paul Bates (aka Zappo), a professional magician, to give her some lessons. Paul was impressed with what Helen could already do, but helped her find some new tricks and improve the existing ones in the framework of the play. Helen says that she found learning magic a wonderful challenge. “It’s the preciseness, I suppose, that’s the magic. It’s quite simple when you know how.” Paul has helped with other theatre productions and grasped quite quickly the kind of atmosphere Sue and Helen were aiming for.  “We had a lot of fun and I felt very encouraged by him that what I was doing would actually work.”

Helen and Paul Bates.
Gloria’s Handbag was inspired by a story Helen tells about her mother, who took only a handbag with her when she went into hospital knowing she was dying.

The idea for the play came from the awareness of the increasing accumulation of ‘stuff’ in our consumer society and the far-reaching challenges this presents for society as a whole, as well as for individuals.

How much ‘stuff’ do we need? How far is our identity bound up with objects and the memories they evoke? How important is the notion of heritage and handing on from one generation to the next? How might these notions change in the future?

Gloria's Handbag production photo by Stephen A'Court.
The set reflects the theme of ‘desizing’ but also has a practical use. After the Circa season, Helen will tour Gloria’s Handbag to venues medium, small and smaller, following the successful model of Playing Miss Havisham. We urge you to tell friends and families across the country not to miss the opportunity to see this exceptional artist at work. Anyone interested in having Gloria’s Handbag in their community hall, library or woolshed, can contact Helen on: helen.moulder@gmail.com

And don’t forget when you come to the show - BRING ALONG YOUR FAVOURITE HANDBAG!

Helen and audience members with their special handbags on opening night.
'There are so many goodies in Gloria's Handbag it's well worth rummaging through' John Smythe, Theatreview

Gloria's Handbag runs in Circa Two until 19 April. To book tickets, visit www.circa.co.nz or call 801-7992.

24 March 2014

Rita and Douglas – from the beginning

Rita and Douglas playwright Dave Armstrong takes drama on the waterfront back to the beginning of this new work about two of New Zealand's greatest cultural icons.

Armstrong Creative’s production of Rita and Douglas will have its first-ever Wellington performance on April 2, yet the play had its beginnings here over 70 years ago in 1941. That’s when a recently divorced painter called Rita Angus (known back then as Rita Cook, and as Rita McKenzie) met a young composer seven years her junior called Douglas ‘Gordon’ Lilburn at the French Maid Coffee Shop in Lambton Quay. They struck up a relationship, and a romance, and I won’t tell you any more as I will spoil the play! But it’s a fascinating tale that combines drama, tragedy, triumph and lots of beautiful art and music as well.  

Cut to 1980 and a young classical music student and trumpet player at Victoria University called Dave Armstrong found out from musicologist and composer Martin Lodge that there was a piece by Douglas Lilburn, Quartet for Brass Instruments, that had never been performed.

Martin’s investigations revealed that the piece, written in the early 1960s, had just one outing with some professional musicians who had told Lilburn his piece was ‘unplayable’. Martin got a copy from Lilburn and I took a look – with the exception of one tempo marking, it was totally playable. So three other students and I met Douglas Lilburn and performed the piece for the first time ever. It was a triumph and went on to be performed and recorded by far better musicians than I.

A couple of years later I was selected as a trumpet player in the 1983 National Youth Orchestra. We played Aotearoa Overture by Douglas Lilburn and the soloist in the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto was Michael Houstoun. But to be honest I was more interested in a young violinist I met called Caroline Hill – later Caroline Armstrong who is now my wife and the producer of Rita and Douglas.

We both loved the music of Lilburn and both loved theatre. Within a few years we would have both left the world of classical music and be working in professional theatre.

Self-portrait Wanaka (unfinished) Oil on canvas, 480 X 420mm, Te Papa, on loan from Rita Angus Estate
Along the way to becoming a playwright I’d also spent quite a bit of time as a freelance writer for museums, and one of my jobs had been to write labels for exhibitions at Te Papa. Most of their New Zealand art exhibitions contained at least one painting by Rita Angus, so I became increasingly interested in her work.
In 2006, I was attending a play in Wellington when I ran into Gaylene Preston (whom I later worked with on Hope and Wire – the yet-to-be-screened TV drama series set amidst the Christchurch earthquakes). Gaylene had just completed a documentary about Rita Angus and drew my attention to the large number of letters that had recently been left to the Turnbull Library by Douglas Lilburn, when he died in 2001. They included many (like 188 A4 pages!) from Rita to Douglas (actually she called him ‘Gordon’ as he was once known).

Luckily, I had worked at Te Papa with the wonderful Jill Trevelyan, and she pointed me in the direction of copies of the letters and various permissions that were needed. Jill was also a great help as a biographical consultant. Her wonderful book on Rita Angus is, in my opinion, one of the best non-fiction books written in New Zealand, and heartily recommended.

Cutting down nearly two hundred pages of letters to a manageable 30-page script took a lot of time and effort. Thankfully my long-time collaborator, director Conrad Newport, had some great advice about how to do it thematically rather than as a super-straight chronology.

Michael Houstoun was my first port of call as a pianist and luckily he said yes straight away. But if selecting just a few letters from the many that Rita wrote to Douglas was a herculean task, so was deciding which music to play. Lilburn wrote over four hours of solo piano music, much of it unpublished. Michael and I also had to make sure that the pieces in Rita and Douglas were not too long, as the play is a sort of ‘conversation’ where Jennifer speaks from Rita’s letters and Michael plays a short ‘reply’ from Douglas on the piano.

Michael helped uncover lots of secret treats of Lilburn’s and I’m delighted that Michael’s album, entitled simply Lilburn and which draws on much of the music of Rita and Douglas, has been so successful. Last year it won best classical album at the New Zealand Music Awards. 

Finding an actress to play Rita Angus was also a massive challenge, given that Rita’s letters start when she is in her twenties, and finish just before her death at the age of 61. Make-up and costume can only do so much!

Douglas Lilburn, 1945, watercolour, 444 x 336 mm, Te Papa, on loan from Rita Angus Estate
Luckily, Conrad and I realised that the core of their relationship occurred when Rita was between about 35 and 45 so we limited the play to that period. Jennifer Ward-Lealand was the perfect actress to play Rita – she had the considerable technical skills and emotional range to play her, and Jennifer also looked quite like Rita. One of my favourite moments of the show is where Jennifer is dressed just like a famous self-portrait of Rita’s, and then the painting appears on the large canvas screen which features in Rita and Douglas.
With a fantastic actress, pianist, and director on board, creating a script, which I did with the assistance of Conrad and Jennifer, and getting music for the show in collaboration with Michael, was a delight. When we travelled to Michael’s place to hear the music he had selected, he would ask us after each piece if we would like to hear it again, just to be sure. Even though we quickly made up our minds, Caroline usually asked to hear it again just so she could enjoy Michael’s playing for longer.

But once we had script and music together, we were far from the end. Rita and Douglas has over 100 images of Rita’s paintings. First we had to clear copyright from the institutions which owned the paintings, as well as the artist’s estate, then we had to arrange the images to go with the script and music of the play. It was a massive task with video editor Danny Mulholland, Robert Larsen, Conrad Newport and Paul O’Brien being some of the main hands that came to the pump to assist.

But eventually we made it. Rita and Douglas was a labour of love, started off by two theatre people who used to be music people. Caroline and I never expected the show to be popular as well as critically acclaimed. We just said to each other, ‘we want to see it because we love the story and the music, and hopefully other people will as well.’

I really hope you like Rita and Douglas, it’s got so much to say about New Zealand, and you’ll marvel at not only the beauty of Rita’s paintings and Lilburn’s music, and the incredible performances of Jennifer and Michael, and the consummate direction of Conrad Newport, but all the dedication, foresight and talent of Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn, surely two of our nation’s greatest artists.
- Dave Armstrong

Rita and Douglas opens in Circa One on 2 April and runs until 12 April. To book for this short season, call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz