25 October 2010

A Wonderfully Observed Comedy of Manners: The Birthday Boy

Director Jane Waddell and Designer Andrew Foster take drama on the waterfront behind-the-scenes of The Birthday Boy, discussing the ins and outs of Carl Nixon’s hilariously relatable play and the challenges involved in staging it.
DOTW: What is the basic story of The Birthday Boy?
JW: The basic story traces the relationship between two men who have been friends since sixth form, it traces their friendship over a period of 25 years; it starts in 2010 and finishes in 2035.  They both take different journeys and what happens to them both is a result of the decisions they make and how these impact on them individually but also on their friendship.
AF: In a strange way, there’s a coming of age element to it. Their relationship is so solidly that kind of joking, playful, adolescent male bond, and it is questioned by those responsibilities that life throws at you, responsibilities which both of them have sort of chosen not to accept, really.
JW: Peter’s [Hambleton] character, David, says, “The choices I made piled up on my shoulder,” that’s how he explains what happens to him. When he asks Stuart [Phil Vaughan] what happened to him, he says, “You’re exactly the same.” In a way, even though David’s journey is much more chaotic and has some pretty awful consequences, his journey is much more challenging and therefore when he comes out the other end of it, he’s the richer for it. And he’s right when he says to Stuart, “you’re exactly the same as when you were 18.”
AF: At which point people will be saying, “Now hang on, I thought this was a comedy.” And I guess we should point out it is a wonderfully observed comedy of manners.  It’s a recognition of things that are so universally human that make it a really witty and light play as well as one with depth and that evolution of the relationship.
JW:  There’s something quite Shakespearean about the way Peter plays that drunk scene [in Act II], it’s quite extraordinary and very, very fine acting.
AF: It’s one of those great moments in theatre, isn’t it? And done amazingly by Peter.

(left to right) Peter Hambleton and Phil Vaughan in The Birthday Boy. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
DOTW: The set design is really intriguing for The Birthday Boy; can you tell us about the concept?
AF: It was born out of form following function, in a way. When we first started talking about the show, Jane was really aware that it was really tricky. It’s quite satisfying, because it has a structure very much like a sitcom or TV comedy, but in actual fact that makes it quite difficult to stage because it takes place in more than one location and over 25 years. So we were aware that we had to make something that had fluidity,  that could make the transformations really quickly, because with a comedy you don’t want to keep your audience waiting on the next bit to unfold. And we also wanted to do something that was a little unexpected in our approach. We actually picked up on a technology that we worked with last year in The Vertical Hour, which is a printing technology that prints onto billboard skins. We’ve been printing on the backs of these; it is a translucent skin that when you light through it, it has a fantastic glow. It is a really interesting effect and with it we created quite a naturalistic landscape of a tree in The Vertical Hour. When we got together with Ulli [Briese], the lighting designer, we suddenly thought, “Well, what else could we do with that?” Then we came up with the idea of panels that light up that could spell out different years, different times zones, and create a little bit of atmosphere. In a way, it’s a complicated way of working around a play that probably should have had a revolve. Although I’m really happy it doesn’t.
JW: I’m really happy it doesn’t too! I think this is much more interesting. I don’t know if this is correct, but personally, my expectations of a revolve is that the set has to be completely different every time it comes around. So it actually involves a lot more dressing and a lot more furniture. It also seemed to me like quite an old-fashioned solution to a play that in terms of its style – it is a two-act play – in spite of the fact that it spans 25 years, is actually an old-fashioned structure. 
AF: We really wanted it to be easy to watch and unfold quickly, like film, like television. And in a strange way, in order to do that you have to be quite clever and minimal. So the changes and shifts are apparent, but not huge and not distracting. Geri [Geraldine Brophy] said at the forum [first Tuesday performance of every Circa production], that something that is engaging about theatre is that it is a medium that requires the audience to read. You have to participate, to figure a few things out, and by participating in that way, it’s all the richer. It’s like the joy of reading a good book, it engages your imagination. I think quite consciously we were trying to do something like that, to be suggestive rather than completely realistic.

Donna Akersten and Phil Vaughan in The Birthday Boy. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
DOTW: What is the process between the director and the designer in developing a design concept for a play?
JW: The first time we met was back in May, and I had read it a couple of times and to be honest, I didn’t know how we were going to do it. But I know how talented Andrew is, so I was quite confident that he would come up with a brilliant solution! We talked about how to approach it and we talked about how we didn’t want huge, long scene changes, but at that time we didn’t know exactly what we were going to do.
AF: I think we were all aware that there were simple solutions and we wanted simple solutions. But we were also aware that the dynamics of the script were so complicated, that the solutions were going to need some road testing and trialling and erroring.  And so over the next few months, we threw different ideas at it.
JW: Yes, we had quite a few meetings, and Ulli joined us in June.
AF: And you research concepts, you start looking for clues by looking online – I looked at architecture sites and sites that look at designs for the future. We looked at how the other production – there’s only ever been one other production - how that company addressed problems.  And we followed a few ideas down the path long enough to recognize whether or not they were going to work.
DOTW: How similar is the design here at Circa to that used in the Court production?
AF: Well, I’ve only seen fragments of the one at the Court; Geri, I think, saw the production. I think we use some similar solutions, in that apparently they used projections to paint some of the scenes. But we don’t use projections, we use a series of light boxes and actually we’ve gone with a patterning, so our scenes are painted with abstract pictorial elements, while I think they used quite realistic elements. So I think the starting point for both was similar, that recognition of trying to do something that was very essential rather than super naturalistic. But I think they ended up being quite different.
JW: The bed was the last thing that Andrew resolved – and I think brilliantly, it’s innovative and unexpected – but I trust Andrew implicitly and I knew that he would find resolutions for every problem.
AF: It was like a big puzzle. It was really great, fitting in the pieces as we went – which is how it is to work with Jane – and I suppose, the more you work in theatre, the more you recognize that the people who approach stuff in this way, are really satisfying to work with. To make a credible allusion, it comes from a book I read by Edward de Bono, who wrote Six Thinking Hats, he’s a philosopher who’s been really embraced by the business world because a lot of his philosophical ideas sit really well as business ideas. But he wrote this book called Po, in which he said that in 2000 years, mankind has made technological advances that are just amazing but the system of thinking, the technology of how you solves a problem, hasn’t changed since the ancient Greeks. In that book he investigates whether or not there is anything other than binary logic in thinking processes. And the closest he comes is that he analyses artists, and he says that artists use a creative process that has a third stage, which is a kind of sit on the fence, where you allow yes and no to be possible for long enough that you get a feeling for which way to go. And that’s what it’s like working with Jane, she recognizes that you’re not going to know all the solutions to start with, but as long as you’ve got the skeleton in place, things may fall one way or the other, but if you put your faith in creative people, those problems get solved as you go along, and sometimes to the surprise of everyone.

Jude Gibson in The Birthday Boy. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
DOTW: You’ve already touched on some, but were there any particular challenges in terms of staging the play?
AF: Thousands! Every scene has its challenges. Some scenes will start after a huge party, and we had to determine how we were going to litter the stage in the aftermath of a party. A baby is brought on in one scene. In the future scene, people talk on futuristic video telephone devices. It’s challenging in that way that playwrights always talk about where they say, “I’ll just write it and they can figure out how to do it.” And he [Carl Nixon] has certainly written a lot of difficult staging elements.
JW: He has. And also in terms of the playing of it, it’s deceptively difficult. It’s a much more difficult play than it appears to be. It’s more challenging in terms of staging than it appears to be. You don’t want it to be hard, the aim is to make it look easy.
AF: A two hour arc, in real time, has to have a shape for the audience. But the actors are having to block it in 5 or 10-year blocks. And so that natural pitch that he is showing with the characters, that progression where they have to bring in the notion of aging and the huge blocks of life experience that happens in between the scenes to the stage is a tough challenge. But I think the cast do marvellously.
JW: I do too. One of the things I really like about this script is the role reversal, how the two women behave more in the way that you expect men to behave, and I think that is really interesting.
AF: For a comedy, there are a lot of thematics that are actually incredibly on the nose and current and questioning. I remember Peter said that his brother or someone came to one of the shows and found the whole role reversal between the parents just a little bit too close to home, because they recognize it’s happening in their own lives.

Peter Hambleton in The Birthday Boy. Photo by Stephen A'Court. 
DOTW: The Circa Theatre Meetup Group came to opening night, and after the show were discussing how everyone had something they could relate to in the play, whether in their own lives or that of someone they knew, there’s something for everyone.
Finally, how do you feel about the end result? What should audiences know in particular about the Circa Theatre The Birthday Boy?
JW: I’m really pleased with the way it’s evolved and what we’re presenting to the audience.
AF: I think it’s incredibly rich. It’s engaging as comedy and it makes you think.

The Birthday Boy runs in Circa One until 6 November. Get your tickets by calling the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or going online at www.circa.co.nz

Celebrate your birthday at The Birthday Boy! Group packages available, for more information visit The Birthday Boy or call Cara Hill, Audience Development Director, at 801-8137.

Peter Hambleton and Geraldine Brophy in The Birthday Boy. Photo by Stephen A'Court.

19 October 2010

BeatCamp!: Entertainment for the Masses

After traveling all over the country and the world with New Zealand’s favourite girl group for the last 14 years, The BeatGirls creator Andrea Sanders tells us all about her current show, BeatCamp!, currently rocking the house in Circa Two.

DOTW: I understand that you created The BeatGirls – can you give us a bit of the history of the group?

AS: The BeatGirls were born 14 years ago in a show called Blame It On the Bossa Nova at Downstage. The format of 3 women in a girl group was popular and the idea to play only Beatles music was the initial musical direction. Since then the repertoire has broadened to include all eras, from the 1940s to now, Lady Gaga.

DOTW: What can you tell us about your current show, BeatCamp!?

AS: BeatCamp! is a similar format to previous shows, such as It’s My Party, although the focus is not so much on ‘60s girl groups. This show incorporates all styles, from The Andrews Sisters to Madonna, from Peggy Lee to Amy Winehouse, with a little Motown on the side. All the usual comedy, fab costumes and tight choreography. Suitable for all ages – kids to grandparents.

DOTW: What can you tell us about your fellow BeatGirls in BeatCamp!?

AS: It is great to be working alongside long-standing member Carrie Mclaughlin – a fab and trusted performer who really goes the extra distance. Kali Kopae, a fantastic young performer with a beautiful voice and a rising star! It’s great to work with both of these talented women who each bring their own yummy flavour to the line up.

DOTW: Your past shows at Circa have all but sold out; what is it about The BeatGirls that audiences respond so well to?

AS: I think our shows sell out because people like the format which is basically entertainment for the masses. We combine popular music with razzle dazzle (lots of sequins!) and also accentuate the humourous side of a lot of the songs. There is no pretention, just an honest delivery along with often informative banter about the artist we are covering. Unlike a lot of bands, The BeatGirls have a theatrical style which means they are equally at home in a theatre or at a party where the dance floor is packed. Over all, I think The BeatGirls have a fantastic vibrant energy which you can’t see but you can feel. How else can you explain how three performers can keep a dance floor of 300 people full? Energy is infectious! The fact that the music appeals to a wide demographic also helps.

DOTW: The BeatGirls have traveled extensively throughout NZ and Australia – what has been one of your favourite performances, and why?

AS: Festivals are always a buzz to perform at, such great atmosphere! We’ve had so many fantastic trips overseas and extensively throughout NZ, its hard to pick but obviously performing in Athens at the Olympics for all the Sports Illustrated parties was a real buzz. They could have had any band in the world, but they chose us from little old new Zealand, and that in itself deserves a huge round of applause! Some of the best gigs could be in someone’s lounge at a birthday party, so it’s not necessarily based on the location or size of the event. Performing our Anzac show We’ll Meet Again is always lovely, especially when the folks who served in World War II turn up with medals and all sing along to ‘We’ll Meet Again’. We know this generation won’t be around forever, which makes it all the more poignant.

DOTW: Finally, being a member of NZ’s favourite girl group gives you the opportunity to sing a lot of great songs by a lot of great artists. What are your top five favourite songs of all time?

AS: Tough question, as there’s sooooo many songs and they were all #1’s in their day so they are all well written and iconic. Generally, the new songs you learn are your favourites, but here goes:
-         Beatles – ‘She loves You’
-         David Bowie – ‘Rebel Rebel’ or ‘Golden Years’
-         Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 – ‘Agua de Beber’
-         Smokey Robinson – ‘Baby I Need Your Loving’
-         K.C. and the Sunshine Band – ‘Give It Up’
This list will of course change and I’ll be sick of singing these songs, but for now, that’s it!

BeatCamp! runs in Circa Two until 30 October. Tickets are going fast (23, 29 and 30 October are already SOLD OUT) so call the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or go online at www.circa.co.nz to get yours today!

11 October 2010

Wharfside Restaurant: Wild about Wine #2

Hi, Martin here from Wharfside Restaurant at Circa Theatre, back for my second instalment on the wonderful subject of WINE.   

My two favourite vineyards would have to be Te Mata (Hawkes Bay) and Pegasus Bay (Canterbury).  Simply put, they both make damn excellent wines.  Both have a strong local community involvement, both have history and I have drank the wines and watched both the wine and the label evolve over the past 15-20 years. 

I have a nice range of Te Mata Coleraine and Awatea as well as Pegasus Bay Aria Riesling and Pinot Noir, but for me it’s Te Mata for reds and Pegasus Bay for Rieslings.  Both vineyards feature multiple wines on Wharfside’s wine list.  One excellent thing about cellaring wines is the ability to use them as gifts.  It is pretty hard to get an aged wine off the shelf so what a great gift when you can give someone a wine that’s aged 5-10 years, is a great drinking age, and they just can’t buy anywhere.  It is really just another wine story waiting to evolve through the person you give the wine to.

Te Mata Vineyard, Hawke's Bay

Pegasus Bay Winery & Restaurant, Canterbury

With regard to the wine we have available at Wharfside, I have found that people are creatures of habit – they want wines they know.  Our biggest moving wines seem to always be the ones that most people recognise.  Kiwis are certainly not the biggest risk takers in wine choice but I do encourage people to get a little outside their comfort zone – you will probably be very pleasantly surprised about what wine treasures await.  Ten years ago stepping outside your comfort zone with wine choice could have provided quite a mixed basket with some unpleasant wine in the mix; however today, that would certainly not be true.  I’ll go so far as to put it out there and say that most New Zealand wines, even in the lower price bracket, are pretty safe, good drinking wines.  I’m sure most people appreciate that there will be more complexity in more expensive wines versus simplicity and easy drinking in cheaper wines, but you would have to look pretty hard to find a New Zealand wine that will curl the tongue. 

At Wharfside, I am intending to introduce one wine by the glass that is a little outside the mainstream every couple of shows, so give it a try when you come in.  I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.  

It’s funny when I think back over memorable wine experiences; I tend to find that it’s sometimes the surprises that stand out.  For example, maybe you have kept a wine too long, or you have come across it hidden away somewhere and you realise there’s a chance it is “past it”, don’t discard it, instead open it with friends admitting that it may be a little past it.  Discuss the wine and have a try, at the very least it will create an interesting chat about a dead wine and at the very most it could blow your socks off.

I have a fond memory of, on a fishing trip, watching the sun coming up as we had breakfast on a boat off the Coromandel, opening a Riesling a good 6 years past its use by date.  It was an elegant, subtle wine – and what should have been a past it - back up wine, turned out to be the award winner of the trip.

Again I come back to the point that wine is about you.  Your palate, fun and enjoyment.  Next time you are having a glass, have a think about what is in the glass.  Don’t be in a hurry, have a sniff, a think, a taste, more of a think, and don’t be afraid to discuss your thoughts with others enjoying the wine, hear what they have to say and see if you agree with their views.  Wine tastings are a great way to find out what you like and enjoy trying several different wines in one sitting.

My partner Dee and friends enjoying a wine tasting at Wharfside

We are opening during the day shortly (from around mid-November) and I invite you to pop down and have a glass in the conservatory while you watch Wellington walk by.   We have a fantastic outlook over the waterfront.  I’ll be ensuring that we have some easy drinking afternoon wines that will taste great on a wonderful Wellington weekend.  Some of my recommendations would be the Pegasus Rieslings, Temata & Mudhouse Sauvs, Pinots and Pinot Gris.  

I encourage you to investigate where the wine originates from and what specific smells and tastes come from each region. 

Hmm all this wine talk is making me thirsty, must be time for a quick glass.  

Martin Halliday
Wharfside Restaurant @ Circa Theatre

Wharfside Restaurant is open for pre and post theatre dining. Call 801-7996 to make a booking.

05 October 2010

The Birthday Boy

One of New Zealand’s leading actors (Grumpy Old Women, Second-Hand Wedding, Dancing with the Stars), Geraldine Brophy returns to Circa  for the first time since 2009’s Blood Wedding to star in The Birthday Boy. She takes a moment from her hectic rehearsal schedule to tell drama on the waterfront all about Carl Nixon’s fantastic comedy.

DOTW: What is the basic story of The Birthday Boy?

GB: The Birthday Boy examines the friendship between two men over a 25-year period from their fortieth birthdays until they are 65. Their lives play out very differently when one becomes a father and both of them deal with the successful careers of their respective wives.

DOTW: What was it about this story that drew you to the play?

GB: Carl’s script has elements of traditional key male and female roles in reversal. He examines these from opposite perspectives. Parenting and Partnerships. I liked the fact that he has pushed some interesting boundaries with his approach to these role changes – male and female capacity for nurture and empathy, for example.

DOTW: What can you tell us about your character?

GB: My character, Kathy, is the embodiment of the modern woman who tries to have it all – motherhood and a career. She is more conflicted early on when her children are smaller, but as they mature and her career shoots to the stars, she copes by absenting herself both physically and emotionally with a single focus.

DOTW: How is it to work with director Jane Waddell?

GB: Jane has been a delight to work with as a director. She has a gentle but solid hand on the tiller. The play is the current contemporary mix of comedy and drama, so navigating the moments when we play both can be tricky. You want an audience to laugh but also for the subject matter to resonate, in order to feel for the character’s plight. Jane is very cognizant of this.

Geraldine Brophy and director Jane Waddell.

DOTW: The Birthday Boy has a very strong cast of talented actors; what can you tell us about your fellow cast members?

GB: My fellow cast members are experienced and talented artists. Some of us have worked together before many times and this is often a short cut to convincing ensemble work. Coming to work and moving through the story each day is a pleasure. They make the job look easy and that is, of course, the great skill of such people.

DOTW: Finally, what should audiences know about The Birthday Boy?

GB: Audiences should know that The Birthday Boy is another fun New Zealand play in the style of “Theatre of Recognition”, but that it provides, as all good comedy should, the possibility of a great conversation post-show. And if anyone’s having a birthday, we have a couple of great packages to help celebrate!

Tickets are now on sale for The Birthday Boy, 9 October - 6 November. Call the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz.

Celebrate your birthday at The Birthday Boy!
Circa Theatre and Wharfside Restaurant are happy to offer some very special options throughout the season of The Birthday Boy (all include ticket price based on groups of 6 or more):
Bubbly and Birthday Cake - $45.50 per person
Nibbles, Bubbles, Coffee and Cake - $57 per person
Birthday Dinner - $75 per person (not including wine) $80 per person (including a glass of wine per person)
And a special surprise treat for the birthday person!
For more information about our birthday packages, contact Cara Hill, Audience Development Director, at 801-8137 or carah@circa.co.nz.