23 April 2012

A Shortcut to Happiness: ‘We shrieked with laughter’

Playing Ned for the second time around after a successful world premiere season in Dunedin, actor Peter Hayden tells drama on the waterfront all about the current Circa hit A Shortcut to Happiness, as well as shares his own, personal ‘short cut to happiness’.

DOTW: Please tell us a bit about the story of A Shortcut to Happiness.

PH: It is the story about six people who all attend folk dancing lessons. Each is in search of happiness. Five of them are ‘baby boomers’, some are looking for love after their life partners have died, some are lonely, some are in difficult relationships … but the dance teacher, Natasha, a recent immigrant from Russia, is in search of happiness in a new and strange country, of odd people and peculiar customs … all of her observations and experiences are targets for Roger Hall’s sharp wit. In the end, a measure of happiness is achieved, but after many pitfalls and problems, some of them hilarious, others tender or highly dramatic.

Recently widowed Ned is one of the folk dancers.  He has two left feet but is attractive to some of the women, as in this particular group, there is a ‘man drought’. He and Natasha strike up a friendship, he employs her to clean his house… and when she is ‘ripped off’ by a handsome rakish rogue, he offers her a roof over her head. Their relationship evolves… that is all I will say.

Peter Hayden as Ned. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
DOTW: I understand that this is your second time playing Ned; the first was during the world premiere in at the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin last year. Has Ned changed at all since that first production?

PH: Elena Stejko and I played Ned and Natasha at the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin and are reprising the same roles from that production. I thought the Circa version would be a relatively simple transference of the same role onto a new stage … this was not the case.  It was a case of ‘leave previous character at the rehearsal room door’. Ross Jolly had different ideas about the story and the relationship between Ned and Natasha. We had to burrow down into the role to pull up new and more subtle interpretations of some scenes, some lines. Each production has been different, it has been fascinating to explore the roles in two different ways. One thing that hasn't changed is the comedy … it is up front and central to both productions. I love it.

DOTW: How are the dancing sequences for you? Do you enjoy that part of it? Was it challenging to learn?

PH: I was looking forward to the dancing, however it was a lot more difficult than I thought.  Even dancing badly, which you would think was the easiest thing to do, was not easy. To dance badly, we had to learn to dance well, then break it down … it seems illogical, but that’s the way it works. In this production at Circa we are doing much the same dances as were performed at the Fortune. Choreographer Sasha Copeland has been terrific, she has brought in new moves, greater energy and excitement to the dances. It is good to be able to do a second season in order to finally get the dancing right.  

DOTW: What can you tell us about your fellow cast members and director, Ross Jolly?

PH: First thing to say is that some cast members (no names) had to have remedial (extra) dance classes because they couldn't get it. 

One other cast member, Cathy Downes, was in the Dunedin production … so it is lovely to have her as Janet again in Wellington. We go way back, in fact as far back as drama school. We are great friends. The other cast members are an A list of Wellington actors and it has been a pleasure to work with them and see their process. Carmel McGlone and Tim Gordon have developed a hilarious relationship as the compulsory course attendees and U3A maniacs Bev and Ray. Cathy Downes and Donna Akersten are equally wonderful as the golf and bridge buddies Janet and Laura.

It is also great to have one more week of rehearsal in Welly than we enjoyed in Dunedin.  Don't know how we did it down there in 3 weeks + production week.

Ross has directed several if not more Roger Hall comedies.  He has an unerring ability to mine the comedy of each situation. I have learnt much from Ross

Peter Hayden, Donna Akersten and Cathy Downes. Photo by Stephen A'Court. 
DOTW: How are audiences reacting to the Circa production so far?

PH: I was in Olive CafĂ© this very morning and was approached by a couple from Tauranga, who said this is the funniest show they had ever seen. ‘We shrieked with laughter,’ the husband said. The after-show reaction has been universally positive.  People leaving the theatre have broad grins on their faces … as an actor that is very gratifying.

The reviews have been universally positive and in particular pointing to the Ned and Natasha relationship being satisfying and very real.

DOTW: Finally, what is your personal ‘shortcut to happiness’?

PH: Hmmmmmmm. I wouldn't say dancing is a short cut to happiness as my wife and I went to ballroom dancing lessons some years ago, and most couples separated soon after … or perhaps that was a short cut to happiness for them.

My short cut to happiness … curiosity … being curious about the world keeps you open minded, youthful, interesting and interested until the day you die.

A Shortcut to Happiness runs in Circa One until 26 May. To book tickets, call the Circa Box Office at 8017992 or go online at www.circa.co.nz

Peter Hayden and Elena Stejko as Ned and Natasha. Photo by Stephen A'Court.

16 April 2012

Theatresports: No one really knows what is going to happen!!

Even though he doesn’t speak in the current Circa hit, A Shortcut to Happiness, actor Tim Gordon has no trouble telling drama on the waterfront all about The Improvisors and the upcoming season of Theatresports.

Tim Gordon. Photo by Rebecca Thomson, The Wellingtonian.
DOTW: What is your involvement with The Improvisors?

TG: In 1990 a group of actors started The Improvisors. Grant Tilly was the director of our first show Suspect – an improvised murder mystery at the old Circa. He understood improvisation and was a mentor over the first years.

Twenty two years on we are still rocking Circa Theatre. Myself along with Ian Harcourt and Greg Ellis go back most of that time.

DOTW: For those who might not know, what IS Theatresports?

TG: Theatresports is a hugely popular improvisational comedy format where teams compete to entertain and enact improvised stories under certain rules that govern a scene.

DOTW: Can you give us a bit of the history of Theatresports at Circa? When did it start? Why? Memorable victories?

TG: Theatresports grew out of Canada in the late eighties and came to New Zealand via Australia soon after. Wellington strongly embraced it and Sunday night became the traditional night because all the professional theatres were black allowing for availability of actors.

Wellington has won more National Championships than any other centre and our unique style was to create real, truthful, but still funny stories.

Otherwise Fine, 1989 Theatresports 
DOTW: What’s the inside scoop on this year’s season? Who should we look out for? Who do you think will win?

TG: This year the old guard will still be creaking the boards but snapping at our heels are a new breed who have recently been recruited through a series of workshops. It will make for an exciting season.

DOTW: Anything else to add about the 2012 Theatresports?

TG: My boys are now 12 and 10 and have been avid fans for a couple of years and there is no way that they will miss a night in the 2012 Season, whether I’m performing, MC-ing or Judging. Even when I am not cast in a certain show they will insist we go. The Improvisors Theatresports shows have always been a family show. We often see three generations come together and there is something for all of them because they all love the excitement of seeing a show at which no one really knows what is going to happen!!

The 2012 season of Theatresports starts on Sunday 29 April, and runs every Sunday thereafter until 1 July. Show times are at 7pm weekly. Tickets are available now! Get yours by calling the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or go online at www.circa.co.nz.

10 April 2012

A Shortcut to Happiness: "It really is a shortcut to happiness!"

Working at Circa for the first time, actor Elena Stejko talks to drama on the waterfront about returning to the role of Natasha – a role based on her personally – in Roger Hall’s A Shortcut to Happiness.

DOTW: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

ES: I was born in Russia – the Ukraine, in Kiev. I left Russia 22 years ago; studied acting and directing at Kiev University and then escaped to go to Brazil. I arrived in New Zealand about 18 years ago. I didn’t speak any English when I first arrived, so it took me a while to learn it. My dream was to go back to what I loved to do but with the culture differences found it a bit difficult at first. I taught acting and did some commercial work, and then I became a casting director and did that for 10 years. I did some theatre, as well as Shortland Street and Mercy Peak and short films. And then I did the feature film Russian Snark and I was nominated for Best Actress in New Zealand at the Qantas Awards 2010. And it got a nomination in an American festival – Maverick Film Festival – and the Amsterdam Film Festival as well. And then of course last year I was doing A Shortcut to Happiness in Dunedin at the Fortune Theatre – that was the world premiere. I was awarded best actress of the year for my role as Natasha. I still do lots of teaching – I teach the Chekhov Technique – and I opened the Actors Studio in Auckland. I work as a contracting director as well – I just directed a play with third year acting students.
A Shortcut to Happiness promotional image, featuring Elena Stejko and Peter Hayden.
DOTW: I understand that your character in A Shortcut to Happiness, Natasha, is somewhat based on you personally – can you tell us how that came to be?

ES: I had a phone call from ATC a few years ago, where they asked me if I would mind meeting with Roger Hall about a play he was writing about Russian folk dancing. I met with him a few times and he had a lot of questions about my arrival in New Zealand, my first impressions, the funny stories and how did I fit in in the country. I also introduced him to another Russian woman, so he was able to draw quite a lot from my personal life as well as from my friend’s. Roger attended folk dancing classes afterward, but from our talks he decided to focus the play on a Russian woman and her immigrant experiences and tie in the folk dancing into that tapestry. I did learn dance in the Soviet Union but I wasn’t part of setting up the dancing with Roger – he had another group for that.

It’s so true, as it is in the play, that I had a wonderful time and wonderful memories in the Soviet Union – as it was for many Russian people – because of my exposure to culture and art and what we learned. As a young kid going to musical school, I studied for 10 years, then I went to dancing school – and all of that was paid for by the government. So my memories as a child are wonderful. We went to the theatre, we went to the circus, we saw great art every day.

But Roger asked me a lot about my first impressions In New Zealand, what were the shifts that I had to make to fit in here. A couple of things I remember, when I met some New Zealand actors and my English wasn’t good enough yet, I shared with them everything that I could about my life. And suddenly I was stopped by someone who said, ‘You’re very negative, it’s very difficult to deal with because you are spilling out your guts all the time.’ And this was the first time I started to realize the differences, and what friendship means here in terms of sharing and how much and what it’s about.

DOTW: You’ve mentioned performing Shortcut in Dunedin, what was that experience like?

ES: It was fantastic! Roger lived in Dunedin for a long time, so it was lovely to have the opening there. A wonderful cast, a wonderful director and it received a wonderful response. Roger received his lifetime achievement award while we were there. And for that part, playing Natasha, I got actress of the year.

The play is full of jokes, cross passages, love stories, fun, humour – it’s a real celebration. I would always get stopped in the street by people who would say, ‘Thank you!’ It was lovely and really rewarding to see how it touched people. I had someone who came up to me after a show who said, ‘You know what, I have never been to the theatre before, but after seeing that you’re not going to be able to keep me out of the theatre!’ And having people say, ‘That was so funny! I’ve never experienced that before, I’ve never laughed so hard!’ It really was a shortcut to happiness!

DOTW: Some of your cast members are the same as the Fortune production, while others are new for the Circa production – how has the rehearsal process been so far with the new cast and director?

ES: Peter Hayden, who is based in Dunedin, played Ned at the Fortune and he and I were invited to play the same roles in Wellington, as well as Cathy Downes, who played Janet. Everyone else in the Circa production is new. It has been fantastic – it’s a very different production to what it was in Dunedin. We all knew coming here that it has nothing to do with what we’ve done before. I was really looking forward to creating a very different Natasha here, a very different character. I felt quite privileged to already know my lines and make the choice as to where to take the character. The cast is so funny – it is a very fun rehearsal room, lots of jokes, lots of memories, lots of stories. I am loving it, I don’t want it ever to finish. It’s a completely different interpretation, the characters are different. The director and new people are wonderful to work with. 

DOTW: What can audiences expect from A Shortcut to Happiness?

ES: Lots of beautiful, heart wrenching moments, tears, raucous laughter and jokes. It’s fun! It has everything there to offer, it’s a love story, it has the drama that people can totally identify with: how do we respond to situations, how do we relate to each other, how do we make ourselves happy. There’s a lot of dancing and music.

Natasha coming from Russia is very proud to be Russian and she has to go through quite a transformation to appreciate what New Zealand has to offer. And I think a lot of people can identify with that. I know a lot of Russian people – I directed theatre for the last 10 years for the Russian community in Auckland – and lots of Russian people coming to New Zealand started with that attitude, that in New Zealand they do things wrong and let me bring change and cultural revolution here. When in fact, it’s the other way around. When my mother first came here she said, “Why does everyone smile in New Zealand?’ Because in Russia, people do not smile. It is a much harsher environment, much more face to face, much more confrontational. And this is a clash of the two cultures, and we all can learn the same language of compassion and love and appreciation, but we just come to that from different viewpoints. We have to look at the differences and learn to appreciate. And throughout the play this kind of transformation happens to Natasha.

DOTW: Finally, if you could play any role in any film or play, what would it be and why?

ES: I would love to play a role that is based on a real person from history. A personal story. I have been fortunate enough to act in a Japanese film in which I played a real person, her life from age 35-86. And after that I told myself that is what I want to do, because there are so many ordinary people around us that are real achievers, heros, doing what governments can do and diplomats do for each other and for society. So that’s what I wish for myself, but I don’t have anyone in particular in mind. 

A Shortcut to Happiness opens on 14 April, and runs until 26 May. To book, please call the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or go online at www.circa.co.nz.

02 April 2012

Ugly Stepsisters: The Cinderella story you never knew existed

Ever wonder what really happened at Cinderella's ball? Well, hear all about it from one of Cindy's stepsisters; this week, Canderella Honeybottom takes a moment to tell drama on the waterfront her story, and it is shocking stuff. To see what happened after the ball, bring your kids to Ugly Stepsisters at Circa during the school holiday, 10-21 April.

Ugly Stepsisters Canderella (left) and Griselda Honeybottom.
"So there I was, having the time of my life. Griselda Honeybottom and I were the last two on the prince's dance card and, frankly, she didn’t really stand a chance, what with the wooden leg and the halitosis. My turn was up as soon as the band came back from their break. I thought that I would use the opportunity to powder my nose, as we ladies will often do. I was at the mirror when in she came. You know who I mean. That pompous, arrogant upstart Cinderella. She had no right to be there after mother strictly forbade her from coming for continuously knocking on the three blind mice's door and not talking when they answered. The poor things had no idea who was there. But anyway, in she strolled and nudged my elbow while I was applying my lippy, causing me to draw a great big lipstick line right up my left nostril. She knows full well how hard “Everlast Shimmer” lipstick is to get off. I was stuck in that bathroom for 15 minutes just trying to wash it off. 

In the meantime, little miss high and mighty slipped a sleeping potion into Griselda’s lemonade and Griselda had started to snore incredibly loudly. So loudly, in fact, that the King and Queen had her removed from the ballroom. This meant, of course, that Cinderella had the prince all to herself. Even when I came back from the bathroom, she wouldn’t let him dance with me. I found out later in the evening that she had told the prince that I suffered from a rare condition and that when I danced with someone, all my teeth and hair falls out and he wouldn’t want to be responsible for me being toothless and bald, would he? The little minx! Could you imagine? So I was sidelined for the rest of the evening. Oh, there were others there of course. I danced with the Pied Piper for a while but he is a terrible bore. No wonder people refuse to pay him. The Gingerbread man was very nice but after holding his hand in a waltz for a couple of minutes he became too sticky. And don’t get me started on Georgie Porgie! 

Anyway, after about two hours of watching miss “butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth” she suddenly declared that the ball was over and it was time for everyone to go home. The cheek of it! Who does she think she is? It’s not even her party! And when people tried to intervene and tell her that it really wasn’t her place to tell everyone when to go home she threw a huge tantrum and stormed off. Out on the steps she took her slipper off and threw it at me just because I was trying to reason with her and tell her it was only five to twelve at night. Which really isn’t that late for us adults. Rumour has it the prince will be looking for the owner of the slipper tomorrow and is going to make them apologise publicly. If I were a lesser woman I’d tell the prince who she is and where she lives, but why lower myself to her level?

Love Canderella Honeybottom xx"

This year The Improvisors have created a KIDS season to celebrate the unsung heroes of fairy tales, with a look at the ‘true’ stories behind the other side of beloved fairy tales!

First up in the April school holidays is Cinderella’s Ugly Stepsisters as they carry on after she marries the Prince. With a hilarious all male cast – these Ugly Stepsisters embark on a series of self-improvements to discover beauty is not just skin deep!

As always we welcome and encourage the audience to come dressed up for the occasion – Knights, Princesses, Bears, Fairies, Batman are all welcome to add to the interactive experience.

So come on down to Circa Theatre to participate in the fun, dress up and join the story! 

To book, call the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or go online at www.circa.co.nz.