25 February 2013

Catherine and Katherine

Performer Catherine Downes tells drama on the waterfront about her interest in Katherine Mansfield and why she has devoted a second solo show to one of New Zealand's most prolific short story writers.

"The interest goes back to playing Katherine in Brian McNeil’s The Two Tigers; a play about the often tempestuous relationship between Katherine Mansfield and her publisher husband John Middleton Murry at Four Seasons Theatre in Whanganui when I was 26. While I was researching the role, I became interested in her journals and diaries; her intimate writing about her own feelings and where she wanted to go. They were very personal, candid, and private. She probably didn’t expect they would ever be published.

It was the quality and perception of this personal writing that inspired me to develop a solo show based on Mansfields journals called The Case of Katherine MansfieldI think I’ve  performed that play more than 1000 times over 20 years in six countries - Australia, Holland, England, Scotland and America; and in New Zealand of course. I did a lot of school performances around the country. And actually it was in the schools that I realised how little I needed around me in the way of props to make it work.

I remember a particular performance at a boys school in South Auckland in a brightly lit gym - the audience were a big bunch of beefy footballer types. But while the play was on you could have heard a pin drop and afterwards the comments were so perceptive and intelligent.

There are so many layers beneath the surface in Mansfield’s work; like a spiders web where everything is interconnected and every word counts. And on a deceptively small canvas she explored huge universal themes.

KM was a prolific journalist, she kept a journal from the age of 18 to her death at 34. All the material in both my KM plays is from journals and letters, interwoven with several of the short stories. With The Case of Katherine Mansfield I initially started off with about nine hours of material. But once I’d discarded the more public material and gossip I realised what I had left was a story about personal growth.

I guess that theme is the essential provocation for Talking of Katherine Mansfield.
Talking of Katherine Mansfield hangs on three themes: love, personal development and death, all in her own words. As Mansfield became more and more ill, she focused on what really mattered. Those themes are universal and her articulation of them is so acute and precise.

When I was in my 20s I related to and was inspired by Mansfield’s outrageous determination to carve her own path and ultimate fight to ‘be all I am capable of becoming’. Now in my 60s, these themes are no less compelling - perhaps as my mortality  becomes more of a reality I relate more keenly to Mansfield’s quest to achieve one’s potential."

Talking of Katherine Mansfield opens in Circa Two on 27 February and runs until 16 March. $25 ticket specials on Tuesday, 26 February and Thursday, 28 February. To book, call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz.

18 February 2013

Roger Hall and Peter Skellern always hand them back

You Can Always Hand Them Back playwright Roger Hall talks about his collaboration with Peter Skellern on their new musical about grandparents.
Roger Hall

Peter Skellern

Peter Skellern and his wife Diana come out each summer to see their son and grandchildren who live in Devonport. Mutual friends suggested we meet, and so one day in Takapuna, after a phone call, I was able to approach a man wearing a large hat and say “Peter Skellern, I presume?”
We became almost instant friends, so much so that I asked him if he would be willing  to sing at the concert I put on at The Pump House for my 70th birthday.  (But I still wanted him there even if he didn't want to sing.) When he got up to perform he said "I've known Roger all of four hours now,"  (which was about right). But he was used to performing for the elderly: quite recently he had performed at an old lady's 80th birthday part and "You know it's really nice at Windsor Castle".
That's not the only royal performance he has done, having appeared at several Royal Command performances. He's also filled the London Palladium with a solo show; and packed them in with shows with Richard Stilgoe. 
Peter sang three songs at my party, and then he and I played golf together (he well, me badly) and one day he said he'd be interested in writing songs for the panto I was currently writing. I pointed out that I already had a team (Paul Jenden and Michael Nicholas Williams). We started looking through a back list of my plays to see if there was anything there that could be adapted to a musical, but nothing leapt out at us. Then I remembered a piece I had been working on (and off) for some years intended to add to two plays about Dickie Hart, one-man shows performed by Grant Tilly, C’Mon Black and You Gotta Be Joking.  I never told Grant I had this is mind in case I never delivered, which indeed proved to be the case -- despite several starts I was never able to finish it and, alas, Grant is no longer with us. It was to be called Say Goodbye to Grandpa, taken from a neighbour telling me that those were the words her husband enjoyed hearing most, especially if the grandchildren had stayed for a few days.
Peter agreed that grandparenting was a good theme (he having five of his own), that  of course we'd have to have a grandmother as well, and so I started all over again on the script and Peter wrote the songs. Some of the songs came from ideas or topics in the script, many from his own ideas. But we did do a lot of talking about what the songs should be about. Inevitably there were some casualties along the way with some songs disappearing (and some scenes, for that matter). Read any history of musical shows and there are songs dropped at the last moment, and new songs written overnight.  It’s a very difficult and often tense business. (It’s why I love the TV series “SMASH”.)
But before a song is launched onto the public, who’s to say whether it is going to work or not. After all, the producers of The Wizard of Oz hated “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and wanted it removed…

 You Can Always Hand Them Back opens on Saturday, 23 February and runs until Saturday, 30 March. Performances are already selling out! To book, please call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz.

11 February 2013

Minskie and Ron explore the Gap: The Seemingly Impossible

By Gina Vanessi
Less than a week to go now!!
 In the spirit of Minksie and Ron explore the Gap - 
A list of things which are seemingly impossible:
*Licking your elbow.
*Licking someone’s soul
*Licking your own liver (unless you’ve just had a transplant, but that doesn’t count)

*Growing your fingernails and toenails so long that they grow in different directions and meet each other on the other side of the world
*Wearing your face inside-out
*Wearing your torso upside-down
*Training your ribs to knit
*Training your knitting to drive

*Painting the sand with your toothbrush
*Touching your feelings
*Flying cats (although I do keep dreaming this will one day be possible)

*Frying cats (it is possible. But it’s very very wrong.)
*Dressing the clouds in pyjamas
*Dressing your pyjamas in clouds
*turning off the all of the stars
*Drinking milk while whistling at the same time

*Missing out on seeing Minksie and Ron explore the Gap at Circa during the Fringe. IT’s JuST NoT POSSiBLE

(FYI, this was a difficult list to write. Every time I thought of something I then thought of how it could be possible – such as a baby being born with clothes on. This is possible. Drinking milk through your fingertips. This could also be possible, but very very time consuming.)
Come see our play.
It's really cheap because it is a Fringe Festival Show!!
Minksie and Ron explore the Gap, 15-23 Feb. Tickets $18 / $14 conc. / $12 addict. Call 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz to book.
And finally a word from some of New Zealand's greatest writers (yes they are actually quotes):
“Good luck with Minksie and Ron (wtf is that?!!!)” - Roger Hall
"Minksie sounds like a porn name (mine are Dick Hiropi and Misty Jefferson). I’m sure it’ll be an intriguing and fascinating show – just what the Fringe needs!" - Dave Armstrong
"I trust no adorable furry minksies were harmed in the making of this entertainment?" - Ken Duncum

04 February 2013

Ginette McDonald and the thrill of theatre

In this week's post, Kings of the Gym cast member Ginette McDonald talks about the siren call of theatre.

Acushla-Tara Sutton and Ginette McDonald in Kings of the Gym.
Q: What made you decide that 'life upon the wicked stage' was
for you?

A: The theatre has a siren call for some of us. Every year of my childhood we McDonalds went together as a happy group to the legendary  David Tinkham Christmas pantos at the Wellington Opera House where we always squashed into the same box; seven kids, two parents and an ex actress French grandmama. As we hovered, deliciously close, over the stage, David Tinkham, as the marvellous Dame, would trill ‘good evening McDonalds’. We felt a part of something very exciting and hugely entertaining. That excitement has never left me. The thrill of an orchestra warming up, a dancer dancing, an actor acting their socks off. Now that I’m aware of the realities of backstage life, performers sometimes performing with broken limbs or broken hearts, I’m even more thrilled by the theatre, its endless possibilities and the courage and discipline of its practitioners. As actress Kate Wilkin said to the wonderful Circa actor Bruce Phillips at his joyous 60th birthday party, an event notable for it’s loving celebration of actors and acting; ‘Bruce, this occasion reminds us that ours is an honourable profession.’ The theatre is a big family, with its heart in the right place. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

Q: What was your first role?

A: My first role was as a very gymnastic Jack Frost in a St Mary’s Christmas production when I was six. It was a marvellous costume, all in one white bodysuit with lots of tinsel and glitter. Find the right costume and the character will fall into place. It certainly began a lifelong fondness for glitter. And acting, come to think of it. Last year , I played a small part as an ex nun protestor in Kings of the Gym director Danny Mulheron’s telefeature Rage. After we re-enacted the famous Molesworth Street march, we took a meal break in the St Mary’s school hall. As we dined at trestles set up on the stage, I smiled to myself at the irony of being back in the very place at which it all began...

Q: What is your favourite role? 

A: My favourite role is usually the one I’m doing now. Kings of the Gym has a great cast, dedicated to exploring new comedy possibilities with every show. I suspect my part as school principal Viv Cleaver was meant to be played as much more of a ballbreaker, but I’ve noticed that some people who hold important jobs are quite often way out of their depth. It’s fun to suggest Viv’s wheels falling off. Human frailty can be very amusing.

Q: What was your funniest moment on stage?

A: There’ve been innumerable funny moments on stage. Actors are trained, or rapidly learn to adjust to unusual circumstances. If an actor forgets their lines, cast members can jump in with a line like “ I suppose that you were just about to say etc etc...” Key props can sometimes be absent.  I’ve seen an actor reduced to having to mime changing an absent light fitting, until the real one suddenly descended from the skies and hit him on the head. On the opening night of A Passionate Woman at Circa, in which I played a disturbed woman going mad on a roof, Simon Vincent, playing my concerned son, was required to manoeuvre a cherry picker upwards to the very high roof set in order to coax me down. Unfamiliar with the controls he rose the machine too close, tearing half the set off in the process. Ken Blackburn, also on the roof playing my worried husband, had the presence of mind to shout out-in character- ‘mind out for me friggin’ roof!’ We then all lost it and shook with uncontrollable giggling-known as ‘corpsing ‘ in theatre parlance. Audiences generally love a bit of corpsing, but it’s highly unprofessional and not to be encouraged.

 Q: You are now in demand for after-dinner speaking – how did that come about?

A: At the age of 16, I played an angry little French speaking maid in a Downstage production of Private Lives, directed by the wonderful Scottish actor/director Tony Groser, father of Trade Minister Tim. Bruce Mason, a family friend, had suggested me for the role. At the same time, Bruce Mason, Roger Hall and Steve Whitehouse were performing a late night revue called Knickers. Bruce and Roger were champions of emerging Kiwi culture, and encouraged me to create a real New Zealand identity to appear in Knickers. Thus was born Lyn of Tawa. Over the years, Lyn has come and gone while I acted in the UK, became a TV drama producer and gave birth to my beautiful daughter, but seems to be fixed in the psyches of a certain generation of Kiwis. A sort of celebrity. I began to do after dinner speeches as Lyn, until one magical evening about 25 years ago when Federated Farmers asked me to speak at the Wellington Club. They wanted an hour and a half. They didn’t want to hear from Lyn. They wanted Ginette. My terror was palpable but I wrote some material and dived in. Since then I’ve been able to derive a reasonable income from corporate speaking,celebrity debates, pub gigs, either alone or with Gary McCormick, and MCing business conferences. I’ve learnt a whole new useful skill, while learning about the corporate culture. It’s fun and interesting ... they sometimes still call me Lyn though!

The cast of Kings of the Gym. All photos by Stephen A'Court.

To see Ginette as the indomitable Viv Cleaver in Kings of the Gym, call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz. The season runs until 16 February.