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.

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