27 January 2014

Behind-the-scenes with Kings of the Gym Stage Manager Oscar Mulheron.

Kings of the Gym Stage Manager Oscar Mulheron talks to drama on the waterfront about his accidental career, working with his uncle and the highs and lows of stage management.

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

DOTW: How did you get into Stage Management and what was the appeal?
OM: I really fell into it by chance. One night my Uncle, director Danny Mulheron, came round to our house and when I asked him what he was working on he started talking about his exciting next project ­- a new play by Simon Cunliffe called The Truth Game. It was going to open at Circa Theatre in a few months. He talked about it with such passion and enthusiasm and I felt how really exciting it sounded. Well - one thing led to another and at the end of the evening he offered me a job as Stage Manager. As I was between jobs and at a bit of a loose end, it seemed very opportune, so I took the plunge and accepted. I had never stage managed before and I had no idea of what it involved but I felt that I really wanted to be part of this production.

DOTW: You are working at the moment on Kings of the Gym and once again your uncle is the director. How does that work out?
OM: It works really well - nearly all the time! Working in the theatre can be extremely demanding and stressful. It has been a good thing to know Danny first as family member. It meant that we had an ease together and an understanding from the beginning.

Danny is very passionate and totally focussed and we both had a total commitment to the production.  I learnt on the job very quickly what had to be done and of course I wanted to get it right because Danny put his trust in me. This is the 4th production I have Stage Managed for him and I pretty well know the process now and can make sure things happen as well as he wants.

DOTW: What is your most favourite production you have worked on and why?
OM: It’s always the production I’m working on at the moment, which is Kings of the Gym - but for some reason I keep thinking of The Truth Game. I suppose because it was the  first production I  worked on. I was certainly thrown in the deep end and it was a very fast learning curb. During the rehearsal period I enjoyed watching for the first time the actors developing their roles and bringing it all together – seeing the process of devising and interpreting the script. Danny gets completely involved and is very open to suggestions and input which is one of his strengths. I loved that sometimes at the end of a rehearsal he would sit round with them and re-work a particular scene to find the substance and the story line.

During the run of the play it involved the management of a great number of props – all of which had to be placed in a very exact position. It made each performance very demanding. I definitely had to be on form every night.

Oscar Mulheron.
DOTW: There must be lots of funny moments bringing a production together. What is the funniest moment you have experienced?
OM: It was during the rehearsal period of CON. I was sent to collect a table
which was needed on the set and had been bought on TradeMe. I arrived at the house I was to get it from and discovered it was perched on the side of a hill and had to be reached by a cable car. It was fine going up but getting the table on to the cable car to come down was quite something else. With a lot of juggling it was finally achieved. It was blowing a gale and at one stage I thought it would take off and blow down the hill. Having achieved that part I arrived at the car only to discover that I didn’t have a hope of getting it to fit in. No matter how I  manipulated and pushed and pulled and tried every possible configuration I realised that it just wasn’t going to go in. I had a sudden inspiration to take off the table legs. Of course I had no tools to unscrew them. I then spotted a building site across the road. They were very willing to lend me a screw-driver and this did the trick. I was really pleased with myself with what seemed like a major achievement, and arrived back at Circa with the table ... only to be told that in the meantime they had a found another one that would work better so didn’t need it after all!
DOTW: And the scariest?
OM: It was a sponsor’s night for The Truth Game and they had asked if they could have the earlier start time of 6.30 instead of 8pm. We had had discussed it and it was agreed by all that we would be happy to do that. However, somehow on the night – which was a few weeks later – at the half hour call only 3 of the five actors had arrived. It caused quite a bit of panic on my part as I tried desperately to contact them. One lived nearby so arrived pretty quickly but the other lived some way away and when I finally managed to get hold of her she not only had to get herself there but also had to find someone to mind her 2 year old daughter – in less than 25 minutes! To this day I don’t know how she arrived, got ready in costume, make up and on stage and on time. She opened the play with a rather long soliloquy and I was so relieved that she had made it.

DOTW: What would you say are the most important skills to have as a stage manager?
OM: Anticipation, consideration and of course organisation. And probably being able to multi-task and definitely being adaptable.

DOTW: What is it that you enjoy about being a Stage Manager?
OM: There are a lot of things but something I have really liked on both The Truth Game and Kings was working with our designer Dennis Hearfield and producer Howard Taylor. We had a lot of props to source. And then it was the satisfaction of seeing them all being used as part of the production in a very important way! We had great fun looking for and finding them all.

DOTW: Where to from here?
OM: I feel I need a break so I might take time out to do a trip to Thailand or somewhere in Asia. A friend of mine has just come back and it has tempted me to take a look. A while ago I went to the USA and enjoyed seeing a new and different country. I think now it would be a good time for me to take a look at Asia.

Kings of the Gym is on until 15 February. To book, call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz. There will be a New Zealand Sign Language interpreted performance on Friday, 14 February. To book for that, please email circa@circa.co.nz.

13 January 2014

Becoming a playwright

Kings of the Gym playwright Dave Armstrong tells drama on the waterfront about how he became a professional playwright in New Zealand.

(left to right) Kings of the Gym playwright Dave Armstrong and director Danny Mulheron.
As a professional playwright, one of the questions I’m most commonly asked, apart from the ubiquitous ‘where do you get your ideas from’ is how did I actually become a playwright? When I was a kid growing up in Wellington the 1960s, there were no professional playwrights in New Zealand. That would only change in the mid 1970s with Roger Hall’s brilliant and highly successful Glide Time.

However, there was local content. My father would take me to ribald Sunday night revues at Downstage, not to mention the even filthier ones up at the university. At these venues, relatively unknown young actors with names like Ross Jolly, Sue Wilson, Ginette McDonald and John Clarke would do their thing. Luckily, in those days it was cheaper to take a kid to the theatre than hire a babysitter, so my parents also took me to more respectable plays at places like Unity Theatre (now BATS), but the plays performed were rarely by New Zealanders.

The closest I got to seeing something like a New Zealand play was the brilliant Front Room Boys by Australian playwright Alex Buzo. That play really spoke to me because it was in a language and accent I could easily recognise. It was funny yet political as hell. It was such a thrill to actually meet him years later at a pub in Sydney next to a racetrack. In those early years I did see an excellent devised play about the history of New Zealand and a great production of the Band Rotunda by James K Baxter at Unity.   

Believe it or not, the Country Women’s Institute was also another formative influence. My grandmother, who lived in Dannevirke, was a member and she used to write skits for them. She also won an amateur playwriting competition they ran in the late 1930s. When Nana found out that I was interested in theatre, she would send down comedy sketches she had written in the mail and I would perform them with a bunch of friends at school assembly. Before long I was writing two-page epics about American slavery, the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, and a host of other topics, and performing them at school assembly.

The cast of Kings of the Gym. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
I also attended after-school drama classes which were great fun. Being the liberal 1970s, you didn’t get taught how to act or learn lines. Scripts were only for cissies. The emphasis was on creativity and improvisation. I don’t know if that is a good way to train an actor but it’s a brilliant way to teach playwriting.
I was lucky enough to learn from wonderful teachers like Margaret McCluskey, Steven Tozer, John Banas, Craig Ashley, Ewen Upston, Peter Corrigan and Ralph McAllister. Ralph was a family friend and asked me to do props for a play at Unity by a young New Zealand playwright called Robert Lord. It was fantastic, at such a young age, to learn first-hand how plays were constructed.

I believe you don’t learn to write plays in front of a computer but on the rehearsal floor. That’s where the really interesting stuff happens. From Robert Lord I also learned that plays didn’t need to have realistic sets and be like television – they could be abstract and surreal if need be.

By the time I attended secondary school, I had no intention of being a playwright, but I did enjoy writing articles for the school magazine and making up skits with my schoolmate Danny Mulheron. We had a sort of ‘hidden file’ of sketches we would have loved to have performed one day but were far too scared. In fact, after we had both left school and Danny was at Drama School, he performed some of them at a public showing.

They went down brilliantly with the audience, though one sketch, lampooning anti-Springbok tour protesters, offended some old communists and one Leftie left in tears. ‘I think that sketch was one of Dave’s’ said Danny loudly, avoiding the blame, and thus starting a brilliant thirty-year tradition of fearlessly quoting some of my most extreme utterances when I’m not there. It’s so nice to be informed about them by other people later on.

When Danny and I left our respective tertiary institutions we formed the Unn-Co-operative, and performed sketch shows around the country. It was huge fun. I quickly forget critical reaction to my work, but one of those early revue reviews made an indelible impression: "Writing Crucial Flaw in Satire".

Acushla-Tara Sutton and Richard Dey in Kings of the Gym. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
My sketch-writing career with Danny next got me into writing for television, mainly at the Gibson Group, with shows such as Public Eye, Away Laughing and Skitz. I greatly enjoyed working at Gibsons alongside a number of bright young actors and writers with names like Ken Duncum, Cal Wilson, Jo Randerson, Oscar Kightley, Raybon Kan, Jemaine Clement, and Dave Fane. I always did wonder what happened to these people.

But writing sketches is a young person’s game. I wanted to write a whole play. Doing an adaptation is a great way to learn the craft, and I chose Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. During my career I have been lucky enough to co-write with a number of excellent writers but Charles Dickens is definitely my favourite: he produces great stories, he has a remarkable ear for dialogue, and best of all, because he’s been dead for over a hundred years, he doesn’t ask for a share of the royalties.

The success of A Christmas Carol inspired me to write original work – some of it solo, some with co-writers such as Oscar Kightley and Danny Mulheron. Just the other day, someone asked me what I did for a living, so I told them. ‘So, even though you do lots of different things, your main activity is writing plays.’ I’d never actually thought about it before. ‘Yes,’ I replied after a moment, ‘I suppose it is.’

Kings of the Gym returns to Circa Theatre for Summer 2014, opening on 18 January. To book tickets, please call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz

06 January 2014

Mother Goose: On Writing a Panto

For the first blog post of 2014, Mother Goose playwright Michele Amas tells drama on the waterfront about her experience writing a pantomime.

On Writing a Panto
By Michele Amas    

I know from my experience as an actor that pantomime performers are extremely versatile, far more versatile than I am as an actor. They sing and dance, they clown, they mimic, etc. as well as act. Knowing what they are capable of meant there was an unlimited scope for what I would like them to do performance wise. At times when writing the panto I would be relieved to think - well I won’t be in this show, so these quick changes of costume, etc won’t be my problem. Having said that there is nothing I have written that I know the actors can’t do. Actors love challenges so it’s fun to write with that in mind.

(left to right) Lyndee-Jane Rutherford, Kathleen Burns, Gavin Rutherford. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
Panto is different from other types of plays and other types of rehearsals. There is more direct input from the cast and it is fascinating to watch how they interpret and expand the roles from within the script. There seems to be more flexibility demanded of the writer. You have to be as relaxed about the process as you can. You have to allow the actors to play with what you have written, the important thing is for them to own it and keep it fresh. There’s more audience interaction demanded in panto so actors need to be good improvisers too, and if you have good improvisers in your cast it would be counterproductive for the writer to get too dogmatic about the script.

(left to right) Simon Leary, Lyndee-Jane Rutherford, Richard Osborne. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
The challenge I set myself was to create a theatre piece that served both children and adults, to be playful with the physicality and comic business, and also with the words, puns, double entendre, jokes etc. To have a strong storyline with all the twists and turns and drama you’d expect to see from any play and for that to be combined with songs and catchy music. I wanted it to be contemporary and have topical references to Wellington and have political shots across the bow that our audiences enjoy while still retaining the classical aspects of pantomime such as the dame of course.

MICHELE AMAS  -  Playwright

Michele Amas is an award winning actress and writer. Originally from Dunedin she graduated from The New Zealand Drama School, Toi Whakaari in the 80s and has been a professional actress ever since. Michele was worked throughout NZ  as an actor and director in theatre and television. Most recently seen at Fortune Theatre, Dunedin in Calendar Girls, Circa Theatre in Wellington in Peninsula and August Osage County, in which she won Best Actress in the Chapman Tripp Awards. Other productions include Joyful and Triumphant, The Clean House, Blood Wedding and Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll for which she won Best Supporting Actress. She also won Best Supporting Actress for Mammals and Best Actress for The Herbal Bed.

She has an MA in creative writing from Victoria University where she was awarded the Adam Prize for her portfolio 2005. Her first book of poetry After the Dance  was nominated for a Montana Book Award in 2007, and was shortlisted for that years Prize in Modern Letters.

Her poems have been published in Sport 33, online in Turbine and in Best New Zealand Poems 2005, as well as Sport, Bravado, Kaupapa global issues anthology 2007, Pacific Coast Review and the Iowa Review, Landfall, The best of the best anthology 2011, 4th floor, prize winner in the Casleberg Trust poetry competition 2011  Her short film ‘Redial’ that she wrote and directed was in competition in the 2002 Venice Film festival She also writes for the theatre and has had stories played on National Radio.

Mother Goose runs in Circa One until 11 January - to book, visit www.circa.co.nz or call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992.