31 March 2014

Helen Moulder: 'one of the gutsiest theatre artists around'

'…received a standing ovation' Laurie Atkinson, The Dominion Post

'Helen Moulder as Gloria is a marvel' Lucy Pickering, Keeping Up With NZ

Helen Moulder has been described as one of the gutsiest theatre artists around, never afraid to try new things, always throwing out challenges.

In her latest work she plays six characters, including 2 men, sings several songs from Mozart’s Magic Flute and performs some magic tricks. Learning the magic was quite a departure for Helen but she and director/co-writer Sue Rider felt that it would be very appropriate for the play. This was a first for Helen but never daunted by a challenge she called on her friend John Glaisyer, an amateur magician in Nelson to give her a few pointers. “He was a tremendous help,” Helen said “and got me well on the way.”  When she started rehearsing in Wellington she asked Paul Bates (aka Zappo), a professional magician, to give her some lessons. Paul was impressed with what Helen could already do, but helped her find some new tricks and improve the existing ones in the framework of the play. Helen says that she found learning magic a wonderful challenge. “It’s the preciseness, I suppose, that’s the magic. It’s quite simple when you know how.” Paul has helped with other theatre productions and grasped quite quickly the kind of atmosphere Sue and Helen were aiming for.  “We had a lot of fun and I felt very encouraged by him that what I was doing would actually work.”

Helen and Paul Bates.
Gloria’s Handbag was inspired by a story Helen tells about her mother, who took only a handbag with her when she went into hospital knowing she was dying.

The idea for the play came from the awareness of the increasing accumulation of ‘stuff’ in our consumer society and the far-reaching challenges this presents for society as a whole, as well as for individuals.

How much ‘stuff’ do we need? How far is our identity bound up with objects and the memories they evoke? How important is the notion of heritage and handing on from one generation to the next? How might these notions change in the future?

Gloria's Handbag production photo by Stephen A'Court.
The set reflects the theme of ‘desizing’ but also has a practical use. After the Circa season, Helen will tour Gloria’s Handbag to venues medium, small and smaller, following the successful model of Playing Miss Havisham. We urge you to tell friends and families across the country not to miss the opportunity to see this exceptional artist at work. Anyone interested in having Gloria’s Handbag in their community hall, library or woolshed, can contact Helen on: helen.moulder@gmail.com

And don’t forget when you come to the show - BRING ALONG YOUR FAVOURITE HANDBAG!

Helen and audience members with their special handbags on opening night.
'There are so many goodies in Gloria's Handbag it's well worth rummaging through' John Smythe, Theatreview

Gloria's Handbag runs in Circa Two until 19 April. To book tickets, visit www.circa.co.nz or call 801-7992.

24 March 2014

Rita and Douglas – from the beginning

Rita and Douglas playwright Dave Armstrong takes drama on the waterfront back to the beginning of this new work about two of New Zealand's greatest cultural icons.

Armstrong Creative’s production of Rita and Douglas will have its first-ever Wellington performance on April 2, yet the play had its beginnings here over 70 years ago in 1941. That’s when a recently divorced painter called Rita Angus (known back then as Rita Cook, and as Rita McKenzie) met a young composer seven years her junior called Douglas ‘Gordon’ Lilburn at the French Maid Coffee Shop in Lambton Quay. They struck up a relationship, and a romance, and I won’t tell you any more as I will spoil the play! But it’s a fascinating tale that combines drama, tragedy, triumph and lots of beautiful art and music as well.  

Cut to 1980 and a young classical music student and trumpet player at Victoria University called Dave Armstrong found out from musicologist and composer Martin Lodge that there was a piece by Douglas Lilburn, Quartet for Brass Instruments, that had never been performed.

Martin’s investigations revealed that the piece, written in the early 1960s, had just one outing with some professional musicians who had told Lilburn his piece was ‘unplayable’. Martin got a copy from Lilburn and I took a look – with the exception of one tempo marking, it was totally playable. So three other students and I met Douglas Lilburn and performed the piece for the first time ever. It was a triumph and went on to be performed and recorded by far better musicians than I.

A couple of years later I was selected as a trumpet player in the 1983 National Youth Orchestra. We played Aotearoa Overture by Douglas Lilburn and the soloist in the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto was Michael Houstoun. But to be honest I was more interested in a young violinist I met called Caroline Hill – later Caroline Armstrong who is now my wife and the producer of Rita and Douglas.

We both loved the music of Lilburn and both loved theatre. Within a few years we would have both left the world of classical music and be working in professional theatre.

Self-portrait Wanaka (unfinished) Oil on canvas, 480 X 420mm, Te Papa, on loan from Rita Angus Estate
Along the way to becoming a playwright I’d also spent quite a bit of time as a freelance writer for museums, and one of my jobs had been to write labels for exhibitions at Te Papa. Most of their New Zealand art exhibitions contained at least one painting by Rita Angus, so I became increasingly interested in her work.
In 2006, I was attending a play in Wellington when I ran into Gaylene Preston (whom I later worked with on Hope and Wire – the yet-to-be-screened TV drama series set amidst the Christchurch earthquakes). Gaylene had just completed a documentary about Rita Angus and drew my attention to the large number of letters that had recently been left to the Turnbull Library by Douglas Lilburn, when he died in 2001. They included many (like 188 A4 pages!) from Rita to Douglas (actually she called him ‘Gordon’ as he was once known).

Luckily, I had worked at Te Papa with the wonderful Jill Trevelyan, and she pointed me in the direction of copies of the letters and various permissions that were needed. Jill was also a great help as a biographical consultant. Her wonderful book on Rita Angus is, in my opinion, one of the best non-fiction books written in New Zealand, and heartily recommended.

Cutting down nearly two hundred pages of letters to a manageable 30-page script took a lot of time and effort. Thankfully my long-time collaborator, director Conrad Newport, had some great advice about how to do it thematically rather than as a super-straight chronology.

Michael Houstoun was my first port of call as a pianist and luckily he said yes straight away. But if selecting just a few letters from the many that Rita wrote to Douglas was a herculean task, so was deciding which music to play. Lilburn wrote over four hours of solo piano music, much of it unpublished. Michael and I also had to make sure that the pieces in Rita and Douglas were not too long, as the play is a sort of ‘conversation’ where Jennifer speaks from Rita’s letters and Michael plays a short ‘reply’ from Douglas on the piano.

Michael helped uncover lots of secret treats of Lilburn’s and I’m delighted that Michael’s album, entitled simply Lilburn and which draws on much of the music of Rita and Douglas, has been so successful. Last year it won best classical album at the New Zealand Music Awards. 

Finding an actress to play Rita Angus was also a massive challenge, given that Rita’s letters start when she is in her twenties, and finish just before her death at the age of 61. Make-up and costume can only do so much!

Douglas Lilburn, 1945, watercolour, 444 x 336 mm, Te Papa, on loan from Rita Angus Estate
Luckily, Conrad and I realised that the core of their relationship occurred when Rita was between about 35 and 45 so we limited the play to that period. Jennifer Ward-Lealand was the perfect actress to play Rita – she had the considerable technical skills and emotional range to play her, and Jennifer also looked quite like Rita. One of my favourite moments of the show is where Jennifer is dressed just like a famous self-portrait of Rita’s, and then the painting appears on the large canvas screen which features in Rita and Douglas.
With a fantastic actress, pianist, and director on board, creating a script, which I did with the assistance of Conrad and Jennifer, and getting music for the show in collaboration with Michael, was a delight. When we travelled to Michael’s place to hear the music he had selected, he would ask us after each piece if we would like to hear it again, just to be sure. Even though we quickly made up our minds, Caroline usually asked to hear it again just so she could enjoy Michael’s playing for longer.

But once we had script and music together, we were far from the end. Rita and Douglas has over 100 images of Rita’s paintings. First we had to clear copyright from the institutions which owned the paintings, as well as the artist’s estate, then we had to arrange the images to go with the script and music of the play. It was a massive task with video editor Danny Mulholland, Robert Larsen, Conrad Newport and Paul O’Brien being some of the main hands that came to the pump to assist.

But eventually we made it. Rita and Douglas was a labour of love, started off by two theatre people who used to be music people. Caroline and I never expected the show to be popular as well as critically acclaimed. We just said to each other, ‘we want to see it because we love the story and the music, and hopefully other people will as well.’

I really hope you like Rita and Douglas, it’s got so much to say about New Zealand, and you’ll marvel at not only the beauty of Rita’s paintings and Lilburn’s music, and the incredible performances of Jennifer and Michael, and the consummate direction of Conrad Newport, but all the dedication, foresight and talent of Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn, surely two of our nation’s greatest artists.
- Dave Armstrong

Rita and Douglas opens in Circa One on 2 April and runs until 12 April. To book for this short season, call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz

17 March 2014

Gloria's Handbag Director Sue Rider

FROM SUE RIDER, Director & Co-writer of GLORIA’S HANDBAG  on being a director
and working with Helen Moulder.

As a freelance theatre director I sometimes think I have the best occupation in the world.

Only a few weeks ago I was in my own home city of Brisbane directing two talented young performers in their first professional roles, harnessing their excitement and enthusiasm as we all worked to create a tender, funny adaptation of a book for 4 – 8 year olds.

Sure Rider.
A few weeks earlier, at the beginning of the year, I was working with two wonderful actors on a play which follows the story of a young Australian Aboriginal girl who travels from a remote community to the city. One of the actors had collaborated on the creative development of the play and the other had strong political connections to the subject matter, which gave the rehearsal process an intensity and depth of commitment that isn’t always present in a rehearsal room. The result was vibrant and full of humour.

And the end of 2013 saw me at the helm of a pulsating production of the rock musical HAIR at Brisbane’s Powerhouse Theatre, with a cast of 30 gyrating young people, a ten-piece band and an audience who danced on the stage as the band reprised ‘Let the Sunshine’ at the end of the show. A bit of a nostalgic trip for me, recalling my teenage years (I’m old enough to have seen the first production in London), but also quite thrilling to see a completely new generation embrace the music and themes of the sixties.

And now here I am in Wellington, collaborating with my dear friend and colleague of 23 years, the amazing Helen Moulder. This time we are working on a completely new show, Gloria’s Handbag, about an elderly woman who buys an extraordinary handbag towards the end of her life. Helen as the sole performer plays six characters, two of them men, sings opera, including a duet, and does magic tricks! Working with one actor involves an enormous leap of trust on both sides, and Helen and I have enormous respect and understanding of each other, developed over a long period of time. We even share a house while we’re working together, something which I couldn’t do with every actor I’ve worked with!

Sue, Helen and a lot of handbags!

It all makes for a varied, unpredictable life, with many moments of deep satisfaction and the odd flash of sheer amazement when all the elements of a show push beyond the original vision and take you to a place of something like transcendence. I wouldn’t change it for anything.

Gloria's Handbag opens in Circa Two on 22 March and runs until 19 April. Opening weekend is filling up quickly, with Sunday 23 March already SOLD OUT, and the Friday $25 Preview and Saturday Opening Night close behind. Book now! www.circa.co.nz

10 March 2014

Pasefika: "You have to live here, you have to be one of us, to get it."

Award-winning playwright Stuart Hoar tells drama on the waterfront about how he came to write Pasefika.

“This play was inspired by my coming across an image of a print from the nineteenth century by an artist I had never heard of before. The image was  mysterious, intriguing and provocative; here in the 1860’s was a French artist imagining Paris being invaded by the Pacific.

And so I did more research and discovered that Charles Meryon lived for two years in the then French colony of Akaroa (c 1844 -45). His experience of life with the Maori people who also lived there left its mark on his work and his imagination in a profound and strongly dramatic way.

I also discovered that Meryon had been approached by the poet Charles Baudelaire to jointly produce a work of etchings and poetry – this fact for me was the spark I needed to write this play.

I wanted to contrast the romanticism and cynisim of Baudelaire with the eccentric but heart felt passion of Meryon, and compare their life in Paris in a theatrical rather than documentary way to an equally playful dramatised version of Meryon’s experiences in Akaroa, and evoke the synthesising and profound effect his Akaroa experiences had on him as a human and as an artist. Akaroa changed him as a man, it also changed his culture, and in the play this knowledge and vision of Meryon is something Baudelaire never understands.

You have to live here, you have to be one of us, to get it.

I wrote the play while living in France as the Katherine Mansfield Fellow for 2007 and found much useful material on Meryon in the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, (a public library specializing in the history of the city of Paris).”

Reviewers have been loving it …

"What fun to be immersed in this wonderfully playful imagining ... A cast of four play seven characters and from the moment they rise to the stage as if materialising through a Meryon etching, we are hooked." - John Smythe, Theatreview

"Brilliantly imagined, thought provoking, witty and multi- layered … Pasefika is a play that generates a lot of discussion " - Mary Bryan, Wanganui Chronicle

"The cast is excellent, with George Henare in top form as Baudelaire" -  Dominion Post

Pasefika production photos by Stephen A'Court.
"Sophisticated, provocative and endlessly playful" - Metro Magazine

Pasefika runs in Circa One until 29 March. To book for a performance during the NZ Festival (until 16 March), visit Ticketek. To book for a performance during the post-Festival Circa season, visit the Circa website or call the box office on 801-7992.

03 March 2014

Back stage with Miss Bronte

Miss Bronte is well underway with great reviews and audience feedback. Every night after the show there are groups of audience members congregating to discuss the play over a glass of wine. People are flicking through their memories to remember sections of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Villette which are referenced in the play. Many people are murmuring that it is time they re-read the novels. We are so excited to be inciting the kind of vigorous conversation that we regularly had in the rehearsal room.

We now have all of our pre-show rituals well under control. The wonderful stage manager/technician/Jill-of-all-trades Deb McGuire spends hours carefully placing each page of paper on the set and double checking all of the lighting states. Then she has the arduous task of dressing Mel. Victorian women had so many layers of garments! We have to put on the boots, bloomers, corset, crinoline, petticoats and then the dress itself. 

That done, she begins Mel's hair. We have researched hairstyles of the day and had many options, but needed to settle on only one. It is important that the character looks the same every night. That is 'her' hair. 

Because the clothing is so restrictive, Mel is very limited in what she can do once in costume. We joke in the dressing room that this is exactly as it would have been for Charlotte Bronte with her loyal servant Tabby dressing all three sisters every morning. Charlotte had a lovely relationship with Tabby. She had lived with the family most of Charlotte's life. In her old age, Tabby used to miss parts of the potato skin when she was peeling the potatoes. Instead of chastising Tabby, Charlotte would secretly peel the rest of the potatoes herself, so as not to upset Tabby.

Miss Bronte runs until March 15. To book, visit: www.circa.co.nz.