SCENE BY JAMES: Resonance and the New Zealand Fringe, Wellington 2019

by James Wenley

Austin Dean Ashford in (I)sland T(rap): The Epic Remixology of the Odyssey

[On the Fringe: Shifting and Singing]

Content Notification: Discussion of the Christchurch terror attack, sexual violence, and suicide.
But also hope, and joy, and singing, and the rejuvenating potential of performance.

Can you take the pulse of a city through the shows performed on its Fringe?

Can you judge the heart of a Festival by the visitors who have come to play?

Can you take stock of the world via the canary call of the artists who have something to say?

Pōneke. This is my new home. Wellington’s New Zealand Fringe Arts Festival – that’s my Fringe now.

People tell me that I made an unusual journey. There’s an annual exodus of Wellington theatremakers who wind their way to Auckland. There’s more paid work there. Or at least the promise of it.

Professional theatre in Aotearoa had its roots in Wellington. But despite recent funding announcements from a mayor who gets the arts, the city has been haemorrhaging its theatrical cultural capital for some time.

And yet, what I am most struck by in making the reverse move is the community of performance makers who are here and bursting with ideas and talent. For these independent Wellington artists, the NZ Fringe Festival becomes one of the most important outlets for expression and connection.

My first show of the Fringe was Full Scale. Created by Isobel MacKinnon and Meg Rollandi, MacKinnon begins by sharing the story of how, for much of her childhood, she had been the collector of ‘sexy’ pig ornaments, unaware of the sexualised anthropomorphising. Aided by a camera feed, she displays her stunning ornament collection, which takes on new meanings as MacKinnon reflects on her relationship with her mother, what we take to be culturally normalised, what we don’t recognise as strange until we do. Layered and poignant, it featured some fascinating shifts of perspective in form and content.

My final show of the Fringe was Sexy Ghost Boy from improviser and provocateur George Fenn. Beginning with an audience seance to conjure his spirit to the stage, Fenn mostly wordlessly invites the audience to play a number of out-there games, whether it be coaxing us to shave him or dress in a fireperson’s outfit and dance with a pool noodle. A wild fever dream, I couldn’t have asked for a Fringier show to finish on.

In between, I saw a further 54 shows over the 23 days of Fringe.

I wanted to immerse myself in Wellington’s Fringe, to inject the art into my veins. I wanted to get to know the city by getting to know the artists: who is making what? What are the questions and conversations that they are engaging with?

The mythology of the modern Fringe was famously born in Edinburgh, when a group of companies performed outside of the officially sanctioned Edinburgh International Festival. The idea of a Fringe positions itself as a rebellious sibling of the mainstream and elite performance products; the ethos (if not always the reality) is democratic and open-access: anyone can participate, anyone can perform. 2019 is an off-year for the New Zealand International Festival in Wellington, so the Fringe is the only show in town (well not quite, what with the Newtown Festival, Capital E National Arts Festival for Children and Young People, and Cuba Dupa, Wellington is very much a Festival city over the summer months). The Fringe here does not so much react against the mainstream (for it is close to being the mainstream), but rather, sets the conversation. Festival Director Hannah Clarke explains that “Wellington has a proud history of embracing its wind and its culture, including Fringe. An event that offers artists the freedom to explore and challenge themselves and their audiences is essential to the development of ideas.” In its 29th year, the 2019 Fringe was the biggest yet, with over 140 events including 30 international shows.

Garry Starr Performs Everything

These stats did rather negate the central premise in Australian performer Garry Starr’s show (Garry Starr Performs Everything) that theatre is dying. Starr, apparently, was our only hope; he would present every single genre of theatre, encouraging us to see more theatre, thereby saving performing arts from extinction. By the show’s end, he had managed 14 genres in total, including burlesque, melodrama, farce, Butoh and circus. At one point I found Starr chasing me up the BATS stairs after I had bopped him with a pool noodle during the slapstick section. Possibly the best bang for your buck all Fringe, his was a gift for all theatre studies nerds.

The Wellington Fringe is notable for its attractiveness to top international Fringe acts, but also the number of new artists giving it a go for the first time. Getting a show up is accessible and the stakes are low. The Scruffy Bunny venue hosted many of these shows from up and comers – fresh, rough and rapidly learning. Scruffy Bunny is most associated with improv shows, but the venue found itself improvising after the closure of the Reading Cinema complex. It moved into the Cuba Creative building, recently vacated by Taika Waititi (who, in the great tradition of kiwi flat moves, left behind the Thor 3 couches and Sakaar pillars.) One Scruffy Bunny show that snuck up on me was Some Sort of Boy by Mark Wittet: two teen boys are wanting to write an original song for their band, but their complicated feelings for each other led to a frustrated love story, capturing the confusion of teenage years with some of the best integration of Social Media into the storytelling that I’ve seen in a theatre production.

Gender Bending and Challenging

Gender was an overwhelming focus in the Fringe, mostly from a critical feminist perspective (as the performers of Fringe Wives Club’s Glittery Clittery exclaimed – “Feminism is so hot right now.”) Squirt performance poet Kate Spencer was not inaccurate in renaming the event the ‘Minge Festival.’ Hers was an evening of smutty poems and sex positivity: in exchange for writing down a sexual fantasy, the audience were in with a chance to win a sex toy – as she wished one of the winners, “I hope you have a great orgasm tonight!” (Spencer is coming for Hastings next, after winning a touring award).

Abby Howells as Harlequeen

Abby Howells’ Harlequeen was an early highlight of the Fringe, putting a spotlight on the history of female fools/comics (beginning with Jane Foole). She weaves their stories with her own journey as a comedy and musical theatre performer, frustrated by tired gendered barriers and assumptions that remain in place. The problematic Phantom (of the Opera) makes an appearance, by way of an ventriloquist dummy, and Howells’ reenactment of the choreography of CATS is pure bliss. It’s MacKenzie Country….Obviously offered a similar message; at the end Jess Jean drops her ‘basic’ Mackenzie persona to share how she had been told by male comedians to ‘tone down’ her comedy, so created her to show to stick a middle finger to sexist attitudes.

Toxic masculinity was ridiculed, although the conversation too often remained unsophisticated. In A New Man ‘Mr Toxic’ (performed as a Drag King persona) is transformed into a woman and gains a new perspective, but with the narrative ending with the character falling pregnant and positioning this as the worst fate possible, it sent an unfortunate message. Lord Bi-Ron: Mad, Bad & Dangerous also featured a Drag King performance from Aimee Smith as the notorious Lord Byron, but the performances between her and uni student Nathan (Isaac Thomas), who had conjured Byron Sexy Ghost Boy-style to help with an assignment, were at cross purposes. Worse, Nathan’s admission that he had done some questionable things in his past to women remained uninterrogated, and the redemption of the ‘bad male’ passed by far too easily.

More satisfying was Spirit of the Fringe award winner Sameena Zehra’s takedown of indoctrinated gender roles in Arsebiscuits. On paper a comedy show, Arsebiscuits delivered a social critique and call to arms. Acknowledging a continuum of privilege, Zehra concluded that we all need to be working to dismantle an uneven society.

One point that Zehra made was how romantic narratives teach men to wear romantic partners down, rather than pursuing enthusiastic consent. A few days later I found myself role-playing this idea in Sajeela Khershi’s Fight Like a Girl, where I was cast as ‘Anabella’, while another audience member, playing ‘Giles’, wore me down in our Mills and Boon plot. The most illuminating part of the show was when Khershi spoke to each audience member and asked what we would protest and fight for.

Fringe Wives Club Glittery Clittery

Late-night show Glittery Clittery was a “cult feminist disco” that delivered some of the most consensual fun in the Fringe. Starring Tessa Waters, Victoria Falconer and last-minute swing Lucy Evans, the powerhouse trio gave us facts about the vulva, dedicated a love song to Thicke and Bieber called ‘Hurts you cos he likes you’, and skewered Feminist Fuckbois. An impactful number was ‘Change it up’, a pop-empowerment anthem, with a powerful bridge revealing Australian statistics for gendered violence. Their question for us: What weapons do you have at your disposal?

Completing the feminist revolution, Gillian English cancelled Shakespeare in 10 Things I Hate About Taming of the Shrew. A listicle exposing the problems with Shrew (and the Heath Ledger film), hers was a call to end the parade of tired toxic narratives, “as if our morality and ethics haven’t changed” since they were first produced. She had a challenge for us too: Tell new stories, let people tell their own stories, let them come to the front.

Stories of the Fringe

What were some of the stories of Fringe?

There was Au ko Tuvalu by Tavita Nielsen-Mamea, presented like a history play, telling the story of Tuvala’s evacuation due to rising seas and climate change. But this is not the past, it is the present – and a future the group of islands seem to be heading towards if the globe does not take action. An urgent question: how do you constitute your identity when your home no longer exists?

There was a show about Bollards. Yes, bollards. In Bollards and the Comedy of Hyperindustralisation, Andrew Choate gave a spirited lecture (interspersed with bizarre poetry readings) on what good bollard culture looks like (protecting pedestrians), versus cruel bollards (such as bollards in LA which have teamed up with cacti to prevent the homeless sleeping in a designated area). This was one of the shows that has changed the way I look at the world, providing a newfound appreciation for the beauty and elegance of the humble bollard on Wellington’s streets.

There was a show about a theatre troupe caught up in the Spanish Civil War, Ay Carmela!, performed in Spanish with (bizarrely) media personality Ian Sinclair playing the flamenco guitar and giving well-meaning, if cloying, English commentaries on the action.

There was folk music and storytelling combo Bear North, a show inspired, we are told, about Roy Hutchins’ stay in a USA log cabin and close encounter with a bear. Embracing the wild and whimsy, a dancer, Wolfy, adorned with the head of a wolf and body of a man, danced in the corner to the music played by the 3-piece-band. His commitment to a restricted vocabulary of wolf-inspired movement made the show that extra bit special.

There was The Universe is Pretty Big… and I’m Afraid of Sex, a comfortingly chill show which wondered about randomness, the ultimate fate of the universe, and the impossibility of us being able to imagine the 4th dimension.

Dance shows meanwhile provided some of the most overwhelming sensory experiences, with Nobody Hears the Axe Fall and System bringing us into terrifying Black Mirror worlds.

There were homegrown circus shows too, REAL[ISE] and Stack that Bass delivering vivid characters and awesome stunts.

Thomas Monckton in Only Bones 1.0

Thomas Monckton and Gemma Tweedie’s Only Bones 1.0 was the talk of Fringe (and eventual Best in Fringe winner). Restricted to a stage just one metre in length, this was a gasp-inducing showcase of Monckton’s elastic limbs and mouldable face, as he seemingly battled with his uncooperative body to perform nothing less than the history of evolution itself. REMARKABLE.

And then there was Pussy Riot: Riot Days from touring members of the Russian activist collective. Part autobiographical theatre, part punk concert, all protest, this was a compelling and chilling telling of the Pussy Riot story to date, thick with the lived experience of front person Maria Alyokhina. Their takeaway message was no empty platitude: Freedom doesn’t exist unless we fight for it every day.

It is these electrifying moments that you live for when doing Fringe. With so much to see, shows began to blend together as I hopped from venue to venue, sometimes making a mad dash across town to get to the next one. But always with a hope: the next show I see will deliver something truly special.

My sublime moment? The Marvelous Mechanical Musical Maiden. Wearing a poofy carnivalesque dress (that ingeniously hid a portable sound system), the Maiden shared her story of how Thomas Edison had trapped her voice in this Mechanical Musical form and her resulting misadventures over the subsequent century. She sang to us, and for us, and we joined in heartily during her rendition of ‘Minnie the Moocher’. I was there for a late-night, tiny audience in Fringe bar, but creator and performer Carmel Clavin weaved an indelible storytelling spell over us.

Another moment: Hobson Street Theatre Company’s That’s What Friends Are For. Created by the community around the City Mission on Auckland’s Hobson Street, I have enjoyed attending their devised shows over the years and was thrilled to meet them again in Wellington. Directed by Peter O’Connor, in this show the company looked back and forward, as their Hobson Street base undergoes renovations. Joined by a choir onstage, the company gently helped us form a genuine sense of community in the BATS theatre, as we sung ‘Stand By Me’ and a Te Reo version of ‘Hallelujah’ together and filled the room with aroha.

Some shows proved to be pricklier, and troubling. Public Fodder’s I Never Thought I’d Have to Explain it All dived into an ethical hornets’ nest in its investigation of the disappearance of baby Tegan, one of Australia’s most controversial crime cases. While true crime podcasts are an ubiquitous contemporary obsession, the embodiment and representation of the case’s figures comes with an added level of responsibility. There’s a scene where lead performer and creator Nathalie Morris visits Tegan’s mother, Keli Lane, in prison, and Morris she wants to make a show about her – to tell her story. But like many other events in this play, that meeting never happened – the show wants to keep pulling the rug from under the audience as we lurch from commentary upon commentary and tonal shift upon tonal shift. While there’s some attempt at addressing the audience’s own complicity in lapping up true crime as entertainment, the show never gets past the uneasiness that we are watching a complicated personal story being used to showcase the company’s metatheatrical bag of tricks.

Other shows raised questions around audience safety. We often think about theatre as this contained space of illusion, but sometimes theatre escapes its box of make believe and overwhelms us on a visceral, intensely personal level. And we might seek that out – we want to be moved, we want to cry, we want to have felt something. But there’s a difference between that and retraumatising an audience member; an artist has a huge responsibility and duty of care.

On the night I saw Post It Notes both the playwright and performer addressed the audience at the top of the show, explaining the suicidal themes and imagery of the show. We were told that we could leave at any point, but anyone choosing to exit would be very visible in the BATS Heyday Dome space, its configuration working against this offer. During the show we’re told a story in which a character tells everyone in a food place that if they were thinking of taking their own lives, that they shouldn’t do it. Later the performer repeats this line directly to the live audience. While undoubtedly well meaning, as a blunt directive that might not help anyone in that position, it seemed to undermine the intentions of the show. More care and responsibility are needed in the programming and production of work engaging with mental health concerns. Another show, Manless: Toxic Masculinity and Tequila, which reimagined David Mamet-type characters as toxic femmes, ended on an assault. While I am not advocating that we should shy away from brutal realities, it is worth thinking carefully about what you are putting an audience through, why you are doing it, and how you can support them afterwards.

The Resonances

What we are talking about, really, is resonance. That audiences will see and respond in different ways, based on what they bring into a show, the way the show resonates with them. That the currents of a work can shift, in ways that an artist can’t always predict, the moment an individual meets the play.

A show can change from night to night, as we look with fresh eyes, informed by the world around us.

Sometimes a show’s meaning can change in an instant.

And a country can change in an instant.

On Friday 15th March there was a rupture. An attack of hate against our Muslim community.

And as we processed, we could not pretend anymore.

That night, I went to Mournmoor Murders, a Brokenwood Murders-type comedy parody of a murder spree rocking small-town NZ. Usually, we would not raise an eyebrow at this; usually, this would be a safe and silly show. BATS staff showed care by greeting us at the door and forewarning us of the content of the show. Performed by Maria Williams and Alice May Connolly, it was a clever multi-character farce featuring a comedy gold Chicago the Musical climax. The emotion of performing under these circumstances was evident at the end of the show, when the actors could pretend no more. But being together with friends and strangers in a room – that helped, and I am grateful.

I went downstairs to Massive Crushes, a monologue show by Uther Dean for a 8-strong female cast. That night they made the decision to begin with the ensemble on stage, greeting us as we walked in. They spoke a karakia together, then the show began, and we could savour the bitter, sweet and dark perspectives of the various character. That acknowledgement at the start of the show helped too.

The shows went on, but Christchurch sat with us in the theatre, just as the event entered our homes, schools, workplaces, and places of worship across the country. The stories of the victims. The reality of white supremacy. The racism that continues to poison our whenua. All present in the room.

And so we looked with fresh but horrified eyes, any lingering naiveite removed from our view.

A few days later I went to the final performance of (I)sland T(rap): The Epic re-Mixology of The Odyssey. Written and performed by Austin Dean Ashford, this show was a melody of rap, spoken word, song, and sweat-drenched physicality: Ashford shapeshifts in lyric and body between the protagonist Black Ulysses searching for the mountaintop, the tempter Calypso, island crabs and panthers, and a terrifying one-eyed python named Cyclops. With its weary character who is “so used to gun shots” that he doesn’t “even flinch any more”, this show rang as a warning from a land numb to race-based violence and division. Ashford needed our energy to complete the show, and we willed him on as our eyes met in turn. At the end of the performance there was a genuine outpouring of appreciation and aroha between the audience and the performer. This Fringe performance marked Ashford’s first tour outside of the USA, and he told us at the end of the show that he did not anticipate that he would bring his show about “gun violence on an island, to an island dealing with gun violence.” His voice cracked, and our throats lumped. That resonated. (I)sland T(rap) was my personal standout of the entire Fringe, the show I remain most in awe of.

I am aware that I watch from a privileged position, and theatre’s potential for providing comfort in difficult times is not something that would be accessible or even helpful for everyone, but it has helped me. I have been out, and around people, forming temporary communities united by our choice of performance. Equally, there were some planned shows that I didn’t get to, because I needed to be around visiting friends in support, conversation, and vigil.

And I realised how vital it felt to be seen and included as an audience member. I began to struggle with the shows that erected the 4th wall, pretending that we weren’t there. I found that there was something so life-giving in the audience’s presence being acknowledged, so that we could then pretend together.

Another moment.

Orpheus. Another Greek myth. This time the ill-fated love story between Orpheus (known as Dave in this telling from The Flanagan Collective & Gobbledigook Theatre) and Eurydice. Two performers, one holding a guitar, and one holding a script – a ‘falling in love notebook’. And us, the audience. All together in the room. Looking at each other.

It’s Dave’s Birthday. He’s turning 30. Bruce Springsteen is on the jukebox. We are invited to sing ‘Dancing in the Dark’, and we all join in. (Song has marked so many of my moments of Fringe.)

And then Dave sees Eurydice for the first time. And we sing some more, with the weight of the cultural resonance of Springsteen, but also with a new quality this time, an appreciation for what this moment means for the life of the character, for moments in our own life:

You can’t start a fire / You can’t start a fire without a spark / This gun’s for hire / Even if we’re just dancing in the dark

And sure, the underlying assumptions of this particular romantic narrative remained mostly uninterrogated by the company.

But this was a pure moment of romance, and of hope, even when we know how this particular narrative will end. And I feel myself lift, and lighten, as I write these words down, as I conjure this feeling through the stage of my mind’s eye.

Uther Dean had a line in his brilliant solo show, Uther Dean Reads 300 Haiku, that art always ends. Formally, sure. We read to the last line of the poem. Actors bow and leave the stage. The show is over. But resonance can linger.

This was one haiku, among Dean’s 300:

We can’t imagine
how other people exist
but we should still try

That resonated.

And so, in theatre, as in life, every day, we continue to try.

My gratitude to the artists who imagine, and all those who support them getting to the stage, so that we can imagine too.

Thank you, Fringe.

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