Interview: Cassandra Tse

[Interview conducted by Phoebe Robertson 01/02/2022]

Good afternoon, Cassandra. To start, I just want to ask, how are you? It’s been a long couple of years of Covid-19 and its impacts. How are you doing as a theatre practitioner now that 2021 is wrapping up? 

Hi Phoebe, I’m doing okay – have had a busy year in 2021 and despite COVID restrictions have managed to put together a lot of work I’m really proud of.  

To follow, I was wondering if you could briefly summarise what you have been doing for the past couple of years as a theatre maker? 

I haven’t really slowed down to the extent that some other theatre practitioners have. Working around Level 3 and 4 lockdowns, I have managed to direct or assistant direct three productions and three readings, write a new work and edit some others, produce a few shows and act in a few more. I can’t say that this is due to any particularly strong work ethic on my part; just good luck and some great support from other organisations which have allowed us to navigate the uncertainty of these times.

Let’s start by talking about your theatre company, Red Scare Theatre. You had quite a successful run in 2019, with Moodporn, The Aliens, Four Nights in the Green Barrow Pub and arranging Red Readings. How did your company feel at the end of 2019, moving into 2020?  
At the end of 2019 we had just wrapped up our third year of programmed seasons; not our most commercially successful year, but we were really proud of the work that we had put on and had plans to continue growing and expanding our output in 2020. We announced our 2020 season with three shows – two world premieres (White Men and That’s All She Wrote) and one NZ premiere of an international work (Wakey, Wakey by Will Eno) – plus a tour of our 2018 show Movers through Arts on Tour, and a return of our Red Readings programme. This was set to be one of our most ambitious seasons yet. Of course, COVID-19 eventually postponed or cancelled all of these projects.

We first got the sense that COVID was something worth worrying about halfway through the NZ Fringe Festival, when the first cases started showing up in NZ. We decided to postpone White Men, which was supposed to be in April 2020, about a week before the entire country went into lockdown – we were lucky in that we were able to pull the plug before making any big purchases (e.g. set materials) so we avoided any huge financial pitfalls.

Talking about that impact, only Apocalypse Songs and That’s All She Wrote were produced during 2020. And Apocalypse Songs, I understand was made for the conditions of the pandemic. If you can, I’d love for you to talk for a bit about the shows that were in development/you didn't get to put on.  

The shows that never got put on were Wakey, Wakey, the AOT season of Movers, and Red Readings. Wakey, Wakey is a show that I was vaguely aware of from when I worked at Signature Theatre in New York; it was produced the year after my internship there. I’m a fan of Will Eno’s work, and I bought the script because it was specifically written for an actor in a wheelchair (though it had only been performed in the past by able-bodied actors). I was thinking about it as a showcase project for John Landreth, one of the actors who had previously featured in our 2018 show Movers – he suffered a spinal cord injury the day after he finished the Auckland tour of the show which resulted in paralysis. We knew we would have to recast John for the Movers AOT tour, which was already locked in, and Wakey, Wakey was an idea for a project that could feature John.

After COVID cancelled both projects, we decided to let the Movers tour go – in some ways it was a good excuse to cancel a project that we knew wouldn’t be the same with one of the three actors recast. We also decided to shelve Wakey, Wakey indefinitely as John felt that he was more interested in developing his own projects as a writer/songwriter; as it was programmed specifically to feature this actor, we didn’t want to go ahead with the show with another performer.

Red Readings was a monthly play reading series that we held during 2018/2019, which took place upstairs at the Tuatara Third Eye bar – we had an arrangement with the owner who let us use the space for free! Unfortunately, the Third Eye closed at the end of 2020 and so we didn’t want to bring back this programme in 2021 – many of the plays we were planning to feature had already moved on by this point as well and found new homes. However, we are planning to bring back a Red Readings series in 2022, with some new scripts in development – venue TBC!

Apocalypse Songs is a five-part audio drama that Red Scare produced. It focuses on a New Zealand radio host Amy Louise Chen who does a segment on obscure 1960’s New Zealand musician, Claire Wilson and discusses whether her songs could have predicted the future. Personally, I became aware of it after a lecture you gave at Victoria University where you discussed it. I also absolutely fell in love with this audio drama. I listened to it all in one sitting and think about it pretty frequently. So, really, I’d like to know everything you’re willing to tell me about this text. Where the idea came from, how it was produced, the process of creating it, I’m all ears.  

So glad you liked it! One of the common misconceptions about Apocalypse Songs is that this piece was written for production during the pandemic – I had actually started work on AS in 2016 (I’m amazed by this – I just had to look up when the first documents were created and apparently I wrote the first episode in March 2016, which I have no memory of doing) and then the first full draft was completed while I was on a Playmarket retreat in 2018, which was supposed to be for a completely different project.

I knew I wanted to write an audio drama as it’s a genre I’m really fascinated by, so the form came first; the story grew as a result of thinking about what kind of story would best fit in an audio format. I thought that something that involved both music and ‘found footage’ would be interesting, which led me to the pseudo-documentary style – I decided I wanted to mimic the format of an RNZ music history show and have the story unfold from there. From that jumping off point, there were lots of other ideas I wanted to explore – outsider art, free will and predestination, and the horror of possession from a feminist perspective (the idea of the body as a non-consensual vessel is viscerally horrifying to most of us, but for some reason they say it’s okay when the possessor is an embryo!?) I was lucky to find a perfect collaborator in Katie Morton, who I met in 2017 and who I’ve since worked with on several projects; they are probably the only composer in the world who could translate my descriptions of Clara Wilson’s music into songs and get it right on the first draft.

This is still a project that wouldn’t have come about without the pandemic, however, because of the way audio drama is funded (or not funded) in NZ. We have several different government arts funding bodies in Aotearoa: Film Commission funds short and feature films; NZ on Air funds radio and TV; Creative New Zealand funds theatre, music, dance, literature, visual art, and basically everything else. There is no specific funder for podcasts, but they sort of fall into the NZ on Air category – however, NZ on Air only fund projects that are connected to a major broadcast network, so independent podcast producers are ineligible to apply. This is a big problem for fiction podcasts, which generally can’t be ticketed (no one wants to pay for audio drama) and don’t fall under any of the funding bodies’ umbrellas – it means if you want to make a fiction podcast like Apocalypse Songs, unless you are working with Radio New Zealand or the Spinoff, you will have to do it for free, or crowdfund. This is why AS sat in a drawer for two years after the full first draft was completed; we couldn’t see any clear pathway to production.

However! CNZ offered a special fund in 2020 called the Arts Continuity Grant which was created especially for creatives who were pivoting to new, lockdown-proof work as a result of the pandemic. There was no particular provision for podcasts in this fund, but I emailed a very nice person at CNZ and argued that since my company couldn’t produce our art form (live theatre) as normal during lockdown, we should be allowed to get funding for an audio drama instead. Thanks to this person, who lobbied for us to their manager, we were allowed to apply for the fund and received full funding for the project! So, thanks to loopholes and someone at CNZ being nice enough to advocate for us, we were finally able to put this show on. I’m not sure that we will have any luck funding future podcasts in the same way as the Arts Continuity Grant was a one-off fund, but hopefully we can now argue that a precedent has been set…

I’d also love to know what kind of reception Apocolapse Songs has gained?  Has it been received well?

We received some positive local reviews and some nice feedback from people who listened live on RadioActive when it first premiered, but the overwhelming response to this project has been from international listeners. I’ve been really thrilled at the feedback we have received from listeners from the UK, the US – the other day we got a nice tweet from a Mexican filmmaker living in the Netherlands! We also got some good write-ups from international sites; we got nominated for a few 2020 AudioVerse Awards, one episode was ranked in the Bello Collective Top 100 podcast episodes of 2020, and I had an interview on BBC Podcast Radio Hour talking about the show. It’s such a New Zealand-set story that I was really delighted to see it translate so well to international listeners. The international audio drama community has been really welcoming and supportive, and has opened up some new opportunities too (which I can’t talk about here).  

Addressing That’s All She Wrote, I understand it came back for another 2021 season. Was this a response to Covid and the uncertainty of producing new material? Or just another chance to showcase a beautiful performance?  

Our 2020 That’s All She Wrote production was intended as a five-show development season in Circa Two, so we were always intending to edit it and bring it back; however, the 2020 season was cut short as we went to Level 2 on opening night, and it was not possible to operate the show at Level 2 in such a small venue. The 2021 season was considerably more developed, with new musical arrangements, a new set and lighting design, and some script changes, and we were delighted to finally get the full five shows we wanted to do; we’re hoping to tour the show up to Auckland in 2022 or 2023, though this conversation got cut short a bit due to the Auckland lockdown

Talking about 2021, how did you find the show making process this year? 

This year has in some ways been more difficult than 2020; the lockdown hit White Men and Battle Hymn particularly hard, as both shows needed to be rescheduled. As a producer, it was really tiring and disheartening having to constantly come up with new plans on the fly – we were really grateful that the BATS Co-Production funding we received for White Men meant it was still financially viable for us to put that show on during Level 2 with such a reduced capacity. White Men came extremely close to being cancelled completely – in fact, we did cancel the show, and had a teary Zoom with the cast and crew when the decision was made, but before we could announce it, the BATS team found a new performance slot option for us two weeks after our original season, and we realised we could actually make it work. The emotional upheaval of cancelling and then un-cancelling White Men was a whole ordeal; we also lost our lighting designer as she was based in Auckland, but luckily another Auckland-based lighting designer who was stuck in Pōneke (and happened to be crashing on our set designer’s couch) was able to join the team at the last minute!

 Battle Hymn was a bigger postponement, as our original October season was pushed all the way back to December (thanks to the Gryphon Theatre team who were able to find us an early December slot) and we had to navigate the fact that a good chunk of our teenage cast members had NCEA exams that week; this was a whole new juggling act, with an understudy performer being brought in during the last segment of the rehearsal period. Outside of the COVID difficulties, however, this was a really thrilling project to get to work on; this was a play that I first developed in 2014 as part of my Honours degree, as a conventional play with some promenade elements, and here I was able to develop the script further into my first full wander-at-will promenade production. This is a form that I really adore, and it was so exciting to get to see it fully realised, seven years after the first draft. Working with the Red Scare Youth team was also very rewarding, and I’m excited to expand my role with Red Scare Youth Theatre in 2022 as a co-tutor.

 I also know that in 2021, took on a tutoring position at Victoria University. How did you find managing that position with Covid-19?  

2021 tutoring wasn’t too difficult as I had already been a teaching fellow at Vic in 2020 – that was the really difficult part. I co-directed the 301 production of Three Sisters with David O’Donnell in 2020, while tutoring a second year NZ theatre course. Three Sisters was a complete on-the-fly pivot to digital, in which I ended up segmenting our original script into audio drama and video sections, which we rehearsed over Zoom, recorded remotely and then posted online. This was a really complicated project to adapt for lockdown restrictions, as we had to balance the needs of the course – allowing each student a chance to perform a major acting role and a major production role – with the dramaturgical complexities of adapting a text to a new format; there were also issues in that some of the skills the students needed to demonstrate in order to get the project up and running were not skills that are traditionally taught in the course (e.g. film acting, web design, video editing) – although the class rose to the challenge, I felt really terrible for them that they weren’t able to have the Company experience they had been hoping for throughout their first and second year.

Tutoring in the NZ theatre course was also complicated by COVID, not only because tutorials were all online but because group projects became individual projects, effectively tripling or quadrupling my marking load overnight. In 2021, more planning had gone into both courses I taught, and a greater focus had been put on how each project could be completed both in person and online; this meant that the effects of COVID on the course delivery weren’t nearly as disruptive as the year before, although there will always be some level of disruption when a theatre course goes online.

I’d like to round out this interview by looking into the future. What are your expectations, or hopes for your practice in the next couple of years? Going into 2022 with the Traffic Light System in New Zealand and international borders about to open up.  

I’m always hoping to find some time to do more writing on my own projects. I have a new musical which has been in development since late 2020 and I’m hoping that this gets further development time in 2022; the scale of the production is such that my composer and I will need to find a collaborator from one of the major arts festivals to complete the work (let alone to produce it!) so we can only wait and hope. I have a couple more audio drama projects lined up which I’m hoping to do some work on over the course of this year, as well as some directing projects planned for the end of 2022, which are currently still in discussions.

I’m also hoping to do more work in the immersive and/or promenade sphere in the near future; there has been a real upswing in the number of immersive shows that have been produced in NZ in recent years, but vanishingly few of them are either scripted or allow for the wander-at-will promenade format that I love so much. Obviously this can be one of the worst possible formats for COVID restrictions (enclosed spaces anyone?) so perhaps this is not a sensible type of art to focus on, but I’m hoping that there will be a time when the restrictions finally end, the pandemic is over, and we have full artistic freedom again. In the meantime, I might be writing a few more shows and putting them in a drawer.  

Find out more about Red Scare Theatre Company at

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