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Scarily good theatre

Lily Tulloch and Will Tickner in “Fairy Lights”, a story of anxiety and panic before a deadline. PHOTO/ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL

Youth push the boundaries of theatre

Creative staging, raw talent, a willingness to push the boundaries, and a touch of horror have propelled two teams of young thespians onto the national stage.

Wairarapa College and Masterton Theatre Company’s [MTC] youth troupe will be representing the region at the national final of the 2022 TheatreFest competition, held in Wellington this weekend.

TheatreFest, a one-act play festival organised by Theatre New Zealand, is one of the country’s premiere competitions for amateur dramatists, open to established and original works from schools and repertory theatre companies.

The two Wairarapa teams were among the three selected for the national final at the Lower North Island regional competition, held last month at Masterton’s Majestic Theatre.

Of the 14 groups competing, the six Wairarapa teams had a particularly strong showing, taking home, among them, nine awards for direction, script writing, ensemble work, and individual performance.

MTC Youth’s 15-strong cast simultaneously dazzled and terrified the audience with their rendition of Shuddersome, a stage adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short fiction, bringing the writer’s gruesome imagination to life, and snatching the awards for Best Ensemble and Best Design.

Winning the title of Best Youth and Best Overall Production was Fairy Lights, an original piece written by WaiCol student Will Tickner, capturing a young woman’s inner turmoil as the deadline for her assignment closes in.

Tickner, Year 13, received high praise for his creative vision, incorporating shadow puppetry, fight choreography and horror elements to capture the protagonist’s unravelling mental state and co-star Lily Tulloch took home an Excellence in Acting award for her authentic performance.

This weekend, the MTC and WaiCol troupes will face off against seven other teams, from Dargaville in the north to Dunedin in the south, in a bid for the top prizes.

Paul Percy, organiser for the Lower North Island Regionals, said this year’s entrants were evidence of the high calibre within regional theatre companies and he was particularly impressed with the creativity the young performers brought to the table.

“The young actors, including from MTC and WaiCol, were prepared to push the boundaries and take risks,” he said.

“Young people have something to say and they’re using theatre to express that. They’re not interested in the theatre that may have been popular in the past, they want to tell the stories that are most important and interesting to them.

“They’re prepared to challenge themselves to go beyond their regular lives and disappear into something completely new. Which is what makes theatre so good.

“The audience was quite blown away by what they had to offer.”

The cast of MTC Youth’s Shuddersome as “the Shudders”, the undead narrators of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Particularly keen to push the envelope on stage were the Shuddersome cast, who clearly relished their roles as “the Shudders”, as a chorus troupe of “the undead ghouls living within Poe’s mind”.

Director Linda Voice said Shuddersome is a challenging work for young actors to perform, with particular finesse needed to capture the intricacies and nuances of Poe’s text.

“It is a difficult play. It’s very dark, there’s a lot of dialogue, there’s complex language and rhythm, and a lot of different layers of meaning,” Voice said.

“Before we started blocking everything out, we spent a lot of time together studying Poe’s work figuring out what kind of person he was and what he was trying to get across in his writings.

“Once we’d done that, they were able to come up with all these crazy, wonderful ways for the ghouls to tell his stories.”

Voice said the teens “totally took ownership” of the piece contributing many of their own ideas, including using mime, physically demanding choreography, and props and costuming as visual symbolism.

For example, in their retelling of Poe’s The Oval Portrait, the Shudders pull ribbons from the female protagonist’s clothing, representing the life drained from her as her eccentric artist husband paints her picture.

“They added a bit of a twist after she dies, the painter puts her in a frame and leaves her on stage,” Voice said.

“We added several other picture frames into our choreography at the end basically saying ‘hang on, he’s probably done this before, to other women’.”

Voice said she was particularly proud of young actor Cody Laing-Bayly, who received an Excellence Award for his role as the narrator of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, a tragic, conflicted persona, descending into madness.

“He created a character that was manic but very believable. He keeps it together up to a point then you see the switch flip, and his breakdown completely takes over.

“For Cody to have that level of understanding of characterisation at just 14 is pretty remarkable.”

Also bringing mental anguish to life on stage were WaiCol students Will and Lily in Fairy Lights: Delving into the panicked psyche of a student as she struggles to complete an assignment five minutes before deadline.

For up-and-coming playwright Tickner, the script, a last minute-entry into the competition, was a case of life imitating art.

“I really did want to enter something in TheatreFest but I was running out of time to put something together. So I wrote a script about trying to make a deadline.

“I pretty much dropped everything and just focused on the script. A lot of the feelings and experiences Lily embodies on stage were going through my mind while I was writing.”

He said he was thrilled with the feedback Fairy Lights has received and with the audience’s reaction.

“There’s a scene in the play where Lily’s character smashes up the clock on the wall. And you can hear this audible gasp from the audience.

“You could feel them thinking, ‘s***, man, this is intense!’

“As the writer, it’s amazing to see that your work can have an impact on people’s emotions. It made me think, ‘okay, maybe I do have a talent at this.’”

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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