“The New Zealand of New Zealand”: Theatrical Life in Hamilton

Like, Shakespeare? at the Meteor Theatre, Hamilton 3 - 5 August 2017

Many New Zealanders think Hamilton is a cultural (and actual) wasteland, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Since moving here, I’ve infiltrated the local theatre scene and, believe it or not, found it to be thriving. Here to talk about it is prolific writer, actor and director Ross MacLeod.

Like, Shakespeare? at the Meteor Theatre, Hamilton 3 - 5 August 2017

The Macbeths

Ross is currently working on an original comedy sketch show called Like, Shakespeare?, a hilarious pop culture car crash between classical theatre and the Information Age. If you’d like to see how the Macbeths fair in marriage counselling, how Iago does in daytime television, or what the Merry Wives of Tinder get up to, get yourself down to Hamilton’s Meteor Theatre from August 3rd – 5th, 2017!

So, Ross, how long have you lived in Hamilton?

Twenty years. I moved here for university in 1998.

And what’s it like to live in?

I like it. Obviously, no place is perfect, but for me it has the right balance of not-too-big and not-too-small. The only thing I miss is the beach in summer.

How long have you been… well… theatrical?

Like, Shakespeare? at the Meteor Theatre, Hamilton 3 - 5 August 2017

Bottom from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

I think I had my first lead role, the Pied Piper, in Standard 3, (or Year 5 in the current system.) I think I did quite a bit of performing and creating before then. I was in various school shows over the years, and since moving to Hamilton I’ve been pretty steadily involved.

How has the theatre scene in Hamilton changed since then, or in the last decade or so?

Like, Shakespeare? at the Meteor Theatre, Hamilton 3 - 5 August 2017

Shakespeare at the Hamilton Gardens

I think different art forms go through ebbs and flows. I arrived here not long after the Elektra theatre company had stopped operating and the Hamilton Community Arts Council had passed The Meteor over to the City Council. But drama on campus was pretty active, with Upstage, the uni drama group, producing quite a bit. That tailed off in the early 2000s, with a few independent groups working and even Hamilton Operatic having trouble, having to pass Clarence Street Theatre back to the council too. But then the pendulum started swinging back. More theatre groups started popping up and now both The Meteor and Clarence Street are back in community hands with a vibrant theatre scene. And then there are other things that have continued and evolved over time, like the Summer Shakespeare, which has been going on longer than I’ve been here.

What do you think of the New Zealand attitude to theatre in general?

Like, Shakespeare? at the Meteor Theatre, Hamilton 3 - 5 August 2017

Kryztal Kapulet, (because she thinks it’s cooler if it’s spelt with a K)

In some ways, I see Hamilton as a microcosm of the country. We’re the New Zealand of New Zealand. We produce a lot of good writers and performers, but only ever consider them as successes once they make it elsewhere. We’re a net exporter of talent.

And while we actually innovate and create challenging art, it takes time before it’s “safe” for the general population to absorb it as part of the NZ identity. Most famous NZ plays are pretty iconoclastic works. But in a lot of ways we’re quite conservative as an art consuming culture. Our tastes, in general, are for safe and comfortable things.

Like, Shakespeare? at the Meteor Theatre, Hamilton 3 - 5 August 2017

Diamantay Montague

Roger Hall is probably New Zealand’s most successful playwright and he’s perfected the niche of his work growing older with the baby boomer generation. But new works have a much tougher time. And while we seem to love musicals, getting an audience for an original one is a real uphill battle.

I think the biggest change it’s no longer taken as a given that we’re a monolithic culture. As we become more accepting of the variety in what it means to be a New Zealander, I think the attitudes to theatre will start to change, sections at a time.

That’s a really cool answer… So, will you tell us more about what you’re working on at the moment?

I’m currently working on an original comedy sketch show called Like, Shakespeare?. It’s about putting classical characters into modern settings and finding the comedy in both. It’s been great to get some of the people I work with writing for the first time in an encouraging setting. After that I have an improvised horror play in the Hamilton Fringe Festival in October, and am hopefully getting an original musical of mine on stage in 2018.

Like, Shakespeare? at the Meteor Theatre, Hamilton 3 - 5 August 2017

Two households, both as undignified as each other…

Thanks, Ross! So Like, Shakespeare? starts at 7.30pm on the 3rd, 4th and 5th of August (2017,) with a matinee performance at 2pm on the 5th, at the Meteor Theatre. If you’re anywhere near Hamilton, come and check it out because – guess what? – I’m in it! I wrote a whole bit where the Capulets and the Montagues are CHAVs on a Jeremy Kyle-like show… it’s going to be awesome. See you there!

Like, Shakespeare? at the Meteor Theatre, Hamilton 3 - 5 August 2017

… that is the Millenial Question

Oh, and check out our promotional video to see what I look like as the girl from The Ring

A Wander through Waikato Museum

I’ve been meaning to visit our local museum for ages. I’ve walked past it so many times, on Hamilton’s main street, overlooking the Waikato River. It’s free to enter, except for a couple of children’s exhibitions, and doesn’t take that long to go round. It’s also in quite a nice building, at least from the back, the side facing the river. Well today I finally checked it out.

Waikato Museum

Part of the back of the museum

By far the best exhibition was entitled ‘For us They Fell’, all about the people of Waikato’s involvement in the First World War, but I also enjoyed ‘Passing People’, and exhibition showcasing the art of John Badcock.

Each of his paintings seemed ultra-realistic – not photorealistic, but more than that. It was like you could see the lives of the people; imagine their stories. Each person was unique and amazing. I almost expected them to start talking, which is not a feeling I’ve ever had before when looking at a painting.

Waikato Museum

More of the back of the museum

There were other art exhibitions in the museum, but they didn’t really capture me. The place actually seemed more of an art gallery than a museum, but there was a small exhibition about the Freemasons, and another exhibition displaying a giant penguin fossil found in Kawhia in 2006.

The most beautiful exhibition was about the Maori King movement, an integral part of the history of Waikato – and I wished they’d gone into more detail! The centrepiece was a (restored) 200-year-old canoe, or waka, called Te Winika. You weren’t allowed to take photographs in the exhibition, but here’s a picture of Te Whare Waka o Te Winika from the outside:

Waikato Museum Te Whare Waka o Te Winika

And this is something I almost missed entirely, a piece of art you have to look out of one of the museum’s windows to see, suspended between the trees, over the river:

WaikatoMuseum4

Cool, eh?

I’m a history geek, so I like visiting museums. Here’s a link to a thing I made about some of the best museums in New Zealand:

10 Quite Cool Museums to Visit in New Zealand

Why New Zealand Made Me Write

I’ve nearly finished my novel. (For real this time.) And I’m terrified. This world and these characters have been consuming my life for nearly two decades. (I’m only twenty-four.) They’ve been my reason for living – my only reason until I met Tim. But the novel might never have happened if my family hadn’t moved to New Zealand.

When I was a little kid, living in England, I never dreamed of being a writer. My parents were teachers, so I wanted to be a teacher. I went to dance lessons, so I wanted to be a ballerina. I went to violin lessons, so I wanted to be Vanessa-Mae. Then, when I was six, my nana gave a notebook. It was a very ordinary-looking notebook, but it had a hardcover. That made all the difference.

Books with hardcovers, my six-year-old brain thought, are for Very Special Stories. So I sat down and I wrote a Very Special Story with a Carefully Drawn Front Cover and Everything. The story was called Sarah and Anne. (It was supposed to be Sarah and Annie, but on my Carefully Drawn Front Cover I’d accidentally missed out the ‘i’ and no, Mum, I couldn’t just squeeze one in – that would ruin it!)

book-730479_640It wasn’t a novel.

It was simply a piece of meandering prose about the daily lives of a girl and her favourite doll, who could talk. (I’d recently seen Toy Story.) It was finished when I reached the last page of the notebook. Nevertheless it was a masterpiece.

I presented it to my mum and, without really thinking about it, went to the local and stationer’s and bought a second notebook.

Soon I was staying up long into the night, hastily flicking my bedside light off whenever I heard my parents’ footsteps on the stairs, filling notebook after notebook with the adventures of Sarah and Anne. I still didn’t dream of being a writer. I just had a story in my head that wouldn’t stop and needed exorcising.

fairy-tales-671406_640As the years went by, my stories – well, one continuous story, really – took on the influences of what I was reading. It had the children-from-our-world-entering-a-magical-world of Narnia, the fantastic castle of Harry Potter, the enchanted forest of The Magic Faraway Tree… It was also part-diary: the mundane things that happened to me/Sarah at school side-by-side with the fantasy.

But something was about to happen to me that wasn’t so mundane.

When I was nine years old, my parents told me that we were moving to New Zealand. My world was shattered. Everything was gone: my best friend, my grandma, my dance lessons, my violin lessons… because the small town we moved to in New Zealand didn’t have any dance schools or violin teachers. I was lonely. I was just so, so lonely. And bored.

book-2869_640Boredom was the thing, really. I was sitting around one day, no friends to hang out with; no dances or violin tunes to be practising, and I thought to myself: what can I do? Well I’d obviously found writing enjoyable enough. Why not do that? But PROPERLY this time. I’d write a novel. A proper novel. How hard could it be? It was just something to pass the time; it’d be finished by Christmas.

But a novel about what? Try as I might, I couldn’t think of anything. Then I felt a little tug on the back of the T-shirt of my mind. “I’m still here,” Anne said.

“Yes, but you’re a doll,” I told her. “I’m too old for stories about talking toys now. They’re stupid.”

“But I’m not a toy,” she said. “None of us are. We’re shape-shifting magical folk. And we’re here to protect you.”

“From what?” I asked… and the novel was born.

Creepy Porcelain Doll

My own picture, (the rest in this article are off pixabay.com) featuring the inspiration for Anne, my porcelain Alice in Wonderland doll

Despite the fantasy elements, it was still largely autobiographical. Sarah was an English girl whose family had moved to a small town in New Zealand. Although her father’s reasons for shifting the family had been rather different to mine. Sarah’s route to school and the school itself were the same as mine. Then there were her friends…

I must admit, loneliness drove me to use the names and basic looks of some of the friends I’d had in England. By writing about them, I felt like I was still interacting with them. Of course, they soon developed into their own characters, separate from the people they were based on, but I wouldn’t blame the people they were based on if they felt a little freaked out.

Years later, I reconnected with some of them on social media. It was a weird experience for me. I didn’t tell them, but I almost expected them to be like my characters. They weren’t. It was worse meeting one of them in person – I didn’t see England again until I was seventeen, so the differences were quite staggering.

The characters have all grownup with me, you see. When I finished the first version of that first novel, I was older, wiser and had better taste in writing, so I had to write it again, better. Then, when I finished the second version, I was older, wiser and had better taste in writing… so… you get the idea. Each time I finished it, I was completely embarrassed by the juvenile crap that the younger me had written.

mortality-401222_640But in-between all the re-writes of the first novel, I wrote sequels to it. The characters aged as I did. It got out of control. The world grew and grew. It got darker. Writing was no longer my hobby, it was my life. I didn’t choose where the stories went, they ran ahead of me, dragging me in the dirt behind them, scraped and buffeted by self-criticism, but unable to stop.

This is the final version of my first novel. I’m nearly finished. Maybe, someday soon, I can regain some sanity. And by ‘sanity’ I mean ‘mental health’, because writers should be a little insane. It’s got to the point now where I couldn’t do anything else with my life if I tried. Writing is the only thing I’m good at.

I often wonder what my life would have been like if we’d stayed in England. Would writing have become my life’s passion if I’d still had my other hobbies? Would I have been bullied in the same way, forced to spend high school lunchtimes hiding in the library, where it was natural to read and write? Life might have been easier if my self-esteem wasn’t so wrapped up in writing.

Kuirau Park

One of my pictures from Kuirau Park in Rotorua

I also think about how much New Zealand, the country itself, has influenced the world of my novel. Have the attitudes of my characters changed? The landscape of the world? I know that there’s somewhere in my second novel that was very consciously inspired by the magical glowworm caves of Waitomo. And another place inspired by the volcanic terrains of Rotorua, Taupo and White Island.

I haven’t used any of the magical creatures from Maori folklore so far, although at some point there is an old woman with removable fingers of fire, obviously inspired by Mahuika from the Maui legends. I remember that story from a Year Eight art class, and I wish I’d been told more about Maori folklore years ago.

One of my favourite fantasy writers, Juliet Marillier, is from New Zealand, but she mainly writes novels inspired by Celtic folklore. I suppose I take my influences from lots of different places, though there’s a certain amount of, as Terry Pratchett put it, re-arranging the furniture in Tolkien’s attic. But then all fantasy is.

(To set my nana’s mind at rest, my book also has a firm basis in the real world. Not that what happens in the fantasy world isn’t real – you just ask Neil Gaiman. I mean that one of its most significant settings is a small town in New Zealand. (My nana thinks fantasy is a waste of time because none of the things happening are real. It took long enough to convince her that ‘writer’ is a respectable career prospect, but ‘fantasy writer’ may need more work!))

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