As you may have guessed from our initial stumble, we’ve experienced our fair share of drama on the 30/40 World Tour. Everyone seems to need a little personal drama to spice things up — some more than others. I prefer my dishes on the mild side, while Mr. HalfFull breaks a sweat every now and then. You would think that being together 24/7 during weeks of travel would generate some spicy drama, but don’t worry Mom, Mr. HalfFull and I still like each other! This post is actually about professional drama…of the Kiwi theater variety. I love live theater. For years, I’ve ushered at Woolly Mammoth, and have even recruited Mr. HalfFull and other friends to join me. Since I enjoy great stories, the rush of emotion, and visual elements of light and movement, it seemed natural to seek out theater performances during my Quest for Passion. While traveling in New Zealand, we were able to attend four plays in Auckland, New Plymouth, Wellington, and again in Auckland the night before our flight to New Caledonia.
Our first day in Auckland CBD, we secured tickets to the closing night performance of The Brothers Size. We didn’t know much about the play, but the review sounded promising, not to mention that it was the only theater performance that evening in the theater district (our only evening in Auckland before hitting the road in our rental car the following day). Apparently, we had traveled halfway around the world to see a play by an American playwright about African Americans! The cast consisted of three chiseled and tattooed Maori men attempting gangsta accents. The first few minutes of the play, we had no idea what they were saying. (Weeks later, we spoke with a Kiwi guy at the same box office who also saw the play and couldn’t understand the accents either. So that made us feel a bit better.) We also found their fully embracing hugs to be a far cry from a hip-hop hug in the US. Even the typically open-minded Mr. HalfFull found himself squirming a bit.
The audience seemed to love the play, closing the night with a standing ovation. I thought it was a bit long for a play with no intermission (or “interval” as the Kiwis say). However, I found the movement and lighting compelling. The Maori actors had amazing kinesthetic awareness — none of the choreography seemed forced or unnatural. I love when stage movement flows! The venue was basically a black box theater with tiered seating on two sides of a square stage sunk in the middle. I found it to be an interesting setup, more akin to theater-in-the-round. But it means that neither side of patrons had the best view all the time — in half empty terms, everyone had the worst seat! It also meant there was basically no set nor backstage. The actors not in the scene merely stood off to the side in a static pose. This play also employed a technique of narrating a line of the story and then acting it out, which seemed redundant and stunted the already challenged verbal flow.
As is typical when visiting a new culture, Mr. HalfFull and I were keenly aware of the people around us, and did a lot of people watching. We noticed quite a number of classy patrons savoring ice cream bars in the theater before the show. As an ice cream aficionado, Mr. HalfFull was obsessed with this trend and watched with fascination and envy as elderly men artfully consumed dessert on a stick. Food is allowed in NZ theaters (a departure from the norm for us), and Mr. HalfFull knew he wanted to be fully immersed in this new found ice cream culture next time! New Zealand takes its dairy very seriously, not just ice cream. Each accommodation issued us a bottle of milk upon check-in. It took me a week to figure out that I could ask for trim milk, which is 1 or 2%, and that 0% skim milk does not exist. Don’t get me started on NZ butter…rich, creamy, delicious. Ms. Butter would approve; too bad Customs confiscated her Christmas present!
Our next theater experience was in New Plymouth, a small hip seaside town with culture — lovely restaurants, an art gallery, a museum, and theater. There we witnessed a weird play called Station to Station, which refers to the stations of the cross as reinterpreted for the journey of the characters in the play. Once again, this play told another story inspired by an American; this time, it was a religious right-wing preacher who recruited Kiwis to help him blow up symbolically important Muslim sites in Jerusalem. As with the first play, we didn’t know a great deal about the play or actors beforehand. Of course, this time Mr. HalfFull was armed with an ice cream bar. He sat next to an elderly lady who was also enjoying her ice cream and began to chat. She informed us that the star and writer of the play was a famous soap opera star on Shortland Street, which airs weeknights at 7 PM in New Zealand. She went on to inform Mr. HalfFull that she was fully prepared to run away with the hot Maori doctor from the show! We knew we had some TV watching to do, but later discovered it was nothing like my favorite show, Grey’s Anatomy. It was fun to see a theater actor on TV every now and then, but Shortland Street was not my half empty cup of tea.
The young female lead of the play received cat calls from a drunken lad in the audience. During the Q&A session after the show, of course he was furiously pumping his hand and proceeded to ask, “Do you find me or my mate more attractive?” In reply, she asked him if he was the one who yelled at her during the show. He proudly said yes, only to have her tear into him about how he was rude and ruined the performance for the people around him, declining to answer his question. After the flames subsided, I asked the second question of the night. Firstly, I identified myself as an American, which got a good laugh from the audience. My question to the playwright was about the content of the play and how my understanding of the situation in Jerusalem did not mesh with his plot. It didn’t seem like he was particularly interested in these nuances, but stated that his play was based on an article he read in the UK Guardian and internet research. At that point, a Kiwi patron shouted, “Well, if it’s on the internet, it must be true,” generating a nice chuckle amongst the crowd. We also got into a conversation about the people in the US who believed that the world was supposed to end on May 21, 2011. I mentioned a Washington Post article about the fundamentalist Christians who had quit their jobs and were marching on the National Mall to warn their fellow humans about the approach of the Rapture. It’s safe to say that the world (well, at least Fiji and New Zealand, so far) thinks Americans are all crazy! Nice work, Tea Party.
Our third evening of theater occurred in New Zealand’s brilliant capital city of Wellington. We saw Meet the Churchills at Circa Theater — a story about Sir Winston Churchill and his dysfunctional immediate family. (Bonus: I left feeling much better about my own family life.) Like our first theater experience in Auckland, this venue also had the audience in L-shaped stadium seating around a sunken stage. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover this play finally had a real set. Granted, the whole play took place in one room, rendering the set design much easier. It added a great deal of temporal relevance and brought the characters alive in the space.
As an usher at Woolly Mammoth, I usually get to view the empty set (or if I’m lucky an actor’s warmup too), which generally sparks awe, wonder, and excitement for the impending performance. I enjoy staged readings, but they’re not full productions, which to me necessitates set design. It seems logical that ticket price might correlate with the presence of a set, but this was not the case in New Zealand.
At the end of our three week journey in New Zealand we returned to Auckland, where we had one final theater experience (and NZ ice cream bar) before bidding farewell to this lovely country. Shockingly, after three failed attempts, we finally saw a play written by a Kiwi about New Zealand (not the US or the UK) — On the Upside-Down of the World, a one-woman show about the wife of the first chief justice of New Zealand. It was wonderful to finally see some New Zealand history on stage and learn more about the Maoris. This show had a set consisting of many metal ladders at various angles across a sand-covered stage. It was visually interesting, especially with the lighting, but again left a lot to the imagination, as this set represented many things (but never ladders) throughout the show.
This theater experience had an unexpected connection to a previous show. Once again, Mr. HalfFull had a fortuitous seat. The woman who sat next to him was wearing a stylish twenties era blue hat that I loved. She arrived with another couple and the three were chatting as we waited for the show to begin. I commented to Mr. HalfFull about her hat and how she looked just like the young actress from the play in New Plymouth. He agreed, but doubted it was her. While reading our programs, we overheard her conversation and realized that she was telling the story of the drunk lad cat calling her at the show in New Plymouth. Unbelievably, Mr. HalfFull was indeed sitting next to Antonia Prebble! We chimed in to say that we attended the performance and agreed that the guy was out of line. I also mentioned that I was the American who asked the question, and she remembered me. What a small world!
- Do you enjoy live theater?
- How important is hug etiquette in modern society (especially for men)?
- Do you prefer an elaborate set or one that leaves more to the imagination?
- What food-related cultural habits have you observed at events?
- How did you react to the portrayal of your countrymen while abroad?
- Have you experienced a full-circle travel event?