Celebrating NZ's rural communities

The Middlemarch Singles Ball has all the ingredients for a great play, playwright Karen Trebilcock says.

"It's a really oddball New Zealand story. You can't go wrong with romance and sex and sheep," she said on Sunday.

"And how much more cultural can you get than sheep farmers in Middlemarch?

"Pakeha New Zealand has real stories to tell."

The Mosgiel agriculture journalist says the play's charm is in its ordinariness.

"It's about the four people on the committee who organise the ball. The purpose of the ball is to marry off the single farmers and I thought 'what would happen if there were no single farmers for the women?'"

The Middlemarch Singles Ball was established to help lonely Middlemarch farmers find wives and fill vacancies in the town for a district nurse and teacher.

But the organising committee panics when it realises all the tickets have been snapped up by single women. And they are expecting to meet some real southern blokes.

Cue a phalanx of latte-sipping Aucklanders, getting a crash course in pretending to be farmers.

Trebilcock, who writes fiction under her Ella West pseudonym, based the play on her real-life observations as a journalist.

"I used to work at the Taieri Herald and would cover the Strath-Taieri community board meetings in Middlemarch. They were always completely different. People would talk about who had what equipment and who was going to do what.

Here was this group of people that worked together in this amazing isolated community in a way that all New Zealand should be. I wanted to celebrate that," she said.

"We have very few farming stories that are comedies.

"Farming can be a real grind and I think we have to tell more of its funny stories."

She was surprised at the response when she approached the Middlemarch community about the play.

"They held a secret meeting and didn't tell anyone that it was going to be a play reading.

"They selected 20 people they thought would be suitable and could do it.

"There are lots of different characters and personalities there, so I was a bit nervous about it, but they loved the idea.

"Some of them had never seen a play before in their lives, let alone been on stage.

"They were sheep farmers playing sheep farmers and they fell into it really easily. They had great fun."

She wrote the play in 2010 and it premiered in Middlemarch last year and was later short-listed for the Adam New Zealand Playwrighting Award.

The Otago Festival of the Arts will see its Dunedin premiere, directed by Keith Scott.

"It will be interesting, taking it out of a rural setting and putting it in a urban setting.

The majority of people in Dunedin have never seen a lamb being born or been inside a shearing shed," Trebilcock said.

"I'm really excited about it and looking forward to it. The Globe has taken a big punt in taking it on. I'm writing a sequel at the moment, which looks at the characters two years on. It will be on in Middlemarch next year."

• The Middlemarch Singles Ball is on at 7.30pm at the Globe Theatre until Saturday.

nigel.benson@odt.co.nz

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