Empowering women inspiring

Abby Howells loved performing HarleQueen in Wellington. Photo: Supplied
Abby Howells loved performing HarleQueen in Wellington. Photo: Supplied
Abby Howells’ love of music and theatre has led to some difficult times, but discovering the bravery of female performers who have gone before her has given her direction. She tells Rebecca Fox about finding the courage to be herself.

From the first and, possibly, only female court jester to a star of silent films, Abbey Howells has not lacked for inspiration.

''They lived their lives to their own rules and never apologised for who they are.''

Some of the women who have inspired Howells (from top): Jackie ‘‘Moms’’ Mabley. Photos: Suppleid
Some of the women who have inspired Howells (from top): Jackie ‘‘Moms’’ Mabley. Photos: Supplied
Howells is referring to Jane Foole, also know as The Queen's Fool, in the court of Catherine Parr and Mary I in the 16th century, and Mabel Normand, a popular early 1900s American silent-film actress, screenwriter, director and producer, who regularly worked with Charlie Chaplain.

''They're inspirational. So dang cool.''

It got Howells thinking about her own approach.

She had always wanted to be a beautiful star, a heroine, so became heavily involved in musical theatre, but then she realised she was not the strongest dancer or singer.

''I got really down on myself.''

Mabel Normand
Mabel Normand
Then she was cast in the pantomime Red Riding Hood at the Fortune Theatre and discovered she was funny.

''Oh my gosh, I thought this is great.''

So she joined an all-female stand-up comedy group called Discharge where she wrote and performed in five shows, including Benedict Cumberbatch Must Die, and started performing stand-up comedy.

''It was going really well. I thought 'This is what I'm meant to do', but then I had a bunch of really bad experiences with sexual harassment and awful audiences.

Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers
''I thought 'This sucks'.''

Howells then went on tour with Trick of Light's Beards Beards Beards throughout New Zealand and travelled to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

''It was amazing. It was a dream situation being there with someone else's company.''

She was at a turning point when her discovery of the inspirational females happened.

She began to think she could be herself and not feel the need to do things just because they were expected of her.

Beatrice Lillie
Beatrice Lillie

''I can be unapologetically myself. I can sing, dance, be very silly. They really inspired me to do this show.''

HarleQueen interweaves Howells' story with those of Foole and Normand.

''It's led me back to comedy on my own terms in my own way. Not doing five minutes in a terrible club, but building on something, working on it over time.

''It feels so good.''

Howells took the show to the New Zealand Fringe Festival in Wellington earlier this month.

Terri Rogers.
Terri Rogers.

Off stage, Howells describes herself as introverted and nervous, but on stage she comes alive.

''I'm just so confident. Mum says it was like seeing me really be myself.''

It was a bit nerve-racking as she worried about how she would feel if she got knocked back again.

''I thought 'that'll be brutal'.''

However, she need not have worried, getting rave reviews from the show and enjoying every minute.

''I was like awesome, I have to stand up here for an hour, so the audience is just going to have to listen.

''It was an amazing experience. I loved performing it. It was so me. I'm so proud of the show.''

In the show, which is directed by Anya Tate-Manning, Howells is surrounded by images of the women who have inspired her.

''It's like they are all supporting me.''

A lot of people contacted her after her Wellington shows to say they really connected with what she was saying.

''I'm really excited to be doing it again.''

When she is not on stage, Howells is working on her PhD at the University of Otago looking at the way female prisoners are portrayed in film and television.

''I wanted to challenge myself, look at something around women and family involving storytelling and writing.''

She had seen three plays involving depictions of female prisoners, and having had a sister work in the prison system, knew it was not really like what was portrayed on screen.

''I wanted to introduce a more accurate New Zealand experience. I want to talk to them, so I can share their side of the story. There is a lot of misconceptions out there about female prisons and women in prison.''

To see
HarleQueen is part of the Dunedin Fringe Festival, University Bookshop, tonight until Saturday, 7 o’clock.

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