All the Bard’s a play in summer series

Performing in this year’s Dunedin Summer Shakespeare is one of many firsts for New Zealand actor, writer and director Gregory Cooper. He and director Lara Macgregor talk to Rebecca Fox about the fun and chaos of the bard’s work.

Gregory Cooper has done most things in his 25-year career but performing Shakespeare is not one of them.

So to be one of a troupe of three performing The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) in Dunedin’s Chingford Park is a new challenge.

"Actually having to learn Shakespeare is really hard. This might be enough. I’m not sure I’d ever want to do a full Hamlet or  Macbeth."

It is also Cooper’s first professional gig in Dunedin since moving here from Christchurch last year and sees him take on a more comedic role than the usual "straight" characters he is cast as.

"He’s the one out of the three that knows the least about Shakespeare, the naughty one that tries to make things difficult for the other two actors, he’s a quite a childlike character. It’s quite fun trying to wind the other two up," Gregory says of his character.

Dunedin Summer Shakespeare director Lara Macgregor hams it up with actor Gregory Cooper as they...
Dunedin Summer Shakespeare director Lara Macgregor hams it up with actor Gregory Cooper as they rehearse for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH

Dunedin Summer Shakespeare director Lara Macgregor suggests this new role for Cooper might be "karma" as Gregory has written and directed pantomimes Cinderella and Beauty & The Beast, as well as comedies such as MAMIL (Middle Aged Man In Lycra) and The Streaker.

She should know— Cooper recently directed her in his latest play Mr & Mrs Macbeth of Dodson Valley Rd, commissioned by The Professional Theatre Company in Nelson as its premier production. Over the years he has directed her in various plays and she has performed in some he has written.

"So she gets her revenge now," Cooper says, laughing.

However, Gregory, who also co-wrote the hit rock musical about Kate Sheppard That Bloody Woman, is not unfamiliar with the summer Shakespeare concept of performing outdoors, among the audience, having stage-managed the same show for Summer Times Theatre in Christchurch 25 years ago. It then went on to do its own "complete histories of" and he has co-written, directed and performed in the 2012 Theatre’s production of The Complete History of Christchurch, playing to over 25,000 people in Hagley Park. And in 2021 The Complete History of Palmerston North for the city’s 150th anniversary and most recently the Complete History of Nelson (abridged).

Greg Cooper loves a good beard. PHOTOS: LARA MACGREGOR
Greg Cooper loves a good beard. PHOTOS: LARA MACGREGOR
"He’s amazing at this genre of theatre, which is as much improv as it is script," Macgregor says.

Cooper, despite his protestations, loves the format of these sort of shows.

"They’re fast-paced, [there’s] dance and bit of singing. Outdoors is great. You strip everything back. You don’t have lights. It’s the essence of what theatre was back in the day, troupes of actors wondering around from place to place putting on shows.

"You’ve just got to rely on your voice, which I really enjoy."

Created in the 1980s by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, the 90-minute history takes in the Bard’s complete works at a very fast pace.

"It’s so much fun. We all still need a bit of fun. Within the first act we’ve pretty much done every Shakespeare except Hamlet," Macgregor says.

The script enables the performers to make it their own and relies on the dynamics of the three actors, including local actors Sara Georgie and Nick Tipa.

"There is an abundance of silly props, funny hats and Monty Python gone mad. We’ve got dancing giraffes, sock puppets, blow-up dinosaurs, blow-up crowns and snakes — the whole lot, it’s all happening. We’ve even got a big dummy. He’s called Sheldon and is from the Court Theatre’s Hound of the Baskervilles."

Cooper’s favourite part of the show is playing Juliet in the Romeo and Juliet section.

"It’s quite fun, it’s quite an over-the-top Juliet. My character gets to play a lot of the female characters, so lots of silly dresses and wigs and I get to use as many silly voices as I can find."

Nic Tipa takes on a serious character.
Nic Tipa takes on a serious character.
Macgregor, who last year had a role on television’s Shortland Street, is no stranger to the concept, either. She helped launch Dunedin Summer Shakespeare five years ago and has performed in various Shakespeare shows over the years, including Romeo and Juliet in Tompkins Square Park in New York.

"Basically, we didn’t realise we’d set up camp in an area where most of the local drug addicts hung out. They’d join in the fights. It was a wild night, any given night, but that is the glory of it — anything can happen when you are outside. People feel there are less limitations because you are not in a theatre."

Gregory agrees it is one of the things that make the shows work so well.

"When things happen you can build it into the show along with audience interaction."

Mixing it up by performing in a show like this one is just the reality of a performing career in New Zealand, he says.

"You have to have a few strings to your bow. It was very nice to be offered my first professional gig in Dunedin."

Inspiration for shows often comes from creating for actors he knows and admires, like Mark Hadlow who he wrote MAMIL for after a chat. He and Hadlow are now working on a sequel to that with a working title of GRMIL (Grumpy Old Men in Lycra).

Summer Shakespeare’s cast Sara Georgie, Greg Cooper and Nick Tipa are ready for the challenge.
Summer Shakespeare’s cast Sara Georgie, Greg Cooper and Nick Tipa are ready for the challenge.
The recent Macbeth piece came from wanting to write a piece for Hadlow and Macgregor.

"They’d both acted in Macbeth at the Court Theatre so maybe we can write a play set in the dressing room with a husband and wife."

These days, while he loves acting, his preference is to write and direct.

"You just have more control and when you are writing and directing. You can just rewrite it that night if it’s not working, which is quite nice. I’ve got to that stage where I just want to work with nice people who are good at what they do. People I respect and do the mahi."

Tipa does dramatics.
Tipa does dramatics.
Last year that is all he did, ending on a show he wrote, directed and acted in.

"This is quite nice, just turning up, learning the lines and having fun."

Although Macgregor says she is quite liking having Cooper’s skill in writing in the room when needed. They have been able to localise some of the references to make it more recognisable, such as an American football game becoming rugby.

"It’s hard not to just go to the go-to, which is Greg. His brain is so fast. He’s always got two or three suggestions."

Sara Georgie at rehearsal.
Sara Georgie at rehearsal.
Cooper moved to Dunedin for family reasons and it just so happened that the fashion shop his partner worked for decided to open a retail space in the city.

"We’re just loving it here."

To see

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), Chingford Park, North East Valley, February 9-11 and 16-18, Friday and Saturday shows at 6pm, and Sunday shows at 4pm.