Chook’s look the spur

A pet chicken inspired Angela Pope’s play, which is having its premiere at the Dunedin Fringe...
A pet chicken inspired Angela Pope’s play, which is having its premiere at the Dunedin Fringe Festival. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Dunedin writer Angela Pope is loving the experience of putting on her first play at the Dunedin Fringe Festival. She tells  Rebecca Fox about her inspiration for Lessons Learned from Hannibal Lecter.

Gazing out the window, watching her chooks as she waited for inspiration to strike, writer Angela Pope became fascinated by one in particular.

"One of them, she was probably just really tired, the way she looked at you was kind of odd, she’d crack one eye open and stare at you."

It is that "slightly strange chicken" which inspired short story Lies and has ultimately become the basis of Pope’s play Lessons Learned from Hannibal Lecter.

"The character in the play is sort of a mixture of her and one of the others who ruled the coop and had a bit of attitude."

Lies was awarded the Sargeson Prize short story award in 2020. She wrote the story as part of her graduate diploma in creative writing at Massey University.

"When I was writing the story, I thought at the time ... I could see it on stage."

So it has always been on her mind that she could adapt the story to be a play.

"There is this character Tracey and she talks a lot, she addresses the reader, so I could see her addressing the audience."

When the opportunity came up to take part in the Ōtepoti Theatre Lab, she thought she would "chuck the idea in".

"They really liked the idea and then it happened."

However, adapting the story to the stage has been more difficult than Pope expected.

"I’d never done that before but it was a really good process to go through and I felt like I got to know the characters better and I had fun with it."

She created new scenes for the stage version as there were some from the story that just did not work for stage.

"It was really fun to go through that process and it’s made me really interested in adaptations now. I read a book and I’ll watch the movie straight after."

Writing is something Pope has always done since she was a child growing up in England, although she was born in, and spent the first five years of life in the United States. She came to New Zealand with her IT specialist husband in her 20s after seeing an advertisement calling for people with those skills.

While Pope studied to be a lawyer, after a couple of years practising she realised it was not for her.

"I‘d always wanted to do something ... more creative."

While her children were growing up she did different jobs but always wrote.

"I’d write in little snatches of time, I’d write short snatches of plays that I sent off to festival competitions and I wrote short stories."

Eventually she ended up qualifying as an early childhood teacher.

"I just really loved storytelling — although there is a lot more to it than that. I used to love mat times, drawing the children in and telling them a few stories. I was in my element then. Just a big kid."

Pope has lived in Dunedin for six years and a year after moving here she saw the University of Otago was doing an advanced writing paper.

"I emailed thinking they wouldn’t want me and ... I got an email back saying yes come."

The course was quite full-on and worked well alongside the casual medical transcribing she had always done since her children were little.

"I thought I’d carry on doing that and give writing a go."

She has also recently finished a novel which was selected by the New Zealand Society of Authors’ manuscript assessment programme. It has had its assessment and Pope is now doing the editing.

"I try my hand at lots of different things."

That includes producing her play. It had a reading as part of the theatre lab’s Dunedin Festival of the Arts show last year so when Pope saw an advertisement for the Fringe Festival she talked to the lab’s producer H-J Kilkelly about what could be involved.

"I came out of the meeting and she’d booked the theatre and it was all happening. She’s been very supportive. It’s been very interesting as I never really knew what a producer did."

Rehearsing "Lessons Learned from Hannibal Lecter" are actors (from left) Sara Georgie, Maegan...
Rehearsing "Lessons Learned from Hannibal Lecter" are actors (from left) Sara Georgie, Maegan Stedman Ashford, Christopher Watts and Clare Adams. PHOTO: BRIDGET ELLIS
Pope went back to the team behind the reading including local director, Miriam Noonan for the new production.

"I really loved the way she directs, she’s really calm and has a really gentle way of getting the best out of the actors."

Two cast members were keen to do it again Sara Georgie (playing Mrs Lee) and Clare Adams (playing Nan) while the two others were Wellington-based. So after an audition process Maegan Stedman-Ashford (playing Tracey) and Christopher Watts (playing Marty) joined the team.

"While it would have been good to have everyone back in some ways I’m really excited to see what they bring to it. They’ll bring something a bit different."

The play tells the story of Tracey, a young woman disabled in an accident. Angry at the world, she responds with outrageous stories when people ask her how she came to be injured. However, when she is asked by her boss, Mrs Lee, to take in some ex-battery hens from the local chicken farm, a softer side to Tracey is revealed.

"I think one of the messages if someone’s got something wrong with them it’s not necessarily your business to ask them. I think Tracey is really gutsy but she gets fed up with people asking why she is walking with a walking stick that is why she makes up all these stories."

When adapting the play she was mentored through the theatre lab programme by Wellington writer Helen Vivienne Fletcher who lives with a disability.

"She said ‘oh I’ve done that’. That was really cool to hear her say that. I don’t have a disability. I know people who have gone through medical challenges. Part of my inspiration was the determination and courage you see in people going through that but it was really cool to work with her."

Once the Fringe is over, it is back to finishing the editing on her novel which has the working title of Gabby Stringer’s Recipe for Disaster.

"It’s a bit of a romp through small town New Zealand. It’s about this scientist who keeps it hidden and has invented this superfood and the conflicts it causes in this small rural town. It’s a comedy really."

Pope is a big comedy fan, loving the ability it gives her to exaggerate ideas and have some fun.

She also has a non-fiction book she wrote about the trams in Christchurch many years ago. She entered a chapter in a Christchurch heritage competition and got runner-up.

It has spurred her on to try to get it published again after it was turned down for being very niche last time.

"I might use the material for a play. I don’t know."

To see

Lessons Learned from Hannibal Lecter New Athenaeum Theatre March 19-22 as part of Dunedin Fringe Festival March 16-26.