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Fresh from completing the directors’ programme in Auckland, Shaun Swain wanted a "meaty" challenge for his first play.
It was the end of 2019 and Covid-19 had not yet been heard of.
Back in his adopted home of Dunedin, his thoughts drifted to existential French play No Exit, by Jean-Paul Sartre.
It was not as random as people might think, as a comment by top New Zealand actor and director Michael Hurst about the play had stuck in his head.
As part of his course, he had had to direct a scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth for Hurst to critique.
"It was incredibly terrifying and exciting," Swain said.
Afterwards, Hurst remarked how the repetitive, vicious cycle of fear and consequence in the piece reminded him of No Exit.
So when Swain came to pitch a production for Arcade Theatre’s 2020 season in Dunedin, he felt No Exit "was
the right match for my style".
The first time he read the play it "terrified" him; the second time he saw its humour and thought it was hilarious.
"So in the end I thought it seemed like a really meaty project to tackle and play with."
The play is about three strangers left alone with each other in the dark, with seemingly no reason why they ended up in Hell. There is no link between them, no mirrors, no windows and more importantly: No Exit.
But Swain had a vision of making the play first performed in the 1940s relevant to today's audiences.
He got together a cast — Marea Colombo, Katherine Kennedy, Isaac Martyn and Shannon McCabe — and they began rehearsing for a Fringe Festival opening.
However, like all Dunedin Fringe Festival acts, they found their productions cancelled at the last minute as the country went into Level 4 lockdown.
"We’ve had to postpone it a lot due to the chaos happening around us. In a way it’s been a blessing in disguise as we’ve had the time to refine it."
It had also given him and the cast something to hold on to during the tough year. They held regular production meetings to ensure they could hit the ground running when the opportunity arose.
"It’s a labour of love. We’ve had to band together as a team willing to stick together through thick and thin."
The play took on added meaning, given the experiences people faced during lockdown, he said.
"When I pitched it last year, at the time the concept of being locked in a room with people for a long time was an absurd idea. Now a whole new perspective has been created.
"There is a sense of relief that we are not in hell — we are in the world now and there is an escape. So the absurdity is still very much there.
"It’s a strange accident. You have to look at the positives."
Swain, who was dux of Verdon College in Invercargill in 2014, is no stranger to the vagaries of theatre life, having been involved in theatre throughout his time at school and then studying theatre and film at the University of Otago.
Hearing a former pupil had directed the university’s capping show sealed his decision on where to study.
"I always wanted to be an actor. The directing happened accidentally when they needed someone to step in and take charge."
He performed in local productions with Counterpoint and its latest incarnation, Arcade, and was involved with the Fortune Theatre before it closed.
"I love acting and intend to keep doing that but directing is a passion of mine and it’s a tool I’ve been fumbling about with on my own."
Finding out he and fellow University of Otago theatre graduate Jordan Dickson had been selected last year into the Directors’ Programme, part of the Actors’ Programme, a non-profit group of theatre professionals who trained newcomers in the industry, was hugely exciting.
"It gave me a better picture of what it [directing] really is and I came into my own with what potential that has. There is a little bit of everything in directing."
However, he always intended to return to Dunedin which he now considers home.
"It’s been a year of intense director training but I wanted to pay my respects to the arts sector of the town I love. Arcade have been incredibly supportive of the work I’ve done."
He enjoyed the creative challenge of pulling together a performance as a director and No Exit is providing him with that challenge.
"It has a little bit of everything going on. But if anyone is going to get to the core of this play, it’s this team of people."
While they might have had to stop and restart production a few times, it had made them all glad for the opportunity they were now getting to stage the show.
"It’s created a hunger and passion. It’s easy to get comfortable ... even in the strange and nebulous world of the arts, but this year was quite scary as when was the next work coming and how was it going to happen?
"We do not want to take this for granted; we’ve been woken up to that. I’m so lucky to have this project, any project, going."
Swain said it would be good for people to laugh at just how "ridiculous this year has turned out".
"What a year to start a year of freelance work."