Manifestation of fear

Ralph McCubbin Howell as Otto in Troll. Photo: Philip Merry
Ralph McCubbin Howell as Otto in Troll. Photo: Philip Merry
Fresh from helping promote the Fringe Festival, Hannah Smith is returning to Dunedin with her theatre company’s latest production, Troll. She talks to Rebecca Fox.

Ten people sit, cramped together on the staircase of an old Wellington flat watching Ralph McCubbin Howell perform a dark tale on the tiny landing.

''It was a good time.''

For those who know Howell and partner Hannah Smith, this is nothing unusual.

Trick of Light Theatre, the pair's Wellington-based theatre company, is known for its innovative design, use of puppets and intricate narratives with a dark twist.

Their 2015 show, The Bookbinder, was staged around a handcrafted pop-up book and lit entirely by table lamps - it received a best theatre award at the New Zealand Fringe Festival.

So for the pair to try their latest concept in the hallway of their flat after their venue fell through came as no great surprise.

And it is from that experiment that their latest production was born.

''We reworked it, redesigned it, developed the script and design so it was not staircase specific,'' Howell said.

The pair are now touring Troll - a show they describe as a ''lo-fi Wi-Fi fable'', which combines story-telling, music and puppetry into an ''uncanny tale''.

The work is set in 1997.

Otto, played by Howell, is 12 but he tells everyone he is 13 and he is pretty sure he gets away with it. He lives in an old wooden two-storey house with his mum, dad, and sister, his chain-smoking Icelandic granny and an ancient malevolent troll that's started living in the wall.

''It's a crossover between folklore and internet myth. It references both meanings of the word troll - the mythical being and the internet troll - as the kid pulls a 1000-year-old Icelandic troll out of the wall.

''It is a manifestation of his fears.''

Smith is the designer and has come up with using smartphones and laptops as light sources, and puppets made from cables, to tell the story both ''mythic and modern in the vein of Stranger Things''.

For Howell, it is a stimulating show to perform, which keeps him on his toes.

''You feed off the audience so much. The character is really enjoyable to play. He has a sense of humour, is going through a hard experience but has this real energy and sense of curiosity.''

He admits some of the character has come from his own experiences growing up in a time when internet in the home was becoming the norm.

''It was exciting there was this whole new world.''

Like their other productions - The Bookbinder and The Devil's Half-Acre (performed at Dunedin's last arts festival and featured the city during the gold rush era) - the process is not unusual for them.

''We make it. Push it as far as we can on scant resources and when it comes to a point where we apply for funding we know what we need to ask for,'' Smith says.

''In the meantime, we do it with whatever we can scrabble around and find, which is why there is this cardboard and paper aesthetic in our shows - we're always diving into the recycling bin.''

She admits it is not an easy pathway to take.

''It's pretty tough not having any money or suitability.''

So that is why she came ''home'' to Dunedin earlier this year to do the publicity for the Fringe.

''There is just not enough money to not work in-between touring.''

However, she says they get to do ''amazing'' things that most people never get a chance to do.

''We're allowed to do these cool things.''

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