Pair ‘couldn’t pass it up’

Sheena Townsend, as Donna, and Jackson Rosie, as Mark, rehearse their roles in Yellow Hut by Ella...
Sheena Townsend, as Donna, and Jackson Rosie, as Mark, rehearse their roles in Yellow Hut by Ella West, which is on at The Globe this month. Photo: Linda Robertson
There could be nothing more suited to the Dunedin Fringe Festival — a play written by a local, performed by locals and watched by locals. That is what appealed to young directors Jess Keogh and Calum Beck when they chose Ella West’s Yellow Hut to perform for the first time, finds Rebecca Fox.

A young couple seek shelter from a storm in a hut in the Silverpeaks alongside two hunters and some students.

The hut’s tragic past begins to emerge as the events of the night take an unexpected turn.

It is a story by Dunedin author Ella West, acclaimed for her teen thrillers, that instantly appealed to the young amateur theatre enthusiasts Jess Keogh and Calum Beck — both of whom are fans of horror cinema.

"The isolated cabin in the woods, so to speak — couldn’t pass it up," Beck said.

"It’s really cool working with Ella’s script — it’s familiar themes we all deal with in life. It’s not just the supernatural elements — there are real-life elements that mess with your mind as well and the cast have really picked up on that," Keogh said.

The play being originally set in Southland was another thing that appealed to the pair.

"There are so few opportunities to tell stories from this part of the country particularly — we tend to get overlooked quite a wee bit. To have a local author put her voice out there, I think her her writing is tremendous," Beck said.

West, otherwise known as journalist Karen Trebilcock, who farms with her husband on the Taieri, had put the play forward when The Globe put out a call for scripts last year. She could not have been more surprised to find out Keogh and Beck were keen to put on the play, which was written in 2010 but has never been performed.

She was even more surprised they did not want to make any changes to it.

Co-director Jessica Keogh
Co-director Jessica Keogh
"It’s nice finally after all these years that it’s been sitting on Playmarket that a lot of people will get to enjoy it," West said.

The piece had been a test for West, who in the past has written and had comedy plays performed, to see if she could write a thriller.

"They were about sheep farming, which is inherently tragic. You’re raising stock to send them off to the works, so there were also a few moments in that."

She hopes Yellow Hut will be scary for audiences.

"To pull that off in a theatre where the actors are only a couple of feet away from the audience, especially in The Globe — if they can pull that off and make the audience slightly terrified it’ll be really great."

West was inspired to write the story after her family took a few back-country tramps and stayed in huts, which unlike Great Walk huts are not always full and you do not know what or whom you will encounter.

"It’s that weird feeling — you are only three or four hours’ walk from normality but you are in the middle of nowhere, sometimes with no cellphone reception, and only with the things you have carried with you. It can be quite confronting for people and a perfect recipe for things to happen."

Back then West had been shortlisted for the Adams Play Award, the Fortune Theatre was still going and she had aspirations of being a playwright. In 2015 her last published novel, Night Vision, won the young adult section of the LIANZA Awards and was the Young Adult Children’s Choice winner in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

"I was thinking this is going to be my career but it all died — nothing happened. So as a writer it is good to be able to do more than one thing. It always seems one is going well and another isn’t."

Life as an author has been quite tough as she struggles to get things published, but she is still writing, "mucking around" with film scripts and doing freelance journalism.

"I’m writing in one form or another. It’s always fun or else I wouldn’t do it."

Co-director Calum Beck
Co-director Calum Beck
She does enjoy writing plays the most of any form of writing.

"Just because you are only writing dialogue to start with but you have to carry all those characterisations in the dialogue. I do enjoy that brevity."

Having the team at The Globe be so enthusiastic about Yellow Hut was really encouraging.

"It is hard being a writer in Dunedin. It’s so much easier in Wellington and Auckland — they still have professional theatre. We’re very lucky to have The Globe."

For Keogh, who has worked on most productions at The Globe for the past couple of years, the other advantage of West’s play was the opportunity to try new things.

"It’s more technical than anything I’ve done before, so there is interesting things going on on stage that we’ve got make come alive. When I read the script I was like ‘I want to make that happen. I want to play with that, to create that effect’.

"The story itself is great but bringing it to life there were a few things that were too fun to turn up the opportunity."

For Beck, who recently played Captain Hook in The Globe’s production of Peter Pan, bringing the horror aspect of the show to the stage is a challenge.

"Being set on a static stage, it is all down to the performance."

Keogh agrees, saying meshing their ideas with what the cast is bringing to the production is working well. The director of The Globe’s last production, Sheena Townsend, plays Donna and Nic Turner, who is returning to the stage for the first time since he was a child, plays her husband Grant. Young actor Jackson Rosie, who was in Artist Descending a Staircase, plays Mark and student Kairi Mortensen-Morunga plays Annalise, while musical theatre regular Jacob Blomfield, in his first straight theatre production, plays Tom and student Andrew Matheson is Geoff.

"They’ll do it better than we ever thought. It’s been really collaborative. What they’re doing with the characters is quite chilling," Keogh said.

Author Ella West
Author Ella West
While there are supernatural and horror aspects to it, the story is really about relationships and the darkness that just lives under the surface of ordinary lives, they say.

"We want the audience to feel like they are in the hut with them and we have built the set to amplify that feeling as well. I think we’ll get a few visceral moments as well. It’s quite powerful," Keogh said.

Keogh, who has been in theatre since she was a child in varying roles, and Beck, who has a comedy background, have worked together on different productions in different roles but never co-directed before.

"I’ve been directed by Jess before, so when the opportunity to direct with her came along I jumped at the chance."

They have also had to deal with some tough issues in the play, so they have included "trigger" warnings in the programme.

"We’ve had so much fun. When you are dealing with such serious subject matter, such as marital abuse, we feel as if we have created an environment which takes the subject matter seriously but there is levity and it’s a safe space where people feel comfortable to explore those themes."

They both really enjoy the variety of projects they get to work on at The Globe.

"It’s really fun. It’s like a second home for so many of us. I love that it’s coming into a flourishing period," Beck says.

To see:

Yellow Hut by Ella West, Dunedin Fringe Festival, Globe Theatre, March 19-23.