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Rebecca Fox discovers how her studies in Dunedin influence her poetry today.
They have gone from living 18,000km apart to living a four-minute drive from each other, but only a little has changed for Olivia Hall and Carrie Rudzinski.
"It makes it much easier to rehearse," Hall jokes.
The pair are spoken word poets who have spent much of the past five or so years working together online or over the phone, as Hall lived in London and Rudzinski in New Zealand.
"We’ve never lived in the same city. We wrote most of this show when we’ve been on other sides of the world. We’re lucky our writing clicked."
At times it has been difficult. Time zones meant early morning calls for one as they struggled to wake up and dive into being creative.
"We’ve shared a lot of Google docs and done a lot of writing on our own and then pieced things together."
But it did not stop them from looking ahead and writing their second show together, Hysterical, even though with Covid-19 uncertainties they were never sure when it would get to stage.
It all became a lot easier when Hall and her partner decided to come back to New Zealand when their visas ran out in January. Now they both live in Auckland, and are finally touring Hysterical.
"It feels almost like a miracle really."
The show was originally to be debuted at Dunedin’s Fringe Festival, but Covid put paid to that; now the city will be at the end of the tour.
"Hopefully it’ll mean the show will be really good by the time it gets to Dunedin."
Hall, who grew up in Auckland, is looking forward to performing it in Dunedin, where much of her formative thinking on gender and feminism was formed as a student doing a gender and politics degree.
The title of the show, Hysterical, came out of the pair wanting to write about emotion and connection and also take a feminist lens on critiquing the idea that women are too emotional.
"As if emotions are not important, what is important is logic and rationality and we should never talk about feelings. This idea that women are too emotional to do certain roles.
"As we got to work on it we realised it made a lot of sense, we get to be hysterical in the show, talk about things we love."
For Hall, poetry lines up with her studies. She moved to London to do her masters in gender at the London School of Economics.
"I do take a pretty feminist and gender-based lens in a lot of what I write and a lot of what I’m interested in. They pair up nicely. I’ve had a place to put a lot of the feelings I have about the things I’m studying into a more creative format. "
Poetry has been part of Hall’s life since she began writing as a child.
"I really loved performing. I was definitely a drama kid at school."
When she was at university in Wellington — Hall started out studying law, which she did not "gel with" — she stumbled across spoken word poetry online. She then discovered Poetry in Motion in Wellington, which ran poetry slams and nights, and started to compete, often quite successfully.
"It seemed like such a magic way to combine writing and performing. I fell head over heels in love with it. I love the rush of being on stage."
She has also always had a love of words and reading and really cherishes it when she comes across a "beautiful turn of phrase" or it generates intense feeling.
"I love also trying to craft my own words or language in such a way it allows other people to have that sort of response — that is the dream or goal."
A keen debater at university, she found she was thinking and researching a lot about social issues, and started to find herself being particularly passionate about topics relating to gender, feminism and sexuality.
So she made the "big call" to swap the direction of her studies and move to Dunedin where there was a gender studies programme.
"I’ve never regretted it. It was definitely the path for me."
In her postgraduate studies Hall has interviewed women about their real life experiences, particularly those in pain who have found it difficult to receive diagnosis or treatment for conditions such as endometriosis.
"That is very much the basis for the show in thinking about that medical diagnosis, hysteria, way back in the day and where the roots of that are. I feel very passionate about access to medical care for everyone."
It has enabled her to look at different ways she can give voice to her views. "Right now it is poetry but eventually it will be something else. Poetry, the way we do it, is a form of activism for sure. I think our show is educational in some ways."
"It can feel therapeutic in that way for Carrie and I. So many women I knew had been through some version of what I had gone through."
Hall also found spoken word to be a great connector when she moved to New York and then London. Hall won multiple poetry slams at New York’s famous Bowery Poetry club, and in London she was the 2019 Genesis Slam Champion, and made the top six at the 2021 Hammer and Tongue National Final.
"It’s so amazing how you can connect with the poetry community wherever you are."
It is also how Rudzinski and Hall met six years ago. Rudzinski performed at a poetry event in Wellington that Hall helped organise.
"We became friends very quickly and business partners very quickly and decided to a show together, which became our first show How We Survive."
They toured the show in 2017 and 2019, including performing at schools.
"We loved that experience and we loved writing together so we were pretty sure we wanted to do another show together, but the pandemic made the world very unsure about when that would be a possibility."
While duet poetry is relatively new in New Zealand, it is quite big overseas, and Rudzinski had experience of it in the United States so knew what was needed to create the work.
Hall says spoken word poetry is a very different experience to the poetry people might experience at school.
"It can be a nice awakening for people. They might think they hate poetry but have only heard that quite inaccessible poetry. Spoken word is more accessible to people."
She enjoys how people often share their own story in a creative way, and how it allows writers to get immediate feedback. They also break the "fourth wall" and speak directly to the audience.
"It feels really special and a big part of our show is talking to people afterwards and getting that immediate feedback, which feels really unique in some ways, and special."
For Hall, sharing the stage with Rudzinski meant having support when performing some of those personal and emotional works. They made the decision that both would remain on stage even if one was not performing as they swap between duets and solo poems.
"We are incredibly close friends. It gives us a level of support for something that is full-on and emotionally draining every night."
Hall’s time in London was also during Covid and she admits it was not easy to be creative when shut up in a house all day, rather than out experiencing life.
"It became such a central theme in the show because of Covid, that sense of connection during a time where you feel really isolated. Carrie and I both were on the opposite sides of the world to our families during that. You are carrying out all of these relationships over text messages and zoom, which is a real shift in dynamics for people."
Feedback to Hysterical has been really positive, she says.
"Audience members come up after the show and want a hug and people crying and saying how a specific poem touched them. We have people who feel empowered and charged up thinking about doing their own writing or activism, which is so cool."
It came as a big relief to the pair after the success of their first show How We Survive, which started out as a one-off show in Wellington then "blew up", leading to touring it. It was more of a "mishmash" of both writers’ previous work and some new work written together, but touched on similar themes around being a woman today and their personal experiences.
"We loved our first show so its been really nerve-racking to write a second show and to worry whether audiences would like it and if we were doing enough new things.
"This time round we have written everything for this show. They feel like sister shows in a way."
The first show was also a learning curve as they worked out how to do poetry in theatre spaces. Generally spoken word is done in bars and community halls whereas their shows have a set and uses lighting and audio to create moods and worlds.
"We were moving from a poetry reading into something that was a theatre show. We were figuring out how to do that."
While it has taken a bit longer for spoken word poetry to get a profile in the mainstream, it has taken off in the past few years. There are poets who are publishing and winning awards.
"That’s really amazing to see. Our experience from touring the show is that there is a real hunger for it in New Zealand, even in places we were unsure of."
New Athenaeum Theatre, Dunedin
Friday, June 17 and 18, 2022