Timely look at suffragette

Esther Stephens as Kate Sheppard in That Bloody Woman. Photo: Michael Smith
Esther Stephens as Kate Sheppard in That Bloody Woman. Photo: Michael Smith
So scared they might desecrate a national icon — one that appears on the $10 note —  writers Luke di Somma and Gregory Cooper took five years to get That Bloody Woman to the stage, Cooper tells Rebecca Fox.

Two blokes writing about one of New Zealand's first feminists.

The irony of that did not occur to writers Luke di Somma and Gregory Cooper when they first grappled with the idea of doing a punk rock musical on Kate Sheppard - the leader of the movement to get New Zealand women the vote.

''We never thought about it. We jumped in and did it because it's such a great story,'' Cooper said.

Di Somma came up with the idea while in America studying for a degree in musical theatre and communication inspired by the production Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson on the early American president.

Having known Cooper from their Court Theatre days and appreciating his quirky style of humour from his other plays, di Somma got him on board.

''The moment I heard his ideas, I thought fantastic. What a great subject to do a musical on - Kate Sheppard.''

He was not to know then it would end up touring the country as one of the most turbulent and interesting election campaigns in decades heated up.

''It's very timely to have a show about women fighting for a basic right to have a say in the democracy of their country - it's a very important thing to be reminded about.

''A lot take having the vote for granted. Kate and the WCTU (Woman's Christian Temperance Union) spent years fighting for the right and we need to value that and remember it is a very important thing to do.''

The process of bringing it to the stage this month has not been an easy one.

They started out with the idea of making it a punk rock musical, seeing the parallels between Sheppard's fight and the punk philosophy of fighting against the Establishment and standing up for their rights.

The first draft was written with the help of some Creative New Zealand funding, which allowed Cooper to do some in-depth reading and research into Sheppard and her work.

He read the Hanzard transcripts of the debates in Parliament around women's fight for the vote.

''That was really useful. Funny but also depressing - the arguments the blokes put up.''

Unfortunately, a reading of that first draft quickly showed it was not right, so another year was spent reworking the piece.

The Court Theatre helped out by giving them the opportunity to workshop it and then do a public reading.

The response was less than flattering. ''You'd not want to spend 90 minutes with Kate,'' Court Theatre's Ross Gumbley said.

''I think we were both so scared; that as two blokes we were pussyfooting around, scared we would desecrate a national icon.''

They got help from Auckland Theatre Company dramaturg and television and film director Philippa Campbell, who read and advised them on each draft.

The defining moment came one night in Melbourne when Cooper was complaining to his partner about not being able to write the show.

''She asked me what I wanted Kate to be. I said 'sassy, funny, sexy, in your face, a real firebrand'.

''She said 'like Bette Midler?'.''

He watched a YouTube clip of one of Midler's 1976 concerts and that was it.

''I completely ripped up the show and rewrote the first half. I kept a few songs.''

Instead of it being a conventional piece of music theatre - song, scene, song - they created more of a concert piece.

''Kate is coming back in 2017, this is her gig, her band. Suddenly the show came to life.

''It just took five years to finally work it out.''

But the final push came when the Christchurch Arts Festival commissioned the work in 2015.

''It was a good motivator.''

Cooper was still in Melbourne, so di Somma sought out the cast. There were some obvious castings - Geoff Dolan was the perfect barrell-chested bloke needed for the role of ''King Dick'' Richard Seddon.

''They needed to have an amazing voice and also needed to be a great actor.''

Esther Stephens, known for her roles on television's Westside and Go Girls, seemed an obvious choice for Sheppard when they saw her on stage with her band.

''She had amazing presence and took control of the stage. I was, like, I think we've found her.''

They got a band together and got Kip Chapman on board as director.

''We were so fortunate that everyone was on the same wavelength.''

For the first show they had three weeks to prepare. ''A ludicrously short time. Luke was still writing music during rehearsals.''

It all came off in the end with an amazing response from the audience, he said. The show sold out in its Christchurch and Auckland seasons.

They wanted the audience to ''feel'' during the show and then think about it after the show.

''We did not want to create a history lesson or a lecture. We want people to feel, to get angry, excited or inspired. Then afterwards, hopefully, people really think about it.''

It was such an incredible thing that Sheppard and her cohorts did - they fought against a lot - that they hoped people took notice.

''Her face is on the $10 note, so I hope people learn more about Kate.''

They also hope people might think about how they could become active in fighting against injustice.

In Wellington, ticket prices for women were 9.4% less to highlight the gender pay gap that exists today.

''With Maori and Pacific Island women, its probably double that; then there's our domestic violence figures, Jacinda [Ardern] being asked if she would get pregnant, hell's teeth. There is still so much to do.''

It had opened Cooper's eyes in many ways. He read some feminist literature as part of his research for the piece.

''This is not a 'all men are bastards' thing. That wouldn't be helpful. I want men to enjoy the show too. It's not about men getting bashed.''

The show was the first time Cooper had co-written a piece and he enjoyed the process.

''I've written lyric songs and sometimes I'd get out the guitar but it was fantastic to give things to Luke and then see what he came back with a few days later, so much better.''

He is looking forward to the show coming to the Fortune where he has acted in the past.

''I love that theatre.''

To see

That Bloody Woman, Fortune Theatre, September 26-October 8.

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