Home grown

Emma ''Feather'' Shaw: ''I have always been interested in performance and showing off. I'm pretty...
Emma ''Feather'' Shaw: ''I have always been interested in performance and showing off. I'm pretty outgoing, outspoken. I fight for what I believe in and I think the stage is such a powerful forum to be heard.''
Abby Howells: ''Performing in two shows, I'm not sure how much theatre I will get to see, but I...
Abby Howells: ''Performing in two shows, I'm not sure how much theatre I will get to see, but I am hoping to cram in as much as I can.''
The Mentalist Collective.
The Mentalist Collective.
Dr Sketchy's Anti-Art School: Decadence Through the Decades.
Dr Sketchy's Anti-Art School: Decadence Through the Decades.
Metamorphosis (The Firebugs).
Metamorphosis (The Firebugs).
Best of Scottish Comedy (Bruce Fummey and Vladimir McTavish).
Best of Scottish Comedy (Bruce Fummey and Vladimir McTavish).

The forthcoming Dunedin Fringe Festival might offer a smorgasbord of performers from far and wide, yet its heart beats with home-grown talent, writes Shane Gilchrist.

Back in October, as registrations came in for this year's Dunedin Fringe Festival, new director Josh Thomas noticed a recurring theme: a significant number of entries were from young and emerging artists either based in Dunedin or originally from the city.

A scroll through this year's festival programme, which features a showcase event on March 11 before officially beginning the following day, confirms Thomas' view: there is a plethora of home-grown talent offering original, independently produced theatre and comedy work, much of which has been created by a group or collective.

The fact the Dunedin Fringe is ''open-access'', meaning any artist is welcome to hold an event or put on a show, provided they pay a registration fee and organise a venue, ensures a wide (and sometimes wild) diversity of performances.

In short, ''it's the perfect platform for both emerging talent as well as experienced practitioners to try new ideas with new audiences'', Thomas notes, adding the University of Otago's department of theatre studies offers a strong nursery for young Dunedin talent.

''We're seeing local Dunedin writers, producers and performers also taking their Dunedin Fringe shows to other festivals in NZ and overseas,'' he says, pointing to shows such as 2002's Jerusalem Jerusalem, which went on to festivals in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cheltenham the following year.

All-female comedy troupe Discharge's first show, What is this? Woman's Hour?, which premiered at the 2013 Dunedin Fringe, was another that had a life beyond the southern festival, being performed at the New Zealand Fringe in Wellington last year.

Among Discharge's members is Abby Howells, who first became involved in the Dunedin Fringe in 2012, when she performed in the Polson Higgs Comedy Club.

Howells says she was so nervous before that first gig that she considered injuring herself on the way to the bar to avoid performing.

Yet the night went pretty well.

In fact, Howells ended up winning the festival's Best Comedy Award, which she described as ''a massive surprise to me and, probably, to everyone''.

Luck? Hmmm.

Howells went on to win the same award the next year as part of Discharge, whose members had plenty of experience in local improv troupe Improsaurus, as well as various University of Otago capping shows.

Now based in Wellington, the comedy collective recently performed its fourth original show, 28 Days: A Period Piece.

Howells (24) grew up in Dunedin, went to St Hilda's Collegiate and studied theatre and media studies at Otago before heading to Victoria University, Wellington, last year to do a master's degree in scriptwriting.

At the moment, however, she's rehearsing full-time for Wellington outfit Trick of the Light's forthcoming Dunedin Fringe show, Beards! Beards! Beards!, while attempting to balance the demands of performing in another production, Benedict Cumberbatch Must Die, which she wrote.

''The premise is three die-hard Benedict Cumberbatch fans get together to create a show in order to get the attention of heart-throb Benedict Cumberbatch.

''We performed a season of it at Bats Theatre in June last year, and we are excited to be doing it again. Every night we reserve a seat for Benedict Cumberbatch, just in case. He hasn't showed up yet, but maybe Dunedin Fringe will change that.''

Howells says she has had to rewrite the script recently, changes necessitated by Cumberbatch's marriage and news the couple is expecting a baby, ''which is quite selfish really. It's like he didn't even consider our season at the Dunedin Fringe''.

In Beards! Beards! Beards!, Howells plays 11-year-old Beatrix (''For once my youthful face is working to my advantage ...''), who wants to grow a beard because she believes all the great people in history to be of the hirsute variety.

''There seems to be no way to be wise or influential without facial hair,'' Howells explains.

''So Beatrix goes on a journey through time and space to meet all the famous beards from history [including Charles Darwin, Rasputin and Abraham Lincoln], led by her spirit guide Wilgefortis, the patron saint of beards.

''It is aimed at children, but I think adults would really enjoy it, too. It's funny; there are songs and a lot of beard puns. What's not to love?''

As if performing in two shows wasn't enough, Howells also has a behind-the-scenes role in Pupil Zero, a dark comedy about a run-down rural primary school that becomes the epicentre of a new supervirus.

Produced by Big Lies, the Wellington-based theatre company formed by Howells and partner Alex Wilson, Pupil Zero has strong Dunedin connections: writer Paul Rothwell, actors Wilson and Caitlin McNaughton and directors Simon Leary and Thom Adams are all Allen Hall alumni.

• So, too, is Emma ''Feather'' Shaw.

The 24-year-old Dunedin woman, who shares a large Victorian villa with a group of ''awesome'' friends, three cats and a guinea pig, spends most of her time working on various performance projects, although she does manage to squeeze in a day job.

Shaw's love of drama started early in life.

That's hardly surprising given she admits to being a show-off.

''In primary school I was the star of School Journal plays and end-of-year productions at the community hall, and that led into drama becoming my favourite subject at high school.''

Shaw attended Logan Park High School, where the late Denise Walsh both encouraged and challenged her to advance as a performer.

In 2008, at the age of 17, she joined Walsh and a team of drama students on a trip to Japan to perform at the World Festival of Children's Performing Arts.

(Walsh was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2013 New Year's Honours list for her services to youth theatre.)

''I never thought I'd continue on to university, but then I went along to the Otago University open day and found myself attending open lectures for the theatre studies programme,'' Shaw recalls.

''I fell in love with the building and the energy surrounding that space. The next thing I knew it was three years later [2011] and I was graduating with a giant student loan and a bachelor of arts [theatre studies].''

During her time at Otago, she developed a passion for circus performance after joining the Dunedin Fire and Circus Club, where she learned a variety of skills, including hula-hooping, with which she became obsessed.

''I started crewing for circus events and festivals and got some work with a few different performance companies doing fire-dancing, teaching workshops and different ground acts like hula-hooping and human 'statue-ing'.''

Shaw also got involved in the university's lunchtime theatre programme, acting, writing, directing and stage-managing various performances.

A highlight was writing and directing her first play, The Road Has No Name, in 2011.

Shortlisted for Playmarket's Young Playwrights ''B4 25'' award in 2012, The Road Has No Name, debuted a few months after Shaw had undergone facial reconstruction following an accident while swimming.

''I shattered my eye socket. There I was, recovering from this huge ordeal and I was still creating theatre.

"The theatre studies staff and Ali East from the dance department at university were so supportive during my recovery,'' says Shaw, who received a 2011 University Golds Award for her contribution to the arts.

In 2012, shortly after directing the Duncan Sarkies play Lovepuke at the Globe Theatre, Shaw had an impulse to buy a one-way ticket to Melbourne.

''Why did I leave Dunedin? I felt like I'd outgrown it a wee bit. It was all so comfortable and familiar. And because I had grown up here as well as going to uni here, I felt like I hadn't had that 'move away' experience.

''I'd been to Melbourne for a visit in 2011 and fallen in love with the city.''

She has just enjoyed five successive summers, having bounced between the southern and northern hemispheres.

Her adventures have been varied: from working in a pie shop in Melbourne, to hitch-hiking and couch-surfing across Europe, to camping in deserts, jungles and backyards.

At one point, Shaw lived in a squat near Barcelona where she and others built rafts out of recycled materials and took them to an event called Nowhere, in northeastern Spain, before sailing down the Rio Ebro, stopping at small villages to perform a variety show based on the themes of recycling and pollution.

Now, however, she is back home, and preparing to perform in two rather different Fringe shows.

''I came back to Dunedin with this travel diary that I wanted to share with people,'' Shaw says.

''I was unsure how to go about sharing it: sharing posts on social media or in a blog just wasn't going to cut it, so I thought to myself, `Feather, put it on stage'.''

The result is Lads on Tour, a ''backpackers' cabaret that's rough round the edges.

"Think of it as a night out in a fancy dress but you've still got your steelcap boots on'', Shaw suggests.

''The initial idea was to tell all these silly stories and put on a comedy show, but I got a bit nervous about hosting a whole comedy-hour kind of thing on my own, so I put it into a variety show format and called on my awesome Dunedin network of circus performers, musicians and dancers.''

In contrast, Shaw's other show, Are You Game? explores sexual assault and blurred lines of consent.

''It is energetic and pretty raw. It's about a party and someone trying to have sex with someone who isn't game,'' Shaw says, adding the idea stemmed from a ''nasty experience'' at a party when she was in her second year at university.

''On the grand spectrum of sexual assault and rape, it was reasonably minor, but even something like this kind of encounter is enough to mess you up emotionally. I kept it all pretty secret, but wrote it down as a way to deal with what I'd experienced.

''The idea here is that it could be anyone's story, regardless of age, background or gender.''

It's not the first time Shaw has been involved in the Dunedin Fringe.

In 2011, she helped organise the event as a volunteer; in 2012, she performed in a dance and theatre piece, Piccolo Corr, and played a ''small'' role in the Firebugs show The Fire of Life.

(The Firebugs are back this year with their show Metamorphosis.)

''That year at Dunedin Fringe I also did a pyrotechnics performance called Firestorm. Running around with a flaming teapot and then hula-hooping with a hoop that shot out sparks in front of a packed-out Octagon crowd was pretty spectacular,'' she recalls.

''I love the Fringe culture. It's such a supportive space. You can sign up to do a show as long as you pay your rego fee and suss out a venue. I love that. And any venue goes.

''Fringe is when it gets quirky. You get site-specific pieces popping up in alleyways and elevators, in meeting rooms and foyers. Fringe gives everyone a go, and I am all about that inclusive vibe.

''This is just such a thriving, artistic city for its small size. The university helps a lot with that, and the history of Dunedin Sound and all that. And now as a City of Literature, it's such a lush scene down here.

''I can come home after being away for a while, and go, 'Hey, I'm Feather and I want to put on some shows', and friends old and new are just jumping at the opportunity and offering to help: 'I'll produce'; 'My boyfriend will make the posters'; 'You can rehearse in my warehouse'; 'I'll do the lighting for it'; 'I wrote this song - you can use it in your soundtrack ...'

''Far out - it's good to be home.''


The festival

The Dunedin Fringe Festival runs from March 12-22. For more information go to dunedinfringe.co.nz.

Abby Howells performs in the following shows:
Beards! Beards! Beards! (Trick of the Light Theatre)
Beatrix (played by Howells) didn't want a tiara. Beatrix wanted a beard. From Trick of the Light Theatre (The Bookbinder) comes a madcap musical romp concerning one young girl's increasingly inventive efforts to grow the world's most magnificent beard. Venue Playhouse Theatre, March 12-14 (6pm). For ages 7+
Benedict Cumberbatch Must Die (Discharge)
The award-winning comedy collective behind What is this? Woman's Hour? returns to the Fringe Dunedin with Benedict Cumberbatch Must Die. Written by Howells, the show involves a control freak actor, a sex-crazed celebrity obsessive and an antisocial fan-fiction writer, all of whom have one thing in common: a passion for Benedict Cumberbatch. Venue Playhouse Theatre, March 12-14 (9pm). All ages
Emma ''Feather'' Shaw performs in the following shows:
Are You Game? (Feral Grace)
''With his fingers interlocked behind my neck, he pulled me towards him and asked, `Are you game?' ...''

This energetic, brutally honest show harnesses dance and monologue to tell the tale of a party, a sexual assault and blurred lines of consent. Venue Dunedin Community Gallery, March 15-16 (8pm). R16

•  Lads on Tour (Feral Grace)

MC Feather Shaw and her motley crew take the audience on a whirlwind backpacker tour of the world's finest couches and floors. A mix of of sassy burlesque, raunchy circus, quirky travel stories and dad-joke comedy. Purple Rain Retro Cafe, March 19 (9.30pm). R18


Pick of the bunch
Selections from the 2015 Dunedin Fringe programme



 Polson Higgs Opening Night Showcase:

Dunedin Fringe 2015 opens at the Regent Theatre with a mix of comedy, cabaret, dance, theatre, music and, of course, the absurd. The festival taster features Bruce Fummey (Scottish Comedian of the Year 2014), Beards! Beards! Beards!, Metamorphosis, Benedict Cumberbatch Must Die, Frank the Mind-Reading Hotdog and more.

Regent Theatre, Wednesday, March 11 (7.30pm). R18



Dr Sketchy's Anti-Art School: Decadence Through the Decades

Life-drawing meets cabaret. Burlesque artistes perform and pose for your entertainment and sketching pleasure. Artists and non-artists alike are welcome. BYO sketching equipment.

Taste Merchants, March 19-20 (8pm). R18

Pay-Per-View Poetry

All you need to do is choose a suitcase, drop in a coin and wait ... as various actors, designers, writers and filmmakers adventure across the city to bring their favourite poetical words to you. Various CBD locations (visit www.dunedinfringe.nz), March 12-15, March 19-22 (12pm). All ages



Metamorphosis (The Firebugs)

A multi-disciplinary, site-specific fire-theatre performance, inspired by sources as diverse as Kafka and (ital on) Alice in Wonderland, (ital off) this event uses dance, aerial silks, original live music, fire manipulation and masks to explore various aspects of transformation.

Venue Athenaeum Underground, March 19-21 (6pm and 8pm each night). R15



Lines of Flight (Metonymic Trust)

This year's festival of experimental music includes A Handful of Dust, Alphabethead, Jeff Henderson and Hermione Johnson, Eye, Omit, Olympus, Our Love Will Destroy the World, Radio Cegeste and Sandoz Lab Technicians.

Various venues (visit www.dunedinfringe.nz), March 19-21 (8pm; also 1pm on March 21). All ages

Crossing Sounds with The Mentalist Collective (The Mentalist Collective)

Join The Mentalist Collective for a performance of original music, using a wide range of acoustic and electric instrumentation and timbre. Includes experimentation with movement, sensory deprivation and audience participation: an element of trust is required with this show! Blindfolds are available on entry. Two Left Feet Dance Studio, March 14, March 21 (7pm and 8.30pm). All ages



Best of Scottish Comedy (Unaccustomed as I am Ltd, Scotland)

Join Bruce Fummey (Scottish Comedian of the Year 2014) and fellow Scotsman Vladimir McTavish (nominated top Scottish headliner 2014) for observations of Scottish life and the world at large.

Fortune Theatre, March 12-13 (9pm). R18

• Bbeals (Footnote, Wellington)

This full-length contemporary dance piece traces an arc which starts with (ital on) Flashdance's (ital off) Jennifer Beals and encompasses Biblical themes, from the Tower of Babel to the Great Flood. A co-production between Footnote New Zealand Dance and Danses en L'R, (ital on) Bbeals (ital off) combines original music with dance, theatre and circus.

Regent Theatre, March 13 (7.30pm). All ages


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