Small town boy

Playwright and performer Michael Metzger on the treadmill for The Changing Shed. PHOTOS: JORDAN...
Playwright and performer Michael Metzger on the treadmill for The Changing Shed. PHOTOS: JORDAN WICHMAN
Michael Metzger’s Dunedin Fringe Festival play examines rural masculinity through the lens of his own story, he tells Tom McKinlay.

Michael Metzger was the first boy at Blue Mountain College, in Tapanui, to take cooking and sewing, a breakthrough development only made possible by a special trip his mother made to see the headmaster, as principals were then known.

"I was the first boy to take typing," Metzger adds, evidencing a precocious predisposition towards "in for a penny" behaviour.

As we’re talking high school in rural New Zealand in the 1970s, these were gutsy calls, though Metzger says it’s only latterly that he has come to appreciate his own brave determination.

"At the time, I just thought I was pretty timid," he says.

"But looking back I think it took a certain mettle to push to do some of the things I did."

Those spaces, the cooking and sewing rooms, or behind a typewriter, were at least relatively safe spaces once entry was granted.

That could not be said of all the environments Metzger encountered during those formative years.

As he notes in the description of his autobiographical Dunedin Fringe Festival play, The Changing Shed, "growing up gay is not for sissies ... especially in 1970s rural Otago".

If various genders and expressions of sexuality remain proscribed in many settings today, it’s nothing on that far-near decade.

Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk, who hailed from rural Waimate, declared in 1974 that he would oppose any legislation that treated homosexuality as "normal behaviour".

With the exception of TV chefs Hudson and Halls, a wary heterosexuality had the decade pretty much locked down.

This was Michael Metzger’s landscape. Blending in, conformity, if at all possible, conferred considerable advantages.

But it wasn’t really an option for young Michael.

"I guess I was what would be described as an effeminate boy," he says.

"And I think it is one thing to grow up gay and be grappling with that privately, but when you are marked out as different because of your interests and mannerisms, you are grappling with those things in plain sight.

"It certainly made it particularly challenging. And I guess I didn’t do anything to help myself because I had no interest in doing traditional boys’ activities. I was doing floral art."

Even with a co-operative principal, there was only so much flexibility in the system. Some school activities could not be avoided, including physical education.

So, there was bullying.

"Oh, yes," he says. "That’s the changing shed."

The changing shed is designed to prevent those outside seeing in, Metzger observes. There is a partition just inside the door, blocking the view. If there are windows they are high on the wall, and teachers are encouraged to stay out.

"So you ended up with this space that was an unregulated space," Metzger says.

"It set up a Lord of the Flies scenario.

"That was the worst because there was absolutely no protection in that room. So I ended up absolutely terrified of PE, as it was called in those days, because of having to spend time in that space.

"It was a pretty brutal unforgiving sort of space to be."

Metzger’s play, then, focuses in on his own experiences, but actually, that was initially no part of the plan.

The play was written as part of his PhD, completed through Deakin University, in Australia.

"I didn’t actually set out to tell my own story. When I started my PhD I wanted to look at rural masculinity and gay identity and I had no intention of bringing myself into it at a personal level.

"It emerged through the project. I didn’t necessarily feel very comfortable about it ... I realised that was the material I had."

Floral art also features.
Floral art also features.
Drawing on queer theatre and queer dramaturgy’s non-normative approaches, Metzger set to, first collecting the artefacts and oddments of a life; memories, facts, documents, objects from his past — the silver sugar spoon he won at the local flower show.

"I looked at it and thought, ‘what can I make theatrically out of this’.

"It was a kind of No8 wire approach to making theatre, where you are fashioning something out of bits and pieces, which had a nice connection.

"No8 wire ingenuity is a sort of positive attribute of rural masculinity and I think that was satisfying and kind of ironic, I guess, to take that concept and use it as a way to make queer theatre."

It also allowed Metzger to sidestep a conventionally autobiographical approach to the story, and provided a framework for creating a character that was, after all, him.

"With traditional theatre you lose the performer in the character. Whereas in this, the character is me. So it puts a focus on the performer labouring on stage.

"So I am me, but I am also a character.

"It is a version of me, I guess."

The play’s staging involves three main props: a treadmill, a punching bag and a bucket of flowers.

And just as Metzger didn’t start out to write a play about his own experience, neither did he start out to write a play that involved running.

Yet, the treadmill does involve actual running — an activity uncomfortably adjacent to the PE of his adolescence.

"The play was my PhD project, it just so happened that as I was starting the PhD project I had also committed myself to doing the Queenstown Marathon.

"It just started inserting itself in the project, really."

It was Wanaka-based Metzger’s second marathon, so he wrote a couple of scenes about the first, before deciding to also include a scene about the marathon he was yet to run.

"I wrote the rest of the play and had a placeholder for whatever came out of the 2018 marathon."

Now, the whole project hinged on this, the second marathon.

"And I was thinking, ‘so, what if nothing happens that moves it along in any way’."

Fortunately, as it transpired, it was a very different experience.

"What became evident to me when I was doing the project was my experience of physical education at school has really coloured my approach to exercise, subsequently."

Some of the bullying Metzger experienced back at school, in the changing shed and elsewhere, on top of the verbal and physical abuse, was exclusion.

Nowadays, that’s well recognised as a form of bullying, he says.

"But it never would have occurred to me that being excluded was a form of bullying. I thought it was a consequence of being different.

"The boys didn’t want to have anything to do with me and neither did the girls."

Later, when he took up running he did it as a very solitary sort of pursuit, a way of avoiding team sports at all costs.

"When I did the first marathon I took that approach and I downloaded a 12-week training programme and off I went."

Then, on the day of the event, the unexpected happened.

"When you do a really long run like that, after a while you end up with people of about your own ability, and run and support one another to get through to the end."

It inspired quite a different approach to his second run.

"The second time I ran a marathon I got involved in community for the first time.

"I got into a marathon clinic and I started with a group at the gym."

It meant that on the day of his second marathon, he had a community going in.

"As I talk about in the play, the first time I was kind of startled to find how supportive people were of me. And by the second marathon I had the confidence to reach out and support other people."

The upshot was that the missing scene of the play arrived, carrying precisely the sort of the message about community the play required.

There are now three scenes in The Changing Shed that involve running on the treadmill; as well as one with a punching bag and a "dash of floral art".

"You end up with a layering of activities and pastimes that are sort of gendered. Things boys do, things girls do. And some things, like running, that are gender neutral.

"I hope by the end of it that kind of pigeonholing just seems a bit ridiculous."

The treadmill et al are also up on stage to help punctuate the narrative with a bit of activity, but there are risks in that, as Metzger has discovered.

A couple of years ago he performed an excerpt from the play at a Unesco City of Literature event in Dunedin, jumped on the treadmill "... and nothing happened. Nothing ..."

"So, I am acting away, saying my lines, all this sort of thing, checking it is plugged in and trying to figure it out. Literally, the instructions were in Chinese.

"I finally got the thing going but because I had such a lot of trouble getting the thing started, it was going faster than I usually do that scene at but I didn’t want to change it because I thought it might stop.

"So I was running like the clappers on this thing and still trying to get my lines out in a way that someone could understand what I was saying. By the end of it I was absolutely exhausted," he says.

"It was very challenging."

Challenging or not, Metzger has stuck with it — the running and the play. There was another half marathon last year.

"I could have let the play die a quiet death after I had got my PhD, but why I feel I want to perform it and would love to be able to perform it in high schools, is because I think even though it is by an old guy who went to school a long time ago, the messages and what it is talking about are still very relevant."

Some of the reading Metzger did for his PhD suggested that in schools the boys police their and others’ behaviour through homophobic bullying, and that behaviour can persist into adulthood.

"There is a really interesting study of rural pub culture by a sociologist at Otago [University]. The whole time he was doing this study, he never heard of masculinity ascribed to anyone in any sort of positive way. It was always an absence of femininity. I thought that was really telling.

"In another study, an American one, when boys called each other gay it didn’t necessarily mean they were being accused of homosexuality, what it meant was they were being accused of being effeminate."

Again, Metzger’s own story connects the dots between those potentially damaging childhood experiences and their echoes in later life.

Metzger grew up on the family farm in Tapanui, but after starting his high school education at Blue Mountain, in the town, engineered an escape, of sorts, to boarding school in Dunedin.

Years later he returned to live in Tapanui for a time when his partner got a good job in nearby Gore.

"That did start me thinking about my identity as a rural man, as well as a gay man and how important that was to my sense of self.

"In a way, with my experience as a child, I felt excluded from that world and when I went back I’m thinking, ‘for goodness sake, my family has been in this district for five generations. Who is anyone to make me feel that is not my turangawaewae.’."

Metzger thinks the tale he tells through his play, The Changing Shed, is ultimately a positive story.

"When you are at school and your world is your world, it is very easy to think it will never change — that this is the making of a lifetime thing.

"Certainly, being bullied has long-term effects, but things do change when you get out of that environment and when you have more agency to find your community."

He also hopes the play causes questions to be asked about the extent to which there has been change.

"Are our children safe in these spaces? How much of that behaviour is influenced by the attitudes of parents?

"Again the reading I did suggests things haven’t come along as far as we might like to think they have. Some of these conversations are in the early stages.

"I think there are positive things, like the way sporting codes are really coming down on homophobia. There is starting to be some positive role modelling, but I just feel like we are at the beginning of those things — at changing societal attitudes.

"Having passed the Homosexual Law Reform Bill and even making gay marriage legal and those sorts of things, are great examples of course, but they are not issues that have been dealt with to the point that we can now just move on."

The play

Michael Metzger is staging the first full public performance of the The Changing Shed  as part of the Dunedin Fringe Festival.

Venue: The Octagon Club


Friday, March 26, 8pm

Saturday, March 27, 2pm, 6pm

Sunday, March 28, 2pm

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