500 Letters

16th Avenue Theatre, 174 16th Ave, Tauranga

03/10/2008 - 04/10/2008

Theatre Royal, TSB Showplace, New Plymouth

26/10/2006 - 27/10/2006

Meteor Theatre, 1 Victoria Street, Hamilton

17/10/2006 - 19/10/2006

Theatre Royal, TSB Showplace, New Plymouth

21/10/2006 - 22/10/2006

Suter Theatre, Nelson

12/10/2006 - 13/10/2006

Expressions Arts & Entertainment Centre - Upper Hutt, Wellington

21/10/2006 - 22/10/2006

Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre, The Edge, Auckland

12/10/2006 - 13/10/2006

Nelson Arts Festival

Production Details

Written and performed by Pauline Grogan
Directed by Margaret-Mary Hollins
Composer: Drew McMillan
Sound design by Andrew McMillan
Lighting design by Simon Coleman
Audio visual design by Simon Coleman and Peter Simpson
Dramaturg: Lynne Cardy

Last year Pauline Grogan faced a new challenge in her already eventful life – she was to take to the stage to perform for the very first time with no theatre training in a one-woman play called 500 Letters.

“I must have been mad!” said Pauline, recalling the experience.

The play was so well received it will tour the country in October/November under the aegis of STAMP – Creative Development at THE EDGE®. Pauline will perform the play in Nelson, Upper Hutt, New Plymouth and Hamilton (full schedule below). The national tour will start with repeat performances in Auckland on October 12 & 13.

500 Letters is based around Pauline’s long friendship with New Zealand’s longest hospital stay patient, the late James Lynch. Pauline first met the severely disabled James 20 years ago in Tauranga Hospital following her daughter’s stroke at age 10. Despite his condition, his friendship and strength inspired Pauline to look within herself and subsequently step where she feared to tread.

500 Letters tells James’ story through Pauline’s eyes and interweaves her own remarkable story into the performance from her life as a Catholic nun, through leaving the convent, to life as a wife, mother, teacher and author. The result is a unique piece of New Zealand theatre that has touched audiences with many who saw it contacting Pauline to tell her that she has inspired them to make changes in their own lives.

500 Letters is directed by Margaret-Mary Hollins who was once a student of Pauline’s in the 1970s, just after she had left the convent. Margaret-Mary said she believed the response to 500 Letters last year was so strong because it tells a compelling true story: “It brings up themes of vulnerability, of following your heart as opposed to what people think you should do. You can find the most extraordinary inspiration in the most unlikely places.”

Pauline said she hoped 500 Letters encouraged people to look at their own lives from a different perspective: “If you look at a tapestry on the wrong side all you see is threads and knots and bits that don’t make any sense. You have to turn it over. Then you get beauty – where everything fits together and makes sense.”

Pauline was inspired to bring James’ story to the stage following the publication of her two memoirs, Beyond the Veil and A View From Within. Since the books’ publication Pauline has become a motivational speaker and also works as a celebrant and teacher.

The play will be the first production developed by the STAMP programme to be performed outside of Auckland. Producer and THE EDGE® Creative Programmes Manager, Lauren Hughes, said she expected Pauline’s story to be warmly embraced throughout the country.

“In my eight years working in a professional venue I have never seen a performer build such a strong bond, so quickly with their audience,” said Ms Hughes. “Every night after the performance the audience simply stayed in their seats as if they were waiting to take their new-found friend home. They all wanted to share their own stories with Pauline and to thank her for her honesty.”

500 LETTERS – North Island Tour 2008:

13 September – Hawkins Theatre, Papakura
16 and 17 September – Playhouse Theatre, Hastings
19 and 20 September – Lawson Field Theatre, Gisbourne
23 – 25 September – The Globe, Palmerston North
27 September – The Little Theatre, Matamata
3 and 4 October – 16th Avenue Theatre, Tauranga
10 – 12 October – Centrestage Theatre, Orewa
18 October – The Centre, Kerikeri
31 October – 1 November – Playhouse Theatre, Glen Eden
18 – 23 November – Herald Theatre, Auckland

Kate Parker - puppeteer

Theatre , Solo ,

1hr 10min, no interval

Trusting truth

Review by Vanessa Byrnes 06th Oct 2008

Truth, and our relationship to it, is an enduring fascination for all of us in one way or another. In Ancient Greece the Oracle at Delphi famously told the faithful to "know thyself". Growing up on a farm in an Irish-Catholic family in the Bay of Plenty, Pauline Grogan’s father told her, "to thine own self be true". And years later, the inspirational and severely disabled James Lynch told Grogan to simply "tell the truth".

As she recounts aspects of her extraordinary life in 500 Letters, Pauline Grogan’s performance is a rich testimony to telling the truth to both oneself and others. Truth, and the revealing and retelling of it, is central to this beautiful wee solo play.

High production values surround and hold Grogan as she recounts her courageous journey from childhood through to being a nun, institutional abuse by a Priest, marriage, motherhood with 4 children under 4, and a raft of unexpected meetings, tragedies and challenges along the way including her only daughter’s stroke at the age of 10.

It’s intimate, yet inventive theatre as the events unfold before our eyes and ears. We could be in her living room. This warm and courageous woman has a rich tapestry of life to draw from, and her guts to reveal the truth resonates whole heartedly throughout the performing and retelling of it.

We like her just for telling the truth so openly, and in doing so, the fundamental questions are gently thrown up: What do we believe in? Who, what, or where is God? What constitutes goodness? What is most essential in life? What matters most in life? What will I feel most proud of in my lifetime? What can I change for better in the world? How do I really connect with another? It takes a special kind of person to point their audience in that direction.

500 Letters is one woman’s story, but it is clearly the work of a dedicated team of skilled professionals. Director Margaret-Mary Hollins is to be congratulated for her work on adapting the books to stage (along with Dramaturg Lynne Cardy), and her light touch to the flavour and tone of this piece. The show never loses itself in pity or over endowed sympathy, and it’s the stronger for it.

Simon Coleman’s lighting and set allows for simplicity and intimacy. And of course the fantastic sound scape composed by Drew McMillan is very moving when allied with Kate Parker’s very beautiful Shadow Puppetry and Peter Simpson’s Film Graphics. Another world altogether is created on the picture book screens upstage of Pauline Grogan because of the tender touch of this production team. This suggests a deep respect for Grogan too.

Grogan’s relationship with James Lynch, who spent 44 years as a patient in Tauranga Hospital, is worthy of a play in itself. The seemingly random meeting of two very different people – one severely disabled, one with too much energy; one with not enough time, one with too much time – and their enduring friendship and true platonic love for each other is wonderful. Lynch becomes Grogan’s own Oracle at Tauranga as he urges her to "tell the truth". It’s a lovely moment, a challenge to defy adversity, and it lies at the centre of this piece.

As an aside I would have loved an image or photo of James Lynch in the show in order to de-fictionalise his character, and also to underline the inherent point of view that appearance can bely one’s true inner beauty.

Pauline Grogan is also a speaker and educator (see www.paulinegrogan.co.nz) and she herself admits that acting has come late in her life. Yet, notwithstanding a few vocal issues due to a cold, she is a born performer, and as she warms up into the show you soon realise that music, story, and courage are natural parts of her being. As she trusts her own truth, and that of the audience, a very unique person opens up and a lovely performance emerges.

This is the portrait of a brave woman with a big heart who has chosen to challenge convention and tell the truth. And full marks to her for doing so. The truth, as someone else once said, can set you free.


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Memorable memoir with music and inventive projections

Review by Liz Elson 18th Oct 2006

The set is spare and simple – a grand piano, a rug and a chair – and Pauline Grogan enters quietly to, as she puts it, do some piano practise as the audience settles in their seats.

From this low-key beginning we are gradually caught up in her life, from her childhood as one of a large Catholic family on the farm where she sought peace and solitude in the hills she loved, to the day when tragedy struck her own family, her ten-year-old daughter having suffered a stroke at school.

It was whilst visiting her daughter in hospital that she met James Lynch, New Zealand’s longest hospital-stay patient. Seriously brain-damaged and with little capacity for speech, he was nevertheless to become her close friend and mentor and a major influence in her future.

We cannot meet James, of course, but his life is depicted throughout the performance by the extraordinarily inventive projection of Kate Parker’s shadow puppets onto the backdrop. They have an almost childlike charm and innocence which is further enhanced by the choice of classical music, much of it played by Grogan herself. Delightful as these interludes are, some of them could have been pruned a little so as not to interrupt the narrative flow.

It is not until half way through the evening that Grogan fills in the years between leaving her childhood home and her marriage and reveals that she was a nun for twelve years, renouncing her vocation after sustained abuse by a priest. This is the secret she carries until James gives her the quiet space she craves in her busy life and the listening ear she so desperately needs.

He urges her to "tell the truth" and she subsequently writes her autobiography, Beyond the Veil.

Pauline Grogan is an accomplished woman and a determined and courageous survivor, whose story has been presented with a simplicity and lack of melodrama, which, coupled with beautiful music and clever visual effects make this a memorable performance.

[Note: Click on the play title at the top for full details of the tour schedule]


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Infectious warmth and heart

Review by Kate Ward-Smythe 14th Oct 2006

Enjoying a return season and national tour after premiering in Auckland in October 2005, there is no denying the content of 500 Letters is engaging. But the magic of the play comes from the fact that its writer, the remarkable Pauline Grogan, performs it. Incredibly, Grogan also celebrated her debut as a professional actor this time last year.

While some opening night nerves caused her to rush at the top of the show, the unique quality of 500 Letters comes from Grogan’s infectious warmth and heart, as she shares her life story, and recounts her special friendship with New Zealand’s longest hospital-stay patient, James Lynch.

With the assistance of a top creative team, her story is delightful to hear and watch. A versatile performer, Grogan plays the piano as we walk in and throughout her performance. As a music teacher, melody has been a huge part of her life and her salvation, so it is fitting that Andrew McMillan’s beautiful, well chosen classical music underlays and overall sound design evoke just the right mood and emotion, throughout the night.

Simon Coleman chooses key moments in Grogan’s story-telling to stamp his lighting design to maximum effect, but it is his audio visual design – with co-collaborator Peter Simpson – depicting James’ life that is truly inventive and magnificent. With shadow, sticks and the skill of puppeteer Kate Parker, they lift James’ inspirational influence over not only Grogan’s life, but also hundreds of others, to a tangible level.

Director Margaret-Mary Hollins has gracefully brought these creative elements together, so they complement and enhance Grogan’s charming performance and narrative. Showering Grogan with endless letters from heaven was a stunning image to end on.

While Grogan’s experiences alone, (staunch catholic upbringing, becoming a nun, abuse from a respected Priest, her daughter’s devastating stroke at a young age), give much food for thought, the enduring message of 500 Letters is, quite simply, how much we undervalue the power of listening and being listened to. James’ patient ears gave Grogan the opportunity to vent and purge, till from this torrent, she found the courage and strength to face her demons.

Her empowerment is apparent just by visiting her website, where Pauline Grogan Enterprises Limited Online can offer services from Inspirational Motivational Speaker, to Funeral Celebrant. To see how this woman’s journey on the road to success came about, I would highly recommend giving 500 Letters a listening ear – and a good look.


Val Hungerford November 13th, 2006

500 letters was a most moving show. It was amazing that an untrained actress like Pauline could appear so professional and natural on stage and also be able to hold the audience so well on her own throughout the play. The whole production including the lighting, shadow puppets, music, and photographic backdrops melded together to make a superb theatre experience. Thankyou.

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