Life Stories: A Work Showing

Fortune Theatre Studio, Dunedin

10/03/2017 - 11/03/2017

Dunedin Fringe 2017

Production Details

Developed with locals as part of international teacher John Bolton’s Theatre For Life workshop, this is an unique opportunity to be the first to see a range of startling new stories shared with humour, humanity and skill.

Life Stories: A Work Showing will be performed at King Edward Court, where the artists have been developing the performance for the last three weeks.

The performance space is located approximately 100 metres up Stuart Street from Fortune Theatre. There are two flights of stairs and as such the performance space is not wheelchair accessible. Audience members are asked to congregate at Fortune Theatre and will be escorted to the performance space.

Theatre ,

45 minutes

Skilful, generous, courageous, imaginative, memorable

Review by Terry MacTavish 11th Mar 2017

I am breathing too fast and talking too much. It’s not the stimulation of being with excited theatre-goers, nor the pleasurable effort of climbing with them first the steep street from the Fortune then flights of stairs in grand old King Edward Court. No. I am about to verify for myself the genius of a legendary practitioner: John Bolton of Melbourne.

For decades he has held a fascination for me.  Fine actors I have worked with, like Jacob Rajan, give glowing testimonials of the difference he has made to their craft. Brilliant students of mine, like Glynis Angell, have left New Zealand to study with him, and been so inspired they never returned. Maybe today I will discover the secret of his magic. 

Artistic Director of the Fortune, Jonathon Hendry, was so impressed by his own experience of a four-month workshop course with Bolton that he prevailed upon him to come to Dunedin and conduct an intensive but shorter course for local actors, concluding with a performance of ‘fragments’ of their work for Fringe Festival. 

This is Poor Theatre: just the actors’ bodies and grab-bag costumes and a few found props to tell their stories, but actually the rehearsal room environment is rich with possibility, the huge space filled with architectural peculiarities: high windows, odd alcoves, a staircase to a mezzanine floor, with a bannister to slide down, and a ramshackle collection of old furniture that begs to be creatively exploited.

I have seen all six of those involved in the Life Stories Workshop on stage before, in roles as diverse as Grease’s Sandy and Earnest’s Algernon. One was a much-loved children’s TV presenter, another is currently giving a flamboyant performance in Fringe 2017’s Queen. Most are experienced in improvisation and some have devised their own original works. It should be intriguing to see how their craft has developed and deepened.  

The first thing I notice is the confident serenity of our welcome. There is a satisfying lack of pretension in the way we are ushered in and conducted by the actors to different areas of the room for each scene. With fearless honesty they embark on the stories of the defining moments in their lives, beginning with their explanations of drawings they have made of their childhood homes.

Cheryl Amos tells us of the frogs in her Australian bathroom, Clare Waldron from small-town Geraldine recalls the party phone line, while singer Sophie Morris confides that she had worried about the lack of colour in her drawing compared to the others, clearly a less fun childhood. But she smiles. It is a charmingly low-key opening that leads us gently into a show that becomes increasingly intense.

Bolton’s three-week workshop has explored different theatrical styles, including Clown and Bouffon, with performers led to discover their own inner clown as well as hero and villain, and now they move confidently between styles, interacting with trustful ease. Sometimes the scenes are purely physical, demanding real courage. Andrew Brinsley-Pirie leaps high to crash to the floor, Nick Tipa stabs himself violently, and Jodie Bate gives a most beautiful interpretation of pregnancy and birth, curling and writhing high on a shelf above us. 

The action is not always obviously autobiographical. The actors don garments over their basic blacks, and become characters, perhaps the side of themselves they suppress in the workaday world, often naïve and clown-like in their behaviour, usually silent. Mime obliges us to focus our attention to interpret what is happening, which is rewarding in itself, and the words that are used gain in significance. (Or humour: we laugh at the placing of “Gummy-bear?”) 

Sometimes they seem like children in an Edwardian attic, left to amuse themselves without the grown-ups, and we delight in their play. The audience, used by now to regrouping for each scene, offering seats and getting to know one another, love the sudden snatches of songs chosen, presumably, because they reverberate for the performers: Stayin’ Alive, Wuthering Heights, Flashdance, the infectiously enthusiastic singing suddenly backed by mimed bagpipes for Mull of Kintyre. 

The performers’ shared dreams and nightmares though, are powerful and frightening – now the song is Tipperary, and a table is repeatedly crashed to the floor like gunfire, while bodies hurl themselves across the ground in agony.  By now the trust has built and what could have been confrontational is accepted and absorbed by an audience that is completely immersed in the experience. 

John Bolton himself is present throughout, an elegant white-haired figure, relaxed and debonair, but watching his actors with fierce intensity, occasionally quietly suggesting a change of plan to them, which is immediately and calmly adopted. It seems clear to me that those of this impromptu company, who are at a point in their careers where they may feel stale, have been given new tools to work with, while the younger members have gained in self-confidence and sureness onstage.

Under his direction the performers have revealed themselves, stripped emotionally naked, offering an intimacy not usually achieved until after many years’ friendship. “I love to see where it is people are hiding,” Bolton has said, and this workshop has given the participants the courage to shine a light on the hidden in their own lives, and generously, courageously, share it with us.

The triumph of this imaginative, memorable performance is that despite the technical skill displayed, Life Stories has been delivered with a simple sincerity that actors, those most self-conscious of beings, often find it hard to achieve. So that’s the magic, is it? No tricks, just generosity of spirit and undimmed enthusiasm for the richness of theatre as a medium for sharing the true stories of our lives. The legend lives. Thank you, John Bolton!  


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