17 Jun 2014

The magic in darkness and light

10:36 am on 17 June 2014

The people that make up Trick of the Light Theatre live their work – to the point that their Wellington flat is starting to resemble the detailed, lived-in, wonderful worlds they build on stage. Their hallway is as much an obstacle course as it is a thoroughfare, full as it is with set dressing and props from their shows.

You step past a shadow puppet theatre only to be jabbed by a deconstructed pivot irrigator, and you can’t help but think of how many of the characters in their shows are obsessives, collectors, hoarders. Ralph McCubbin Howell, 27, and Hannah Smith, 30, who together form the company, make shows about people who find truths in their messes.

Born (like full.stop.theatre, Pinwheel and Show Pony) out of the dear departed Three Spoon Theatre, Trick of the Light have been doing rather well for themselves of late. Last year, they won a tranche of Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards, including Best Production, for The Road That Wasn’t There. Written by McCubbin Howell and directed by Smith, it tells the story of a boy who has come home to a small rural town in the South Island from England to look after his mother.

When he discovers she has been hoarding maps, she tells him a story about a story about a magical other world she found as a child after following a “paper road” – a road planned and plotted on surveyors’ maps, but never actually constructed. There are thought to be some 56,000 kilometres of such roads in New Zealand.

A picture from Trick of the Light Theatre's The Road That Wasn't There

Trick of the Light Theatre: The Road That Wasn't There Photo: Anita Pitu

“Maps try to make the unknown comprehensible,” says McCubbin Howell. “I think there’s something nicely ironic in that the more we rely upon Google maps and sat-nav, the more lost we are when these things are removed and find ourselves off the beaten track. The brighter the light, the darker the shadows…”

The Road That Wasn’t There tells the story on three levels. There’s the human cast, which includes McCubbin Howell in a multitude of roles, mostly designated by headwear. Then there are the intricate, beautiful, marionette puppets, made by Smith, who act out the mother’s story. Then there are the shadow puppets, populating the town found at the end of the paper road.

The deft switching between characters and worlds, along with Smith’s beautifully well-hewn production design, manage to conjure a truly rare thing: a story about magic that actually feels magical.

“I think a lot of work for children deals with complicated ideas,” says Smith. “Fantasy is one of the major genres of children’s fiction, and the leap from the page to the stage isn’t so very far. It's a genre often used as a way of dealing with death and comprehending the darker aspects of life. Abandonment, despair, the loss of innocence, and mortality are bread and meat to the fantasy genre.”

She says she and McCubbin Howell wanted the story to work on two levels. “While the focus of the production is very much the fairy-tale about a girl who finds a magical world that other people don’t have access to, on another level you can read it as a story about dementia and Alzheimer’s, and a family finding a way to work through the process of losing and grieving together – a story to tell each other to help them through the hard times.”

McCubbin Howell describes Road as a play about “uncharted territory”. But it’s also pretty clearly about home, and homesickness. He and Smith were based in England when they first made the show in 2012, while he studied towards a graduate diploma in acting, and the show’s sense of wistfulness and wonder seems rooted in people looking back towards home from the other side of the world.

A picture of Ralph McCubbin Howell in Trick of the Light Theatre's The Bookbinder

Ralph McCubbin Howell in Trick of the Light Theatre's The Bookbinder Photo: Stephen Coulter

There is a nostalgia to Trick of the Light’s work, especially that which is pitched at children; it all seems set in a kind of mythical recent past. It’s the same kind of nostalgia that’s evoked by a trip to their flat, where they serve you tea from a cast-iron kettle, resting on a rugged wooden chopping block, with milk set aside in a white ceramic jug. It’s not a beautified or exaggerated nostalgia, but one as rugged and frayed as their puppets and sets. There’s a physicality, a durability to everything they do.

The Road That Wasn’t There was born out of a desire to make a show to take to the Edinburgh Fringe – the largest festival of its kind in the world, and a rite of passage for many Kiwi theatre makers. But pitching the show at younger audiences was a “canny marketing decision”, remembers Smith.

A lot of it was about how to make a show where we weren’t going to get slayed and end up performing for a month to one guy

“In the Edinburgh Fringe programme the theatre section is massive – it’s like 70 pages. And the children's theatre section is eight pages,” she says. “So if you’re competing against 100 shows rather than, y’know, 2000 shows, that’s an easier competition to win.”

“Then we slowly narrowed it down,” continues McCubbin Howell. “We said ‘Let’s be one of the ten shows that are on at midday’, ‘Let’s be one of the shows one of four shows in the kids’ theatre section that has puppets’. A lot of it was about how to make a show where we weren’t going to get slayed and end up performing for a month to one guy.”

Their plan to pitch to younger audiences was pragmatic, but it wasn’t born of cynicism. Many of their obvious influences, like Neil Gaiman, Margaret Mahy and Maurice Gee, primarily do work for children. And Trick of the Light seem just so at home in the genre that it seems odd that they ever had to actively choose to do it; they would’ve probably fallen into it anyway.

They premiered their latest work, The Bookbinder, earlier this year in the New Zealand Fringe Festival. McCubbin Howell performed the solo show – about an apprentice book-binder whose rash actions trap him within the pages of a mysterious book – out the back of Wellington’s Arty Bees second-hand bookshop to audiences of barely a dozen. It won a bunch of awards, including Best of the Fringe, and it’s now touring the country.

While The Road that Wasn't There is a big wide open play about big wide open things – roads that stretch on forever, epic undertakings, long distances travelled both internally and externally – The Bookbinder is a play of intimacies, tiny actions, microscopic moments. The epic sweep of the story is the same, and folkloric magic still runs a glittering spine through the whole thing, but it feels more present, like a pop-up story book. You don’t just feel like you could reach out and touch the show; in those cramped quarters of performance, you literally could.

But despite the acclaim they’ve attracted for these wonderfully woven, handmade works for children – for all the marionettes, the shadows, the roads that aren’t there – McCubbin Howell and Smith consider themselves most at home in the real world, in all its grittiness. A political streak runs through their shows for adult audiences, like 2011’s The Engine Room, about the Springbok tour and last year’s STAB commission Broken River, about the damage caused by over-irrigation to our environment. They hope, in the future, to achieve a synthesis between their two very different styles.

“I would really like to find a way to marry those two things – the politics and the magic,” says Smith. “Because I think theatre should be political, that is should comment on society, but I also think that theatre should be cool, entertaining and pretty.”

The Road That Wasn’t There runs at Circa Theatre from July 8 – 19.
The Bookbinder is touring the nation for at least the rest of this year.

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