A conversation about why Kate Sheppard matters, with Kip Chapman and Luke di Somma.
Kip Chapman is thin, all cheekbones and limbs, Luke di Somma is softer, rounder, and bursting with energy. We are meeting at the ATC rehearsal rooms during the lunch break. Lunch is green and being divvied up straight from the Tupperware. I carelessly suggest that they have loads of time to rehearse and am put quickly in my place, three weeks rehearsal plus a week in the theatre is a bit less than standard.
‘Even when it is a transfer?’ I gamely backtrack.
‘Christchurch was really about getting it up on its feet,’ explains Luke. ‘We were rewriting as we went. A script and a score all look fine on day one, but until you hear it... we weren’t directing a musical, we were fixing a musical.’
Don’t be fooled, the reviews of the show in Christchurch suggest it does more to celebrate Kate Shepherd than her being on a $10 note. The ATC loved it and suggested a transfer, and perhaps that is the nub. Now, they trust the writing but have to adapt it to a new space. The first production was rough and ready with no set in a Victorian theatre. ‘We were off-Broadway, and now we are moving to a main stage,’ says Luke.
And the mainstage is SkyCity Theatre, which for all its comforts has all the edge of the Kohu lounge. The pressure is on.
‘Twenty-two songs. Skycity Theatre, with a band of four and a cast of six. It’s a lot’.
However if any can meet the pressure, it is probably this team. The cast, band and most of the creative team are the same, with excellent additions in Rachel Walker on set, Lisa Holmes doing costumes, Brendan Albrey doing the lighting. There is a lot of lighting (and smoke) apparently. The team have just released a single promoting the show: it’s all on. Kip Chapman is more than capable of creating hit shows, co-writing and and co-directing what was arguably 2015’s best show, Hudson & Halls. Nevertheless, there are a lot of moving parts.
‘We could put it up in a week, if we wanted to,’ says Luke, ‘but in terms of making it—
‘Magic. And making it feel cool.’
‘And you want something to look hard. People aren’t paying to see something that looks easy on stage. We want it to look as full as possible with theatricality and in-depth storytelling. It is our duty to make it as rich an experience as possible.’
They want it to be perfect. In Christchurch, Luke and libretto writer Gregory Cooper were penning songs overnight, from hour to hour. These days Gregory is being kept in the loop by email about tweaks and adjustments. The tinkering continues: perfectionism and passion.
Kip Chapman came to the project a bit late. Shane Bosher of Silo was originally down to do the show, but was called away by other opportunities in Australia. He recommended Kip. Luke and Kip had met in a bar once but it was to a degree a leap of faith.
They work well together though; both write emails with exclamation marks, and have expended huge amounts of energy on the project; both are political, and both have, in Kip’s words, the ‘same morals about making theatre’. Luke says, ‘Our projects have this common theme that we love New Zealand but we think it could be better, and theatre is one way for us to communicate that.’
Kip recalls Hudson & Halls. ‘I said that in the 1980s our national colour for the cricket team was brown, now everyone in New Zealand wears black. No one looks above the room to say ‘hi’ and Peter and David were so extravagant and out there, so passionate, they taught people how to love, how to be open with their feelings. It was that clash with New Zealand culture. It is that same clash with Kate – come on, New Zealand!’
'So, why use punk to tell Kate Sheppard’s story? I had always thought of her as a very inclusive sort of person with charm, who wasn’t a bit divisive, or defiant. Well quietly defiant, but not punk.'
Luke answers, ‘I think punk is the music of the underdog... Kip and I - our central premise is that if she were living today, she would be listening to Pussy Riot.’
Kip continues. ‘The whole vision is that a gang have taken over the Skycity theatre, and in front of the audience they are creating a punk show about Kate Sheppard, and that’s the leading off point in the way that we theatricalize the show. But musically, it’s eclectic.’
It’s not, if anyone is daunted, 70 minutes of the Ramones. There’s disco, gospel and rock. Esther Stephens is the lead, the narrator, the Kate Sheppard figure, or a modern day version of. Everything seems contradictory – DIY and Skycity, a woman famous for her inclusivity and charm, played as anti-establishment as you can get; lobbying, pamphlet writing, persistence, massive organisational skills, teamwork and patience transposed to 90 minutes of full-on vocals. I can see the theatrical advantages of the punk approach, and I can also see that by looking at her in this distorting light, you may get to the real ‘essence’ of Kate Sheppard in a way that a more traditional approach may not. And yet, and yet, I can’t imagine it – but why do I need to? I can see it next week. I ask what the modern Kate Sheppard is doing here, what she is fighting for? Kip answers.
‘She’s coming back and going, ‘What’s going on!? Come on guys, have we fixed it yet? NO! It’s been 123 years!’
‘There’s this great quote,’ Luke continues. ‘All that separates us by creed, race or sex is inhuman and must be overcome. So she was thinking blacks, civil rights, gay rights... Why was there no women in the list of the top 50 CEOs in the Herald last week? Why do women get paid 78 cents in the dollar?’
I ask them if we need more Kate Sheppards?
‘Absolutely,’ says Luke. And that’s how we get to the political beliefs. Their passion and latent anger about increasing inequity fills the room.
I ask if they could highlight one thing they would like to see changed in New Zealand. For Kip, it is to make it acceptable for people to express their feelings, whether it be love or anger or hurt or sadness. If Kip’s response is to liberate people individually, Luke’s response is a warning to modern society as a whole.
‘I would say that we ignore the underclass at our peril. A country is only as strong as its most vulnerable... How would [Kate] feel about people living in cars at the moment? Not affording a clean, dry, warm home. I think she would be kind of appalled.’
I wonder if there are consequences for speaking out in New Zealand. I notice (I was raised in Britain) that it doesn’t seem culturally acceptable here to complain (I know, I’m a winging pom). They both believe macho culture has long made it more acceptable to get drunk than to talk. In fact, they reckon you can trace the vote back to violent drunks precipitating the temperance movement that led to suffrage. ‘And complaining is completely part of it,’ says Luke. ‘We don’t want to upset the apple cart, we don’t want to piss anyone off, we don’t want to cause a fuss. And Kate Shepherd caused a fuss, and people who make fusses make great musical theatre characters.’
That Bloody Woman runs from 9-26 June at the SkyCity Theatre, and returns to Christchurch from 2-30 July. It is produced by the ATC in association with The Court Theatre.
Photo by Erik Norder for Christchurch Arts Festival