In the past two years, Last Tapes Theatre Company have brought some wonderful works to Auckland, from Verbatim to Fallout: The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, and Earnest. Their 2016 season is aptly called First Steps, and will feature the world premiere of four new plays written by up-and-coming playwrights. The first is Wellington-based Beanie-Maryse Ridler’s Defending the J.J. Mac, which opens at The Basement on the 2nd of February.
What’s your play about?
At its core it’s about Mental Health, and the struggle of someone suffering from a mental illness who doesn’t want to face the reality of their circumstances. The aim however is not to be preachy, but rather reach audiences in a touching and magical way … so it all happens through the fantastical world of Addy, who believes she’s living in a tree house, looking after some butterflies, and writing about two 80-year-old men who live in the boat above Addy in the tree, and think they are still defending it against the ‘Jerries’ of WW2.
What inspired you to write it?
Mental illness is a topic of great importance to me, these days almost everyone knows someone who is affected by it. I think society itself is getting a lot better in terms of the stigma against mental health, and becoming more accepting of mental illness as exactly that: an illness. I think the next challenge lies with how hard people can be on themselves when suffering from mental illness, this is a topic that interests me a lot. I love Magical Realism as a genre, and in my writing I like to explore the idea of Magical Realism as a narrative structure to help audiences understand things the human mind shies away from, like trauma, grief etc. Both these ideas were behind wanting to write Defending the J.J.MAC.
How much have you been a part of the process of bringing it to life?
This is my first full length play, so I’d say I’ve been Labrador-level-excited about the whole process, and luckily the fantastic team behind it have been 100% welcoming and great at putting up with many over excited emails from the writer. Basement Theatre was kind enough to give me one of the PlayScience spots to workshop the play last year, with Leon Wadham as my dramaturg. With Leon now directing the season, that’s been a great working relationship from the very beginning of the project. Leon and Last Tapes have kept me involved throughout, inviting me to fly up on weekends to watch reads and rehearsals which has just been lovely and made me feel very much a part of it all.
What do you hope the audience will leave thinking about?
I hope the audience will leave thinking about mental health and about what could be going on inside the heads of people they know and love, but I hope this happens in an organic sort of way. And I really hope they leave going “well that was a little magical”, with a feeling of having been in a completely different world.
What are the three most influential (to you) plays you’ve ever seen or read?
One of the most extraordinary pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen, was James Thieree’s Raoul. He brought it to the NZ International Arts Festival in 2012 and it was very inspiring. Thieree is the grandson of Charlie Chaplin, a French Acrobat “Theatre Magician”, and Raoul was an amazingly beautiful and fantastical story with absolutely no dialogue. 75 minutes long and a one man production, the interactive set and his skills were totally enough to keep you captivated and yet still tell a poignant and deep story of a man’s existential crisis. I watched it with jaw on the ground and thought – I want to make theatre that’s even just a fraction of how magical an experience that was for me.
Camino Real by Tennessee Williams is another great one, a play in a world that makes zero sense but at the same time, or maybe because of that, makes great sense and gives an insightful commentary on the human existence. Plus some of those lines – pure genius.
The last one, I’m going to cheat and say a film rather than a play; Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro. Gosh, that’s just everything I ever wish I could write. Perfect example of using the fantastical as a way of coping with things the mind doesn’t want to, or can’t, understand. And so seamlessly blended. I think it has been one of the biggest influences on my area of interest and style of writing.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the past year?
The best book I’ve read in the past year was actually research for this play, but it was 100% un-put-downable (yes that’s a word) on a pure enjoyment level. Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive is a very witty, funny, on point account from some one who’s suffered depression and anxiety. A total mix of chapters, short and long, ranging from arguments between his “Then Brain” and “Now Brain” to a list of 40 pieces of advice on how to live. It is just great, for ANYONE; for people suffering from mental illness, people with loved ones suffering, people who love funny relateable biographies, people who like books, people who can read, just all of the people should compulsory read this.
What song has been the soundtrack to your summer?
It’s been a summer of writing and I always like to write listening to Tiny Ruins. In particular I’ve been thrashing her Brightly Painted One album, of which I’m in love with Carriages.
Defending the J.J.Mac runs from 2-6 February at The Basement Theatre. Find out more here.