When I met Renee Lyons, we spent an hour together and I barely even laughed. It should have felt unusual – we were talking about her new show Tinderella, which she’s performing at the Comedy Festival – but it didn’t. For me, it was proof that great comedy doesn’t always come from funny places. In fact, some of the most memorable, hilarious comedy hours I’ve seen came from pain, loss and heartbreak.
Renee is an award-winning actor best known for her one-woman play, Nick: An Accidental Hero. The work is based on the true story of Nick Chisholm, a man who was struck down by a stroke at the age of twenty-seven and found himself with locked-in sydnrome – his consciousness trapped inside a body that no longer worked. It’s not a particularly funny premise, and yet Renee managed to draw the humour and humanity from Nick’s story and the play has made people laugh and cry from Auckland to Edinburgh and back again.
The inspiration for Tinderella is perhaps less grave. Her latest show deals with the realities of approaching forty as a single woman, and is based on Renee’s own experience. I saw an article recently about ‘leftover women’ in China – those who reach the age of twenty-seven and remain unmarried, for whatever reason, and are seen as social pariahs, an embarrassment to their families. That’s an extreme example, but New Zealand is far from safe from this kind of thinking; here it’s simply that such judgements are delivered in a more jocular way. They have the appearance of being kindly meant. Renee says the inspiration for Tinderella was born from this sort of ‘kindness’, from ‘being at weddings and having the parents and fathers pull you aside and say, “Come on, you’re not getting any younger.”’
Renee worked in investment banking in London, but she chose to leave her corporate career for drama school at the age of twenty-nine. ‘With that came a whole lot of challenges – it’s not the conventional thing, not the thing that most of my peers [were] doing.’ There are certain parallels to be drawn between the vocation of acting and the harsh realities of searching for love online: the focus on youth and beauty, the snap judgements, the narrowing of options for women as they get older.
‘I think there are so many challenges for women approaching forty, especially in this industry – all the pressures that are put on us. I wanted to do something that was making light of that and having fun with it, hopefully in a way that people can find joy through. Of course, it’s very real and I’m doing it from a place of frustration and, I guess, pain, but it’s also really funny – amazing things have come out of not doing things the way other people do them.’
Renee admits that she has ‘absolutely no game when it comes to flirting or finding men’. Once, on a date, she ended up at a guy’s house watching cricket with his family. She says she gets far more nervous at parties than she does on dates, which may have something to do with being comfortable with performance; sometimes dating does feel like being in a play.
Renee enlisted the help of fellow actor Natalie Medlock to craft Tinderella. She would write, Natalie would critique, and then the two would come together to workshop the piece. ‘She’s fantastic at asking me the right questions to help me hone it,’ says Renee, who admits that writing doesn’t come naturally to her. ‘It’s something I have to struggle to learn. It’s hard. I love it, at times.’ She says the same about comedy: ‘I’m not one of those people who will sit around a table and tell everyone a story and make them laugh. Sometimes I’ll do that, but, it’s not a natural thing – I’m having to craft it.’ Renee describes her humour as dark and dry. ‘I’ve actually got terrible toilet humour, too. I really do enjoy a poo joke.’
The style of comedy that Renee loves the most is the kind that moves you, the kind that has real truth and heart. ‘I like it when someone gets to the guts of humanity and you’re able to really laugh at it, and maybe cry too.’ Looking for love in Auckland can be as depressing as looking for affordable housing, but Renee hopes that Tinderella will bring to light the funny side of that hardship. I have a feeling it will end on a hopeful note, just like our interview. ‘It was actually the time that I chilled out and realised I was actually really happy and it didn’t matter that I kind of met someone,’ Renee explains, and then she laughs.
See Renee in Tinderella at The Basement. Get tickets here >>
This is a sneak peek from our upcoming autumn issue of The Seasonal, out next week. Keep an eye out for it in Mag Nation and online.