Smoke and shadows, tours and trickery - Regional News | Connecting Wellington
 Issue 184

Photo by Andrew Empson

Smoke and shadows, tours and trickery by Madelaine Empson

Ralph McCubbin Howell and Hannah Smith started Trick of the Light out of Aro Valley in 2011 with a show called The Engine Room, which they made on the smell of an oily rag. Not anticipating the longevity of the theatre company, named for the love of shadow play, light and dark, and the trickery that’s involved in theatre and storytelling, Ralph and Hannah would find themselves employing close to 100 creatives and staging more than 750 performances around the world over the next 10 years.

This November, Trick of the Light will celebrate a momentous first decade (they’re not counting the lockdowns) with a party and play reading of The Engine Room at BATS Theatre on Friday the 11th, and the Wellington premiere of their latest work The Griegol at Te Auaha from the 16th to the 19th.

I caught up with Ralph to look back on the last decade and look forward to the next. 

How did Trick of the Light come about?

I came through Victoria Uni, and there was a real culture there at the time of forming companies and making your own work. There are a lot of companies that came out of those years at Vic Uni: Binge Culture, Eleanor Bishop I think was a year or so ahead of me. A lot of makers taking this attitude of not sitting by your phone waiting for an acting role but creating the work that you want to see on stage.

Straight out of uni I was part of a company called Three Spoon Theatre with a whole bunch of mates and we made a crazy amount of shows over two years. After we went our separate ways, I then started making more shows and Hannah and I realised we were collaborating on a whole bunch of things, so we formed Trick of the Light.

After uni I cut my teeth through Fringe Festivals, around NZ and overseas. These have always been a massive part of how we make work, learn from other people’s work, and show our stuff to the world, so it’s really concerning to see that they’ve had their support cut amidst the current arts funding crisis – they’re such an important part of the ecosystem.

Tell me about your first production, The Engine Room.

In the run up to the 2008 election, John Key had just come into the job as leader of the National Party and said he couldn’t remember whether he was for or against the Springbok tour in 1981, which just beggared belief. And so the show contrasted John Key and Helen Clark in 1981 at the time of the Springbok tour, and that rivalry at the time of the 2008 general election. It looked at politics – when do you make a stand and when are you a bystander to an issue? We put it on at BATS, and I actually only got to see one performance of it because I got on a plane to the UK and went and lived there for a bit less than two years. I’m really excited about the fact that we’re doing this play reading and I can see it again. We’ve brought back almost the entire first cast – one person’s away for a wedding that weekend, so couldn’t make it. Some fantastic actors, so it’ll be in good hands.

You’re also doing a season of The Griegol. What’s the show about?

The show is about a kid in the week leading up to their grandmother’s funeral. They encounter all of these friends and people who knew their grandmother and start to suspect that they’ve been possessed by the griegol, which is a smoke demon shapeshifter that their granny would tell them stories about. We wanted to make a good monster story, but it’s also this metaphor about grief and about a child trying to understand adult grief. It’s a really special, personal piece for us. We made it through lockdown and it also came out of this time when my cousin had just died and then Hannah’s dad died. I think it’s a universal story, but it’s drawing upon those kinds of experiences that we were having.

Do you have a favourite production from the last 10 years?

I mean, I love them all. The Bookbinder has been a real old friend and it was just so unexpected, the ride that show has had. It has taken us all around the world. It always feels like such a nourishing show to do and it really resonates with people.

Do you have any crazy stories from touring shows?

We were in Perth with The Bookbinder, and they’d built us a wee theatre space inside the library. We light the whole show using an anglepoise lamp, and I was taking it in and out of its holder and using it to light various things on the desk, and at one point I pulled it out and conked the side of my head. I could feel something trickling down the side of my face, but I wasn’t sure how badly I’d hurt myself and I didn’t want to stop the show because I was like, it’s Perth, maybe I’m just a bit sweaty. So I tried to angle myself upstage and wiped it away. We’d been performing to an audience of 11-year-old boys, and they’d been really rowdy at the start and then they got quieter and quieter. At the end of the show, I went over to Hannah and I was like, ‘Did I nick myself when I hit myself in the head with the lamp?’ She was like... ‘You have blood caked over half of your face’.

All part of the show, kids!

It really ramped up the horror [laughs]. We also got to perform The Bookbinder in a 16th century library in the UK. And we got to perform it in the attic of New Zealand’s oldest book bindery, which was pretty special. The audience climbed up a ladder and emerged under the eaves.

How beautiful. What would you say the kaupapa of the company is?

In terms of artistic output, we’re really interested in creating work that spins a good yarn. I think theatre is something that’s able to do that in a way that is just so much more immediate than other mediums. You can’t compete with the spectacle of TV, but when you have people in a space with you, and you’re breathing the same air and sharing the same story, it can just be electric. So we were trying to tell stories that engage the audience and take them on a journey. We’ve always been interested in narrative and integrating visual design from the beginning. In terms of kaupapa, we’ve become interested in sustainable theatre, particularly amid the climate crisis.

How does it feel to look back on the last 10 years, and what’s on the cards for the next 10?

It’s lovely to look back and see this strange journey that we’ve been on. There’s lots of work that we’re really proud of. Our ‘trick’, if there is one, has been to surround ourselves with talented people; we’ve been so lucky to work with the people that we have and can’t wait to get together and have a knees-up with them to celebrate.

In terms of what’s coming for the next 10 years, there’s more touring we want to do of shows that we’ve made. The Griegol is a show without words, so it plays like a silent film. There’s a screen and a camera showing a live feed of a lightbox. We’re creating wholly on the side of the stage with Tristan [Carter], who’s also playing the violin. The audience is seeing what’s happening on the screen and in front of the screen, but they’re also seeing how all these effects are created using light and shadow and smoke. We wanted to push the design harder to tell a really rich story without words because we wanted it to be universal and accessible to a wide audience without language as a barrier. We’d love to tour that further afield and see how it plays to a non-English-speaking audience. We haven’t done The Bookbinder for a number of years because of COVID, so at some point we’d like to do more shows of that. And just keep creating work that excites us, works that are honest and inventive.

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