Look out for the iceberg

by Faith Oxenbridge / 30 July, 2005
As we age, our fears decrease, says writer Gary Henderson, whose new play Peninsula returns to his 60s childhood: "I remember vividly what's it like to be that age."

A student of Gary Henderson once asked him what it was like getting older. "I don't feel as frightened as I used to," Henderson said, and the student was surprised - he thought it would happen the other way around because children are meant to be fearless and we grow more fearful as we get older.

Henderson has spent a bit of time with children and their fears. He was a teacher of intermediate-aged children for five years. "It's a fascinating age. They're starting to develop some independence, but they're still open and not too cool to do silly things like stuff grass down your neck."

He started writing plays for his students to perform at school because no one else was and because "theatre was something that came to your school, or your parents took you to". Then, in 1985, he formed Strawberry Theatre with the aim of producing quality professional theatre for young people. His Big Blue Planet Earth Show became the first "children's" play to win the Adelaide Fringe Festival Award for Excellence.

Henderson is about to turn 50 and he's not afraid. "As I get older, I think, what does it really matter if I fail at something - what does it really matter?" It matters, but if you Google playwright Gary Henderson, you'll find no mention of failure. Skin Tight, his lyrical and bruising evocation of enduring love inspired by Denis Glover's poem "The Magpies", won the Fringe First at Edinburgh in 1998, and continues to be performed around the world. And Henderson is more than happy to be described as the guy who wrote Skin Tight, if not to be defined by it. "Skin Tight is now a touchstone in New Zealand theatre, and I'm proud of that, but my favourite play is always the next one."

Actually, if pushed he would say that his last play, Home Land, is the one that he is most pleased with. "The writing stands up, I think." Listener reviewer Anna Chinn thought so, too, calling Home Land - written during Henderson's year in residence at Otago University - "a totally defibrillating thing".

There was a three-year stint directing Shortland Street, where he appreciated the money materialising like white rabbits in his bank account each month and the challenge of trying to tell a story with pictures, but these days Henderson mostly writes plays for adults and teaches adults at Auckland's Unitec how to write plays. "I've developed a way of teaching writing that says, write anything you like, but then go back and dig into it. I want them to examine with some rigour what it is they do instinctively."

He's not big on wafting about waiting for signs from the universe, either. "There's nothing mysterious about being creative. Ideas happen when you're trying to think up ideas; thought is no different from any other action, really."

It's okay, good even, to be paid to write something, too, and several of Henderson's plays have been commissions. An Unseasonable Fall of Snow was written because the International Festival of the Arts wanted a small New Zealand play, with only a couple of actors. "You have to come up with something to write about and you do because you have to. It's almost banal, but I can always find something to be fascinated by."

In Dunedin at the Robert Lord cottage in 2003-04, Henderson also wrote Peninsula, which premieres in Christchurch this week. Christchurch Arts Festival director Guy Boyce contacted Henderson in 2001 and asked him to write a play for the festival. Boyce brought Skin Tight to Christchurch for the 1997 festival and even though he watched it more than 20 times, each time something in it moved him anew: "It just gets under the skin."

His brief to the playwright was simply to create a new work about the land that was emblematic to the Canterbury region, and Henderson's strongest association with the area was the tiny French settlement of Duvauchelle Bay on Banks Peninsula, where he spent almost four years as a child. His father was a foreman for the Post Office Lines Branch and although Gary was born in the South Canterbury town of Geraldine and often finds himself saying that's where he comes from, they left there when he was three. "We moved around so much that it was very familiar for me to be thrown into a new situation and I was constantly having to say goodbye to friends - that didn't get easier."

Peninsula is set in the 1960s and tells the story of 10-year-old Michael Hope who doesn't always find life that easy, either. Michael's time in the community of Duvauchelle is on some levels idyllic and on others baffling. He has a loving - if not always understanding - family, a jetty to fish off, mates to fish with, a sister to tease and keep out of his clubs, a new television and a new teacher who might just understand him. But, like the volcano that fashioned the peninsula's imperfect beauty, there are underground rumblings in the adult world that encroach on Michael's life and threaten to throw things into chaos.

Although Peninsula's narrative is largely fictional, some of the details are autobiographical, like the part where Michael attempts to play a game of rugby. "I never quite knew how to play," Henderson says. "I remember having lots of people piling on top of me and then I got to play in the backs and all of a sudden people were throwing the ball at me, so I ran, and people starting piling on top of me again. You don't forget things like that. I remember vividly what it's like to be that age and the fears you have that you don't measure up."

He wrote an "incredibly Gothic" first version of the play with a body floating under the jetty and reworked it, but got nowhere and he's still not sure where the final version came from. "I can't remember how the story evolved. I wanted to write about the relationship between a father and son, and this teacher turned up, who made the father realise that the quirky nature of his son was actually worth something."

It was hard work: he would have an idea for a scene, and then write it, and then another, and then try to rearrange things. In the end, he practised what he teaches and got something down, poked around and found what was interesting, and took it a little further. A series of workshops helped, too. "It was good to watch and get a sense of the shape of the story; I wanted the narrative to be moving forward, but not to lose the quieter moments."

An iceberg is an image Henderson keeps in mind when he's writing his plays. "In Home Land, I wanted it to sound like two hours of small talk with this great big thing happening underneath. I wanted to show just the tip of the iceberg, but I wanted that tip to be so perfectly drawn that the rest was really clear."

Peninsula is being billed as a multi-media play and Henderson and his creative team have spent time on the peninsula collecting sounds and images, as well as a week "playing with all the techno-toys they could get their hands on" in Wellington in a technology workshop. More so than ever before, Henderson wants to use sound, lighting and design to tell his story and has drawn heavily on that idea of Banks Peninsula as a volcano and the image of things being underground and surfacing and causing trouble. As the production elements have come together, the script has been quietly losing words - 20 minutes from the initial reading - and the writer is happy to lose some more. "I have to keep reminding myself to leave space for sound and light to tell the story. I want the soundscape to be almost supernatural, to use very low sound to underscore moments that are significant or menacing, as well as literal sounds to create location."

Sound designer Chris Ward, who created the haunting soundtrack to Skin Tight, and has worked on Lord of the Rings and King Kong, is partly responsible for Peninsula's shrinking script. Ward rang Henderson a few months ago and said he had a great idea for a scene based on sound, but it required a scene that hadn't been written yet. Henderson was enthusiastic. "I don't want it to be where I've written the script and I get some guys who can do light and sound to colour it in for me. I've never worked this way before, so I don't know where it's going, but at the same time it's exciting because you never know what's going to turn up."

What will turn up, according to Boyce, should be something quite extraordinary. "There was always a risk that the play could become a sound and light show, when the story should be paramount, but with this creative team and Henderson at the helm, the end result will be nothing less than powerful."

Henderson says he won't know if he has achieved what he wants to with this play until it's all finished and on its feet. This from the playwright who likes quiet moments, who jokes that he only ever wanted to be famous enough to attract the kind of people he really wanted to work with, and who gets more pleasure from watching the reaction of the audience when they come out of the theatre than from the coterie of awards and glowing reviews that invariably trail a new Gary Henderson play.

PENINSULA, Court Theatre, Christchurch, July 30 - August 20.

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