• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Hall of fame

Her famous surname might have helped her get a foot in the door, but Bruce Mason Playwriting Award winner Pip Hall's subsequent success has been all her own.

A few assumptions might be made about Pip Hall: that she is anxious to prove she's made it as a playwright under her own steam, without help from her more famous father, Roger; that after 15 years she is committed to her chosen career path; and that she writes what she wants, without considering the market.

But as with her plays, which constantly surprise with their complete changes in style and subject matter - from Shudder, which reads like an extended poem to inner-city Wellington, to the musical romp Who Needs Sleep Anyway?, to the in-your-face docu-drama of her latest work, The 53rd Victim - it's unwise to make assumptions.

Actually, Hall admits her first big break was probably due to her surname, confesses she nearly gave up theatre recently for a tempting new career as a life coach, and considers it realistic to write with an audience in mind.

She's pragmatic, straightforward - and seriously talented in her own right. And she has just won the country's top theatre accolade, the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award. She says, in typically no-nonsense fashion, that she is "really stoked. It is super exciting, all the other shortlisted playwrights [including Thomas Sainsbury and Arthur Meek] were super-flash, so it was tough competition."

As well as a $10,000 full-length play commission and the use of a silver drinks tray that belonged to Mason, Hall joins a roll-call of past winners including Toa Fraser, Briar Grace-Smith and Duncan Sarkies. "It's such a luxury to have a commission, the freedom is amazing. I want to make sure I come up with the right idea and write something that will get put on."

Kate-Louise Elliott, artistic director of Palmerston North's Centrepoint Theatre and one of the award judges, sees Hall's strength as the authenticity of her characters and her ability to allow actors scope to "play things with real truth. She's been writing for a long time and she's really developed and matured ... she pushes her own boundaries."

Elliott read a draft of Hall's new work Up North - set on a farm in the 1950s when the arrival of an unmarried mother-to-be challenges small-town values - and immediately rejigged her 2010 programme to allow for a June premiere.

What Hall likes most about theatre is the pretending. "I love that an audience will suspend their disbelief, that you are willing to engage your imagination, with a few simple props you can be anywhere." And there's the closeness of a live performance: "You can really feel what's going on; the audience becomes part of the experience."

At school, she played a lot of basketball, and at the University of Otago she floundered around doing law and economics, "failed abysmally and was so bored". It was her father who suggested she try drama. Although some children would baulk at parental career advice, especially when it means joining the family firm, Hall?did as she was told. And she found her calling.

But theatre had been there in the background all along: the Halls were the sort of family who listened to Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood on long car journeys, and when the family lived in London for a year, Pip and her younger brother, Simon, were given carte blanche by their parents to see as many plays as they wanted, on the basis that they might never have the opportunity again.

Armed with her degree in drama, Hall got a job as a writer for the Gibson Group's Skitz TV comedy series in the mid-1990s. Dave Gibson saw her in a university comedy revue and approached her in the bar afterwards. "TV is a very hard industry. I knew from watching people come and go, be hired and fired, that being Roger Hall's daughter might have got my foot in the door but it wouldn't keep it there."

"We have never been compared in terms of what we produce," Hall says of her father. "That would have been hard." They have worked together once, on the 2007 Plunket centenary production Who Needs Sleep Anyway? "We had a great time but afterwards we realised we were interested in different things." Does she send him drafts of her plays to read? Occasionally. "He's such a valuable resource, I'd be silly not to."

Elliott, who also played Nurse Daisy in Auckland Theatre Company's production of Who Needs Sleep Anyway?, says father and daughter produce very different work. "Roger puts characters on stage that we know and love and laugh at - and we also laugh at ourselves. But when Pip puts characters on stage, it's in your face. We really feel for the characters."

Hall has just finished the first draft of another radically different work, The 53rd Victim, inspired by the true story of a New Zealand woman who posed as a doctor during the 2005 London bombings. Hall was in central London with her husband, film director Peter Burger, at the time of the attacks. "It was surreal, we just wandered right into the middle of it by chance; there was a sea of people in various states of shock and panic; no one could tell you what was going on".

Afterwards, she learnt about the woman, who claimed to have helped victims on a bombed double-decker bus, just metres from where Hall had been. The result is a poignant, confronting, documentary-style script. Hall feels both sympathy and fascination for her subject, who had constructed an entirely fictional life. "I was intrigued: what would it be like to live like that?"

The 53rd Victim is yet to be picked up by a theatre company but Hall is determined to put it on, even if it means doing so herself. All this sounds like someone who is driven and highly focused. But the sheer difficulty of being a mid-career playwright in a very small pond meant she almost gave it all away. Although young playwrights are nurtured in New Zealand, at mid-career many struggle, she says, because of the lack of opportunities to stage bigger works.

"I thought, I might give up writing, who knows? I can't get any work on, maybe I'm no good - all those kind of doubt questions." But as her life-coaching work has gathered speed this year, her writing has, too. "It reaffirmed for me that I want to be telling stories, it gave me my confidence back."

So she's doing both and she's evangelical about the benefits. "Life coaching's about living a conscious life rather than drifting through, taking control, getting an action plan ... it's easier to be creative if you're not stuck."

Hall is tentatively thinking about using her $10,000 award to write a comedy. It's a typically canny change of tack: she has two new dramas out there already and writing another would put her in competition with herself.

"The artist in me says I don't want constraints about my writing, but you have to be smart. If you're going to spend all this time writing, you want a good chance of getting it put on. More and more as a writer I am going, 'This is my idea, which company is this suited to and should I write with this target in mind?'"

Sounds like an action plan that just might pay off.