On July 16, 2020, against all the Covid-19 odds, writer/director Sue Rider and writer/performer Helen Moulder opened their play The Bicycle and the Butcher’s Daughter at The Shopfront Theatre in Nelson, New Zealand.
What is remarkable is that Sue and Helen achieved this despite being in separate countries. Moulder lives in Nelson, Rider in Brisbane.
“We knew we were taking a gamble, but we are used to working together and had been developing this play for more than two years. We just wanted to get it on its feet,” says Rider.
The gamble paid off. The solo show about family, global food issues and is scheduled for an extended season as soon as New Zealand’s latest Covid restrictions are lifted.
“We created a small intimate theatre in an old pharmacy and kept audiences to 20 to allow for social distancing,” Moulder says. “People felt comfortable in the space and the response to the show has been wonderfully positive.”
Rider and Moulder are both award-winning theatre artists who have been making work together across the Tasman since 2002.
When they started, their collaborations took the form of emailed documents and long phone calls, with occasional intensive sessions when they could be physically together in the same place. Now they view the script on their computers and use FaceTime to talk as they work.
They were beginning to feel like a well-oiled machine. But nothing prepared them for the challenge of 2020.
“First we lost our venue due to earthquake strengthening and then Covid-19 struck,” explains Rider. “We had nowhere to perform and didn’t even know if we would be in the same country. But we decided to scale down and go ahead whatever happened. We even joked that we could always rehearse on Zoom.”
As borders closed and lockdowns came in, the joke became a reality.
“But we still needed a venue. That’s when Make/Shift came in.”
Make/Shift Spaces is a non-profit organisation based in Nelson. It works with artists, creatives, community and special interest groups to fill vacant shops and spaces with installations and activity.
“Make/Shift were marvellous,” says Moulder. “They loved the idea of setting up a theatre and by May 21 we had chosen our shop with a great corner location, frontage off the main street and a bakery nearby.”
Make/Shift assisted Moulder with the logistics of turning the old pharmacy into a small intimate theatre and helped with marketing. Rider is full of praise for her Kiwi collaborator.
“Helen is amazing. Performing solo is a tough gig for any actor. But this year takes the cake. Not only did she rehearse for hours alone in a shopfront with just my head in a laptop, she also took responsibility for the whole production.”
The play requires Moulder to create five distinct characters ranging in age from 11 to 93, as well as operate her own lights and sound. “I also have to build a bicycle and ride it,” Moulder says.
The play provokes plenty of laughs, but also offers serious thoughts around the eating of meat, connecting with family, and acceptance of what matters in a world of shifting parameters.
The experience of directing on Zoom was not always easy. Zoom works well for meetings, but does not give great vision or sound and Rider quickly realised the limitations of rehearsing this way.
“Subtlety was impossible for me to gauge. Facial expressions, nuances in vocal tone. I couldn’t even see true colours, so couldn’t advise on costumes except in a general sense. The music, which was specially recorded by Nelson musicians, sounded horrendous.
“We did some detailing with Helen sitting up close to camera, but in the main I had to trust she knew what she was doing and give her notes that reinforced clarity and meaning from what I could perceive.”
For Moulder, a delay in Sue’s Zoom reactions meant that timing, especially for comedy, was difficult to measure. To help this, Moulder held open rehearsals three times a week as a way of testing the script in front of live human beings, getting herself used to working in the space, and promoting the show and venue. Sometimes as many as 20 – a capacity audience – turned up.
Both needed someone in the space to be Sue’s eyes and ears. Local director Giles Burton came in to design the lighting (with just four lamps) and give technical notes. Finally, when the show was ready, Helen was on her own.
“The response has been extraordinary,” Moulder says. “People are loving the intimacy and sense of immersion. I chat with them afterwards, and often they talk about the play’s message of grace under pressure in a changing world.”