In my first two years in Wellington I worked at the Arts Centre in Willis St. It was a kind of PEP work scheme for artists set up by Grahame Nesbit and Colin Knox and all kinds of great people came through there. I was there as a musician/songwriter but wound up doing lots of different things.
1981 – Ewan Upston was putting a cast together for a season at Bats theatre and wanted me to be part of it. The play was Gimme Shelter by Barrie Keefe and he already had Peter Hambleton, Joanne Mildenhall and Brian Sergent – all fine actors. It was three plays in one – Gem, Gotcha and Getaway and I took it home and read the first play.
I had done lots of performing but no real acting at this point. The character I was to play had about three lines and I thought I can do that – do my cockney accent. I went into rehearsal and Ewan asked if I thought I was up to it. I said yeah no problem and they all looked at me.
“Did you read the second play? You play the Kid.”
In the second play the Kid holds two of his teachers and his headmaster hostage in a shed, holding a lit cigarette over the petrol tank of a motorbike. It’s a heavy piece. I’m 23 and the kid is 16 and has a ton of lines…
We start work on the first play and I keep botching my three lines – everyone’s worried except Ewan. We get to the second play and I’m sitting on a chair pretending it’s a motorbike going through my lines with my cockney accent with the slight lisp added to differentiate from my first character and everyone is underwhelmed. Then two friends walk into the back of the hall and I suddenly have an audience and I take on the Kid and start to threaten the other actors, take control in an out of control way. The post punk in me comes out.
When we get into Bats Theatre we have a trail bike from Wellington Motorcycles to use in the show. They assured us that there was no petrol in the tank and it had been washed out. Ewan decides to test it there on stage, he holds a lit match over the open tank – all good then he blows it out and throws it in.
BOOM!! Fumes or whatever – the bike’s on fire!
Someone grabs the fire extinguisher and it’s empty. I go running two doors down and get the fire brigade. They get the engine and travel a few metres to the fire. By this time Ewan’s got a blanket over it and put it out.
The firemen are all good and take the bike out the back of the station and hose it out properly for us.
I’ll never forget that feeling, standing in the darkness of the wings waiting to come on to the sound of those creepy opening bars of the Stones’ Gimme Shelter. Shivers.
The play was a big hit – sold out by the end of its run but got a crap review.