A Seattle Playwright in Dunedin

By Seattle City of Literature | Posted: Tuesday October 29, 2019

The 2019 UNESCO Cities of Literature Short Play Festival was hosted by City of Literature Dunedin, New Zealand, September 13-20. Students in the Theatre Studies program at the University of Otago directed and acted in thirty plays from New Zealand and Cities of Literature around the world. 

Seattle was represented in the festival by Jessica Andrewartha's Noble Endurance, a glimpse of the boredom suffered by explorer Earnest Shackleton's sailors as the Endurance was stuck fast in Antarctic ice, and by Thomas Pierce's Modern Love, about the indignities of romance in a digital world. Pierce traveled to Dunedin to see the festival and shares his impressions here:

When I learned my play, Modern Love, was included in the 2019 UNESCO Cities of Literature Short Play Festival in Dunedin, New Zealand, I was honored and thrilled. I had never been to New Zealand (Aotearoa in Maori). My wife Julie visited years ago and can still sing Maori songs. We decided to go.

Dunedin is 46 degrees latitude south, Seattle 47 degrees north, and is the oldest city in New Zealand. One of the oldest Maori campsites, dating from around AD 1300 when the Maori first arrived from Polynesia, is just north of Dunedin. The Europeans who built Dunedin were mostly from Scotland, including the Reverend Thomas Burns, a nephew of the poet Robert Burns. Dunedin has excellent used bookstores where I discovered Dunedin novelist Janet Frame and playwright Roger Hall. Dunedin’s University of Otago, festival host, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

When Julie and I arrived in Dunedin we and other festival guests were welcomed at a ceremony in the city library. It began with a performance by a Maori dance and singing group, followed by welcoming speeches in both Maori and English from city and University of Otago officials. Even speakers who were not Maori began and ended their remarks in Maori. That surprised me but it shouldn’t have. Maori are 15% of the population of New Zealand. Maori history, culture and art are celebrated everywhere. As an American jaded from years of cultural conflict and suspicious of tokenism I wondered, Is this genuine? After getting to know many New Zealanders, I came to think it was. But there is another New Zealand, too. The New Zealand First political party, a white supremacist movement and, of course, the killer who slaughtered 51 and wounded 49 Muslims at a mosque and Islamic center in Christchurch. That killer was Australian but, as a new friend pointed out, he lived in Christchurch and before that Dunedin.

The plays began on a cold spring night. Julie and I arrived at the Allen Hall Theatre on the university campus about twenty minutes before curtain. The doors were locked. Theatre goers huddled with armed folded in front of them, some pacing and stamping feet to keep warm. Is this any way to run a play festival? Then, a commotion. Loud voices. A man in a tux. A woman in formal evening dress. They look like they should be at the opera. Is there an opera in Dunedin? The man and woman move through the crowd talking. Arguing? He seems to be apologizing, she seems…can’t quite tell. More voices from up on a hill, maybe angry. Who are they? Is this some kind of political protest? What is….wait, I think I know, the first play has begun. Yes. Theatre al fresco. But I was wrong about one thing. The voices on the hill were only boisterous students on a Friday evening. We moved inside the theatre for the rest of the evening’s performances.

During the next seven days we saw female New Zealand mountain climbers, shop keepers in Baghdad struggling to go on with life after a car bombing, Earnest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, Lord Malateste hilariously failing to murder his father the Duke, a man grasping for a suppressed memory that will destroy him. Thirty very different plays. More impressive than the range of plays was the exceptional quality of the productions. The talented students of the School of Performing Arts did everything, the acting, directing, lighting, sound, sets, props, costumes, stage managing, marketing and ticket sales.

The last night of the festival everyone was more excited than usual. Julie and I were excited as well but also exhausted. When the final curtain call ended, sets were struck and moved aside, dozens of pizza boxes appeared, the sound system was cranked up and students hugged, danced and sang to Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”

Scenes from Modern Love: Actors: Tymesha Cousins, Anson Ng. Director: Zoe Connor — Image by: Seattle City of Literature
Scenes from Modern Love: Actors: Tymesha Cousins, Anson Ng. Director: Zoe Connor — Image by: Seattle City of Literature

Kia Ora, my Dunedin theatre friends.

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