New Zealand’s Cup

America’s Cup, seen by many here as a billionaire’s boat race, looks very different Down Under, with its culture of sailing and maritime innovation.

PHOTO: GETTY/EZRA SHAW

A few weeks ago I was walking down the dock in the marina where I live, in Wellington, New Zealand, when I passed a woman and a young boy. I’d never seen them before, which is uncommon here in this municipal marina — about 100 boats — in a small suburb of the country’s capital.

The boy was walking from berth to berth pointing out certain rig and hull features and expounding on them as only a future aficionado can. “Lots of different boats, huh?” I asked as I passed.

“Different than America,” he confirmed in an accent the same as mine.

The kid is sharp, I thought, or maybe it’s just obvious, even to an eight-year-old from Chicago. The New Zealand sailing scene is vastly different than its American counterpart, which is not to say there’s no comparing — they’re not exactly navigating carved logs with gunnysack sails down here.

But the boats in my marina are, in fact, mostly homebuilt from steel, cement, aluminum, and wood. They appear a motley crew compared to the cookie-cutter production fiberglass Beneteaus, Catalinas, and Hunters, with their identical pacific blue sail covers lined up in San Francisco’s South Beach Marina.

In New Zealand, a boat is rarely a status symbol — it’s part of the middle-class way of life, the home base for holidays and weekend fishing trips and lots and lots of competitive racing. If I’ve noticed one thing since I arrived in this country (aboard a sailboat, after leaving San Francisco and my job as a Bay Guardian staff writer), it’s that every little harbor town has a yacht club and an awful lot of Kiwis own boats — and they sail the shit out of them.

Which is part of the reason why the New Zealand government is willing to invest NZ$36 million (US$27 million) to compete in the 34th America’s Cup against some of the richest men in the world in a race that has become so elite there’s barely any competition.

Small as the field is, Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) is quickly shaping up to be the team to beat if you’re on a high-speed, air-catching AC72 catamaran. If they succeed, it will show that developing an America’s Cup team doesn’t have to come from having deep pockets in your Nantucket Red pants — it comes from having the sport ingrained in your culture, filtered through affordable local boat clubs, city-run facilities, volunteer programs, publicly accessible shorefronts, and an innovative marine industry.

In fact, without New Zealand’s maritime way of life, Larry Ellison wouldn’t have much of a team: of the 27 sailors and management crew aboard Oracle, a third are Kiwis. Another third are Australians. If you count Ellison, there are only three Americans aboard. Just one of them — tactician and grinder John Kostecki — grew up sailing on San Francisco Bay.

Ellison’s boat is mostly a Kiwi production, too — the fixed-wing sails and structural components for Oracle’s two AC72s were made in New Zealand, as were the boats, sails, and rigs for ETNZ and Luna Rossa. The only other syndicate competing, Sweden’s Artemis, in the wind since the death of crewmember Andrew Simpson, is the outlier, but they still have eight New Zealanders on board.

America’s Cup is looking more and more like it owes a lot to New Zealand. Is the Cup doing as much for San Francisco as it is for this little island nation, with a population just a tenth of California’s?

“If it wasn’t called Team New Zealand, we wouldn’t get a lot out of it,” says Sven Pannell, a competitive dinghy racer and employee of the economic development agency Grow Wellington. “The numbers of boat builders, carbon fabricators, sail makers, yacht designers coming out of New Zealand are the reason we’re still at the top of the global game. If we can bring the Cup home that means a lot for our country.”

It may also save America’s Cup from becoming even more out of touch with reality.

IT’S THE CULTURE, STUPID

It’s June 8, summer in San Francisco but winter in Wellington. The first race of the 2013 Winter Series at Evans Bay Boat Club hits hypothermic seas beneath steely overcast skies and 20-30 knots of wind — “perfect conditions,” one sailor enthuses. Tame, actually, for Wellington. A week ago, wind blew out the fifth story windows of a building downtown.

Sven Pannell has just finished racing a 12-foot skiff, a super lightweight, often homebuilt boat that probably originated in Australia and is almost exclusively raced in the Southern Hemisphere, though an 18-foot version will be showcased in San Francisco this September alongside the America’s Cup finals. Weighing about 100 pounds, with no class restrictions on sail area, they rooster-tail around Wellington harbor, bow high, barely in the water. They seem to require a similar caliber of nerve as the AC72s.

Which Pannell, who won today, evidently has. He grew up sailing as a kid, as did his crew, Craig Anderson. Neither of them can think of anyone who didn’t get into sailing as a child.

“A lot of people around the world think yachting is a well-heeled sport, but not in New Zealand,” he says. “There’s a reason that half those [America’s Cup] boats are full of Kiwis and Aussies. Go out and see the number of eight-year-olds in Optis in all kinds of weather here. A high number of people sailing at that age creates a deep pool of sailors in demand.”

“America’s Cup is about stretching the limits, but it starts here, when you’re eight years old,” he adds.

Eager to get out of the icy Antarctic wind, I enter the boat club where about 35 people are gathered at the bar, buzzing from adrenalin, barefoot and wet from spray or capsizes, gripping ginger beers and green bottles of Steinlager, the Budweiser of New Zealand. It’s a humble looking crowd — no flash gear or cashmere.

I’m introduced to Mike Rhodes, 26, wearing a blue sweatshirt and camo pants. He’d love to race an America’s Cup boat, but he also satisfies himself with a 12-foot skiff, which he stripped and rebuilt, fashioning the stainless steel fittings himself — he’s a sheet metal worker.

“New Zealand sailing is all about learning and moving forward,” he says. “The boats we’re sailing are always changing. We have set rules for weight, width, and length. After that it’s wide open. You can put up as much rig as you can handle. We went out in 50 knots last weekend. It was insane. We probably had boat speeds of 30 knots.”

The speed and innovations are what appeal to Rhodes and also connect to the America’s Cup, which has been an historic proving ground for leaps forward in boat design. “Who thought New Zealand could make the boat fly first?” he says of ETNZ’s proficiency at foiling the AC72 — going so fast the hull actually lifts off the water.

We’re soon joined by Laura Hutton, a 30-year-old from Cape Cod. She’s raced dinghies, coached and taught sailing for years. Now a speech therapist, she moved to New Zealand three months ago and immediately hooked into the local yachting scene. It’s palpably different than what she’s used to in the States. Here, she says, “It’s a lot more laid back. It’s more inclusive than exclusive. I used to go to events at New York Yacht Club in Newport and I felt so uncomfortable there. It’s the most elite, snobby place.”

“You can’t get coaching in the US unless you’re part of a yacht club or go to a school with a racing team,” she adds, and there’s often a huge cost to enter the sport. “Here, I can join the local yacht club for $35 a month,” she deadpans.

I spend more money riding the bus, I tell her, but I wouldn’t in San Francisco, where it’s cheap to catch a bus but where most people rarely board boats.

The American yacht club tradition has a certain “if you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it” attitude. Ellison is one of 300 members of Golden Gate Yacht Club, official host for the Cup. Its neighbor, St. Francis Yacht Club, 2,300 strong, also has a role in the festivities. Both are exclusive, members-only clubs and neither would tell me what their members pay for the club’s privileges.

However, they’re officially nonprofit organizations and filings with the IRS show St. Francis made nearly $13 million in 2011. Golden Gate Yacht Club took home $660,000 the same year. Ironically, both clubs are on public lands, leased from San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department for $231,125 and $64,000 annually respectively.

Both clubs run learn-to-sail programs for kids — $350 for St. Francis and $200 for GGYC — which seem affordable, but what’s the next step? Joining the club, but apparently it’s too rude to query the price.

By contrast, Wellington’s Evans Bay Boat Club charges NZ$281 (US$210) to join and Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club, which is a sister club to St. Francis, costs NZ$160 (US $120). The Bay Area is lucky — Berkeley and Treasure Island both have affordable clubs, however one could argue that if St. Francis and GGYC are on public lands, they should be paying more in dues to the city.

If there’s a posh club in Auckland, it’s ETNZ’s home — the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. “But it’s a Kiwi version of posh, nothing like some of the yacht clubs I have been to in places like England, where women aren’t allowed to order drinks at the bar,” says Ben Gladwell, a journalist for Boating New Zealand who will be racing an 18 foot skiff in San Francisco in a regatta concurrent with the Cup finals. “At the Squaddy, there are obviously rules, like no cell phones, and dress codes and such like, but the fees are still only a few hundred dollars per year and it is much more inclusive than other yacht clubs around the world.”

Gladwell explored the health of New Zealand’s sailing culture in a story called “State of the Racing Nation” for Boating New Zealand. He found that although there is a drop-off in interest during university years, many yacht clubs have created partnerships to keep kids in the sport, there are mobile learn-to-sail units roaming the country, and lots of accessible city-run programs for kids. Couple that with low lifetime fees to stay in the sport and you see healthy clubs like Evans Bay, where people of all ages are out racing every weekend, all year round.

“Having so many people involved in sailing is a major reason we are successful,” he says. “Children are introduced to it at such a young age…by the time they come to competing at youth international regattas, they are hugely experienced and winning becomes a habit.”

“AMERICA’S CUP IS NOW NEW ZEALAND’S CUP”

In 1995, when Black Magic smoked Dennis Connor’s Stars and Stripes in a five-race shut-out, commentator Peter Montgomery famously quipped “America’s Cup is now New Zealand’s cup,” a line that’s gone down in Kiwi history like the “I have a dream” speech.

For the first time, the Auld Mug would be defended in New Zealand. Back then, Auckland’s Viaduct Harbor probably looked a lot like parts of San Francisco’s waterfront does today — dilapidated piers and old industrial buildings crumbling on their pilings. It would cost of NZ$58 million (US$29 million at the time) to dredge the harbor and spruce up the waterfront for the Cup.

The city made its money back. Hosting for two years, in 2000 and 2003, brought NZ$1 billion (US$500 million, at the time) in economic benefits to the country, about 85 percent of that going to Auckland’s local businesses, mostly from visiting megayachts and the services required for the nine syndicates that competed — twice as many as are in San Francisco today.

And Auckland made a lot less than the US$900 million predicted for San Francisco, already trimmed from the US$1.4 billion initially estimated. What the city actually gains from the $22.5 million investment they’ve been forced to make remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Auckland continues to benefit from the race.

It’s been estimated that the four Cup contenders have collectively spent half a billion on their campaigns and a decent chunk of that has been in Auckland, particularly during the AC72 design, build, and testing phases. Already, taxes paid by ETNZ employees amount to NZ$22.4 million (US$16.5 million). That doesn’t include the employee payroll taxes of all the businesses doing Cup-related activity, like the boat builders, riggers, and sailmakers.

ETNZ CEO Grant Dalton has netted sponsorships from more than 100 companies and argues that the Cup efforts have kept many marine businesses afloat that would have otherwise shuttered. Kiwis have not been immune to the world financial situation: the high New Zealand dollar hurting exports and the NZ$30 billion (US$22.5 billion) price tag for the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake have stressed the country’s coffers.

Because of that, funding ETNZ has been as contentious here as hosting Ellison’s party has been to San Franciscans. The agreement was signed in 2007 by a Labour Party-led government and when National Party’s John Key won the Prime Minister’s seat in 2008, he looked into breaking the contract, a move supported by other parties. “Funding the America’s Cup is surely a ‘nice to have’, rather than essential spending, in the current economic climate,” said Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei at the time.

The government was advised they’d still be legally on the hook for the money if they broke the contract, so ETNZ proceeded, but proof of economic return was a contingency and Dalton has taken pains to keep the public good in the conversation, a sharp contrast to Ellison’s attitude toward San Francisco. Dalton has said if New Zealand wins, the world should expect a sharp scaling back of costs. “We stand for nationality rule and we stand for real budget numbers that real people can raise,” he has said.

There’s definitely a sense that this could be New Zealand’s last chance to bring the Auld Mug home. If they don’t, the America’s Cup also loses. Who else will save it from American-style exclusiveness?

Originally published July 3, 2013 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Fell in love with the bassist


We listened to Being There that winter it snowed so much we could jump off the balcony. One summer, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the soundtrack at every barbeque. Sky Blue Sky took me to California and all the Mermaid Avenue volumes across the sea to New Zealand. I was camping with my oldest friends when The Whole Love was released. We listened to it piped through someone’s fancy phone while sipping gin on a sunny beach.

There’s been a Wilco album for every era of my life. When I tell their bassist, John Stirratt, he seems taken aback and, honestly, thankful.

“I’m still getting used to the idea of being together 20 years. It doesn’t seem like it,” says Stirratt, who doesn’t exactly have a native New Orleans drawl, but speaks with a slow, almost metered cadence, by phone from his wintry Chicago home. “It’s such a tough business. Early on the idea that it wasn’t going to be around forever may have helped us out.”

Stirratt has been hammering the bass for Wilco since he and Jeff Tweedy rose from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo’s 1994 demise. Over the years, the lineup has stretched and contracted (that’s another story that’s already been written, filmed, and scrutinized) but the six musicians on their way to Wellington solidified not long after the 2002 success of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Stirratt was raised in a musical household and even played as a country duo with his twin sister, Laurie, but he studied English and business at university and never anticipated a career on the stage. “I knew I was going to play music, but doing it for a living was sort of laughable. Early in college I was always in bands and always was playing, in The Hilltops with my sister, in bands that were contemporaries of Uncle Tupelo, which was how I met Jeff. It was in my mind and I sure didn’t expect it to flower.”

Wilco’s lead vocalist and guitarist Tweedy has almost all the songwriting credits for Wilco, but Stirratt isn’t a silent guy. He saves his songs for The Autumn Defense, a band with Pat Sansone, Wilco’s melodic multi-instrumentalist and a fellow Louisiana boy. He says the side project “started early on in Wilco….Jeff just wanted to have control and write the tunes so I started making records on the side.” He and Sansone were living in New Orleans at the time and it felt like there was no particular band playing their kind of music – classic pop – dominating the scene.

They began playing in pubs, arranging songs, and have released five albums since 2000. Their newest one, due this year, was partially inspired by a visit to New Zealand to record the Seven Worlds Collide charity album with Neil Finn. Working with other musicians got them writing more songs for The Autumn Defense.

Stirratt says the side project is a way for him to “see a tune completely written by me, from front to back. I’m not going to get any lyrics on a Wilco album. The way we work, the songs have different degrees of completion. There are six of us working on Jeff’s songs and it’s always been sort of competitive for me to get the songwriting thing happening.”

That doesn’t, however, detract from his affection for Wilco and playing with The Autumn Defense he’s “keeping a foot in each world.”
“It can be so fun to play to a little room and I haven’t really forgotten that. Playing with Autumn Defense, it’s another aspect of it. I’ve always kept one foot in the clubs.”

As for memories of his early days before Wilco could fill a sold-out stadium, he says, “Ironically it’s some of the best times and some of the best learning I had. I always fronted on guitar and singing, and I cut my teeth playing bass in country rock over bands and I had the best time doing that.”

Asked what he’d tell an up and coming musician, grinding through the pub scene, and he says, “Follow your heart and learn your instrument. Instinct is such a big part of music. In terms of songwriting, it’s so much better to sing and listen to your instinct. There really does have to be a sort of environment to play with people you like being around. Years ago, I asked Paul Westerberg for advice when we opened for them, and he said get in a band with people you can stand.”

But, he chuckles, “That obviously didn’t work out for The Replacements.”

It’s working out for John Stirratt and Wilco.

 

Originally published April 3, 2013 in Capital Times. 

Take it from the heart

The way Albert Dadon sees it, being a successful musician means being a good businessman. Fortunately, he’s both.

“I’m a business musician. Music is part of everything I do,” says the man who plays jazz under the banner Albare, but signs important property development documents with the name Albert Dadon, executive chairman of Ubertas Group. He founded the Melbourne residential property development company in 2003, the same year he also founded the Australian Jazz Bell Awards and while he was chairman of the Melbourne Jazz Festival (which, yes, he also founded, in 1998.)

“It’s all very well to be a musician but if you don’t have the professionalism that comes with it, so what? You can stay home and play, but if you want to be on tour and organise yourself you become a businessman. Music was first. Later, business came along.”

The reality, he says, is that both sectors see him as an anomaly. “The business world calls me a musician and the music world calls me a businessman.”

The music world also calls him a very good musician. “Albare’s sextet of jazz musicians from all around the world complemented his unique playing perfectly, and left the capacity crowd utterly frothing,” wrote Vulture Magazine about his Melbourne Jazz performance.

He’s recorded several albums over the years, but 2012’s Long Way, which featured a powerful lineup of jazz greats, including George Garzone and Antonio Sanchez, really put him on the international map, as well as on the US Top 50 Jazz albums for 20 consecutive weeks. With it, he toured Europe, Asia, the United States, and Australia. This week, he performs for the first time in New Zealand.

Asked how it’s possible he’s never played for Wellington, which has such a rich jazz culture and scene, he says, “I never had the opportunity. Really, New Zealand is close to Australia, but it’s far. It’s easier to jump on a plane to the United States. I’m quite aware of the cultural life in New Zealand, but the opportunities were never offered to me. The release of Long Way and all of the international touring, one has to stop and ask the question, ‘What about New Zealand?’”

Dadon was born in Morocco, but raised in Israel, where he grew up listening to American accents from the nearby military base and lots of jazz – always jazz, he says. There were no Middle Eastern influences at the time in his house. When his mother gave him a guitar at the age of eight, he began lessons in the classical form of playing.

“I was totally bored,” he recalls. “When I was 12, I discovered guitar meant freedom, rock, long hair. It was totally cool and my mom suddenly wanted to take my guitar away.” He got into rock and roll, blues and jazz, playing in European cafes, until he emigrated to Australia at the age of 27.

“Love brought me here,” he says of the move. “I met my wife in Paris and got married and we came to Australia.” With Debbie Dadon, (née Besen, of the Sussan clothing chain) he has three children, now grown, which has also freed him to perform more overseas.

Dabon is often credited with starting the acid jazz movement in Australia, but he says he just began jamming with DJs and things took off. “It was weird at the time,” he says. “I had some rappers, too. Those guys would take a mike and any word that came out of their mouth was amazing. The rappers were improvising and that was part of the jazz thing.”

Writing music comes easily to him, like a gate he opens and closes, he says, as he moves between business, music, and teaching at Monash University. “For me, there are not two or 10 personalities. It’s one. I’m the same guy who talks to a business journalist. Everything is present at all times. I cannot be one thing at one moment and then something else.”

That continuity is at the heart of how he performs. “All serious musicians understand there are stages. First is that you like it and it touches your heart. To reproduce it you have to get it up to your brain, then for the rest of your life you’re trying to bring it back down to your heart because you can only play it with your heart. When I play if I’m not playing from the heart I’m wasting everyone’s time.”

“You have to really, truly, be in that moment in that place and that’s where you’re able to communicate. And from then it’s a service. You can change people’s lives.”

 

Originally published March 27, 2013 in Capital Times. 

Swan song for the sea


When Mara Simpson and her guitar landed back in New Zealand she made a goal to go swimming every day. Well, almost every day, she confesses to Amanda Witherell at a café on a morning before the sun’s high enough to hit the beach. When Mara and The Bushkas weren’t swimming, they were singing about it as they toured New Zealand with their new album To The Sea Sessions.

Wellingtonians have one last chance to hear them before Simpson returns to her new home in Berlin, where landlocked living is changing her tune. 

Last time Simpson spoke to Capital Times, the Kenyan-born, UK-raised singer-songwriter lauded the Wellington music scene. “I just feel like I belong here,” she said, back in 2011. Living in a strange city outside her comfort zone gave her the courage to perform and she developed a healthy gig repertoire and following.

Now, two years later, she’s shacked up with Berlin. What happened to the love?

“My visa was up and it was either stay in New Zealand and spend an awful lot of money on residency or go have some adventures,” she says. So, it was a practical matter, but the results have uncovered new potential for her songs.

“When I first got there I started looking for the music scene like Wellington’s and it just doesn’t exist. Here you can just go down Cuba Street. In Berlin, it’s very underground. A lot of venues don’t have signs. There are no gig listings. You just have to tap into it somehow.”

Simpson started tapping Kiwi connections in the German capital and eventually found herself in the sights of Crazy Planet Records, a touring and promotions outfit with a fondness for New Zealand music (Sola Rosa, Six60, and Bella Kalolo are also in their stable.) She spent last year using Berlin as a base for a solo tour of Europe, fortuitously landing a couple larger gigs at Sazava Fest in Prague and Berlin’s Fashion Week.

She also had the opportunity to contribute session vocals for Ray Wilson (best known as the singer who replaced Phil Collins in Genesis). “Just being in the studio it was amazing to watch how really produced albums are approached. I’d sing a line and they’d take that line apart,” she says. “I haven’t really spent a lot of time on perfecting. Always, time and money restraints meant being in the moment.”

For example, To The Sea wasn’t a planned album – when Simpson was departing New Zealand she got together with Bushkas Jean Pompey and Ed Zuccollo “to document these songs before I left.” They were recorded live during one quick day at Warren Maxwell’s Stone Feather Studio, but afterwards they seemed too good to just gather dust. An album was conceived and, later in Berlin, two songs – Follow Me and Whiskey – were added. Simpson says after cutting live albums, (their first was a live session at Bats Theatre) she’s ready to experiment with a more produced sound.

“That’s the next step, for sure. I’ve been on a massive learning curve, doing everything live and touring,” she says. “Jean and Ed had a lot of input on the sound of this album. They added a lot of creativity to the songs and put a real ‘Wellington sound’ to them. I’m keen to craft songs in a new way, to add a few more elements and space.”

The new direction includes a new band for Berlin, which also has Kiwi roots. Through well-connected guitarist Gerry Paul (“Who doesn’t know Gerry?” we both ask with a laugh), Simpson found a Berlin-based drummer, Rene Corbett. But, she says, “We couldn’t find a bass player for love or money. In Wellington you have all these musicians at your fingertips because of the Jazz School.” (Also, part of the source of that ‘Wellington sound’). Eventually, double-bassist Alex Bayer completed the trio and plans are for a studio recording, as well as gigging Europe.

“I’ll keep the Bushkas as a Kiwi project if and when I come back here,” says Simpson. It sounds fatal, but her partner Ali Tocher, is a New Zealander so there will always be a reason to come home.

As for the significance of the sea, she says, “I don’t want to get too airy fairy, but I grew up on the coast of Kenya and we would go to landlocked UK. It’s like I was always having the sea taken away from me.”

She’ll lose it again when she returns to Berlin in April, but if the depth and emotion in her sea songs are as honest as they are beautiful, chances are she won’t be gone for long.

 

Originally published March 20, 2013 in Capital Times. 

Not playing it cool

 

Eamonn Marra hates being labelled, and it is impossible to say he’s one thing. Writer, musician, student, radio show DJ, zine-maker, prolific reader, relentless multimedia chronicler of life at http://www.yourjokesarealwaysbad.tumblr.com – all of the above applies. Since he moved to Wellington about a year ago, he’s added stand-up comedian to the list.

He hates competitions as much as he hates labels, but he’ll join 40 other performers to duel for the last laugh in the annual Raw Comedy Quest, beginning March 14.

The annual comedy show-down can led to as near to greatness as a comic can get in New Zealand, but Marra isn’t rubbing his hands in anticipation. Remember: he hates this, but that’s part of his shtick. He’s an accidental comedian who arrived onstage via the unlikely route of poetry slams, which he began performing a couple years ago while still living in his native Christchurch.
“The poems that would go off the best were the funny ones,” he says, explaining that he made concerted efforts to dig deeper with un-funny poetry, but the laughter seemed to indicate something else was at play. “So I dropped the poetry and started doing comedy about one year ago.”

As Marra talks, his forehead slicks with sweat and his hand visibly quakes and fidgets with a glass of Six Barrel Soda. We’ve met on a warm-for-Wellington afternoon, but his discomfort seems of a higher order. It’s also the tool of his comic trade, he says.

“I can be really nervous on stage because my material works with that. It’s just me being scared on stage and not talking to the crowd directly and looking down and it’s not an act I’m putting on. It’s just who I am.”

Marra leans on the art of how things are said as much as the content itself. Discussing his depression and anxiety, mocking the meds he’s been on since he was 19 or moments in counselling, all is made farcical by his delivery – awkward, shaky, sweaty. He’s the un-cool guy not playing it cool.

“Comedy hasn’t actually been a big interest of mine,” says the 23-year-old when asked which comedians he watches or loves. A student of English and philosophy at Victoria University, he spends more time reading (a book a week is his goal) than studying clips or comedy routines. If he takes in comedy, it’s usually live and local.

“When I started I didn’t like many comedians at all here and the more I watch them the more I appreciate what they do and laugh at what they’re doing,” he says. “My favourite comedians don’t have jokes and punch lines, but are building up situations that don’t necessarily have places in them to laugh. There’s not always a joke in there.”

Along a similar vein, Marra hopes to do something a bit different with his comedy, citing a recent Christchurch gig at which he distributed a zine he’d also created. “The ideas I talked about in the show had a different form in the zine,” he says. “If I go any further with comedy I’d go down that route, with it as a combination of things. It gets you out of being stuck or labelled.”

Labels don’t stick to what he’s up to on his blog, which is stocked with poems, short stories, daily ephemera and observations, lists of songs on his show, books on his shelf, goals achieved and otherwise, augmented with a self-affirming loop of people laughing at his jokes and self-portraits, most recently with a box of expired and, sadly, unused condoms. Tell him he’s creative and he deadpans: “I don’t feel like I’m especially creative because I spend a lot of time doing nothing.”

To which I laugh.

 

Originally published March 13, 2013 in Capital Times. 

Wake up


The personality and confidence that emanate from Aaradhna’s soulful singing had me thinking she’d be one sassy homegirl, but her speaking voice is far more restrained than I expected. By phone, waiting for a flight from Nelson to Wellington, she sounds a bit like a nervous teenager, not the pushing-30 diva on display in her snappy videos. Could be media-shyness, could be she’s a bit off her game – it’s her first time touring since 2006 and, yeah, she had a big night, she admits with a chuckle. 

Girl has plenty to celebrate: her new album Treble & Reverb has been climbing up and down the NZ Top 40 Albums chart since its release last November. Her song, Wake Up, recently hit platinum sales with another, Lorena Bobbitt, creeping up behind it. She’s performing with 40 other artists at this weekend’s Homegrown Festival, and just got support billing for The Jacksons (the remnants of the iconic Jackson 5) when they tour here in March. Originally released by New Zealand label, Dawn Raid, she’s been hooked by US-based Republic Records (cue Amy Winehouse, Florence + The Machine) for a multi-album deal and heads stateside for a tour later this year.

“I’m still trying to get used to it,” she says of the success of her new album, which is also logging consistently rave reviews.
Unlike her 2006 R&B-heavy first release, I Love You, and her entirely competent 2008 album of covers, Sweet Soul Music, Treble & Reverb is a beautiful bird of a different feather, born of a long dark period and too much boredom living in Romania where her boyfriend, Leon Henry, was playing basketball. (He’s now a forward for the Breakers.)

“I’m always writing whatever I’m going through,” she says. Depression, anger, jealousy, fear, and love simmer beneath the bop of the music, produced by P-Money and Concord Dawn’s Evan Short. Though a couple of R&B flavoured tunes appear among the 17 tracks, doo-wop, Motown, and soul dominate, giving the listener the timeless sense of having danced to them before. But, lyrics riddled with contemporary slang and playful titles like Bob’s Your Uncle and Lorena Bobbitt signal that this is fresh stuff.

“This time around I didn’t want to put any limits to what I wrote about,” she says. “I wanted to write something I don’t usually write about. I’m interested in the Lorena Bobbitt story and I thought it would be interesting to add her personal story of cheating into the mix. I’ve been cheated on before.”

“I always have to write otherwise I’m going crazy. I’m writing heaps of new music and already working on the next album. It will have a similar sound to this,” she adds. Though old standards like Sam Cooke, Ruth Brown, and The Capris bubble out of her mouth when asked what she listened to for inspiration, nobody beats Amy Winehouse.

“She inspired me to embrace the old school sound a whole lot more. I loved it before, but when I heard Back to Black I was so inspired to take it on. I love how she puts her words together. She’s a big inspiration for Treble & Reverb. I’m just so gutted I never got to watch her live or meet her. To be on the same label as her, it’s unreal.”

As surreal as it sounds, she’s still rooted in New Zealand for the time being. The Auckland-based singer of Indian and Samoan descent says she’s looking forward to performing in Wellington for the first time in ages, as well as catching up with family. (Her parents live in the Hutt and her four siblings all live in and around Wellington.) On the bill besides Homegrown: celebrating her sister’s birthday and taking her dog for a walk. “I love being home. When I have a couple of days off I fly back down. I always need a good dose of family.”

 

Originally published February 27, 2013 in Capital Times. 

From barre to bar

Ethan Stiefel schools dancers for his first original work, a ballet about a beerhall.

Royal New Zealand Ballet and local brewery Garage Project don’t seem like drinking buddies, but they’re putting together a special pilsner-powered performance to celebrate the world premiere of Bier Halle – quite possibly the first ballet about beer.

THE connection with Garage Project came through one of the RNZB dancers, Antonia Hewitt, who goes out with a brother of one of the brewers. Hops En Pointe will be a pilsner made with champagne yeast to lend it an air of the upper crust, but it still begs the question: do professional ballet dancers ever get to drink beer or cut loose at a club?

“We don’t get into anything ugly, not the 2am or 3am phase of an evening,” laughs Ethan Stiefel, seated behind the desk in his office at St James Theatre where he’s now full-time artistic director. A dancer since the age of 16, Stiefel sports the breezy blond shag of a ‘70s-era heart throb with an acoustic guitar, but his handshake is a bone-crusher and muscles pop from the confines of his t-shirt. He’s still totally ripped even though he danced his final role last July with American Ballet Theatre, where he’d been principal dancer since 1997.

“I’ve since retired so I probably have a few more evenings out,” he admits, adding that he and fiancée Gillian Murphy are getting to know Wellington’s bars and restaurants after moving here from the United States two years ago. Though he’s feeling less weight on his shoulders to keep up the conditioning required to dance, he says there are still pressures – just different ones. “It’s about being a leader, an example, and being responsible for the success of other people.”

Those pressures include choreographing his first original piece, Bier Hall, which has its origins in his Wisconsin childhood, where polka is not entirely a thing of the past and beer-drinking is just as popular as it is in New Zealand.

“I thought it would be fun to do a ballet with polka music,” Stiefel says, adding that the idea of a ballet in a Bavarian-style beer hall has been bubbling in his mind for over two years. Unfortunately, polka didn’t quite settle the score and he ultimately found solid footing in Johann Strauss waltzes and marches.

Stiefel has been working with RNZB since 2011, most recently on the well-reviewed reinterpretation of Giselle, however Bier Halle is his first original work. It premieres with two other short pieces Of Days by Andrew Simmons and The Anatomy of a Passing Cloud by Javier De Frutos. The three, packaged as Made To Move, will tour New Zealand after a premier run at the St James Theatre opening February 27.

The two other original works in the programme draw on New Zealand and Pacific landscapes, but for Bier Hall Stiefel looked back toward old Europe to create a ballet set in a fictional Bavarian beer hall – an idea he’s been contemplating for two years.
“I’m relatively new to choreography and music is a good place to start,” he says, adding that it enabled him to picture the characters and build a story.

“The ballet is about what we’d experience as people going to a pub or bar,” he says. “It speaks to the flirtations, competitiveness, and boisterousness of a pub, with the quieter couple tucked away amidst all the revelry.”

The story uses elements of fantasy inside the actual buzz of a barroom, while a romance blossoms between a Hunter, danced by Qi Huan and the lead Bier Maiden, danced by Murphy, whose “love of dancing” and “fun” approach inspired him.

“It’s wonderful to have a muse who you share your life with,” he says of Murphy, who will tour with this show before returning to ABT in April, where she’s still employed as a principal dancer.

Alongside the two leads, the rest of the RNZB company dancers fill another 20 roles.

“I wanted it to have that kind of fullness and refer to some choreographers that influenced me as a dancer,” he says, listing Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, and Frederick Ashton, among others. He was also conscious of the small casts in the pieces by De Frutos and Simmons. “It’s a good thing for the company if everyone’s active and engaged. I’m a choreographer looking out for ambitiousness of the work and I’m an artistic director looking out for the good of the company.”

As for the overall direction of RNZB, Stiefel says he’d like to keep growing the size of the company by a dancer per year and would like to see more international touring, including China this year and potentially the US in 2014, for the first time in decades.  Building a unique repertoire for New Zealand is also important to him.

To that end, why does he think Bier Halle will appeal to local audiences? He says, “I think beer is pretty well celebrated in New Zealand. My ballet refers to Germanic and Austrian culture, but it could be in an English pub. I think these are things across humanity.”

 

Originally published February 20, 2013 in Capital Times. 

The wheel deal

I dodged a car door swinging toward while biking to work along Evans Bay Parade. A few metres later the meagre cycle lane I was riding disappeared. Why are Wellington’s cycle lanes so few, so narrow, and so disconnected? Has riding a bike around the capital got any better since Mayor Celia Wade-Brown, a cyclist, was elected? Amanda Witherell questions the state of cycling in Wellington on Go By Bike Day.

Jen Boyd recently purchased the first bicycle she’s ever owned. It’s a cruiser with a handlebar basket and a sturdy frame that’s a bit of a struggle to get up the hill to her Roseneath house, but she does it because she’s fallen in love with riding a bike.

“I’m doing 10 kilometres a day without even thinking about it, just going to and from work,” she says. “I get really moody now when I can’t ride.”

Boyd has discovered what a growing number of locals already know – biking is free, increases fitness and decreases pollution. For a city concerned about costs, it lessens traffic and doesn’t require billion dollar infrastructure. Cyclists say Wellington City Council isn’t keeping up with demand. No new cycle lanes, little signage, and not much planning for future growth.

“As far as commuting goes there haven’t been huge gains. Wellington is quite backwards compared to other major cities, ” says Jonathan Kennett, an avid cyclist and publisher of cycling guides. “It’s a bit of a shame to say that Auckland has streaked ahead of Wellington in the last 10 years.”

In the 2011 Wellington Resident Satisfaction Survey, four percent of people commute by bicycle. More telling is that 12 percent wish they were travelling by bicycle, but for various reasons, including lack of bike lanes and safety, they aren’t.

“There’s been this massive boom in cycling. It’s doubled since 2006, but council efforts haven’t kept pace,” says Patrick Morgan of Cycle Aware Wellington.

Instead of responding to the increase in riders, the city’s cycling policy, written in 2008, focuses on making it safer first with this cryptic statement: “Making cycling safer and more convenient is expected to increase its popularity. If successful, future plans will then be able to set targets for increasing cycling numbers.”

The number of cycling commuters has doubled in six years. They include Simon
Kennett, Jen Boyd, Jean Beetham and Terry Pinfold. 

Safety shouldn’t wait: the numbers are here and rising. Morgan says council is missing out on low cost opportunities that could make a big difference. He cites the Newtown intersection of John and Wakefield Streets, which were recently ripped up during the construction of the new Countdown Supermarket. “If you do it when you’re redesigning the intersection, it costs nothing.”

Instead, nothing changed. The intersection is in the heart of the Island Bay to CBD route, winner of the “Most Room for Improvement” category in Cycle Aware Network’s 2012 Roll On Awards. They noted: “these streets are easily wide enough to provide dedicated cycle lanes –but where are they?”

Wade-Brown, who didn’t learn to ride a bike until she was 12, now cycles daily from Island Bay to Council Chambers and agrees there’s room for improvement on that route.

“I think there are real possibilities for making some junctions safer,” she says.

Council listed it as one of three “Strategic Cycleways” for the city; another is the 67 km Great Harbour Way, however Tawa Stream Path is the one that got financial legs. The $4 million project officially opened in October 2012 and was funded by New Zealand Transport Authority and WCC kicked in matching money.

Councillor Andy Foster, cyclist and Transport portfolio leader, says they should have advanced two big infrastructure improvements at once.

“We probably made a mistake in going with that one and seeing it through,” he says. “The bulk of the money is going to
something 95 percent of cyclists in the city can’t see. It’s a good project, but for most people it’s out of sight and out of mind, but it’s difficult getting NZTA funding and we had to get it while we could.”

That should be happening more often, says Kennett. “The Great Harbour Way, why didn’t that happen years ago? It’s a no-brainer.”

“It’s political will at council level and NZTA level,” he says, adding that Auckland has been far more effective at netting big dollars for cycling. “Quite often these cycle paths happen because there are people in positions of power who are able to make good decisions when opportunities arise.”

The Great Harbour Way’s day in the sun may be coming. The government’s $1.25 billion National Land Transport programme for 2012-2015 includes money to improve the troublesome Ngauranga to Petone route. As with the Tawa Stream Path, it’s an opportunity to optimise funding and a green light on the project would be a feather in Wade-Brown’s bike helmet.

She calls it “the capital’s equivalent of the Otago Rail Trail,” and though it would be used for commuting and local recreation, it could be a boon for tourism.

The mayor conceded that most cycling improvements have been discreet, such as reduced speed limits on some roads, cycle-friendly storm grates, and a clearway on Thorndon Quay during peak morning traffic. And there have been issues: she wanted bike stencils in the bus lanes, which cyclists are permitted to use, but NZTA changed the rules for marking roads, holding up council’s plans.

When pushed to identify some goals she wished she’d achieved by now, Wade-Brown was vague. “We are making progress, but it’s not as fast as I would have liked,” she says. “I wish we’d fixed the gap between Petone and Ngauranga, but it’s better to do a good job than a dangerous job.”

Wade-Brown points out to critics that council preserved cycling’s sliver of cash, which officers cut from the Draft Long Term Plan.

Council voted 15-0 to restore $1.3 million over the next three years. More recently, officers have been instructed to consult on the Island Bay route, as well as what to do with the narrow road between Owhiro Bay and Lyall Bay. “Councillors are behind cycling improvements,” she says.

If more people are riding, then more money should be set aside to accommodate them, counters Patrick Morgan.

“When you start to get four to five percent of the population riding, you want to see the budget matching. I’d like to see a jump from $1 million to $5 million next year. That would be nothing in the context of transport projects and huge in the context of cycling,” he said.

Foster thinks Wellington could be more cycle-friendly within the next decade, with more cycle lanes and amenities. “I’d like to see a cycle centre where you can bring your bike, where there’s a shop for repairs, where you could have a coffee and a shower. I’ve talked to the waterfront company about the possibility for the centre as a ground floor tenant. In the right location it would be, I hope, very popular.”

Not only would a cycling centre provide a unique public space, it would serve to cement cycling into Wellington’s culture and economy.

“More cycle lanes, cycle paths, a bit more cycle parking, a continuing shift in driving culture” are all things Simon Kennett, Jonathan’s brother and fellow cyclist, would like to see, and were echoed by the many cyclists we interviewed.

“There are certain political realities. Putting in cycle lanes isn’t that expensive, but it often requires removing car parking. Businesses adjacent to the route feel they have a lot at stake,” says Kennett.

Perhaps the potential benefits should be discussed. When New York City recently removed car parks to install a protected bike lane, small businesses discovered that it resulted in a sharp increase in sales. Cyclists weren’t buying as much as drivers, but they were buying more often and more overall.

Protected cycle lanes seem a long way off for Wellington, but if council is concerned about safety they could look to a recent Christchurch study by University of Canterbury students. “We found there’s an average of 23 percent fewer crashes after cycling lanes are installed,” says Glen Koorey, transportation engineering lecturer. “That’s definitely telling us that if we do them right there can be safety advantages.” The study also trialled low-cost roading options to create protected lanes, which would probably field test well on Evans Bay Parade.

Meanwhile, there are other options for that 12 percent or more of people who want to be riding but aren’t.

“In the absence of infrastructural change it’s working with what you have. Skills,” says Marilyn Northcotte, who teaches road skills to kids and adults through Greater Wellington Regional Council’s Pedal Ready programme. She’s been riding Wellington for years and says there are definitely more people on bikes. “A telling situation for me is that new cyclists may be wary or somewhat worried and anxious, but they still do it. It doesn’t stop them.”

It didn’t stop Boyd, who says she’d like to see more cycle lanes, but not having them shouldn’t stop you in your tracks. “I’d say to anyone who’s thinking about doing it, just go for it.”

 

Originally published February 13, 2013 in Capital Times. 

The New Zealand that never was

Sixty puppets tell the tale of The Road That Wasn’t There.

What does it take to go from the apex of Fringe Festivals – Edinburgh – to Wellington’s own three week bonanza of performance? Sixty puppets, 56,000 roads that only exist on paper, and a very large suitcase. Amanda Witherell walks down The Road That Wasn’t There with Ralph McCubbin Howell and Hannah Smith. 

Once upon a time, in the small north Canterbury town of Waikari, there was a plan to put a road over the mountains to the west coast. The planners envisioned a rail system, bustling settlements, and a web of roads connecting them. The idea was committed to paper, but in the end two different roads – Arthur’s Pass and Lewis Pass – were constructed over the Southern Alps.

“I remember being a kid and seeing all these maps of towns that didn’t exist and being really fascinated by that,” says Howell, who grew up in Waikari. “What if they did exist and took you to another world?”

“The world that might have been,” pipes up Smith, his thespian partner. The two make plays as Trick of the Light Theatre. They were living in Bristol, England, and bound for the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival when they conceived their new work, The Road That Wasn’t There.

“When they were settling New Zealand they granted these roads legal status even though they didn’t exist or are just thin strips of land,” continues Smith. “It’s not unique to New Zealand but it happened a lot here because of the time that the country was settled.”

The country’s 56,000 roads that only exist on paper is a concept “so strange and fantastic it was calling for a play,” says Howell.

The story takes the familiar arch of a quest, to and from a magical world, with the kind of crossover appeal of fantasy writers Neil Gaiman, Tim Burton, and Margaret Mahy. The main character, a working stiff in the city, must return home and move his ill and aged mother to a retirement facility, and in the course of packing her things she tells him the story of how she met his father and what happened when she walked down a road that, technically, didn’t exist.

“Subliminally, we were living away from home and we wanted to create something that we connected with and which was familiar and we decided not to pander to an audience that was uninformed about New Zealand,” says Howell.

It was also a point of difference for them to exploit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as they competed with more than 2,500 other shows to build an audience. Turns out a family-friendly New Zealand narrative full of puppets is a winning combination, packing the house most nights for the month they performed on a tiny side stage with a pillar down its centre.

“We had a really great run. Full houses the whole month, nice reviews, and we made money which was a miracle,” says Smith.

Both South Islanders by birth, they came to Wellington to study theatre at Victoria University and are veterans of the Wellington Fringe Festival scene –Best of the Fringe in 2008 with March of the Meeklings, Pick of the Fringe in 2009 with A Most Outrageous Humbug, and Best again in 2010 with Who’s Neat? You! As Trick of The Light they made their first flash in 2011with The Engine Room, netting five Chapman Tripp nominations (Howell took home the award for Outstanding New Playwright.) A humorous, critical look at how the 1981 Springbok tour affected New Zealand’s political landscape, played by four actors, it’s a very different production from four puppeteers wielding 60 different handmade puppets in The Road That Wasn’t There.

“It still holds to the same values,” says Howell. “We want to make theatre that’s intelligent and engaging. That doesn’t shift when you’re working with kids.”

“This is not exclusive to children,” Smith adds. “An issue like what do I do with my doolally Mum – that’s real to our generation.”

Post-Fringe, The Road That Wasn’t There will return Howell to his hometown as they plan to perform in other cities, small towns, and the off-the-map places like Waikari and St Bathans that inspired the play – a prospect that excites them both.

The Edinburgh constraints of a tiny stage and the need to be portable meant the play was created on a shoestring, in spite of 60 puppets – all of which fit into one suitcase for the flight home to New Zealand.

“They didn’t like it that much,” says Smith.

“They needed a little TLC after the long flight from the UK,” agrees Howell.

I hope they won’t mind at least one more trip to spread some good theatre.

 

Originally published February 7, 2013 in Capital Times. 

Diplomatic Ladies

Woods dons a traditional chador to pass muster under Khomeini, in Tehran in 1984.

An affair with H.G. Wells, hidden homosexuality, undercover spies, and coups before teatime, Diplomatic Ladies: New Zealand’s Unsung Envoys is a page-turning account of what really goes on behind embassy doors. Not just a chronicle of juicy anecdotes, the book details the inherent sacrifices wives and partners make, such as the inability to pursue careers and the demand that they wine and dine as an unpaid part of the job. 
Only a true insider could have known the right questions to ask and author Joanna Woods spares few details in her own chapter “Supping with the Ayatollah.” In addition to accompanying her husband, Richard, to posts in Bahrain, France, Greece, Iran, Italy, the US, and Russia, she’s also a Katherine Mansfield scholar, the author of three other books, and says her love of reading made her enjoy every moment of research. Though she recently resided in Wellington, Woods answered questions from her native U.K.

When did you realise you needed to write this book?
What originally motivated me was a burning desire to write about my own experiences in Iran, where my husband and I spent seven years. It was one of the most extraordinary periods of my life and I have wanted to write about it for over a decade. As I struggled to find the right format, including a crack at a fictionalised version, it occurred to me that many other diplomatic wives must have equally interesting stories to tell and their inclusion would broaden the scope of my book enormously. Once I decided on this, the format fell into place quite naturally and I realised at once that I was on the right track.

I was struck by the amount of drama in these stories – did you have to cull a lot of information to get at these gems?
My eureka moment probably came in late 2008, when I was browsing in the legendary London Library, which I have belonged to for many years, and I came across Katy Hickman’s Daughters of Britannia. Her book is about British diplomatic wives, including some pretty exotic early figures, but I could see at once how some of New Zealand’s early posts in the Pacific could be as “exotic” as 19th century Kashgar, if only I could track down the stories.

What followed was about a year of intensive research. By this time I had decided to take a chronological approach, so that my book would not just be a random collection of stories, but rather a historical account of New Zealand diplomacy told from the wives ‘ perspective. I was also acutely aware that many of these stories would be lost unless someone wrote them down.

Were the women you interviewed eager to talk?
Virtually nobody I approached turned me down. People were equally generous with their letters and photographs and after many of the interviews I felt as if I had made a new friend. One of the things that helped enormously was that, after an interview, I always sent a copy of the transcript and undertook to remove anything that they wished they hadn’t said! This made people feel ‘safe’ and as a result they were far more open and relaxed with me. And virtually no-one changed a word of the transcripts.

I’m impressed by how many of these women were feminists, from the first diplomat’s wife Maud Pember Reeves to Marguerite Scott during the 1970s. In spite of all the spousal duties and decorum, is this a role where a woman can make her beliefs known? 
On the whole, diplomatic wives do not become directly involved in political issues in the countries to which their husbands are posted. Maud Pember Reeves was quite exceptional, but this was largely because she did not regard herself as a foreigner in England. She behaved as if she was a private individual at home. But diplomatic wives can help promote social justice and reforms indirectly, through supporting local charities, for example. They also have unique opportunities to mix socially with powerful figures in the host country and to influence their thinking, but the key to diplomacy is persuasion rather than confrontation. A woman who pushes her own views too hard at the dinner table might not be invited back.

Many of the issues raised in these stories are still issues, as revealed last March when MFAT proposed cuts to diplomats’ positions, pay and allowances, prompting envoys and partners to air grievances about the difficulties of their appointments, including the single salary situation. Did that conflict affect what you wrote? 
The whole sorry situation at MFAT began when I was already well advanced with the book and had no influence on my writing, but it’s made the subject matter far more topical than I had ever imagined and it has also served as a timely reminder of the major contribution that the wives and partners have always made to diplomatic life.

You are quite right that many of the issues that wives faced in the past continue to be problems today. That many of the partners are now male has changed things, however, and wives and partners are now far less engaged in the business of diplomacy. This does not alter the fact that many of them still sacrifice career prospects and financial advantages to accompany their partners overseas. It is also still tough on the children, despite the apparent glamour. Nevertheless a lot of progress has been made since the bad old days when wives were forbidden to work and in most places partners are now able to find some sort of employment, including within the Embassy.

Did you put a career on hold to be a diplomat’s wife? What would you have done if you’d been allowed?
If I had not married a diplomat, I would probably have started writing books 20 years earlier!

Originally published on January 23, 2013 in Capital Times.