Local Folk - Sally Knight

Sally Knight will direct Warkworth Theatre Group’s production, Death and Taxe$, at the Warkworth Town Hall next month. She spoke to James Addis about her passion for live performance …

I was born in the UK and came to New Zealand when I was seven. I spent most of my young life in Birkdale. From the age of 11, I started playing music and that became a real passion. I played recorder to a reasonably high level and then took up the cello, which is my main instrument. In fact, my first job at 15 was teaching cello. I also loved drama and theatre from an early age. The first thing I ever did was play the Star of Bethlehem at age five in a school nativity play. I can still remember the big cellophane costume.  So yes, I was a big star when I launched my career, but I think my star has faded over time [laughs]. At Birkdale Intermediate, one of the teachers, Kath Pring, was the driving force behind the operettas we put on, and they were so good. Lots and lots of children got up on stage who never would have without the encouragement, and possibly never would do again, but at least they had the opportunity to have a go. For me, I knew I had a bit of an instinct for theatre. It was something I was good at, and every kid likes to feel good at something. I loved jumping into the character of a completely different person – whether it was the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella or the Ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol.

I also learned something about the craft of theatre from an early age and, most importantly, the collaborative nature of it. I don’t think the theatre is about getting people up there to individually shine. The best times you ever have on stage – and it’s the same with music – is when you are part of a team, and you feel the sparks flying between the members of the team. You create something that just goes “Pow!” and the people watching it feel it as well.

After school, I got my first proper job as an office worker at the Chelsea Sugar refinery, and I joined the Mairangi Players. I would have loved to have done professional theatre, but I don’t think I was brave enough. Also, there was a lot of other things going on in my life. I was settling down and getting married, and I had my sights set on having children. That was quite unusual in the 1980s. A lot of women were thinking a lot about how they could take more control of their lives. But I had really enjoyed having young parents, and I wanted that experience for my kids. I chose that path over having a career.

Furthermore, I really enjoyed amateur theatre because you got to do everything and everybody got a chance to play a part. I played Miranda in The Tempest – which was a dream role – and Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I also discovered a passion for directing. My first major directing role was Toad of Toad Hall, which had a slew of kids. It was an ambitious project, as I was only 22 at the time. I also had a go at more serious theatre and was the musical director for a Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss, which was all wrapped up in the themes of the French Revolution. Had the whole revolution been a waste of time? Would human nature prevail, ensuring the same people ended up on top, who had always been on top? That kind of exploration of philosophical questions I found fascinating. For that show, I had to find a lot of musicians who not only wanted to play music but were also happy to be on stage as part of the set, which was a lunatic asylum. There were all these writhing bodies on stage. The focus of attention would move and all these bodies would move toward it. The whole thing went way beyond what you might expect from an amateur production.

Of course, a lot of the time theatre is simply seen as light entertainment and making people laugh. Take the show I’m directing now, Death & Taxe$ by New Zealand writer April Phillips. It’s a comedy, but always – and with a good writer especially – you will find themes that go deeper. You might have a character that appears one dimensional, but I will always challenge actors to look into why that person is that way. It’s the same in real life. You can write people off – you can say this or that person is shallow or weak. But this is a mistake. Everybody’s lived a life and has a story to tell, and has something to say to us.

One of my stories is getting married to my second husband, Gavin Lewis, in 2010. We didn’t say a word about it, but organised a big party in our garden in Albany. We invited along a friend who is a wedding celebrant. Midway through the party, she went ding-ding-ding on her glass and said she had a bit of news. “Sally and Gavin are getting engaged.” Everybody was shouting “hooray, hooray” and toasting us with Champagne. But minutes later the celebrant went ding-ding-ding on her glass again. “I’m sorry,” she said, “the engagement’s off”. There was a horrified silence. “Sally and Gavin are getting married!” A lot of jaws dropped and had to be picked up off the ground. It’s still being talked about 10 years later.

Later that year, I appeared with Gavin in another April Phillips play, STiFF. I played a prostitute who inherits a funeral parlour from a father she has never met. Gavin played a transvestite cleaner called Delilah. It was a very silly premise, but gosh it was fun.  Mind you, Gavin is a terrible practical joker. During the play, I’m convinced my father is a black jazz musician, but I get to open his coffin and discover he is, in fact, white. On the last night, Gavin inserted a dummy into the coffin with a black and white minstrel face. I had to deliver the line “Oh, he’s white.” to a black man staring right back at me. I very nearly lost it.  

Gavin and I moved to Whangaripo in 2013. We bought a property with 20 acres of bush close to Mount Tamahunga. It’s a very special area and we like the idea of being part of taking care of the bush. I would love Tamahunga to become something like the inland island Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari down in the Waikato. They have taken an isolated mountain in the middle of farmland and encircled it with predator-proof fencing. The whole community looks after the fence and all kinds of native birds flourish there. If I ever won Lotto, I’d like to invest in something like that.

We joined the Warkworth Theatre Group when we came up here. It had been inactive for years while the Warkworth Town Hall was renovated. Once the hall opened, I was again able to play opposite Gavin in Snip, yet another April Phillips play. It was the first time the group had been able to put on a show there since 2011. Currently, I’m acting secretary and am pleased to say it’s doing really well. When you have got a committee with over 10 people on it turning up to every meeting, and when you ask people to help with production and 14 turn up to the first production meeting, you know you have a healthy group. The financial membership is growing and so too are the audiences. If we can build a loyal audience with shows like ’Allo ’Allo, it will perhaps give us the opportunity to encourage them along to more experimental work in the future.  

Why come to live theatre rather than, say, watch a film? Well, every audience we play in front of has a different quality to it. If you have 100 people laughing along, the play will flow differently than if there is only one person sitting in the audience. The audience is part of the energy of each production and that’s the joy of being in the audience to a certain extent. You help create that energy. You just can’t do that with film.

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