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September 10, 2012 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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White Cloud: Duncum Meets Finn

By Tim Finn and Ken Duncum, directed by Simon Bennett

Coming to BATS this week is a new work called White Cloud, a fusion of storytelling and live music. It marks a first-time collaboration between two prominent New Zealand artists, Tim Finn and Ken Duncum, both of whom are apparently very excited by their inter-medial experiments. I spoke on the phone to Ken Duncum to find out more about their process.

There is a palpable excitement beaming down the line from Auckland. The company is in the middle of their second day of intensives, and so far the band and the actors have been rehearsing apart, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. It is the band that seems to be at the forefront of Duncum’s mind, and he talks with the liveliness of someone still buzzing from a particularly good gig: “I’ve been living with the demos for about a year and a half and being able to actually hear the live band bring them to life beyond that is amazing, it’s really exciting actually.” So how did it all begin?

Duncum’s initial correspondence with Finn began with a view to writing a screenplay about the inception of Split Enz. Though the project never left the gate, the two artists remained in “acquaintance through email” and it was Finn who rekindled the idea of a collaboration two years ago. “He saw a play of mine in Auckland in 2010 which was Horseplay, directed by Simon Bennett who’s now directing this show for us, and he enjoyed it so much that he sent me an email and said would you be interested in doing something this time. Because actually Tim’s always been interested in theatre very much. I mean you could say that Split Enz was pretty theatrical— the costume and persona and all that.”

It was during a trip to France (which must have been a lucrative holiday for Duncum, as he was also working on West End Girls over that period) that the seed of White Cloud planted itself. “We were both brought up in small, mid- North Island towns in a similar sort of time period, so I started to think about what that meant to us and what our relationship to the country and culture was, and I started to write some things about that and he started to write some songs about that. We were working sort of independently and sending stuff to each other, and that would spark something for the other one, and we kind of went back and forth with that until we got a storehouse of material which we then shaped into this show.”

A show both parties have high hopes for. Duncum describes the upcoming premiere at BATS as “an exciting first step…. Ultimately we see it as hopefully becoming kind of like a festival show, a bigger kind of show, but we really wanted to have a sort of shake-down production and BATS was the obvious place.”

So what actually is White Cloud? Ten brand new Tim Finn songs, for starters, the music of which provides a “bed” for a range of stories and voices, drawn from family archives and personal experiences. “Both sides [the actors and musicians] are bringing a high level of skill to it, and there’s something about that live performance so that, if it works, it’s a really immersive experience. And that’s what we’re always after. Basically, the music will start to play and will continue like a river through the whole show, which takes you somewhere and drops you off at the end, seventy minutes later.”

Though Duncum stresses that the show is not all historic, delving into his family’s past has yielded some fascinating, even disconcerting results. “An immediate ancestor of mine was basically the guy who brought about [the 1881 government invasion of] Parihaka…. My heritage in this country is both good and bad and there’s a certain responsibility there. I’m not unlike a lot of people in that if you don’t look you don’t see, and you don’t have to feel responsible. It’s a light and a dark and a bittersweet, poignant thing.”

Finn’s past was scrutinised too, though the musician was reticent at first. “He said, ‘I’m not even really second generation because my mum was born in Ireland’ and I said don’t worry about it, there will be amazing stuff in there. And there absolutely is, an incredible rich vein of stuff. It’s not about counting generations, it’s about the human experience.”

As it turns out, a lot of the work of giving voice to these ancestors had already been done for them: “they’d kept journals and letters and things like that. They wrote beautifully, very descriptively, and there are some amazing stories which I’m very happy to have included in the show.”

Though the research has clearly been a fulfilling and revealing experience, it is the music that Duncum keeps drifting back to in our conversation, each time a boyish excitement creeping into his voice.

“The hook here is music; live musicians, a great band. It’s the first performances of these songs in the world.” His excitement is more than a little infectious. “Certain projects you find there is a very fortuitous connection that happens and things kind of fall together in a natural way and I think this is definitely one of those projects.”

Runs 12 to 22 Sept. Tickets: $15/20 

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