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Mark Westerby | Producer of Strange Resting Places & Miss Fletcher Sings the Blues

In the first in a series of interviews with NZ artists at Edinburgh 2014, Dione Joseph talks to Mark Westerby, producer of Strange Resting Places and Miss Fletcher Sings the Blues, about getting ‘match-fit’ for the world stage.

In the first in a series of interviews with NZ artists at Edinburgh 2014, Dione Joseph talks to Mark Westerby, producer of Strange Resting Places and Miss Fletcher Sings the Blues, about getting ‘match-fit’ for the world stage.

“We’ve come to the Edinburgh Fringe not to make money but to let the world know that as Kiwis, we’re a team who punch above our weight.”

* * *

Mark Westerby considers himself very lucky.

Not just because he is a successful producer of a little show with ‘big heart’, but more importantly at this particular show – he gets to take out the vino and bread to the audience.

No jokes.

Strange Resting Places is special. It’s not a commercial high-tech spectacle – it’s a story about people, culture (and yes war) but more importantly it is about the triumphs of overcoming the war through friendship.

The often unheard adventures of the 28th Maori Battalion during World War II take centre stage and when survival dictates that a Maori and Italian must make an important decision as to their future – the truths about having a choice even in the most dire of situations becomes a reality.

But the importance of whanua is central not only to the narrative but also to the actual process and development of the work.

“We only had a week before we came to Edinburgh,” explains Westerby, “And although the actors Barnie Duncan, Te Kohe Tuhaka and Rob Mokaraka (also co-writer) had all worked together in different shows previously this particular combination was new and so something fresh was brought to the table.”

With limited rehearsals and a few shows to squeeze in before take-off the team had, in the words of Westerby, a ‘baptism by fire’ where they were fortunate enough to have both Paolo Rotunda and Maaka Pohatu in the room to once again bring to life a favourite NZ work. As to a result the cast arrived ‘match-fit’ ready to knock the socks off festival-goers and add another distinct voice to kiwi ensemble at this year’s Edinburgh Festivals.

But it’s not easy and nobody, Westerby reiterates, should come here without substantial planning and strategising.

“This is the third time we have been invited to the Fringe and it’s a question of timing, resources and how the fringe itself fits into the larger life cycle of the show.”

With a huge NZ presence this year and extensive marketing and publicity for eight selected shows by CNZ the Kiwi presence is not as invisible as it could have been – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“We’re a small country and we have a very small touring network so I do believe it’s an absolute necessity that we get out work overseas,” says Westerby.

However, as he switches hats and reflects upon his experience organising the NZ Performing Arts Market he goes to warn “it’s vital that as Kiwis we make sure we’ve explored all opportunities back home and are clear why we’re making certain choices.”

On a fundamental level, making a great work of theatre (as both a Mark and I unequivocally agree) is about being in love with the work.

“If you aren’t connected in a way that will last more than a single season then why do the show?”

It’s a valid point, especially in context of the increasing number of New Zealand shows that are effectively joining the export market.

“We are creating a new space for contemporary theatre that celebrates the diversity of style, form and expression,” says Westerby. “I love producing Strange Resting Places which has three actors a touring set but I’m equally excited and proud about producing Miss Fletcher Sings the Blues.

“At the risk of using clichés she’s the female version of Flight of the Concords,” laughs Westerby, “She’s witty, humorous and her background as a classically trained pianist come together to give audiences here a different and yet intimate, musical experience.”

As a producer it’s working across genres that keeps Westerby inspired and that’s not only in the realm of theatre. “We’re currently looking at the option of creating a film version of this story, it might also include footage of our journey (including our time here in Edinburgh) and really pay tribute to the story and the creatives who shared this piece of our past with thousands of audience members.”

Ultimately, as Westerby concludes:

“We’ve come to the Edinburgh Fringe not to make money (because that’s just not going to happen) but to let the world know that as Kiwis, we’re a team who punch above our weight.”

And that’s exactly why, amongst more than 2000 shows, Strange Resting Places is one of the few shows to get such high rating amongst critics, but more importantly, amongst audiences.

https://www.thebigidea.nz/news/interviews/2014/aug/144407-taking-nz-stories-on-tour