The Watercooler: On the Fringe | Auckland Fringe 2015

The premise of The Watercooler isn’t new but it is one that genuinely deserves a space.

I do think truth is stranger than fiction so stories that are at least based on a version of the truth are worthy of being told and equally of being heard. Luckily for Auckland, The Basement does provide the space to make that happen. Curated by Sarah Finnigan-Walsh, The Watercooler provides a selection of narratives that respond to a key theme, the latest one being ‘on the fringe’ and you can see the subtle appropriateness of such a choice considering the time of the year.

However, while the premise is nearly flawless (how can you really go wrong with wanting to create a space for telling stories that come from the periphery, and there are certainly no lack of stories that address the theme) there are a few aspects that seem lacking.

The host of the night, Joseph Harper, begins by introducing himself as “white and straight” and through this disclaimer suggests to the audience that perhaps he is not the most appropriate host for an evening that addresses issues of marginalisation. However while such a statement is fraught (white privilege, white guilt), the concern here for me is that the general blanket term he chooses to use seems to suggest it is only those who are ‘other’ than ‘white and straight’ who have the right to share stories that are on the fringe. His own story that follows is thus slightly more trivialised than it could be, given that being mistaken for a girl because of his long locks isn’t necessarily a narrative that’s exclusive to white heteronormativity.

But this isn’t about Joseph Harper. He may be a brilliant comic but as a host of a shared storytelling space (straddling the line of suspended belief or not) his introduction to the night is problematic. It would good to see those binaries challenged in future shows.

The stories from the four women – Annie Duckworth, Saraid Cameron, Gaayathri Nair and Angella Dravid – are the focus of the evening, however, and do indeed deliver personal and revealing insights on myriad topics. While it would be unfair to place anyone’s story as ‘better’ than the others, because each has its own legitimate space, it is interesting to observe each storyteller’s style and choices.

Annie Duckworth begins with her tale of lust and non-exclusive relationships set against the backdrop of the Big Apple. While she has the ability to be a perfectly punctuated narrator with a flair for storytelling, her story’s climax is hardly one that could be called ‘on the fringe’ – unless we’re discussing pushing the boundaries of where one may urinate in shared spaces.

In comparison, Saraid Cameron, whose visible nervousness is a sharp contrast to Duckworth’s cool and collected narration, soon gains momentum once she stands on her soapbox and begins discussing the ins and outs of oral sex. Literally. Amusing but not necessarily highly revolutionary in content (it is after all The Basement) Cameron might be a bit late if she thinks conversations in a darkened space with strangers about her private bits and their various synonyms is anything new. But she is right in affirming it as a conversation young women do need to have. It’s just probably more beneficial (if her aim is to educate and promote dialogue) if it becomes part of sex education for the generation who need it imminently. However, a little self-affirming sex ed never hurt anyone and she certainly has her fair share of laughs.

Similarly, Gaayathri Nair’s tale of the migrant child isn’t new either but how she elucidates the details and explaines the complexity of being a child of the diaspora between New Zealand, Malaysia and India, transcends what could easily have become another ‘ethnic story’. In-and-of themselves these are incredibly valuable stories and deserve to be honoured, but in the space of theatre and transgressing boundaries, it should also be that place where stories dare to take risks.

Which leads us to the final storyteller of the night, Angella Dravid, whose short terse interactions with Harper are probably the most eloquent of all. Taking her printed pages with her, she proceeds to share a moving and unadulterated episode from her life. Hers is an account of events that seem to belong to a different lifetime: when she was sixteen and in love with an older man, ran away to the UK to be married, was accused of domestic violence and then went through the prison system and bail before re-uniting with her estranged parents and returning home to New Zealand.

Again, it’s not necessarily that Dravid’s story is colossally different to any of her other companions but it is her rendering of it that makes her particular story stand out. Uncompromising in her retelling, this is a brutally honest account with its moment of humour that transports the audience to a different place.

And isn’t that why we are theatre-goers in the first place? Because the place we seek when the lights come up and we walk out is a different one from the world we imagined when we first step into the shadowy space?

The Watercooler is a fantastic addition to our cycle of stories that need to be heard here in Auckland but they are also deserving of reflective and reflexive curation – and maybe a host who can address the underlying issues with some semblance of the dignity they deserve.

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