Theatre: Black Confetti

By Dionne Christian

Black Confetti by Eli Kent (pictured) is his biggest and most ambitious work to date, and was created after a two-month overseas trip. Photo / Guy Coombes
Black Confetti by Eli Kent (pictured) is his biggest and most ambitious work to date, and was created after a two-month overseas trip. Photo / Guy Coombes

The latest from acclaimed young playwright Eli Kent arrives on the Auckland stage inspired by a spot of OE and a certain Prince of Denmark, writes Dionne Christian.

You're an award-winning playwright who, at the tender age of 23, is commissioned by the country's biggest theatre company to produce a play that is original, thought-provoking but funny and with appeal to an inter-generational audience.

Why? Because you're being hailed as an extraordinary new voice in New Zealand theatre and the four plays you've already written have won awards and fans among theatre-goers and critics alike. Your talent could owe a debt to genes; after all, you're the great-grandson of writer/pacifist Archibald Baxter and the great-nephew of James K. Baxter.

Your commissioned play, Black Confetti, is on Auckland Theatre Company's main bill following a comedy by New Zealand's most successful playwright, Roger Hall, and immediately before pioneering writer Bruce Mason's acclaimed Awatea. They're tough acts to be sandwiched between.

So what's your first move? Eli Kent, now 24, saw two options. He could lock himself in his room for the next few months, shunning contact with the outside world, or he could hop on a plane, fly to the other side of the world and have a blast zig-zagging across Europe from Berlin to London and then coming home, two months later, via Beijing.

Changing the scenery and opening yourself up to new experiences by travelling is a winning way to spark creativity, so Kent picked option two. Given the choice, who wouldn't?

"I think if I'd stayed home and just tried to write, I might have ended up procrastinating."

Not that there's much evidence Kent has procrastinated to date. He wrote his first play, Rubber Turkey, when he was 19 and won the Peter Harcourt Award for Outstanding New Playwright of the Year at the 2008 Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards.

His third play, The Intricate Art of Actually Caring, won Best Theatre in the NZ Fringe Festival 2009, the Montana Award for Most Original Production at the 2009 Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards and was nominated for Outstanding New New Zealand Play and Production of the Year. After being originally performed in the bedroom of Kent's Wellington home, Intricate Art has had two return seasons in Wellington and toured the country.

(He'll miss the opening night of Black Confetti because he'll be in Riverton, in Southland, performing Intricate Art with best mate Jack Shadbolt).

In addition, his play Thinning was part of the 2011 Young and Hungry Festival in Auckland and Wellington and, later that year, he was awarded the Bruce Mason Award. In among it all, Kent completed a short film project, joined the inaugural South Pacific Pictures' Emerging Writers Programme, started work developing two new works with his company The PlayGround Collective and the Long Cloud Youth Theatre and picked up an Arts Foundation New Generation Award worth around $25,000.

It's not surprising he opted for the trip to Europe; he no doubt needed a breather of sorts. When he returned home to Wellington, Kent was ready to begin the nearly year-long process of taking an idea he developed as he completed a Master of Arts in Scriptwriting with the Creative Writing programme at Victoria University and turning it into the biggest and most Performance:What: Black Confetti

Where & When: Herald Theatre, June 28 - July 22ambitious project he has worked on to date.

Black Confetti is packed with subtle references to his European sojourn: the duck incident in Paris, the young artist who returns home from Berlin with a secret, the trials and tribulations of standing on your own two feet when things seem to keep getting lost in translation between adolescence and adulthood.

The main character is anti-hero Siggy (Kip Chapman) who has spent years at university, selling drugs dealt by his Uncle Ray (Edwin Wright) to get by and not really thinking much about who he is or where he is going. When a drug deal goes fatally wrong, Siggy is expelled from university at the same time as his father, an eminent seismologist, disappears while working in Haiti.

Siggy's finally got to start growing up so he enlists best friends Elvis (Nic Sampson) and Katie (Virginia Frankovich) to help him but what does a girl called Flo (Julia Croft) want with him and who is Baron Saturday (Keith Adams)?

Kent acknowledges Black Confetti owes a debt to Shakespeare's Hamlet in that the main character is grappling with life's big questions. Rather than denying it, Kent says he felt the best thing to do was "own that" - after all, he's far from the first playwright to find inspiration in Shakespeare.

The fact Black Confetti is so contemporary and resonant can be seen in the experience of young actor Virginia Frankovich, a graduate of ATC's Young and Hungry plays. She portrays sassy and passionate artist Katie whose experiences mirror Frankovich's older sister Alicia, an artist who lives in Berlin and is a nominee for this year's Walters Prize.

"How amazing is that," says Black Confetti director Andrew Foster to Virginia, "because she's coming home to see you in a play where you're acting her life."

Foster says Black Confetti has a cinematic quality. The language is sassy and naturalistic, yet it demands Elizabethan-style staging. There's scant scenery and it's very much a "world of the mind" play where the actors must have the "nous" to transport audiences.

"There's something really exciting about working out how to stage a new piece of theatre that's going to be seen for the first-time."

He cast experienced actors with physical theatre skills and a willingness to experiment. He says Frankovich, the youngest cast member, brought a depth to the character of Katie and made him think about her in a new way.

For her part, Frankovich says learning Kent's lines has been easier than she imagined because he writes the way she and her friends speak.

So is Kent the voice of a new generation? Quite possibly, says Frankovich.

- NZ Herald

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