Third Person, Tense: Hungover, next to a dead body

By Dionne Christian

Stephen Papps says the nameless character he plays in Third Person, Tense! is a slightly more eccentric and exaggerated version of himself.
Stephen Papps says the nameless character he plays in Third Person, Tense! is a slightly more eccentric and exaggerated version of himself.

Ask many actors what they are most concerned about when it comes to performing a solo show and they'll likely share their anxieties about having to "carry" the production without anyone else to play against - or joke that the cast parties tend not to be as lively as others.

Not Stephen Papps. The lanky character actor, probably best known for his film roles in Russian Snark and The End of the Golden Weather, is about to star in his new play, described as a "weird and wonderful" relationship comedy; a solo show featuring two people.

While there is a second character, a mystery woman he will reveal little about, Third Person, Tense largely depends on Papps to carry the self-referencing and somewhat existentialist story. Because his most enduring work, Blowing It, was a one-hander he's not rattled by having to go it alone.

Co-written with Stephen Sinclair, Blowing It, about an undercover cop, won Papps the Chapman Tripp Best Actor gong in 2000 before he took it on the road, performing for five years around New Zealand, Britain, Northern Ireland and Australia.

"The solo aspect doesn't scare me as much because I know what it's all about through my experiences with Blowing It," he says.

"I once performed the show in a pub in Belfast. I was asked if I minded if people smoked during the performance and I said I would prefer that they didn't; then I asked if the bar could be closed during the duration of the show - about an hour - and they said they thought that would be okay.

"The audience was deathly quiet which was unusual; I pushed on through trying not to be put off by it. Anyway, they saved it all up and went wild at the end - and made up for the bar being closed for that hour."

What Papps is more concerned about is wearing two hats; this is the first show he has written on his own.

"Words feed into a performance but what works on paper doesn't necessarily sound right when it's performed. So I'm thinking, 'how am I going to make this work? What am I trying to say and can I physicalise it or dramatise it?"'

He is quick to say he's working with a good team, including director Mark Clare, who gives him prompt constructive feedback. Early on in the show's development, script advisory service and agents Playmarket teamed Papps with seasoned writer Michelanne Forster, who provided help with the first drafts. It was Forster's idea to bring the woman, played by Lizzie Tollmache, into the story which starts when an actor wakes to find himself on stage with an expectant audience in front of him.

"I always thought the strange thing about solo shows is the question of who the actor is talking to? We know it's the audience, so the idea is to break right through the 'fourth wall' so we cut through that illusion."

As the nameless protagonist, hungover and with a head injury, starts to ready himself for a show, chatting all the while to the audience, he eventually becomes aware there's the body of a young woman on the stage. Papps, a fan of writers Edward Albee, Will Eno and Samuel Beckett, says the character, a slightly more eccentric and exaggerated version of himself, must then work out what part he played in the girl's misfortune.

- NZ Herald

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