It was 5am and actor Emma Newborn, a self-confessed city girl recently returned from nearly a decade in London, was tailing lambs on the hills of Peak Station in Canterbury.
It was her first visit to the South Island and she admits to wondering what she was doing up so early engaged in such a gritty task. A marked change of scene it may have been, but she and creative collaborator Amelia Guild, who grew up at Peak Station, were about to embark on a theatre tour like no other and Newborn figured she needed some rural experience.
After meeting at an artists' collective at The Basement in Auckland, the duo created a 55-minute comedy about life on the farm through the eyes of four-legged workers, the farm dogs. The show's title, The Bitches' Box, refers to the kennels in which female dogs are housed while they're on heat.
Rather than performing in theatres, Newborn and Guild, along with singer-songwriter Mel Parsons, set up stage in woolsheds. Over five weeks they performed in 22 sheds, including the country's oldest, and another one where the shearing gang stopped work just an hour before the audience was to arrive.
"Usually we needed a couple of hours to get the shed ready, but they helped us and we did it, although the shed smelt very, very fresh," says Newborn. "We had 160 people booked so luckily it was a beautiful night and we were able to open all the doors."
Positive word of mouth meant The Bitches' Box also did the rounds of North Island woolsheds. Now the comedy comes to Auckland for the Fringe Festival, and Newborn says she's interested to see what a city audience will make of it. Some people have asked whether it was inspired by Footrot Flats, but Newborn says she had never seen the famous comic strip.
"I think it will be fine because most of us are still pretty close to our rural roots, but you'll get it if you know dogs. It started in the city, when Amelia and I were teamed up to devise a 10-minute performance based on the theme of confinement, and she told me about bitches' boxes so, in a sense, it's coming home."
The Bitches' Box is one of about 115 cabaret, burlesque, comedy, dance, music, outdoor, theatre and visual arts events that comprise the third Auckland Fringe.
One of the most exclusive shows may be Theatre of Love's The Enigma Box, which takes place in a box just big enough for an actor and an audience of two. You make an appointment to see an actor perform, but you won't know who the actor is until you're in the box, then you pick from a menu of scenarios for them to act out.
Producer James Wenley agrees it's not for the claustrophobic, but says it plays with ideas about space and the closeness between audiences and performers: "I've always been interested in that idea."
The Fringe, with its commitment to showcasing the provocative, is the place to experiment. Actor Yvette Parsons, best known as the loveable octogenarian Irene McMunn in her solo show Silent Night, teams up with prolific playwright Tom Sainsbury in Dolly Mixture, a "demented horror comedy" featuring 50 plastic dolls.
It sounds mad, macabre and creepy, and even Parsons is wondering about how spine-chilling she and Sainsbury can make it: "But it's the Fringe and that's why I love it. It's an absolutely fantastic creative environment.
"It's difficult being an actor and creating a show; being able to do it under the umbrella of the Fringe is magnificent," Parsons says.
The sentiment is shared by Mark Prebble who, along with his wife Marion Shortt, runs Team M&M theatre, which had a surprise hit last year with its food-themed satirical comedy The Pantry Shelf. They hope to repeat this success with crime caper The Guilt Sniffer, where actor Matt Baker plays a cop who can smell emotions.
This is the first time Team M&M has been part of Auckland Fringe. Like Parsons, Prebble says developing new work is risky, so being part of a fringe festival, where audiences are more receptive to novelty, makes it safer to take risks.
It will be a busy few days for Team M&M - the day before The Guilt Sniffer opens they will attend the Performing Arts Network New Zealand (Pannz) marketplace to promote The Pantry Shelf with a view to touring the production.
The Fringe isn't all new works, with return seasons of Dark Stars and Mrs Van Gogh, and a number of award-winning shows from other parts of the country are also scheduled.
They include Kallo Collective's Moving Stationery and Echolalia, presented by Jenny McArthur and Kallo Collective, and Wellington-based Binge Culture Collective with For Your Future Guidance.
Established independent companies such as Catalyst Theatre, We Should Practice, Prayas, Theatre Beating and Elephant Nation also have work on the programme, and Auckland Music Theatre presents the New Zealand premiere of the multi-Tony award winning musical Spring Awakening.
Not surprisingly, Fringe co-director Michael Keating says he doesn't worry about having enough shows for the programme. He says interest from artists and audiences grows each time, but this year more venues mean more opportunities.
"The Basement has two spaces now with the opening of its studio, and Q has Loft and Vault, plus we've been able to work with the K Road Business Association and create a 'hub' up there, while the Pumphouse, in Takapuna, has created a programme. There's also Tapac, which is great for all sorts of shows. It has allowed us to create programmes within the programme."
There are also a small number of shows which are part of the Auckland Pride Festival, notably the cabaret Salon Mika and playwright Victor Rodger's much-talked about Black Faggot. Rodger uses a series of monologues to investigate what it means to be a gay Samoan.
Auckland Fringe Festival
What: Auckland Fringe
Where and when: Venues across Auckland, February 15-March 10By Dionne Christian