Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

It's a dog's life for travelling comics

Amelia Dunbar (left) and Emma Newborn  designed Sons of a Bitch for the remotest corners of NZ, to be staged in woolsheds and rural halls.
Amelia Dunbar (left) and Emma Newborn designed Sons of a Bitch for the remotest corners of NZ, to be staged in woolsheds and rural halls.

Of all the shows from near and far at the NZ International Comedy Festival, there's probably only one that's been performed 50 times, with its two actors clocking up around 9000 kilometres but stepping foot in an actual theatre just once.

Sons of a Bitch was designed for the remotest corners of New Zealand to be staged in woolsheds and rural halls. Its writers/performers Amelia Dunbar and Emma Newborn anticipated attracting around 30 people for each show; instead, they regularly perform in front of up to 200.

"We'll be in a place which you really think is the middle of nowhere and you don't believe there's more than a handful of people around but next thing we know, we've got 130 people and we're having to think about putting on an extra show," says self-confessed JAFA Newborn.

Then again, they should have known it would be this way.

Five years ago, the duo created comedy gold with a show called The Bitches' Box.

It told the tale of Red and Twink, female dogs on heat and revelling in the power of their sexuality but confined to the "bitches' box" of the title. That refers to the kennels female dogs are housed in while they're on heat.

Like Murray Ball's Footrot Flats or comedian John Clarke's Fred Dagg, it celebrated and poked gentle fun at rural New Zealand. Or was it urban dwellers? Either way, the humour worked on multiple levels.

Rather than performing in theatres, they joined singer/songwriter Mel Parsons and travelled to woolsheds including the country's oldest and one where the shearing gang stopped work just an hour before the audience arrived.

Fuelled by positive word-of-mouth, the show made it to the city and was part of the 2013 Auckland Fringe Festival. It even headed to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where The Times newspaper declared, "The Bitches' Box is fall-off-the-chair funny, so brilliantly written and executed that only admiration makes you stop snorting."

Ever since, as Newborn and Dunbar worked on different projects including, for Dunbar, starting a family, there have been questions about when they'd do another show like it.

They answered the call last year with a follow-up, Sons of a Bitch, about two country dogs forced to visit the town vet where they meet a range of equally delightful, deranged and disturbing dogs (all played by Dunbar and Newborn).

"We went deeper into the single joke we were telling, that we are dogs, which meant thinking more and more about the psychology of a dog and the fact that what is joyful to them isn't necessarily as joyful to a human," says Newborn.

Dunbar says it always comes back to taking it to the shows' basic premise, looking at the behavioural traits of different dogs and humanising them.

"And if we laugh, then we think it's good enough to go for it!"

They agree staging a successful follow-up always felt like a big responsibility but rural communities once again welcomed them warmly. More confident with setting up quickly and quietly then letting rip with the humorous interpretations, it also didn't take long to re-adjust to performing on the narrow edge of a shearing shed floor.

Amelia Dunbar and Emma Newborn play our "best friends" in all their canine glory.
Amelia Dunbar and Emma Newborn play our "best friends" in all their canine glory.

"There's been a couple of wobble moments but I haven't fallen down a wool shoot yet," says Newborn, who reckons she's even improved at directing the converted horse float they travel in.

Now they're back in town and keen as mustard to see how city-slickers like the new show. Nevertheless, they reckon they'll continue returning to the countryside to perform.

"There are so many beautiful little community halls, often in the middle of nowhere, that we stop at or drive past and they're not being used in the way they should," says Dunbar.

They point to yesteryear posters, still on the dressing room walls of some halls, for touring theatre and light entertainment groups saying there was obviously once an active touring circuit. Dunbar, who lives an hour west of Christchurch in Windwhistle and grew up on a Canterbury sheep station, says her parents would often clock up the miles driving to see shows.

"There's a real demand, people everywhere love the arts and they love to laugh."

What: NZ International Comedy Festival - Sons of a Bitch
Where & when: Herald Theatre, Tuesday-Saturday

- NZ Herald

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