New York, New York

By Owen Scott

Morgana O'Reilly is taking her living room show to New York's fringe festival. Photo / Babiche Martens
Morgana O'Reilly is taking her living room show to New York's fringe festival. Photo / Babiche Martens

Morgana O'Reilly is the personification of adventure. It's in her eyes, her laugh, the way she walks and talks. She goes from zero to 100 and back in a blink.

She's also inventive - something that comes naturally to an actor. But, right now, she is having to be inventive in a different, more resourceful way - to get herself to New York. She's just been invited to perform at the New York Fringe Festival in August.

Since she graduated from Unitec three years ago, O'Reilly's career has been almost parabolic - no surprise to anyone who has met her. But talented though she is, funding is now the challenge.

"When I first heard I had been accepted, all cogs went into fundraising grind." This is where the resourcefulness of the adventurer comes into play. She has started what she calls the "Living Room Tours".

"It's hard to get people to theatres, so I'll come to you instead. I really like taking theatre out of the theatre."

What O'Reilly is transplanting into people's living rooms is her one-woman show, The Height of the Eiffel Tower - a 40-minute play she will be performing in New York.

"It's hugely portable - it requires one chair, 1 sq m of space and, literally, house lights." She will perform to an audience of six or more at anyone's home for a koha.

The play is about Terri Hulme - a typical Kiwi mother of four - and her family.

"It's a mother's story so it translates internationally." A tragi-comedy with laugh-out-loud moments, it centres on a coffee date between Terri and an old university friend she hasn't seen for 30 years. She gets a glimpse of what her life has become - not necessarily what she wanted to be.

"Sounds like a drama," laughs O'Reilly, "but it's really quite funny."

She wrote the skeleton by herself on a cold rainy weekend at her family's bach at Waihi Beach.

"As I was folding the towels, Terri's voice just came out." O'Reilly then approached good friend Abigail Greenwood to act as dramaturge and direct. Jointly they devised and workshopped the play until it was honed and ready.

In 2009, The Height of the Eiffel Tower premiered in a moving double bill - mother and daughter performed together for the very first time. Mary Jane O'Reilly, of Limbs fame, danced a new solo piece on stage for the first time in several years, followed by her daughter performing her newly devised one-woman show. It was a triumph. The audience response was ecstatic.

As well as Terri, O'Reilly plays her pregnant 16-year-old daughter; her awkward, fish-obsessed 13-year-old son; and Katie, the eldest, caught up in crazy situations in London and Paris.

"Whenever I perform it I get people saying to me, 'that's my mother, or I went to school with that girl, or I used to be that girl'.

"It's amazing what it brings out in people."

O'Reilly is adept at playing different characters. In 2007, straight out of Unitec, she was cast in Silo Theatre's Ensemble Project - two plays, one directed by Michael Hurst and the other by Oliver Driver. Then she went straight into Toa Fraser's Bare.

"At one stage I was rehearsing Bare during the day and doing two different plays at night. I had 20 different characters in my head."

FRINGE FESTIVALS

The chance to perform in New York came about through the suggestion of a friend. "I started looking at fringe festivals and immediately thought of New York because it's my favourite city." With three days to the cut-off point, she quickly threw together an application, thinking she didn't have much of a chance. Luckily, what she did have was a promo video on YouTube.

"My pitch was Kath and Kim meets Flight of the Conchords. Two months later the letter of acceptance arrived.

It will not be O'Reilly's first time in the Big Apple. In 2009 she did her OE.

"Eight months, 17 countries, five continents. I felt I was away for eight years not eight months. The trip was a wonderful glimpse of humanity. I got to realise people are pretty much the same everywhere, with the same instincts, wants and needs."

O'Reilly was in New York the longest. She arrived with $40 to her name, a ticket on to London, but no ticket home. She had to be a quite imaginative to keep herself afloat.

But nothing daunts this young woman and New York really got under her skin.

"It felt like it was everywhere I had been, all bundled into one. It's a city that can chase you away. But I was determined to be fed by it, not eaten by it."

O'Reilly performed her play in several cities.

"I did koha performances in London, and one in an apartment on the outskirts of Paris for students from the Gaulier Theatre School. After the performance, two Australians sang Crowded House's Better Be Home Soon; all the Kiwis and Australians were singing their hearts out."

She also performed in Amsterdam, as a thank you for staying in someone's apartment, and finally paid for her keep in New York in similar dramatic fashion.

Now O'Reilly is excited at the chance to return.

"I love the raw energy that comes out of that city, everyone has something to say."

She remembers walking towards the Brooklyn Bridge one day and an old black man coming up and touching the Te Moko tattoo at the top of her spine. "You got a tattoo right dere? Damn girl! And it's hot today, my head is burnin! Now y'all have a nice day."

When O'Reilly returned home she says she had to pull herself back. "That New York bolshiness doesn't go down well in NZ. We're more reserved. But it's nice to be able to go back there with my art to share."

* The New York Fringe Festival runs from 13-22 August. Morgan's promo video for her one-woman show The Height of the Eiffel Tower can be found on YouTube - here or search Morgana O'Reilly/Abigail Greenwood). For a living room show, email yourtheatre@gmail.com with your name, phone number and preferred performance date.

- NZ Herald

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