Michele Hewitson Interview: Alison Quigan

By Michele Hewitson

An actor who likes to be 'almost invisible', a producer, director, theatre manager and marketer - this unassuming woman has done it all

Alison Quigan has been called a 'little-known power house of influence'. Photo / Greg Bowker
Alison Quigan has been called a 'little-known power house of influence'. Photo / Greg Bowker

If the actor Alison Quigan is perhaps not as well-known as she might have been - except, I bet in Palmerston North - given her long career, she's certainly not fussed.

She belongs to that old school of actors who believe the role of the actor to be "almost invisible". This is a very out-of-date sort of notion, you'd think. Acting now seems to be as much about fame and profile and marketing as it is about acting.

She, as it happens, is pretty good at marketing, having been the artistic director of Centrepoint theatre in Palmerston North - where she was "born and bred" - for 18 years. She was raised a Catholic but gave up going to church because she was put off by being preached at for not having been. If she'd been giving the sermon, she'd have welcomed her new audience: "Turned those oncers into lifers!" She would too! "Hell, yes! I remember people's names. I know how to talk to them. I went to their Probus clubs and their lunch clubs. People like Probus book in lumps! That's what we want, always."

She does still believe in God. What sort of God does she believe in? "A nice one!"

So, she could sell God, and she did sell her theatre. She's not quite so good at talking up herself. Off a stage or a set, she says, and in photographs, she is "the nervy person on the sides". Like many actors, actually, she is the quiet observer in a family of extroverts; in her case she is number four child in that Catholic family of six.

She has been an actor since 1979. If she was a famous actor she might turn up her nose at going and talking to lunch groups. But it's not likely. She has after all been on Shortland Street, where she played the sticky-beaked hospital receptionist, Yvonne Jeffries, for seven years. That's about as famous as an actor gets in this country but of course she was already a woman actor over the age of 40 (she is now 60) and so was saved from any of the silliness that can go to the heads of young things in the business. How famous did Yvonne make her? "You'd be surprised how many people say: 'Oh, you played Marg on Shortland Street."' (Marg was the soap's first receptionist, played by Elizabeth McRae, a good friend of hers and whom she was trained by as a young actor. A little story which says quite a lot about the little world of acting in New Zealand.)

She is a practical person, and a practical, no-nonsense actor. She says that what acting is, is "doing something in a room", which, if you and the audience is lucky, delivers joy.

She has also directed "oh, hundreds" of plays and was once called a "benign dictator", by a cleaner. She claims not to know what this meant but while she was entirely benign with me, I could glimpse a resolve in her pale blue eyes. She also sits up very straight and has wonderful posture supported, I'd say, by a spine of steel. She would, I should think, be very good at talking people into doing things they might not particularly want to do - and making them believe it was all their own idea. In other words, she's a good director and if that makes her a benign dictator, well, she wouldn't be the first good director to be so described.

She thinks the best sorts of actors are what she calls the "no mess Charlies". She once did a stint on Hercules during which a young female actor from Canada arrived and took up residence in her trailer. "She wanted music; she wanted incense. And it was in the middle of Henderson at five o'clock in the f***ing morning! And she wanted Barry White!" Barry White! "She was doing a sex scene." She wouldn't tell me the actor's name. She said, grandly, and quite right too: "Oh, I don't even remember her name." She would never be so high maintenance. "I know that that person isn't concentrating on what they're doing."

There is no room, or budget, for high maintenance actors in a provincial theatre. There's no budget, often, for actors. At Centrepoint she was the boss (at some theatres, the boss is the general manager but she was that too, by another name); she sometimes wrote, directed, produced, interfered in the lighting, left backstage when she wasn't on to check the box office. And she acted. "Yeah, I was the cheapest middle-aged actress around."

She kept this up for all of these years wearing, she now says, too many hats, until Shortland Street called. That gave her a chance to act fulltime, which she loved because "the real advantage is that when you work every day, you just get better at what you do. When you're working [she means acting; she has always worked every day] in fits and starts, you've got time for the terror to build up." The terror is: "Being found out." And it never goes away? "No. I mean: 'I'm sorry love, but what are you doing here?' or, 'have you done this before?' I remember my first couple of days on Shortland Street, somebody said to me, very kindly: 'Have you done this before?' Yes!" Who on earth said that to her? "I don't know. Some fool!"

She said she used to think she had to be able to locate at least a small part of the character she was playing within herself in order to play it. She left Shortland Street, and Yvonne, in 2010. The family storyline (there were three daughters, including Maia, the lesbian nurse) had run out of puff. You could say that! "The family had done everything. We had affairs with everybody! There was no on left in town! Ha, ha." How many affairs did she have? "I think I had two. No, three. Four! And there was a husband." Right, so what did she find of herself in Yvonne? "Oh, the body! And the voice. "Not, presumably, the affairs? "Er, no." She was fond of Yvonne, her best-known role, obviously, but also frustrated by her. "She was very interfering." She told me a "trade secret". It is that Yvonne was a baker, "but I'm a much better baker. Hers was store bought! I can tell you now."

That is about as gossipy as she got, with me anyway. She was most certainly not going to tell me anything more about her private life (it's mostly work, I imagine) beyond that she was married for 27 years and separated a couple of years ago and that she and her ex are friendly and the parting was amicable. She wasn't planning on obtaining another husband, she said, giving me the sort of look she might well have given the cleaner had the loo not been scrubbed to within an inch of its life, when I asked.

She must have a contact book a gossip columnist would go dizzy over. The publicist said: "She really is a little-known powerhouse of influence." The powerhouse was much amused, and not a little bemused, by that. She snorted and said: "She's hoping! I'm just a jobbing actor and director."

She is that, certainly, but she's also a lot more than that.

Why have I come to see her? It certainly wasn't her idea; or mine, actually.

Her mate Mark Hadlow suggested, through the publicist, that I might talk to her. Serve her right. She's talked (or benignly dictated) him into appearing in a one-off production that she is co-ordinating (or benignly dictating) called Mary's Christmas Yarn, in which Hadlow will play an aunty. It is the story of a little girl who is drawing up her Christmas list and wants an iPad and red shoes and whose aunty suggests a sheep.

The little girl lives on a farm, so what would she want with a sheep? To give to a poor family, in Vietnam. This all started life as a fund-raiser book for ChildFund New Zealand, for which she is an ambassador, in which different chapters were written by Jim Mora, Quigan, Jaquie Brown, Carol Hirschfeld, Danielle Cormack and other kindly sorts. The project has now grown: A scriptwriting competition was held, and subsequently won by a team of six girls from Bohally Intermediate School in Blenheim. They must have been excited. "A bit! They were very loud! But they were gorgeous."

The prize was a professional production: "Because I want to encourage young people to think of script writing as a career choice."

Out came the contact book. George Henare, Annie Whittle, Laura Hill, Andrew Laing, Harry McNaughton, Rachel Nash and her actor daughter, Sarah Graham have had their arms twisted. Benignly, of course.

George Henare, she said, mock-swooning, said: "Anything for you."

Having met her, I know exactly how he felt.


Theatre

What: Mary's Christmas Yarn

Where: St Matthew in the City

When: Monday, 3 December at 7pm

www.ticketdirect.co.nz or call 0800 224 224

- NZ Herald

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