Behind the scenes: As the Auckland Arts Festival and New Zealand Festival in Wellington begin, the Herald speaks to some of our leading choreographers and dancers, theatre-makers, playwrights and poets, musicians and singers about what makes them tick and what can we expect to see from them at our biggest arts festivals.

Robin Kelly was running himself ragged.

There was the fulltime job in a cancer diagnostic laboratory; then his music, working on two shows, and running his own theatre company, The Last Tapes, with partner Cherie Moore.

Something had to give so Kelly, then in his early twenties, quit his job as a molecular biologist. Given the same situation, many of us would have opted for the well-paying job with greater security than the notoriously low-paid and precarious life of a freelance musical director and musician.

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"I tried for as long as I possibly could to live a double life, a double life of music and theatre and science," he says. "At one point where I was working a fulltime job and had one production on the road touring and I was musical directing another production in Auckland, I realised that I wasn't doing right by either of them. It was a hard call but I just come alive in the theatre and music."

Two years ago, Kelly found a unique way to combine theatre, music and science when he created the cabaret Valerie. Playing Wellington this week, it is unlike anything seen in New Zealand theatre before and, 18 months after its first shows in 2016, continues to tour.

Soon, Valerie will go to Australia before returning to Auckland for a fundraising season to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. What makes it so special?

Theatre-maker, musician and musical director Robin Kelly started writing Valerie as a tribute to his grandmother. Photo / Dean Purcell
Theatre-maker, musician and musical director Robin Kelly started writing Valerie as a tribute to his grandmother. Photo / Dean Purcell

It's gig-theatre, reaching into the guts of family mythologies with music, storytelling and genetics to unravel a family history of mental illness and catch a glimpse of the future.

During the show, Kelly, Moore and musician Tom Broome sing, play and explore the science of how Kelly may have inherited mental illness.

It started as a tribute to his maternal grandmother, Valerie, who, at 19, fell in love with Kelly's grandfather, Graeme, and his wild bohemian family. In his 30s, Graeme got sick.

He was diagnosed as a manic depressive and paranoid schizophrenic, institutionalised and treated with electroconvulsive — shock — therapy.

Valerie kept the family together but it was a struggle. Once, when she confessed to Graeme's doctor, how much of a struggle it was, the doctor suggested she give ECT a go. Now aged in her 80s, there are still gaps in Valerie's memory as a result.

Kelly wanted to pay tribute to his beloved grandmother whom he knew had held his mother's family together during difficult times.

"It started off as an exploration of her life and the things she has done for our family; the ways in which she has kept our family together during tricky times," he says. "Then the more we delved into that story and really pulled apart the trials that my grandmother and grandfather went through, the more I realised it was actually also about my own mental health and my own struggles in that area.

"It became a little bit of a callback to Valerie and a way of saying thank-you to her for teaching us to deal with trials and tribulations."

Kelly has long experienced bouts of depression and anxiety. Crediting his own creativity, in part, to his grandparents, he began to wonder whether he had inherited some of his grandfather's more challenging traits.

"I've done a lot of genetics training so, of course, I've thought about what's inherited and what's passed on," he told the Herald during Valerie's first season. "I've thought about whether I'm a 'healthy individual' or, like Graeme, 'a diseased individual' and how those definitions are arrived at and who gets to decide.

"We have such a limited understanding of how those conditions work, how to treat them — whether they even need treatment — and what it means for our relationship with reality. I've been thinking about those things for a couple of years, especially as I get older and start to think about having children of my own and what I might pass on ... "

Robin Kelly (centre) and (clockwise from left) Tom Broome, Benjamin Henson and Cherie Moore tell a story inspired by Kelly's grandmother, Valerie.
Robin Kelly (centre) and (clockwise from left) Tom Broome, Benjamin Henson and Cherie Moore tell a story inspired by Kelly's grandmother, Valerie.

The decision to make music a strong element of Valerie was a given; Kelly wrote his own songs and the tale of his family was taken to the stage featuring Moore and Broome up there with him and friends Benjamin Henson and Kate Prior behind the scenes.

"Music is the place where I feel the most comfortable," says Kelly. "I sit behind a keyboard most of my life so in order to tell this really quite confronting and vulnerable story, we made a situation — a scenario — where we were all the most comfortable and really expressing ourselves in the way we know best."

He acknowledges there were times when he deeply afraid of making such a personal story about his own family but confirmation Valerie was a story that touched audiences came quickly.

"I think the beauty and quite unexpected joy in doing this show, quite a few times now, has been finding just how universal the things I'm talking about are," says Kelly. "Instead of thinking about what type of person who responds to it, I just look at the people who are in the audience and try to connect with them on a really individual level.

"There's been 80-year-old grandmothers in the audience and the young teens and just a whole raft of people who will often come up to us after the show and say, 'this has made me think about my life in this way' or 'my family is so like this in these ways' and they have their own personal story to share.

"It means it will appeal to anyone who has had a family that has undergone some hardship or understands that kind of struggle and, particularly, anyone — and this is why I think it's so universal — anyone or everyone who has that character or figure in their family or in their life who has had to step up and be strong and hold a family together and when I talk about Valerie, I think a lot of people really see that person in their life."

A bit about Valerie: Named the stand-out cabaret of 2016 by Herald theatre reviewer Janet McAllister, Valerie is gig-theatre at its finest. Nature versus nurture: did Nurture pull the trigger in my grandfather's case? In Valerie's case? Or did Nature pull the trigger long ago and we're all just waiting to feel the bullet?" Valerie plays at the NZ Festival Club on Wednesday, March 7 and Thursday, March 8.