Alice Canton is an actor, writer and director who creates under the pseudonym White_mess. Canton can be seen in Silo Theatre's latest production, Break Bread, which blends theatre and cinema using significant historic events as a catalyst. Unfolding as a contemporary live-stream experience, Break Bread is theatre to experience at home. Ticketed and available worldwide now till December 19, streaming at 7.30pm and 8.30pm daily, and at 4pm on Sundays (NZT).
As children, living in Greymouth on the West Coast, we were encouraged to be creative. We were raised with opera and ballet, art and music, the full canon of beautiful cultural things. But I didn't imagine being a performer, even though I did do ballet and piano. Mum used to make us dress up and perform at rest homes, which was more a form of community service than entertainment, although I can't say I enjoyed it that much.
I didn't come from an artistic family, we were more a family of farmers, then Dad trained as a secondary school teacher before retraining as a social worker. That's why we moved to Greymouth, because Dad worked for the Department of Social Welfare, as it was called back then. As children, we were aware of Dad helping people who were living in bad situations, and that gave us an insight into families and communities that were broken from the inside.
We were relentlessly bullied when we lived in Greymouth, because we were like aliens, multicultural children into ballet and opera. My parents were aware of it. They had an acute sense of that vitriol, and they knew it wasn't a good place for raising their children so we went to Christchurch to go to school. Were we bullied because we looked different? Or we behaved differently? I'd say it was probably a combination of those two things, but back in the 80s and 90s the racism was very bad and we always felt like outsiders.
It's so embarrassing but when I was young I wanted to be a politician – I was really into policy and public speaking. My family would say that: "Alice grew up saying Alice wanted to do it all." When I finished high school, in the yearbook where you say what you want to be, I wrote an exhaustive list and made them print the whole thing. But I think what I meant was, I was interested in being a change-maker. My dad had strong socialist leanings and we grew up with Labour pulsing through our veins. Maybe that's why I wanted to be a politician, because I had an overwhelming desire to change the world, and I thought that's how you did it. But I was also quite funny and a bit of a clown so I guess the MP thing makes sense, doesn't it?
I started working with the improv group The Court Jesters when I was in high school. I also did the kids' shows at The Court Theatre, corporate gigs and Scared Scriptless on Friday and Saturday nights. At university, I studied sculpture at the School of Fine Arts at Canterbury. It started as a double degree, a bachelor of music and a bachelor of fine arts, with a view to possibly combining composition with sculpture. It was highly conceptional, the joke being I spent four years at art school without making a single thing. My practice was more performative and ephemeral, but I had no intention of doing theatre, although I did one theatre paper and thought it was boring. Maybe I wanted to be an artist because I love going to parties and opening nights with free wine.
I worked for The Court Jesters all through university and when I finished my degree I went full-time into freelancing as an actor, although I didn't call myself an actor until I went to Toi Whakaari, the New Zealand Drama School. I did the acting degree there because, being at The Court and seeing the incredible actors come through, I knew I was never going to be able to do anything other than kids' shows or walk-on roles if I didn't train. The earnest part of me also wondered what it would take to see myself reflected on stage in a meaningful way and, at that time, I thought training was the answer to making that happen.
Throughout my early career, I taught at schools and facilitated training. I always enjoyed that and I took any opportunity to share my skills, including taking them to workplaces, community groups, correctional facilities - because I've always had a strong desire to make things with a social good. Dad's work probably influenced my strong desire for justice and equity – whatever that means - and living a conscious life is a really central pillar to my work.
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I believe in the transformative power of theatre. If I'm being cynical, I'd say theatre changes nothing and maybe I should go back to thinking about being a politician. But on a good day, I'd say that theatre can enable people to hear and see things through a different lens and now, because people have access to so many different lenses, we have to work harder to ensure we are championing stories that deserve to be told. Because some people are over-represented on stage and screen, and those who are under-represented are bursting to tell their stories.
One of the things I've been doing over the last five or six years is live documentary theatre, which takes the principles of documentary making, working with real people and real events and re-presenting them through live performance. This means non-actors are able to explore their lives without the premise of needing to be performed. We take it for granted that we can walk on stage and play a character, but it is more profound to walk on to a literal platform and simply be ourselves, particularly for those who are not typically given space to share their stories or be seen.
Up until last year, I was splitting my time between Australia and Auckland. I was in Melbourne during the fires and there was this deep sense of collective trauma. Then we all forgot the fires because a bigger trauma came along and trumped them. That's been the case with so many things - pandemics, bombings and wars - because they're just piling up on each other, we're becoming desensitised to trauma. We're living in a trough of true evil, and we've got colonialism and capitalism to thank for that. I think it's going to get worse before it gets better. I don't mean that in a horrible foreboding way, but I do know there is an important role for artists to play, because people seek truth in moments of crisis and we often look for a song or a poem or a film to get us through. Art can be a salve and a way to cope. That is also why artists need to be bolder about what we are saying because we have really powerful voices, but we can often take that for granted.