A painter struggling with creative block. A little girl grieving for her grandma. A bold and beautiful celebration of New Zealand's ballroom culture. And one of the country's top comedians unpacking what it means to love.
Those four shows are just a small part of what has been a packed fortnight of events at the Auckland Arts Festival – a fortnight further condensed because of the alert level changes.
But while Covid may have disrupted the festival for a second year running, it has presented the festival the fantastic opportunity to craft a programme like no other, one that showcased the full diversity of New Zealand's artistic community.
It also allowed for experiments, such as The Civic Club. Delayed because of alert level changes, the set-up reversed the layout at the Civic Theatre so the audience was seated on the stage. Being able to stare out in the country's most stunning theatre was a rare and wonderful experience, and the uniqueness of the atmosphere heightened the show in residence, The Tom Sainsbury Love Hour.
The viral sensation turned chat show host for his latest show, quizzing notable Kiwis about their love lives and what's most important in a relationship. It felt a bit like a pilot season for a future TVNZ production, the show not yet striking the right balance between monologue, interview and games, but Sainsbury was as charismatic as always and made for an inquisitive and attentive host.
Forced to share Q Theatre's Rangitira stage because of the alert level changes, The Artist and The Griegol made for a delightful family-friendly double billing, showing how theatre can be accessible and entertaining to all ages through two very different methods.
In The Artist, renowned circus act Thomas Monckton uses a tiny set to unpack every aspect of his painter's creative struggle. Armed with just an easel, a fruit bowl, a ladder and some canvas, Monckton delivered a hysterical performance without uttering a single word. It was surreal and strange but flowed effortlessly through various skits and tricks – and had the packed audience roaring with laughter throughout.
With The Griegol, innovative local company Trick of the Light returned to the festival with their trademark combination of puppets, live music, animation and silhouettes. Here, those elements were brought together to tell the story of a young girl grappling with the loss of her grandma, left with a key that seems to fit no lock, and haunted by the titular monster from her elder's stories.
The various theatrical tricks worked together seamlessly to create an eerie atmosphere that easily draws you in to the little girl's nightmares. While it could have been tighter - even at 50 minutes it dragged because of an abundance of supporting characters – it builds to a beautiful finish that says a lot about grief and love without saying anything at all.
It's hard to tell if this year's festival is an anomaly or the beginning of a new mission statement going forward. There is no questioning the talent international artists can bring to the festival, but this year's focus on local artists has delivered something truly special, and this celebration of our homegrown talent should really be the norm going forward.
That argument was made best by the Legacy Vogue Ball. Bringing together Auckland's main ballroom houses – Aitu, Coven Carangi and Iman – for the first time, this was the largest event of its kind in the country's rapidly growing ballroom community.
Across six categories, dozens walked the runway at Auckland's Town Hall to an enthusiastic crowd, delivering costumes most theatre companies couldn't rival and stunt-filled vogue battles that were mesmerising to watch. While it may have been a competition between the participants, this felt like the festival's pinnacle of creative expression, a true celebration of artistic diversity and queer talent that may not have been possible in festival's past – and the type of event an Auckland arts festival really should be championing going forwards.
• The Auckland Arts Festival continues with visual art displays – visit aaf.co.nz for more details.