Co-founder of the innovative theatre company Nightsong, director Ben Crowder is renowned for creating bold live performances. Nightsong's latest production, A Stab in the Dark, will be delivered as an online presentation as part of Te Ahurei Toi o Tāmaki, Auckland Arts Festival, on Friday, March 11, at 8pm, with replay access until 11.59pm on Sunday, March 13. www.aaf.co.nz
I was born and raised on the Isle of Wight. My father had been working for The New Zealand Shipping Company and on his last voyage he met my mother and brought home a bride. The Isle of Wight is said to have the most hours of sunshine anywhere in the UK, which makes you feel a bit sad for the rest of the country. It's also famed for its three prisons and huge music festival. The Beatles were said to have stayed in the house that we lived in from when I was 10, although I never found George's name scraped into my floorboards.
Sailing is big on the Isle of Wight and I used to pull up lobster pots from my dinghy. At 15 I became a sailing instructor, teaching the local younger kids, but I wasn't very skilled. I'd ask them to tie their knots at home and show me in the morning because I wasn't sure how to tie the knots myself.
Every four or five years we'd spend six months in New Zealand, which was a major enterprise. Dad would save up leave, and I'd go to school in Dunsandel with my cousins who were all farmers' kids. I used to wear my school uniform from England so I was an outsider here, the English kid, and I'd fly the Kiwi kid flag when back in the UK. I never quite fitted in wherever I was, but I've always had lots of friends.
At 16 I was sent to boarding school in Christchurch. Until then, I'd been to a very liberal co-ed school, so going to a much larger school and arriving alone in mid-winter, I felt I'd been sent to the colonies. At Gatwick, I told my parents they were ruining my life. They'd always intended to return to New Zealand, although they hadn't articulated that as we would do with children now. But they felt, if they didn't maroon us in New Zealand by our mid-teens, we'd never move back with them and the family would be split. From being able to hear the sea while lying in bed, to being the only non-farmer in the dormitory, that was a big change.
On the Isle of Wight, Mum was a nurse who became a health visitor, visiting elderly locals on a bike in several local villages and my father was a ship's pilot. I remember being taken aboard a steam paddle ship, and him being helicoptered onto nuclear submarines to get them into port. Then Margaret Thatcher came in, and she wanted to restructure the pilots' monopoly. Their guild had been set up by Henry VIII, which didn't appeal to Maggie and, because it was dangerous work, if a pilot died his family was looked after for life. Workers also got a lot of time off, which allowed Dad to develop other interests and he became a bit of an art dealer. He'd buy things in auctions in New Zealand or London and carry a couple of artworks in his suitcase to sell in either place. When I arrived in Melbourne to go to the John Bolton Theatre School, I had an Australian painting under my arm, a rural scene by Hoyte. I'd found it at Antiques Alley on Dominion Rd and I sold it to pay some of my fees.
I had a romanticised view of farm life from those summer visits and as a child, I wanted to be a farmer, but deeper inside I knew I wanted to be actor, but I couldn't voice that. I only did one play at school, then I went to Otago where I decided there was no point choosing to dislike the country I lived in, so I embraced Otago with full abandon. In my first year, I saw an audition notice in the Clubs and Societies building. I didn't tell anyone I was going, I just rocked up and got the role. I know now that was a stroke of good luck as I could just as easily not have got it. Over three years at Otago, I was in about 30 shows.
Boarding school was certainly not an environment to admit being gay. Gay was an insult, a thing to be bullied for and a terrifying thing to be accused of. Even at university there were probably only one or two, which meant role models were few and far between so coming out wasn't something I did straight away and I did everything I could not to be gay.
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I had some amazing girlfriends, and I loved being in those relationships but acknowledging who I was was a slow process. I didn't tell my family till I'd fallen in love. My father responded exactly as I thought he would, and wasn't fazed at all. Not only did he have no problem with it, he applauded it. The greatest thing he passed on to me, was his attitude of not giving a f*** what anyone thought. My mother was more conservative, and she found it harder. I suspect she was worried for me and what people thought. She'd been brought up in Canterbury and success to her meant being a doctor, getting married and having kids.
The world has changed a lot in the past 30 years. For many years, if I turned up with a partner, they'd be introduced as Ben's "friend" - not that any of mum's friends cared – but when I had a child, that was liberating for Mum because everyone was thrilled. I'd never really conformed but having a child was the closest I'd come to conforming and it was as good as if I'd become a doctor and had the wife, the kids and the house.
My father has dementia. I find it painful, as does my family, but I don't find it painful for him. He has withdrawn from the world but he still has flashes of his former self, suddenly singing little ditties or making jokes. I know it's not important that people sing, or tell jokes but it's lovely to see flashes of who he was. This charming charismatic slightly naughty person. It's also a relief he never felt challenged or anxious as he started to deteriorate and could still talk about it.
We were sitting on the balcony in the Marlborough Sounds, trying to do one of those living wills. I was asking questions about burial or cremation while he could still answer. One question was about regrets, if there was anything that needed to be set right or sorted out. He said: "I can tell you, I'm sitting here, looking out to sea, with my dog by my side and I don't have a care in the world." And I thought what a great way to be. I took him back to the Sounds a few times before Mum sold, and he'd say: What a great place this is. I could live here." There was no point explaining how he found that land with the astonishing views, or how he built the house. There is so much history that doesn't exist for him anymore, but the fact he could sit there and enjoy it was both sad and beautiful.
Nightsong has had a few ups and downs over the years, so Covid doesn't seem as big as some of the other problems we've faced. Working in theatre requires a certain devil-may-care madness and we are resilient. Moving this show online feels optimistic and an exciting way to move forward. Many organisations in our industry have suffered so much heartbreak. We're all tired, the cast and crew, with cortisol pumping through our bodies as we count down the days but the energy in the room is positive. We also worry about what happens if one of us gets sick over the next few weeks. We'll all be devastated if we can't go on, but the arts is always a gamble, and this is just one more round of Covid roulette.