Julia Croft is a theatre-maker, performer and teacher whose wildly anarchic work has taken her around the world. Croft's latest live performance offering is the comedic and optimistic TERRAPOLIS, which seeks to reimagine a more sustainable way of existing. Q Theatre, April 19-23
I don't come from a particularly arty family but when Mum sent me to a drama workshop one school holidays, it immediately made sense to me. Mum also tells a story about when I was a stroppy, bossy, punchy 4-year-old and she took us to a magic show. When they needed a volunteer, I was so keen to be onstage I literally elbowed all these other kids out of my way as I marched to the front. "I'll be on stage please."
I was intensely passionate about drama from the word go, and along with all the other drama nerds in Christchurch, we thought we were the coolest things out. Initially, I wanted to win an Oscar. Later I thought I'd be in the Royal Shakespeare Company. That is hilarious now, as I'm about as far from Shakespeare as you could get, but it wasn't until after drama school that I discovered different modes of performance.
In the same week, I was dumped and I got paid for the biggest ad of my life. This was the perfect storm and two weeks later I was off to Paris where I did a course with Gaulier, the French clown guru. He often had the women dress up as sex workers. Or the attractive women would get a kiss on the cheek, or a rub on the stomach. He'd sit there, with his little drum and say to the class: "Look at this woman. Is this woman someone you want to f***?' I'm 26, and it didn't feel great but, at the time I accepted it. Today, however, there is no universe where I'd let a tiny little man with a drum make me feel like s***.
The rave scene was huge in Christchurch, and I'd go to all the big drum and bass parties. At the outdoor dance parties in summer, I'd be front and centre with my fire balls, or my white rhythmic gymnastics ribbon that looked so cool under UV light. Back then we'd go out just to go out. Now if I go out, it has to be a birthday or a wedding and even then I'll complain. One minute I'm sticking ecstasy up my bum in the middle of a North Canterbury field, the next I'm dreaming of owning a cordless vacuum cleaner.
My work may seem chaotic and anarchic, but it's also a search for a sense of beauty, or romance in the wider sense of the word. But chaos doesn't just happen, it takes a lot of organisation to be that mad. When I work I need heaps of props, materials, music, masks, plastic guns, whatever. I'm also very particular about who's in the rehearsal room. They have to be people who make me feel safe, so I can revert to being that 4-year-old at the magic show. If I can make the director crack a smile, or laugh, that's when I know I'm on the right track.
I sometimes have these almost out-of-body experiences, wondering how I'll stay afloat. I'm really fortunate to have support from Creative New Zealand, which has offered some level of security. I also direct and I work with students, which I love. Or I work in hospo. I did my first waitressing job at 17, but today I'm too old for the hours and I'm surly as f*** after about 8pm.
My life has been a bit of a mixed bag, what they call a portfolio career, and thanks to Creative NZ I can pay my rent for now without panicking. But I don't know about next year and I struggle with not being able to plan more than six months in advance. What's to say my work doesn't fall out of favour? Or I stop being funded or no one wants to hire me as teacher? Living with the fear of not making a living is very real. I would dearly love to buy a house, but I've never even got to the point of talking to a bank manager.
My mum travelled a lot. She's Dutch and she worked on a kibbutz in Israel where she met a New Zealand guy and they backpacked through Europe, Asia and Australia. When I asked her, "why New Zealand?", I expected her to say that she loved it here but instead she said she didn't want to be in Holland and was sick of travelling. Because Mum talked about her travels, it always felt like something I would do.
I work really hard. I hustle and tour and make things happen. In February 2020 I took up an artistic residency in Porto. I was also booked do a show in London then I was moving to Glasgow. I triumphantly packed. I sold all my stuff and I threw myself a going-away party. I intended to be away a long time, but within a week of arriving in Portugal things started closing. I'm living in an apartment above the theatre, and a week later the theatre closed and Portugal went into lockdown.
I didn't know how long it would last, or what would happen if I got sick somewhere I didn't know anyone, and it was no fun sitting alone in an apartment by myself all day, so I came home one month into a two-month residency. That was heart-breaking because touring Julia is my fave person. She's footloose and fancy-free. She'll always have another beer and she never talks about cordless vacuums but six weeks later I was back, with no stuff, nowhere to live and in lockdown.
On those dark nights of the soul, I like to drink wine and write lists of jobs I should be doing. Sometimes I fantasise about working at Kings Plant Barn. Before lockdown, I could kill a houseplant in days, but I've lent into that cliche of a woman in her 30s and I now have 30 house plants. Or I'd like to ride horses. My best friend moved to Ōtaki near an amazing stables. I visited last year and fell in love with a horse called Tonto. I'd pay $90 to ride Tonto and one day we swum the horses in a river. It was so deep the horses' hooves couldn't touch the ground. Their legs are so strong and they kick really slowly, so it was like being in slow motion. I don't know how I'll earn any money out of this horse fantasy but at that moment, I wanted to move to the country and swim on a horse for the rest of my life.
Whoever says you can't run away from your problems is a liar, because I'm a big believer in running away. The art I make today really came alive when I ran away to New York. I'd reached a point where I was a gigging actor, I'd audition for a role in a TV show that I didn't want, and when I didn't get it I'd be so sad I'd take to my bed for three days. That's when I knew I either had to leave the industry completely or something had to change, so I ran to New York. I saw maybe five shows a week for a whole year and I started to change my idea of what you could put on stage and it blew my mind. All the rules I'd learnt meant nothing, because there are no rules. During the day I worked in a hole in the wall coffee joint in the East Village making flat whites, and at night I'd put on these scratch nights with my friends.
Over six months, I made 10 minutes of material a week. I came home with enough to create If There's Not Dancing At The Revolution I'm Not Coming and it was glorious and naïve. I wasn't creating for a career or a pathway, it was simply to feel the joy of performance. I was also overflowing with feminist rage as well as blind hope and optimism. I feel really sentimental about that time. I look back and I see a before-New-York me and a post-New-York me. I became a different person there, because I felt more myself, more free, than anywhere else in the world.
It's been two years of false starts and being foiled, but it feels amazing to be rolling again, putting on shows. I forgot how much I love theatre. It can be so easy to moan, but to do something in front of an audience, in front of people who are so happy to be seeing a thing, I feel a real renewed love of theatre.