Like most children would have done, Alex Ellis all but ignored the stranger who visited her childhood home to talk with her parents about a long-dead relative. Was there really anything that her great-great-great-grandmother did that might be of interest?

Yes, it turns out.

Ellis now knows the visitor was an academic studying Ellen Ellis who, in 1883, as New Zealand women stepped up their efforts to win the right to vote, did something remarkable — even radical — for a married mother of three (two sons already deceased) in 19th century NZ.

She published Everything is Possible to Will, a feminist novel in which she highlighted the impact on families of poor education for girls, the breadwinner's alcoholism and the lack of legal rights for women. Even more controversially, she argued for the necessity of birth control through abstinence.


Now, 135 years after her book was published, Ellis' story forms one of those in a new play written by Alex Ellis and her partner, Phil Ormsby. Conversations with Dead Relatives, the ninth play produced by the couple's Flaxworks Theatre, is their most personal yet because it mines their own histories.

They've performed it once as part of a plays-in-development season at Melbourne's La Mama Theatre and the reception was encouraging, with many in the audience stopping to share stories from their own families.

As Ormsby says, every family has epic and incredible stories passed down — sometimes through generations — about rogue relatives or famous-in-their-lifetime preachers and visionaries, warriors and princesses.

His surname is a Viking one; chances are a Viking raider who washed up on the shores of Scotland is perched on a branch of his family tree. Ormsby knows there's certainly a smooth-talking Maori boy who dodged a kidnapping attempt by Te Rauparaha — or something like that.

But Conversations with Dead Relatives isn't just a campfire-style exchange where the duo tell mildly amusing or interesting family stories. The more intriguing intent is to consider what we inherit from our ancestors — is it just eye colour, possible adverse medical conditions and a dislike of, say, mushrooms or does it extend to the less tangible like a love for horses or musical ability or the knack of spinning a good yarn?

"If you can inherit a propensity toward cancer, then why not a love of theatre or writing? I think there's still a whole lot more to discover about genetics and inheritance," Ormsby says.

And that leads on to another, possibly more esoteric, part of the question. What are our obligations to our ancestors? Is it enough that we tell their stories and what happens to those histories when we're the last in the line?

The Basement Tapes is an eerie mystery.
The Basement Tapes is an eerie mystery.

Dead relatives are also on the minds of the team behind The Basement Tapes, an altogether more eerie affair which starts with a young woman clearing out her deceased grandmother's house.


When she discovers recordings made by her grandmother, secrets are confessed and memories become confused. Is the grandmother a reliable narrator or should we believe the girl telling the story? What's really going on here?

Already an award-winner at the 2017 NZ and Melbourne Fringe Festivals, The Basement Tapes was inspired by a real-life experience. Both performer Stella Reid and director Jane Yonge have helped pack up family homes and Reid even discovered tapes her grandmother had made but they're quick to say the similarities end there.

It got them thinking, though, about the things we leave behind and the almost unfairness that possessions outlast us. A loved one, if we're lucky, must then go through and decide what to keep and what to jettison while feeling the presence, and the absence, of the person these goods once belonged to.

"You find scrunched up tissues in the pockets of jackets or you're left with the dilemma of what to do with the heirloom china," says Yonge. "The person isn't there, so you can't ask about why they bought such and such a thing or whether something else had a story or memory behind it."

Reid says nearly all of us has lost someone and can connect with the idea of having to pack them up and put them away. When she learned her grandmother made tapes, she wondered why she did so in the basement and what it said, if anything, about her need, as a mother of six, for some sort of creative outlet.

Audio and mixed media plays a big role in The Basement Tapes; Yonge says it was partly inspired by podcasts and a quote from Canadian theatre-maker Robert Lepage that radio is the most visual medium.

"When you listen to something, it allows you to use your own imagination, your own memories, to visualise and to perhaps be taken back to somewhere else."


What: The Basement Tapes
Where & when: Basement Theatre, until Saturday
What: Conversations with Dead Relatives
Where & when: Basement Theatre, Tuesday, April 3 — Saturday, April 7