Alison Quigan first wrote Mum's Choir 14 years ago, back when she was the Artistic Director of Centrepoint Theatre in Palmerston North. Ahead of its opening night at The Court as part of New Zealand Theatre Month, Alison took a moment to look back at her most popular - and personal - play.
What does Mum’s Choir mean to you?
Mum’s Choir is about when my Mother died. Mum was the centre of our family. She had been injured in a car accident and for six weeks she lingered and eventually passed away late on a Thursday night, 23rd August 2001. It was Dad’s birthday. He had died five years before and we always imagined Dad was saying to Mum – “Now now Mary, enough’s enough.”
Mum’s death wasn’t a particularly significant event for anyone else, but for our family it was huge. Now we are orphans, we said. The journey between death and burial was intense. From the moment of her death the work began. The lists. Funeral directors, friends, family, the priest, booking the church, organising transport, accommodation, catering, the service, the script... It was a full scale production, much like a wedding which can take three years to organise, except we had to do it in three days.
14 years on from its original debut in Palmerston North’s Centrepoint Theatre, why do you think Mum’s Choir is still relevant?
It will always be relevant. If we are lucky our parents will die when they are old and have had a good life. But the death is always surreal and powerful. This play is about that unspoken journey that is so often brushed over in other stories. We have the death and then magically the next scene is the graveside. It’s what happens between those two scenes is where the drama is. Laughter, tears, bitterness, and forgiveness. The rollercoaster of letting go of someone who has always been there.
The play is being produced here at The Court as part of New Zealand Theatre Month. Why is New Zealand theatre important to you?
This September is a chance to focus on New Zealand written plays. It isn’t new. From 1993 to 2004 we programmed 80% New Zealand written work at Centrepoint Theatre. That’s when we started to write our own plays because there weren’t enough. But I notice that theatres are doing fewer and fewer New Zealand scripts in the mistaken belief that the plays aren’t as good as the overseas scripts. It’s a great chance to have the conversation about why we do theatre. Who is it for? And how is it different from televison and film? Can we truly be an asset to our community, tell our stories and celebrate our lifestyle if we are simply regurgitating someone else’s culture?
How has your life changed since you first wrote this comedy full of music?
As soon as Mum’s Choir was on stage in 2004 I knew I was leaving Centrepoint Theatre. I thought, that’s it, I’ve done everything I can do here. By the time I finished at the end of the year I had written three plays in 12 months. I was creatively ambushed. So the family and I moved to Auckland and I took on a role at Shortland Street. It was some time before I wrote a play again.
Music brings the O’Reillys together in Mum’s Choir – what inspired the music of this play?
When I was researching the play I visited Laughton Pattrick at his house in Wellington. The room was dominated by a grand piano which he had brought out from England after his OE in the '70s. On the piano was strewn sheet music and every thought he had was accompanied by him scrambling for music sheets and then playing it with great enthusiasm. We decided the music they wanted to sing was what their parents would have played throughout their lives. Molly was piano teacher so there was always music being played. My family didn’t sing much or play an instrument but my cousins did and of course Laughton did. Then when I started to talk to friends; Kate Louise, Jeff Kingsford Brown and they had a love/hate relationship with always being trotted out to sing or play for the visiting relatives.
Laughton also told a great story about when his mother-in-law died and friends would call to pass on their condolences. He immediately asked what range they could sing and made them practice a piece of harmony for a song. Eventually on the day of the funeral the whole congregation sang in perfect harmony.
Are you working on any new theatre projects at the moment?
My latest play is Siana which was workshopped at The Court Theatre in May this year. I loved developing the story and culture of the play and the people in it. My inspiration is always what is happening around me and in Auckland I work in Mangere and am surrounded by Pasifika music and dance so naturally I wanted to weave that into the story.