Puppetry and shadow show coming to New Plymouth

The Road That Wasn’t There has been on stage around the world. Now the hit New Zealand show is coming to New Plymouth this weekend. Taranaki Community News caught up with playwright and actor Ralph McCubbin Howell to find out more about this magical tale.

The Road That Wasn’t There has had rave reviews and it’s picked up some very impressive awards. For those who don’t know, what’s it about?
The story is centred on the idea of paper roads – roads that were put down on paper but never built in the real world. We’ve got around 56,000km of them in Aotearoa, and they’ve always struck me as somewhat uncanny – these everyday things that are at once there and not there. In our story, a young woman follows a paper road on a map and finds herself in a paper world.

The trailer for The Road That Wasn’t There

You wrote this play and it premiered in Edinburgh in 2012. How did you come up with the idea for The Road That Wasn’t There?
My partner Hannah (who directs the show) and I had been living in the UK and wanted to take a show up to the Edinburgh Fringe. I think we were both feeling a bit homesick so we came up with a story that plays out in the landscape of Central Otago and is deeply rooted in New Zealand folklore.

Hannah’s dad had a house in St Bathans –  a tiny town that’s home to the country’s most haunted pub, in a landscape that still shows the scars of a gold-mining heyday gone by. It’s perched on the side of a lake that used to be a hill – the minerals they exposed when they mined it give the water an unearthly blue colour. It’s a place that seems to lend itself to a fantastical story.

Puppetry is an artform you don’t see a lot of these days. When did you learn puppetry and why do you use it in shows?
It was partly borne out of necessity. We first made the show on a shoe-string budget, and puppets are cheaper than actors. We also liked the connection between the form and content – in a story about paper roads, the puppets are made out of papier mache.

With these puppets we learnt on the job, and we’re still finding new things they can do, but I’ve since worked as a puppeteer in a few different shows (Puppet Fiction, Peter and the Wolf) which has given me the chance to learn from other puppeteers and try different styles of puppetry.

Your shows are inventive, playful and have been described as magical. Where did this style come from and how do Trick of Light audience’s react to it?
Hannah and I both came through Victoria University, as did a number of our collaborators, and the department there really instilled in us a good Poor Theatre sensibility.

By its nature, this calls for inventiveness, and we’ve found that working within limitations leads to our making more original and interesting work than we would if we were spoilt for choice. We’re also both perfectionists, so even now we’re still honing the show and playing to find better ways of doing it.

Our stories are often about magic happening in the real world – magic that’s rooted in mud and tussock and everyday life. It’s often a dark magic too, and in cross-over shows like this one (which is aimed at both adults and older children), we’ve found it speaks across generations – the kids give adults licence to go with the magic, and the adults allow the kids to stick with it when it gets dark and unsettling.

What’s your favourite thing about being a playwright and an actor? And what about the most challenging?
I get to tell the kind of stories that I want to see onstage rather than wait and hope that they turn up. We never expected to make a living from our art, and it’s allowed us to travel the country and the world. There are aspects of this that we love – visiting new places, and being part of this nomadic theatre community and reconnecting in far-flung places. It’s challenging to be on the move all the time, and live out of a suitcase, but I wouldn’t change it.

Ralph McCubbin Howell bio
Ralph was a member of the NZ Young Shakespeare Company and completed a BA Hons in English Literature and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington before training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in the UK.

Outside of Trick of the Light he has performed with Three Spoon Theatre, The Playground Collective, My Accomplice and the The Court Theatre, and written for the Young and Hungry Festival in Wellington and Auckland. In 2014 he received the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award.

  • You can learn more about Ralph and the Trick of The Light Theatre company by visiting their website.