The play's the thing

Michele A’Court’s childhood repertoire included scenes from Shakespeare, Chekhov and a role as a little footman. The stand-up comedian and actress is more likely to be performing her own work…

Michele A’Court’s childhood repertoire included scenes from Shakespeare, Chekhov and a role as a little footman. The stand-up comedian and actress is more likely to be performing her own work these days, but says nonetheless, theatre has always been her passion.

She attended Levin North Primary School, from which her strongest memories are of performing in plays at lunchtime ­– which gave her her big break as a character called the Smallest Footman. A’Court can’t remember the name of that senior-school production, but knows the play was taken off-site and staged at Levin’s Little Theatre.

The Smallest Footman, a cameo role, had just one line to deliver: Why has His Majesty got his foot wrapped up in a duster? “The audience laughed,” she recalls. “I was from that moment hooked on comedy.”

In the family

A’Court says she was fortunate both in being given chances to perform throughout her formal education, and in having a family that normalised and encouraged her love of performing.

“I had a very funny maternal grandmother and great-uncle. My great-uncle was a storyteller and my grandmother was very quick-witted, and so we were always making jokes. My mother was an actor and did some tutoring of primary school drama, so theatre was normal.

“It was what you did, as far as I was concerned. Not as far as my town was concerned, but that’s what you did in my family.”

In Levin schools in the 1960s and 1970s, she says, drama was regarded as a bit of an eccentric extracurricular activity, compared to sport, and that attitude still holds in some quarters.

“People think of it as an add-on or a frilly bit because it’s so much like play, and we don’t value play as much as we should. I don’t think people quite understand or can easily quantify how important play is, and creativity is, to everything else we do.

“I think it’s been invaluable for making me able to deal with ideas” like writing a weekly newspaper column, and writing stand-up comedy.”

At intermediate

A’Court says she always found educators who were passionate about theatre and would support her activities.

At Levin Intermediate, regular lunchtime concerts were held in the school hall.

“The cool kids did interpretive dance. I did scenes from plays. That is also where I started doing social activist stuff” I organised a ‘Starve In’ to raise money for Save the Children.”

She recalls with affection “the bunch of crazy left-wing teachers who seemed to populate the staff and who said ‘yes’ to any project I came up with”.

Helping kids realise dreams

Later, a teacher named Tony Marsh continued the trend of sheltering and encouraging drama kids such as Michele. In Marsh’s case, she says, the shelter was literal.

“One of the things he did was to ask the school to turn one of the science labs into a beautiful drama space. It was a really lovely room with carpet, and curtains that could black out the room, and you could do a performance there.”

As motivator-in-chief, Mr Marsh was also willing to play taxi-driver to help the pupils realise their drama dreams. When Michele and a classmate entered an excerpt from Chekhov’s The Bear in the Manawatu Theatre Federation Cup, they topped their age group and were asked to perform it at the adult level.

“It was really exciting, and it had proper costuming and props and stuff. We had to do it for maybe three nights in a row, so lovely Tony Marsh would put us in his car and drive us to Palmerston North, which was maybe 45 minutes away, every night for three nights so we could perform at the Regent Theatre.”

Handle with care

Having now raised a daughter herself, A’Court believes teachers and parents share a responsibility that is at once challenging and simple.

“I reckon the most important thing that a teacher can do, and a parent can do, is not crush their spirit. It’s about nurturing what’s already there, because the beautiful thing about being young is that you don’t know enough about the world to know there is stuff that’s impossible.

“About the only thing I miss about being young is that you don’t know how hard, or close to impossible, some things are. Sometimes adults won’t even attempt stuff ’cause they go,’Oh it’ll be too hard.’ Kids don’t have that. All you have to do as a parent or teacher is not crush that.

“And I think that’s what I remember about Tony Marsh: he made me feel I was capable of anything. His attitude was,’Yeah of course you can. You wanna do Chekhov? Yeah, go on then. I think you should do some pieces of Shakespeare.’

“And you’d go,’Oh, OK. I can do that? Cool.'”