Concrete Playground Meets Thomas Sainsbury of The Opening Night Before Christmas
Shedding some light on the show's characters, what makes the Basement Theatre special and what Christmas looks like in small town New Zealand.
He has a firm grasp on what makes Kiwi's laugh and could probably get considerable discounts at one of the UK's biggest supermarket chains if he showed some form of ID. Thomas Sainsbury has written some very funny, current and edgy content for the stage and screen over the past few years, both here and abroad. He's been rewarded for his efforts too – being nominated and awarded more times than there are Home Alone films.
His latest co-creation – The Opening Night Before Christmas – with fellow funny guy Chris Parker (Hudson and Halls Live and Camping) opened this week at the Basement Theatre. We got him to shed some light on the show's characters, what makes the Basement Theatre special and what Christmas looks like in small town New Zealand.
First off, what can audiences expect from The Opening Night Before Christmas?
Kath and Kim meets Waiting for Guffman set in deep New Zealand. The first half follows four members of the Levin Community Players (an amateur dramatic society set in Levin). It's all about the politics of putting on the annual Levin Christmas Show.
The second half we have a celebrity guest actor (a different one every night). These actors have been given no warning about what to expect. So we take them through a series of hilarious improvisation games.
You hail from the fine town of Matamata, did you base any of the show's community theatre players on characters from your experience there?
Oh absolutely! I was part of the Matamata Amateur Dramatic Society and performed in Pride and Prejudice and a Dracula spoof. The behind-the-scenes politics was so fascinating and definitely inspired some of this play. I am teasing with it, but it is amazing what a sense of community these little theatres create. And hopefully that comes through in The Opening Night Before Christmas. And Matamata in general is filled to the brim with inspiring characters. The high school drop out who still works at the same pharmacy, the over-worked, borderline anorexic hair dresser who knows all the gossip, the hermit who lived down the road and never interacted with anyone, the Christian real estate agent who was told to take the job from direct communication with God. All amazing!
If the show's characters each had an entrance theme song, what would those songs be?
Rosalynne (Director) – 'Finally, It's Happening To Me!' by Cece Penniston.
Russell Bush (Actor) – 'Do ya Think I'm Sexy?' Rod Stewart.
Sheree Mudge (Actress) – Anything Christina Aguilera or Mandy Moore circa 2004.
Glenn Innes (Stage Manager) – 'Listen to Me' Buddy Holly.
How difficult/easy was it to get the guest cast to be willing to improvise their way through the show?
Some of them are almost too eager. Some others are very frightened. But they all seem willing to take up the challenge. And we always ensure them that we are the safety net. There is the chance of completely failing (I'm not going to lie) but we've come up with measures to minimize that.
If you could of had three international celebrity guest cast in Opening Night, who would have made the cut and why?
Like anyone? My god. Meryl Streep of course. Imagine that! Just because I love her and think she's hilarious. And I believe she would have fun.
The Rock. I just think he would rise to the challenge and be self-deprecating. And he'd have to squat the whole time because the theatre ceiling is so low.
Melissa McCarthy. Just so I can foster a friendship with her.
You play Glenn Innes, the play's Stage Manager. Do you have any opening night rituals as a performer?
Not really. But I force the rest of the cast to do a focus exercise where we close our eyes and count to twenty-one. It just helps get into the mood for doing it. I run the first few lines in my head to remember the voice and tone. But I'm pretty damn lax (and useless).
Do you have any rituals as a writer?
Avoid until the last possible moment and then set my alarm for 3am so that I can meet the deadline. And then push snooze multiple times and then hate myself and then chastise myself for not being better and doing just a little bit every day.
If someone were to write a play with you as the protagonist, describe what the opening scene would be.
Me desperate not to disappoint someone and doing anguished, self-sabotaging behavior to achieve that goal. Or it would involve me lying on my bed for hours just staring at the ceiling.
What was the first script you ever wrote and where was it performed?
A play called Main Street. It was about some young criminals in Huntly. We performed it at the Wine Cellar. Its narration was inspired by Shakespeare's rhyming couplets. It was terrible. It must've been terrible. My soul cringes thinking about it.
Some of your plays have had international seasons in London and Australia. What is it about the Basement Theatre that makes you want to continually have your work performed there?
Artistic freedoms and the staff. It's a black box theatre so you can just do anything with it. And each of the staff members are now my dear friends. So it's just an excuse to hang out with them. My work also tends to be grungier/less polished/more fringe. And The Basement suits that style I reckon.
If you could start a nationwide Christmas tradition, what would it be?
Sitting around the family table and saying one thing about each other member of the family. That one thing has to be a reason you love them.
Finish these lines from popular Christmas carols (the small-town NZ version):
- All I want for Christmas is... more than a skate park for the kids to hang out in.
- Oh what fun it is to ride in... low-riding Toyota Starlet with spoilers so that I can drive up and down the one street in town.
- I saw mummy kissing... the next door neighbour after twenty years of sexual tension.
- Last Christmas I gave you... some plastic shitty toy or contraption. But... the very next day it was broken/lost/forgotten about.
- Silent night, holy night. All is... deadly quiet. And I'm going crazy. Where are the people? Where are the cafes? Where is the nightlife? I'm so lonely.
The Opening Night Before Christmas is on at the Basement until 22 December.
Published on December 12, 2016 by Melissa Roberts