Scholarship boost for Hutt drama star

02:01, Jul 16 2013
US-bound: The trio of former Chilton St James students who have won Fulbright Scholarships this year are, from left, Gaya Gnanalingam, Eleanor Bishop and Horiana Irwin-Easthope.

Eleanor Bishop is busy polishing a play about an illicit high- school afterball but she won't be around when the curtains come down on the final performance.

The Hutt-raised, award-winning theatre director leaves for the United States on August 4. She has won a prestigious Fulbright Scholarships - one of three former Chilton St James students to do so this year.

Eleanor will spend three years as a John Wells Fellow completing a Master of Fine Arts in Directing at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Eleanor specialises in development of new theatre and her work is characterised by a playful and imaginative approach to investigating the contemporary world.

Her practice will be challenged and honed by spending three years as one of only two students under the guidance of Marianne Weems, an Obie Award-winning director of the New York-based theatre company The Builders Association.

Weems is acclaimed, particularly for her innovations in the use of new media and technology in theatre.


"Carnegie Mellon is known for being great at computer science and theatre. In both these fields, they push the boundaries," Eleanor says.

"They're at the forefront of training directors to be visionaries - the programme is all about new technology, re- inventing theatre and collaborating across art-forms."

Eleanor is co-directing Auckland Theatre Company's Like There's No Tomorrow, by the PlayGround Collective.

The show is an immersive roaming theatre piece in which the audience are guests at an afterball.

Action happens in the carpark, on a fire escape, the toilets as well as in the theatre itself.

"The show is really asking how, as a community, we can challenge New Zealand's drinking culture."

Eleanor says it's the perfect launch pad for her studies in America: "It combines my desire to ask tough questions, with innovative ways of telling stories."

The play may later come to Wellington.

"We're looking at taking it to other cities and towns so young people there can tell their own specific stories [around the impacts of our drinking culture]."

The Hollywood Reporter recently named Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama as number four of the top 25 drama schools in the world.

The school's alumni include Oscar winner Holly Hunter (The Piano), Rob Marshall (Chicago) and John Wells (The West Wing).

Eleanor is looking forward to learning more about using technology in stage productions - "videos, holograms . . . all this futuristic technology that is just starting to make its way into theatre here but is quite established in America".

Eleanor's show Checkhov in Hell, at Circa last year, used a lot of projection and flashing video, and her innovative re- telling of the fairytale Tinderbox used the "deliberately naive technology" of overhead projectors, and silhouette puppetry.

She is also excited about the opportunity to work with the 20 or so students in the university's undergraduate drama class.

"I'll get to work with big ensembles, which is quite rare in New Zealand because we don't have a lot of money.

"We're the masters of the solo show here!"

She also likes the idea of working with actors and others of different nationalities, "telling different stories".

"So what do I bring as a New Zealander?

"And what is their experience as Americans, or what's their immigration history?"

She says the whole point of Fulbright Scholarships is to study overseas and bring knowledge back to New Zealand.

"Not only do I want to come back with new ideas but also Americans who might want to come to [theatre] here."

She may be a conduit to get Kiwis into US theatre, "and get some exchange going".

Eleanor says Chilton St James was big on singing and dance; "the theatrical side of me was really nurtured there".

She got into serious drama on the Victoria University Theatre Programme, where she graduated in 2009 with a first class Honours degree.

She has built an impressive career directing for Wellington's Circa, Downstage and BATS Theatres as well as creating her own company The PlayGround Collective with director Robin Kerr and writer Eli Kent.

Their plays The Intricate Art of Actually Caring, Tinderbox and Chekhov in Hell, have won nine Chapman Tripp Awards.

ECOLOGY, LAW AND THEATRE As well as Eleanor Bishop, two of her contemporaries from Chilton St James have also won 2013 Fulbright Scholarships, worth $33,000 a year.

Gaya Gnanalingam will complete a PhD in Ecological Science, specialising in the ecology and management of exploited decapod species, at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

Horiana Irwin-Easthope has won the Fulbright-Nga Pae o Te Maramatanga Graduate Award and will complete a Master of Laws degree in Environmental Regulation, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Eleanor says she and Horiana were in the same class and Chilton St James and remain good friends. Gaya was a year ahead of them.

Fulbright awards support a year of academic study in the United States for promising New Zealand graduate students. Selections are based on academic excellence, leadership potential and the ability of candidates to act as a cultural ambassador for New Zealand.

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