Feilding High School drama students have drawn glittering accolades for a performance that required the young thespians to play roles well beyond their years.
The school's year 13 drama group racked up an impressive haul at the New Zealand Theatre Federation Community Festival of One Act Plays in Hastings, beating other school-age drama groups and adult troupes alike to take top honours for its interpretation of New Zealand playwright Mervyn Thompson's Coaltown Blues.
The performance earned the talented cast the Book of Honour, top prize for best overall production, a prize the school last won in 2007.
The group also took home the Bryan Aitken Youth Award for best youth team, a technical design award, and the Denise Walsh Prize for best production of a New Zealand play, while Mallory MacKenzie was best female actor for her portrayal of "Mum".
The Jannat Atchison Award for emerging talent went to Caleb O'Fee.
They performed an interpretation of the semi-autobiographical play Coaltown Blues. The story adapts Thompson's early life to stage, set in a remote West Coast coalmining community between 1939 and 1951. The Kaitangata-born writer worked in West Coast mines for five years and later became a distinguished actor, playwright and director, with his darker works exploring his boyhood struggles with poverty and his dysfunctional family.
Feilding High drama department head Karla Crofts wrote and directed the award-winning stage interpretation of Thompson's harrowing story.
"The play is a political play exploring the hardships of a family and impact of Labour versus National politics of the time. Dad [Renata Tawharu, winner of most promising actor at district competitions] is a unionist who wants to revolutionise the mining standards, while Mum [Mallory MacKenzie] is a dedicated housewife whose circumstances often get the better of her, and eventually lead to the demise of her mental state," Crofts says.
Mallory MacKenzie was the recipient of a new, glittering masque trophy for her performance as a young mother struggling to make ends meet amid domestic abuse.
"She has had quite a troubled past and upbringing and she's pretty much just a housewife and quite duty-bound."
Mallory's character is a sexual abuse survivor who is married at 16, and pregnant, going on to have four children and an abortion.
The young actress did not take her preparation lightly, recognising the portrayal would require her to convey maturity beyond her own tender years.
"Basically [I did] a lot of research just trying to read between the lines and learn as much about the character as I could. I had to . . . get in her mindset with why they're doing what they're doing [then] remind myself when rehearsals are over that I'm not that character and try not to take their troubles away with me."
She says her dad was initially taken aback at the visceral content of her role.
"I think he was quite shocked by the maturity of it, what the role actually contained but they both loved it and were quite proud of me."
Next year Mallory plans to enrol in a communications degree at Massey University in Wellington, one of several fellow performers with a keen interest in the spotlight beyond school. Ensemble cast member Caleb O'Fee, 18, who was singled out by judges as an emerging talent for his turn in Coaltown Blues, says he plans to study law at Victoria University next year, and will keep up the stage action. "I would love to absolutely get involved with some of the theatre in Wellington, like Bats and Circa."
Sanson actress and fellow ensemble cast member Tori Bright, 17, plans to enrol in a theatre and arts degree at Victoria University to pursue her love of the stage.
Crofts says the young performers' ability to convey topics far beyond their own life experience is laudable.
"People underestimate them, they think they have to write about youth issues for young people - but these guys can bring these issues into their own world."
- Manawatu Standard
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