Eli & Jack's excellent adventure

EMOTIONAL ROAD TRIP: Jack Sergent-Shadbolt and Eli Kent perform The Intricate Art of Actually Caring.
EMOTIONAL ROAD TRIP: Jack Sergent-Shadbolt and Eli Kent perform The Intricate Art of Actually Caring.

A spiritual experience that never happened led to a hit comedy for Wellington playwright Eli Kent. Gwyneth Hyndman talks to the fringe festival writer about an imaginary car trip in his parents' basement, having James K Baxter as a great uncle, and how apathy sparked the inspiration for an award-winning play.

It was supposed to be an epic trip to the poet James K Baxter's grave in Jerusalem – but it ended up being a slightly underwhelming destination experience for Generation Y playwright Eli Kent.

As an emerging actor and writer, always on the watch for inspiration in the ordinary, Kent remembers the journey to visit the grave of one of New Zealand's finest poets and most controversial figures – who was also his mother's uncle – as being the opposite of the spiritual experience he had been gunning for.

Growing up in Wellington, Kent had generous exposure to the theatre, thanks to his mother.

Though he credits an early nose for strong storylining and character motivation with simply playing with action figures as a kid.

"Just make-believe; telling stories with characters. It's all about imagination, creating worlds and then just taking the audience with you."

At that time, Kent had one play under his belt: Rubber Turkey, a "surreal black comedy about a suicidal chicken" he wrote and directed as a Year 13 student. He was ready for something more profound – a meaty subject that would be a flexing of his storytelling skills. And he had been counting on feeling something more on his arrival in the remote Hiruharama – also known as Jerusalem – where Baxter was buried.

Instead, he felt absolutely nothing.

Deflated, Kent wrote a poem about "wanting a spiritual experience and not getting it".

But that poem about feeling nothing in the face of something, carried a strong theme. It morphed into other ideas that reverberated as he continued writing. Over time, Kent developed that into a play about the lack of emotion he had been trying to work around.

The Intricate Art of Actually Caring – performed to an audience of 15 in a bedroom in his parents' inner-city apartment in Wellington – was a Wellington Fringe Festival hit, a comedy audiences were told by Theatreview "not to miss" and by Arts On Tour NZ as "perfect for students and students of life".

The play enjoyed a three-week sellout season at the 2009 Fringe Awards and won "Best Theatre" and led the way to a 2010 Bruce Mason Award.

Kent describes the storyline of the play as two guys trying to find a way to grieve after the death of a friend.

Using just three overhead projectors, swivel chairs and a guitar, Kent and his friend, Jack Sergent-Shadbolt (a distant cousin to Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt) blur the line between fact and fiction as the bedroom is transformed for an hour into a car that leads them eventually, right back to the scene of Kent's initial anti-climatic moment.

The play wasn't written in one go, Kent says.

"It came together over a long period of time. There wasn't this one, big eureka moment ... but the sense of a room was already in the story. It's very minimal. And we are essentially just playing twisted, exaggerated versions of ourselves."

The imaginary car ride back to Jerusalem was "terrifying" to perform in the beginning, with an audience invited right into his basement bedroom for the show, but that changed as the play made traction with theatre critics. Eventually, Kent and Sergent-Shadbolt had to take the show on the road, as his parents – who initially were thrilled with their son's success – were starting to get annoyed at the thought of opening up their apartment for a return season.

Before continuing with his play, Kent took a year out to work as one of a handful of students with playwright David Geary, in the Master of Arts in Scriptwriting programme at the Victoria University Institute of Modern Letters.

It was his first experience of university, and he describes the year as being a time to grow, while bouncing ideas off other writers with different styles and methods, before returning to his hit play.

On the road with Arts on Tour this last week, Kent said performing The Intricate Art of Actually Caring in community halls, galleries and theatres outside Wellington has meant that each night in a different space is fresh and exciting for the actors as well as audiences.

"It's been surprising how universally accepted this is. And every town seems to get the jokes. I'm quite pleasantly surprised that people love it.

"It's been great; really cool to see the countryside. It's like we're on this crazy, rock'n'roll tour."

See the The Intricate Art of Actually Caring

June 29, 8pm: Little Theatre, Gore, book at Eastern Southland Gallery, $25 adults, $15 students.

June 30, 7.30pm: Riverton Community Arts Centre tickets $20 members and $25 non-members.

June 26, 7.30pm: Cromwell, College Auditorium, Barry Avenue Adults $25; Student/Child $15 Book; book at the Cromwell iSite.

June 27, 7.30pm: Alexandra, The Cellar Door 143 Centennial Avenue All tickets $20; book at the Alexandra Information Centre.

June 28, 7.30pm: Wanaka, Luggate Hall $25 Adults, $10 Students (with proof); book at www.festivalofcolour.co.nz or Festival of Colour office upstairs 4 Helwick St (mornings).

The Southland Times