Harcourt women to share rich experience

Miranda Harcourt, left, and mum Dame Kate. The pair are in Invercargill for the 2012 Southland Conference of the Arts.
Miranda Harcourt, left, and mum Dame Kate. The pair are in Invercargill for the 2012 Southland Conference of the Arts.

Wellington actress and director Miranda Harcourt is joining her mother, Dame Kate Harcourt, for a workshop with Invercargill artists, beginning this morning. Ahead of their flight south, Gwyneth Hyndman talked with Miranda about working and living with a famous mum, performing a solo play at the Invercargill prison, and how to stay focused as an artist.

Miranda Harcourt is "still growing up" with her mum, Dame Kate Harcourt, she says, when asked what it was like to be raised by a woman whose voice from the 1960s radio show Listen to Mother is still vividly conjured by many New Zealanders.

The acting-directing combo live together and lately, they work together, as their stage play Flowers from My Mother's Garden, written by Miranda's husband, Stuart McKenzie, wrapped up at Downstage Theatre in Wellington - and yes it is about his wife and mother-in-law.

Dangerously risky, divorce-tempting and potentially disastrous?

"He is very convincing," she says about their initial reluctance to star in a play about a Dame and her daughter. Her mother just said "no, no, no," in the beginning, she remembers.

But her husband is an excellent writer; the play was fantastic, tender and true to their dynamic and the Harcourt women "got their mother-daughter mojo on" for the performance.

Miranda says the mojo is continuing as they come down to Invercargill this morning to talk about the skills and diversity needed to be an artist.

It's a path - both difficult and exhilarating - that she knows well.

At age 4 she played a young Katherine Mansfield in a documentary about the author's life.

There was a small role in the 1981 feature Bad Blood, and more roles in radio and stage plays until her character Gemma in the show Gloss earned her nomination for best actress in the 1989 Film and TV Awards.

Her one-woman stage show Kaz - a Working Girl stunned audiences and more screen work followed until her 1997 directorial debut in a documentary about her late father, broadcaster Peter Harcourt.

In 1998 Harcourt began teaching at the Toi Whakaari acting school in Wellington.

"I absolutely love teaching," she says - this has continued more intimately in the last few years as she became an acting coach for films such as Under the Mountain, Jane Campion's Bright Star, and Bridge to Terabithia.

Most recently she has been in Hawaii working on the set of a film she isn't allowed to name, but says she's also been working closely with Terabithia star AnnaSophia Robb, who plays a young Carrie Bradshaw in The Carrie Diaries.

Coaching stars means that she is around to do script analysis, read lines with the actors, and generally be there to keep them calm and focused.

Does she see any meltdowns?

"My job is to prevent meltdowns," she laughs.

"I love it because it means I have to use all the skills I've had to learn my whole life. When I see [an actor] succeed . . . to me that is very rewarding."

The last time she was in Invercargill it was to perform at the prison - another experience she is proud of in a long acting career.

The solo stage-play Verbatim, based on interviews with prisoners involved with violent crime, was toured in England and New Zealand and went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. "It was an unusual place to do acting. You have to be completely committed and in your skin to do it right. You've got an audience that doesn't take any bulls....

"But years later I'll get a Facebook request from someone saying ‘I'm not in prison any more' and thanking me for [my performance]."

With a long history of stage and film performances, it's natural that Miranda would bring that experience to teaching and public speaking.

"Being an artist is very difficult. "I was born into an arts family so it was easier for me.

"But my mother and my husband both grew up in farming families . . . I think for them it was more a process of discovery.

"You have to have a vision of what you want to be in life - you have to know what it is that you want to communicate." Miranda Harcourt and her mother are running workshops in Invercargill as part of the 2012 Southland Conference of the Arts.

The Southland Times