Escape from Owlcatraz

Actress Helen Moulder as Claudia in Playing Miss Havisham, which she brings to Riverton this month.
Actress Helen Moulder as Claudia in Playing Miss Havisham, which she brings to Riverton this month.

Actress Helen Moulder brings her one-woman show, Playing Miss Havisham, to Riverton this month. She tells Lauren Hayes about great expectations and the worst night of her life.

Helen Moulder is not in when I call. We'd pre- arranged a time to chat, but she's running late, a voice on the other end of the phone tells me. Could she ring when she arrives?

Almost an hour after I leave my name and number, Moulder, a 40-year veteran of the stage, calls me from Wellington.

I'm expecting a standard performer's excuse, a rehearsal running late, perhaps, or a bit of drama with the tour van, but that's not what comes next.

Apologising profusely, Moulder explains her tour group was delayed by a spontaneous visit to Owlcatraz.

I'm a little confused. Despite her theatre-perfected diction, I assume Moulder is referring to the infamous San Francisco lock-up Alcatraz, and, the last time I checked, this was not located between Palmerston North and Wellington.

Owlcatraz, it turns out, is a roadside shop selling a wide array of owl-themed paraphernalia, whose appearance had enchanted the tour group enough to warrant an immediate visit.

I can't miss the delight in her voice as she relays all this down the line. It's obvious Moulder, on the road with her latest work, Playing Miss Havisham, thrives on the quirks and idiosyncrasies a rural New Zealand tour has to offer.

The actress, also experienced in opera, tells me much of her childhood was in rural New Zealand. There was even a short stint in Southland, she says.

"I spent nearly three years in Winton as a child. My father was in the post office, so we had to move around a lot. Maybe that's why I still love moving around."

And it's a good thing she loves it - Moulder has spent most of her life moving around.

In the past few years alone, the performer has taken Playing Miss Havisham on a library tour around Australia and England, as well as staging it in New York.

With all that moving, spread across four decades of professional acting, Moulder can lay claim to having performed at some rather bizarre venues.

Perhaps most notable was the time she moved out of the theatre to stage a show in a 17th century cellar in Paris.

Despite causing her costumes to drip with dampness, it was an extraordinary experience, she says.

Closer to home, the actor performed at an art gallery in Tauranga which had no seating and no stage - "we said you must have a few boxes we can get up on" - and a few farm sheds, only one of which contained no animals.

No matter where the performance, Moulder believes the most rewarding part of any artform is connecting with an audience while sharing a story.

While she has also worked in film and television, she says traditional theatre remains her favourite medium because of the ease of forming that relationship.

"It's the most magical experience and when it's working well, it's a very, very special thing.

"It's very encouraging."

It's a slightly different story, however, when things are not working so well.

There was one time, Moulder recalls, she took a play to San Francisco only for it fall apart completely on the second night.

"There were 10 people and a baby that was crying, and it was a comedy. You can't really do comedy with a crying baby because you can't land your punchlines.

"It was probably the worst night of my life - and the critic happened to be there that night."

Fortunately, her latest work has garnered gushing reviews from critics across the world.

Written by Moulder and her Brisbane-based director Sue Rider, the play follows aspiring actress Claudia, who wins the role of Miss Havisham in a film adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.

As she prepares to re-enact Miss Havisham, the Dickens character who spends her life in her wedding dress after being left at the altar by her lover, Claudia is enticed to examine her own life, cataloguing the disappointments and regrets she has accumulated over the years.

Moulder admits the play is based somewhat on personal experience, although she is quick to dispel any notion she will end up as the woman wearing a wedding dress in the wings forever more.

"When I was younger, I went into paroxysms of grief when a relationship broke up but I think - I hope - I've learnt from that.

"I think you learn not to expect so much from things."

It has helped she has been fortunate enough to make a living out of professional acting, a dream many, especially those in New Zealand, have failed to achieve.

Moulder attributes part of her success in the business to not having a family and refusing to settle down, a trap which many potential professionals fall into.

The time commitments and the lack of steady, if any, income associated with the theatre are just not conducive to family life, she explains.

"I haven't needed a great income. There's been times when I've been on the unemployment benefit but I regarded that as a government grant."

Moulder and her tour group arrived in the South Island this week and, if they are not impeded by too many more Owlcatrazes, will perform at the Riverton Community Arts Centre on Sunday, August 25.

The Southland Times