Loose Canons: Ralph McCubbin Howell
Loose Canons is a series in which we invite artists we love to share five things that have informed their work. Meet the rest of our Loose Canons here.
Ralph McCubbin Howell is, alongside Hannah Smith, one of the founders of the award-winning Wellington theatre company Trick of the Light. Ralph was a member of the NZ Young Shakespeare Company and completed a BA Hons in English Literature and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington before training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in the UK. Outside of Trick of the Light he has performed with Three Spoon Theatre, The Playground Collective, My Accomplice and the The Court Theatre, and written for the Young and Hungry Festival in Wellington and Auckland. In 2014 he received the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award.
Ralph has written and performed in a number of shows as part of Trick of the Light, from the biting 2011 political satire The Engine Room to, most recently, the eerie work-in-development Troll, produced first during the 2017 New Zealand Fringe Festival. Ralph is the writer of and a performer in Trick of the Light’s captivating cross-over work for adults and older children The Road That Wasn’t There, a dark fable reminiscent of Neil Gaiman and Pan’s Labyrinth that combines puppetry, shadow play, and live music. The Road That Wasn’t There plays in Auckland at the Herald Theatre from 11-15 July.
Jez Butterworth's Jersualem
A few years back I was having a rotten time at drama school in the UK. I wasn’t into the course I was taking plus Hannah and I had moved there in September, so we hadn’t seen the daylight for about a thousand years. I’d heard of this show called Jerusalem that had been getting a good buzz, and, with the season sold out and a week left to run, we scraped our last few pounds together to try our luck for some day release tickets. The box office opened at 9am, but we’d been told to get there early. We showed up at 2 (we weren’t the first.) As the night wore on the line grew behind us, and the pavement got colder and colder. Thankfully, we made the cut off and wandered, arse-numbed and delirious, through the streets of the West End.
As it turned out, our ten quid tickets put us right in the front row. Mark Rylance was hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-stand-up good, and the play remains one of my favourite scripts. Jez Butterworth is a playwright who has had the kind of run you dream of – Harold Pinter acted in the film version of his breakout hit – but you can’t resent him for it because (a) he seems like a genuinely nice bloke and (b) he does things with words that make it clear that he’s some sort of wizard. The comedy is biting, the gaps between words would make Pinter proud, and it weaves a line between magic and the mundane that’s subtle and weird and right up my alley.
The Road That Wasn’t There owes a few different debts. There’s something of Pan’s Labyrinth, and a whack of Neil Gaiman, there’s a scene that’s somehow an homage to a good bit in the film Hook, but most of all it owes a debt to the play Jerusalem. We came back from London to our shitty flat in Bristol feeling inspired, and a few days later started plotting a work to take to the Edinburgh Fringe.
Tom Waits' Beautiful Maladies
I feel as if I’m cheating with a compilation album, but this was my introduction to Tom Waits so it’s got a place in my heart as well worn as a scratched out CD. I first heard it on a train at night over the sound of the clattering tracks. I listened all the way through, didn’t get it, heard the last song, and was hooked. I played the whole album another four times before I got in to my station. Then I spent the next few weeks spending everything I earned from my hospo job buying the rest of his back catalogue. When I go, I hope they play me out to Anywhere I Lay My Head.
Sometimes I write in silence, and sometimes I write listening to music. If I’m feeling perfectionist and want to carve intricate patterns I listen to Radiohead, but when I want to write something that kicks like a mule I put on some Tom Waits.
I grew up in a village called Waikari in the South Island. It’s an hour north of Christchurch, in the foothills of the alps, down the road from the country’s largest moa fossil swamp. At my primary school I was one of just two kids my age, and for a while we had four different years in one class. One time I lost a pair of new shoes in the hedge, and when mum refused to buy new ones, and I refused to wear my old pair, I went barefoot for the next five years. There were no winners in that war. Actually, wait, it was mum.
I moved to Wellington ten years ago, and whilst these days we’re pretty nomadic, when we’re home Wellington’s home, but there’s a definite South Island streak that’s run through most of our work with Trick of the Light. Hannah grew up in Dunedin, where we set The Devil’s Half-Acre, and The Bookbinder’s in Oāmaru. The Road That Wasn’t There is set in an old gold-mining town called St Bathans, in a far corner of Central Otago. It’s built on a lake in an upside down hill, and has a population of seven, by which standard Waikari’s some sort of metropolis.
Someone once called our style South Island gothic, and it’s a label we’re both pretty happy with. Also, I failed to mention Waikari by name in a radio interview last year, and when I went home to my parent’s I was informed by several people that that omision had not gone unnoticed. Waikari. I’m from Waikari. (Sorry.)
Yup, that’s right. MMMBop by Hanson. I’m not going to claim it’s a good song. In fact I have zero opinion on it - the only lyric I could tell you is the title, and if I was to attempt to sing the chorus it’d involve some fairly inaccurate scatting. All I know is that when I was eleven, after a couple of months of guitar lessons, I found myself performing this at my primary school end of year concert. There were two of us: I was on guitar and vocals, he was guitar and back up mmm-bopping. We took the stage between a J2 dance recital and an avant-garde rendition of Art Garfunkel’s Bright Eyes. MMMBop was tearing up the charts, and we were bringing it to the people. Fame and fortune beckoned.
Then, halfway through the second verse, just after our first roof-raising chorus, disaster struck - my guitar pick flew out of my hand. Now, I’d only been playing guitar for a couple of months. This was my first big gig and it was a scenario I’d not been prepared for. Who could say what would happen? In the moment, I knew that if I carried on playing, my fingers would slice off and I’d be left with bloody stumps. Fortunately, I had a plan. Whilst continuing to sing I took my hand off the guitar strings and reached towards the pick on the ground. My main man could keep the guitar going, I’d keep the lyrics flowing, and the audience would be none the wiser. Genius. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. As I reached towards the pick, he stopped playing, turned to me and said “What are you doing?” There was a moment of silence. Then somebody pulled the curtain.
I know it works for some people, but I’ve never been a writer who works in isolation, finishes a masterpiece and hands it on to be staged. For me, the work is only half done until you get into the rehearsal room, and the real craft doesn’t start until you put it in front of an audience. Since our first trip to Edinburgh, we’ve got into a process of making through live performance. When we made my solo show The Bookbinder, we made fast, threw it in front of an audience and then changed it night to night – responding to the audience by adding and cutting and shifting the structure, sometimes between shows and sometimes in performance.
Whilst the MMMBop might not have been one for the ages, in some ways I think that moment is the real magic of live performance – pick on the floor, between finger-stump death and somebody pulling the curtain, an audience in front of you and having to think on your feet.
This is a photo from a late night production meeting when we were staying in a teepee in Spain.
Hannah and I have been together for nine years and we’ve been making shows right since the start. Lately we’ve been fortunate enough to run our company as a full-time gig, and it’s taken us to places we never would have thought possible. Last month we toured to South Africa, and this year we’re back at the Edinburgh Fringe.
We work collaboratively, and our process is an ever-evolving beastie. Often I write and perform and she directs and designs, but we usually come up with the broad strokes of the story together, and when it gets to production week we’re both there at 2am cutting shadow puppets, and building set, and making archaic technology do things it wasn’t meant to do. Making art together whilst also being in a long term relationship can be intense, and all-consuming but I wouldn’t have it any other way. When we’re working on shows we’ll disagree, and work harder than is probably healthy, but she makes me a better artist, and keeps me in check when I’m going insane. I feel pretty lucky to travel the world alongside my partner in crime.
The Road That Wasn’t There plays in Auckland at the Herald Theatre from 11-15 July. Tickets are available here.
The production will also be having a one-off performance in Wellington at Whitireia Theatre on the 23rd of July. Tickets are available here.