Loose Canons: Abby Howells

Ahead of the Dunedin Arts Festival season of her latest comedy, Attila the Hun, playwright and performer Abby Howells tracks her inspirations.

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.

Abby Howells is an award-winning comedian and writer. In 2014, she competed her Masters in Creative Writing at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters and won the Brad McGann Award for the screenplay she created that year, Standing Up. Abby was a founding member of the female comedy collective Discharge and served as the troupe’s head writer, creating the shows What is this? Women’s Hour?, Benedict Cumberbatch Must Die and the musical 28 Days: A Period Piece. Abby’s first solo show Glocknid: Dwarf Warrior won her the Best Newcomer Award at the 2015 Wellington International Comedy Festival. More recently, Abby has been touring the UK performing with Trick of the Light Theatre and their show Beards Beards Beards, and her latest play Attila the Hun was produced as part of the 2017 Young and Hungry Festival. Abby is currently completing a PhD at the University of Otago.

Attila the Hun has its Dunedin premiere on the 19th of September as part of the Dunedin Arts Festival. Directed by Alex Wilson and produced by new Dunedin company Arcade Theatre, Attila the Hun is a surreal, fast-paced comedy set behind the scenes of a late-night burger restaurant, where one of the team members thinks he’s historical warlord Attila the Hun.

The Office (the British version)

I was a bit of a latecomer to The Office; I only really got into it at university. Before that, I was really into I guess what you’d describe as the classic British comedy canon, the Pythons, Blackadder, French and Saunders, Reeves and Mortimer…all of whom use quite a heightened style and big characters. And then there was The Office, which is so very much the opposite, so subtle that some people thought what they were watching was an actual documentary. David Brent is a ridiculous character, but everything that he does comes out of his desire to be liked and included. Brent desperately wants people to respect him, he doesn’t know he’s absurd, he doesn’t know he’s funny. The Office inspired me to approach writing comedy in the same way that you’d approach writing drama; by creating characters with strong wants and desires. And then the comedy comes from them trying to achieve those goals and the fallout when they don’t, rather than from zing-zing lines or wacky characters. Also, funny dance.

Musical theatre

My first entry-point into theatre was through musicals, first by watching them, then by getting my hands on the CDs and listening to them furiously in my bedroom, then finally by being in them. I remember my parents taking me to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and just sitting transfixed in the audience, mouth open, watching this incredible spectacle. I made a habit of going to see every musical put on in Dunedin at least three times. I used to act out whole musicals alone in my bedroom and I reckon some of my best (or at least my most passionate and earnest) performances happened within those four walls. For me, there is something truly magical about musical theatre. It’s nice to spend time in a world where people sing about their feelings, a world where when a door opens you know who is behind it, and a place where everything turns out OK in the end. In my life, musicals have always been a reassuring presence and a solace. In terms of my work, musicals’ enduring influence, I think, is the idea of spectacle, and that going to the theatre can be an Event, with a capital E!

Tina Fey

Tina Fey was a huge influence on me, firstly as an inspiration: she was the first female head writer of SNL! Seeing Tina in that role really made me feel like writing comedy was something I could do too. What particularly influenced me about Tina Fey was the way that she wrote for herself. Tina created the series 30 Rock, which is loosely based on her experiences of working on SNL. In 30 Rock, Tina plays a character called Liz Lemon. This character of Liz Lemon absolutely plays to Tina’s strengths as a comedic performer – she’s dorky, but witty, she’s constantly stressed and extremely lame in social situations…Liz Lemon is hilarious. And Tina Fey created the character for herself to play – she nailed it! Just like a musician writes songs that are within their range and showcase their skills as a performer, Tina made me realise that a comedian can do the same thing.

Angels in America

There’s a line in The History Boys by Alan Bennett where Hector says, “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” I was assigned to read Angels in America for a university paper and so I sat down to read it, and there was the hand reaching out, this character Harper Pitt. Even though our circumstances were vastly different (she was a Mormon housewife who lived in New York and was addicted to valium, I was an uncomfortable second-year university student living in Dunedin who regularly wore a bow tie and cowboy boots) I had never felt this connected to a character before. She was in a relationship, but she was lonely, just like I was, and she dealt with her problems by retreating into her imagination, just like I did. I used to sit in my room and just read her lines over and over again. I think reading Angels made me realise that theatre could be magical but it also has this incredible power to forge connections and make you feel like you aren’t so alone.

My female friends and collaborators

I’ve worked with a lot of wonderful women in my life, funny, passionate, creative women, and they inspire me to write roles for them that are more than just being the love interest who waits at home while the protagonist goes on an adventure. These women deserve to go on adventures! I know so many charismatic and talented women who are more than capable of carrying the weight of being the comic hero, and are wasted in roles where they just set up punchlines for a male counterpart to knock down. I started writing partly to write roles for myself that I knew weren’t out there, but now I’m inspired to create characters that showcase the incredible talent of the women I know, and the women I know are out there.

Attila the Hun runs from 19 to 22 September at The Underground Market, 171 George Street, Dunedin. Tickets available here.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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