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Hannah Smith: Life on the road

"We try to make work that is filled with that sense of magic and wonder.” Hannah Smith from Trick of The Light Theatre Company speaks about the light and dark sides of life on the road.


Hannah Smith and Ralph McCubbin, the duo behind Trick of The Light Theatre Company, are known for weaving folkloric tales saturated with imagery inspired by the southern New Zealand landscape. They will be taking their famously dark fairytale, The Road That Wasn’t There, back to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year after it was so enthusiastically received in 2012. Frequently on the road, we talk to one half of the team, Hannah Smith about the highs and lows of life as a travelling theatre producer.

For Hannah, theatre has always felt like an extension of play. Her mum was a high school drama teacher and she started drama aged seven. “I’ve been a theatre kid ever since.” Initially, she loved the ability it gave her to hold the centre of attention, and the opportunity to boss around her two younger siblings who were the main stars of her earliest living room productions. Along with her partner, Ralph McCubbin, she continues to create theatre that brings a playful and magical quality to everyday life. “Our work is founded on the magical inside the everyday.”

Hannah and Ralph spend the majority of their time travelling and touring different shows with their company, Trick of The Light Theatre which they formed in 2011. Their work combines shadows and puppetry with often dark tales. Their aesthetic is powerful in its simplicity. Having been described as ‘sophisticated low-fi’ and ‘southern gothic’, their work is heavily influenced by the southern environment they both grew up in. Hannah says that they wrote The Road that Wasn’t There when they were homesick living in the depths of winter in the UK. “As a result it is full of New Zealand mythology that we twisted and made a new fable out of. It is set in the landscape that we were missing.”

This year alone they have performed in New York, Sydney, the UK, and around South Africa. While currently home, it is fleeting as they will soon be heading to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and are waiting to hear back on a potential opportunity in Iran. There is no doubt that the life of a travelling theatre duo is amazing, and it has provided them with opportunities to experience places they may otherwise have never visited.

However, as always, there is a flip side and Hannah admits that she can can tire of living out of one tiny suitcase. There is a lack of routine that comes with being on the road, and certain sacrifices that they have had to make along the way to make this life viable for them. One of which is having a home. Hannah and Ralph do technically have a flat in Wellington where they have been based for many years and where their cat remains resident, but the majority of the time they have their room rented out to other tenants and when they return to Wellington, they often end up staying with friends to save the hassle of moving people in and out.

Financially, Hannah says, this lifestyle is a real struggle. Remaining homeless, is one of the ways that they are able to continue to create their art. “If we don't do that we can’t be artists.” She has certain tricks up her sleeve for living cheaply. Her piece of advice to others is, “don’t buy your lunch!” She saves her pennies by not spending unnecessary money on food and drinks. The hardest part of the financial strain, Hannah says, always comes down to not being able to pay their collaborators what they deserve. It is a familiar cycle where fiscal scarcity limits artists to rely heavily on people working because they believe in the story or they love the work, and Hannah questions how sustainable that is as a practice.

Thinking about the future, says Hannah, is a challenge. There are hard decisions that come with following this career path. You spend less time with friends and family, and things get pretty complicated when you start trying to think about having children and buying a house. She notices a huge drop off in theatre practitioners once they reach their 30s as the industry fails to support artists who also want to have a stable sense of home and a family.

When I asked her if these are things that she thinks about, she replied “I think at least once week about what I would do if I wasn’t doing this and how I should build up an exit strategy. One part of me thinks, ‘we’re doing so well and have so much work’, and at the same time another part thinks ‘this is not paying enough for us to afford to live.’ It makes me feel really sad.”

But for now anyway, she can’t imagine doing anything else. She says that she has tried doing other jobs and it just hasn’t worked. In the meantime, she will continue to concentrate on putting the magic back into our everyday. “The thing I find inspirational about theatre as an artform,” says Hannah, “is that you can do everything with nothing. With as little as one prop, you can make transformational moments that make the hairs rise up on someone’s arm. We try to make work that is filled with that sense of magic and wonder.” It is this beautiful contribution to the world, that keeps them travelling and making their art. “People can feel trapped inside their lives, and giving people a window to a different world, or a way of looking with fresh eyes, can open the heart.”

The Road That Wasn’t There plays:
Tues 11th – Sat 15th July
Tuesday – Saturday, 11am & Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, 6.30pm
Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre
Recommended for ages 7+
Duration: 55 mins (no interval)
Tickets: Adult $28.00, Senior, $19.00, Family of four: $72.00 (service fees apply)

Written by

Hannah Mackintosh

6 Jul 2017

Hannah is a Wellington-based writer, community organiser and lover of stories.