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Peter Elliott

image Peter Elliott

“Go there. Bravery, acceptance of risk, and stepping forward anyway. Every time I have taken on something I was too scared to face, wonderful opportunities have arisen, and the glory of life is to take those steps when offered them, even if its so scary you cannot breathe.”

How would you describe what you do?

Oddly, this is perhaps the hardest question to answer. I’m trained as an actor, but I came to realise in the years when a regular income was imperative for raising children and holding onto one’s home, that personal arts imperatives are very rapidly superseded by actual starvation, and the need to protect my family. We made a decision early in our marriage that I would take sole responsibility for finance, house and hearth, and Sue would stay at home and raise the girls – (My son, Joss ,came later) in spite of the rather unfashionable nature of such roles. It meant that holding out for decent parts, and going to where the work was next, which had been my former peripatetic nature, was now out of the question. It was now not possible to say no to anything, ever.

Accordingly, what I do has developed over the years.

It was clear, after a few years working in telecommunications through the 90’s, that I had made a grave error, and had not figured out that developing an entirely new area of work was a waste of my time, and I loathed it. It became purely an income-generation activity, and fortunately a friend came along and suggested that I do a few years in Shortland Street, and I returned with a vengeance to the work I loved. Later, that same ‘friend’ dis-invited me to be part of the Shortland Street crew, and that was a very black period indeed.  So what I did, and do, is to cultivate every area of the arts that I enjoy, and have as many strings to the bow as I can. So now I do as much as possible, in a broader scope. I act in theatre, film and television, I write and present documentaries, magazines and articles. I direct, in theatre, and, most recently, in television documentary format. I do voice overs, and narrate: books, docos and in performing live with a group of musicians called the Unsung Heroes. I test motorcycles for Kiwirider and write reviews. I workshop plays, and I developed and presented a car show with a colleague, out of Australia recently (Which Car 10, and PRIME) and then sold it into NZ, but that all died with the first approach of Covid 1.

So, what I do, is a hard ask; ultimately if you’re asking what is my nature and what is at the heart of my soul? Simply put, I’m an actor.

What’s been your most recent project?

My most recent project has been working as a documentary director in television, (a first) along with five others, making a doco series on great New Zealand Architects. I had the enormous pleasure; if also a considerable burden of nerves, in working with the incomparable Pip Cheshire. If you don’t know who Pip Cheshire is, you will almost certainly know his work.  Pip was an old Sumner habitué and neighbour, and famously a one-legged surfer, who was a Political Studies student in the heady days of the 60’s and was something of a radical. Today he is arguably the leading architect in the country. He talked with huge fondness of the Arts centre, a place dear to my own heart and early career. It was a huge privilege to spend time with him in those places that meant much to him in those formative Christchurch years. But, of course, I am always open to work, will consider almost anything, and some of my time is taken up with learning for auditions – even in Covid times we remain hopeful!

What work are you most proud of?

There are many projects I have been involved with that I am proud of, but the most memorable is probably one that came across my path when I was at that aforementioned “dark place”. Until this particular gig I had always played other people; I had never been just ‘Peter’ on camera. John Givins, who ran Livingstone Productions in Auckland, offered me the chance to do a four-part documentary series, circumnavigating NZ following in James Cook’s wake, making a show called Captain’s Log. Tainui Stephens, one of the producers helped me to see what it was I needed to understand, and described it as ‘a journey in search of my own waka’.

At the time I did not fully understand what he meant, but it slowly became clear that I had to learn to both accept myself, and like myself, on camera, with nothing but my own heart and honesty.

I admired the way Tainui was able to help me get over my own bullshit and ego. It was the start of my journey, as well as Cook’s, and coming to an acceptance of myself that was both healing, and set the seeds for many following journeys. Director, Mark Everton, and Cameraman, Steve Orsbourn (another Cantab) became lifelong friends during that time, and it has been one my life’s greatest joys to work with them both on many occasions. Captains Log also garnered the first award I was ever associated with –winning Best Documentary at the 2002 Television Awards. It’s still available on demand I believe.

What is essential for a creative to have in their life?

No mucking about. The three most important attributes for any artist to have are perseverance, self-belief, and work ethic. Talent is the cheapest commodity on earth, there is almost nothing more common, and in over 40 years working professionally I have seen hundreds of ‘talents’ come and go. I have seen people with one or two of these attributes above fall by the wayside; they had talent and self-belief, but they also believed that the world owed them success.

I’ve seen actors with work ethic and talent but little or no self-belief, and then their perseverance eventually stops. And, of course, I have seen those who had all three but with little discernible talent. But the question is what is essential for a creative?

Well, I reckon its love. Pure, simple and cheesy as it sounds. Love. We need people who love us, everyone needs that to grow and learn and thrive. The major benefit from those that love you, will be that they tend to supply any of the attributes listed above that we happen to lack. Susan, my wife has self-belief in spades for me, and without that I would never have done the things I have in my career. A loving partner is a winning part of the formula for life, and the great tragedy is losing or not having someone who cares and for whom you do the same. A Travolta movie, ‘Phenomenon’ had this moment – having fallen for a woman who made wooden chairs, Travolta is in a bar when a friend asks why he himself wasn’t lucky in love, Travolta’s character simply asks,

“Did you buy her chairs?”…

What inspires you about Ōtautahi?

How to make friends here! What a question. First inspirations were at High School. Gavin Bishop was my art teacher, and even if he doesn’t understand how important he was in my life, he was the first person who gave me an inkling of self-belief, and for that I remain very grateful.

Kit Powell, was the music teacher, who along with John Kim, showed me the huge value of music and how incredible life could be when hundreds of people work together with one aim in mind.

(Film sets fill me with joy still, for this reason.) The fully devised school production of Akhenaten was triumph of colour, music, pageantry, inventiveness, and sheer bold vision, setting a high bar for the future.

Kees Bruin was another that Gavin Bishop nurtured and who remains today a very fine artist indeed.

There are a huge number of great Christchurch musicians, and of course the ‘Dunedin Sound” of Flying Nun was, in fact, Christchurch based – with Roger Shepherd forming it in 1981. And there are many who can still feel the ringing their ears from the Gordons playing the Gladstone.

But the biggest inspiration for myself and many others in the performing arts was the extraordinary passion, talent, heart and drive that was Elric Hooper, MBE, the Artistic Director of the Court Theatre. He turned it from a fledgling company with makeshift premises to a solid art-curated programme, with a full-time company, staging around 15-18 productions a year back to back, on the main stage and in the studio. I was apprenticed under Elric’s tutelage and studied there for three years, with company class in the morning, then rehearsals till lunch, rehearsals in the afternoon, home for tea, and back to deliver the nightly performance, six days a week. Learning lines where you could squeeze in a moment. It was paradise for me, and my true education began there, reading everything I could get my hands on. But the greatest days, and those that I will remember until I drop, were the days of a first read-through of a new Elric-directed work. We would all troop into Room D, the big rehearsal room, grab a coffee and a cigarette, carry the script and a pencil – woe betide you should you fail to turn up penless. Then Elric would be the magician, he’d talk brilliantly with never a moment’s hesitation. He’d start with the period of the piece, conjuring the music, the art, the thinkers and writers of the time, how it related to history, he’d weave extraordinary stories of his past, name dropping only in the slightest degree, and then he’d explain how we were to bring this pageant to life. The amazing Pamela Maling would produce glorious colour sketches and designs of brocade and silk, dashes of colour matched to character and we’d be transported. Tony Geddes would explain the genius of the set and how it would work, producing pictures and plans for us to pore over. By the time we opened our scripts to start we were bleeding with desire to get on and do it. They were the greatest inspirations I’ve ever witnessed, and I’d give anything to hear one of these pitches extolled again in Elric’s gloriously orotund and impassioned tones.

What advice about creativity has served you well?

A wonderful actor once said to me, “humility in the artist is the frank acceptance of all experience”. God knows where they got the quote from, and ‘frankly’ it was rather more of a seduction line than anything ‘artistic’, but it had a certain cachet about it. And at its core its true.

Go there. Bravery, acceptance of risk, and stepping forward anyway. Every time I have taken on something I was too scared to face, wonderful opportunities have arisen, and the glory of life is to take those steps when offered them, even if its so scary you cannot breathe.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune” WS.

And who better to listen to than William Shakespeare?

What’s the biggest misconception about your creative work?

The biggest misconception about creative work?  That it’s a luxury. Utter total bollocks.

It’s not part of life, creativity is the essence of human life. The rest is banking. Ptah!

Creative work turns mere existence into life. No matter whether its music, singing, dance, television, film, theatre, books, writing, design, opera, ballet, sign writing, window displays, marketing, sales, cars, motorcycles, even banknotes – everything that we add to life IS creativity.

There was an old quote, ascribed to Churchill “when asked to cut funding to the arts in order to support the war effort in World War II, he responded “Then what would we be fighting for?”

 It may not be true, but I’d like to think it was.

What Christchurch artist or artwork do you admire?

I was born in the 1950’s, a repressive time still vibrating with echoes from WW2. In the sixties my childhood and teenage years saw massive changes, politically and socially, but the city of Christchurch itself was an observer; nothing much penetrated or disturbed the old school mercantile staid affairs of the city. It was a place of buses, cathedral square, and brick banks, of ivy covered buildings reeking of fat colonial bounty. It was always a beguilingly pretty town. But then into the 70’s the place got a spark in its hide and there was the beginning of a real energy, particularly in the arts. It blossomed with the ‘Canterbury School’, largely fostered around the University of Canterbury Fine Arts Program. These names now are part of our history, Don Peebles, Philip Trusttum, Neil Dawson, Barry Cleavin, Doris Lusk, Sue Cooke, Joanna Braithwaite, Julia Morison, Lew Summers, Bill Hammond, Tracy Wilson, Seraphine Pick, Dick Frizzell and many, many more; it was hotbed of creative artistry. Socially, there were the haves and the have-nots split into class, those who went to ‘good’ public single-sex schools, whose members gathered in mercantile and legal cliques for life, and the rest of us who went to High Schools of ‘lesser’ ilk.  There are works that I remember from my early Christchurch days, but probably one piece that I became very fond of, through daily exposure, was the Bing Dawe sculpture suspended in the Arts Centre Quadrangle. I loved the whimsy and the kinetic nature of Bing’s creations, they always brought an element of light-heartedness to a city which, in my opinion, has always needed a little leavening in the dough. Also at the Arts centre at that time, the Free Theatre was formed by Peter Falkenberg, as an antidote to the proscriptive English repertory of the Court Theatre, whom he thought to be holding talents back, and there was an odd hostility at times. It’s gratifying to see that both are still going, 40 years later. Throughout the 70’s and 80s of course, the music scene was raging in Christchurch, with pubs like the Aranui, the Gladstone, The Gresham, the Hillsborough, Heathcote and Prebbleton taverns hosting acts from Midnight Oil to local bands Like Odyssey, The Exponents, Bailter Space, The Narcs and the Bats.  Local TV made live music shows from the Civic, where I worked in staging for a year, and from the James Hay Theatre. Gone, like lots of old Christchurch now, and missed. In recent years I have been moved by the Anthony Gormley figure standing in the Avon river, post quake.  It spoke succinctly and quietly of the loss, to me at least. I had felt very upset and horridly post-apocalyptic when gazing through fences at the rubble and squalor of the broken and abandoned buildings along the Avon waterfront, a few weeks after the quakes – there were tables and chairs and bottles and plates left like the world had simply ended. As it had for over 180 of my fellow Cantabs. That moment was recalled for me when seeing the Gormley figure – it has such reflectivity in a minor key; beautifully captured in the angle of the head and the direction of its gaze. A solemnity and sadness, but also a glimpse of hope, as the current eddies past it with new water, every day.

There are literally hundreds of Christchurch artists that I admired, of every stripe; in architecture, in music, sculpture, literature and even in advertising. I remember agencies that were hotbeds of creative endeavour, and people – like the incredible world-beating motorcycle original, John Britten.

But mostly, an astounding company of actors at the Court, whom I hold and remember with the deepest regard and affection. They were my family, and I was honoured to be in their company.

Elizabeth Moody, Stuart Devenie, Eilish Moran, Paul Barrett, Yvonne Martin, Deborah Davids, David Copeland, Susan Curnow, Martyn Duffy, Wickham Pack, Stuart Ross, Janet Fisher, Bruce Phillips, Judie Douglass, John Pheloung, Alison Quigan, Tony Taylor, Fleur Tudor, Bryan Aitken, John Curry, Kevin Smith, Mark Hadlow, Mary Spencer, KC Kelly, Jan, the Geoffrey’s – Wearing, Heath and Dolan, Rima te Wiata, the incomparable Geraldine Brophy, and many more actors, directors and crew.

What creative work has blown you away?

The Robert McDougall Art Gallery housed a lot of exhibitions, and I would often wander through on a Sunday, mulling as I took a break from learning lines. But the work that first made me see where I lived, captured in full noise, was a recognition of something we often glimpsed out to the west. The big Van der Velden canvasses, with their brooding hammered black clouds, mountains ominous with rain and thundery threats, and the Otira River dashing into white and stormy yellows cascading down hard and sharp granite clefts. When I first saw that picture Beethoven’s 5th rang unbidden in my memory like a fire alarm. Wonderful.

What do you know know about creative work that you wished you’d known when you were younger?

Your creativity and your art (or craft) has a limited lifespan, use your voice while you’ve got it. Trust that ‘it” will work. What I wish had been drummed into me was the idea that failure is good.

That failure is the journey. I have probably allowed a fear of failure to effect a larger chunk of life than I’d care to admit. But it has also been used as my motivator too, nothing has more ‘deadline’ and peril associated with it than the inexorable approach of opening night.

Don’t be afraid to fail. So easy to say, of course.

We learn by failing – when we learn to walk, we fall down a lot, but eventually a person can stand on one leg with the other bent at the knee in front of a crowd of thousands in the CHCH town hall, while we blow a flute solo in the middle of a rock song.

In 1949, Allen Curnow wrote “The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum” which offers a final line:

“Not I. Some child, born in a marvellous year

Will learn the trick of standing upright here”.

I don’t think Curnow would like me using his words in this way. But I think it apropos.

Learn to Stand.

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