07 Aug 2019
With a formidable line-up of New Zealand artists entertaining and amazing the crowds in Edinburgh this August, we’ve been reflecting on the progress and success of some previous attendees.
Award winning ‘gig theatre’ production Daffodils, recently adapted from a stage show into a movie musical, has been a labour of love and a long-term investment for Creative New Zealand that has reaped rewards for the arts.
We caught up recently with scriptwriter Rochelle Bright and creative director Kitan Petkovski, both producers of independent theatre company Bullet Heart Club where Daffodils took root. What began as a germ of an idea has become much more than the pair ever imagined, and they couldn’t be more pleased.
“Back then, we didn’t know what we had but we believed in it,” Kitan says.
When Daffodils eventually debuted at Auckland’s Q Theatre in 2014, the eclectic cabaret-style production was a huge success. Reflecting Rochelle’s own family story and set to iconic Kiwi music reimagined by New Zealand-based music group LIPS (Steph Brown and Fen Ikner) and Abraham Kunin, it incorporated 1960s Kodak stills, Super 8 home movies and fashion photography by Garth Badger.
Daffodils was judged Metro magazine’s Best Debut that year and also won Auckland Theatre’s Excellence award. Since then the production has been presented at national and international arts festivals, winning one of the top awards at the world’s largest arts festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in 2016.
National arts development agency Creative New Zealand invested in Daffodils from the beginning, through Bullet Heart Club. The investment included funding the premiere season in Auckland, through to taking the cast and crew of nine to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and connecting the dots in between with programmes that exposed Rochelle and Kitan to national and international opportunities.
“We've had Creative New Zealand alongside us from the start, which has been such a huge part of being able to develop, premiere and tour the work,” Kitan says.
Creative New Zealand Senior Manager, Arts Development Services Cath Cardiff says key to Rochelle and Kitan’s success in getting support from partners including Creative New Zealand is both their talent and their professional, can-do attitude. “As well as their tremendous creative ability, they work very well as a team, with a shared vision that they are very good at articulating.”
“They’re also team players who are resilient in the face of obstacles, working with us, their fellow artists and arts organisations to get the most from the opportunities. Having said that, they are very pragmatic, learn from their experiences and consider feedback carefully.”
Life before Daffodils
To understand the Daffodils journey, we need to go back to 2006 when Rochelle was selected to study music and theatre at Tisch, the world-renowned New York University performing arts school. She says this opportunity prompted her first Creative New Zealand funding application, and the support she received enabled her to go get experience, skills and knowledge that have proved invaluable in her work since.
At Tisch, Rochelle completed a Masters in Fine Arts in composition, lyric and bookwriting within the Graduate Musical Theatre writing programme (she already had a Master in Creative and Performing Arts (Drama) from Auckland University).
Rochelle says in New York she was exposed to a new level of theatrecraft, met and collaborated with like-minded people, and gained a good understanding of the marketing and financing needs behind a production. It was also where she first met fellow Kiwi Steph Brown, the songwriter and keyboard player who would later form LIPS, and become part of the Daffodils family.
Establishing Bullet Heart Club
Returning to New Zealand in 2011 with the intention of using her extended skills to tell New Zealand stories, Rochelle became general manager of professional theatre company Massive. An organisation well-known for nurturing young New Zealand artists and new works, it was a good fit.
Over the next couple of years Rochelle ran Massive alongside Kitan, the company’s producer, before the pair eventually left to establish Bullet Heart Club and pursue their own work. They describe this moment as a leap of faith, leaving their day jobs and giving up regular incomes to focus solely on the stage production of Daffodils. “It was all we did for two to three years, and really scary not having a regular income, but we believed in it so much,” Kitan says.
In 2013 Bullet Heart Club received Creative New Zealand funding to present a premiere season of Daffodils. Alongside this, and drawing on Rochelle’s New York learnings, they attracted five investors into the project. The combined funding gave them much-needed dollars, as well as confidence that others believed in their work.
In 2014 and 2015 respectively, Rochelle and Kitan were selected for the Momentum international delegate programme, supported by Creative New Zealand and the British Council. Momentum New Zealand’s aim was to help develop relationships between New Zealand, Scottish, UK and international artists, producers, curator and cultural partners in order to encourage future collaboration and presentation opportunities.
Visiting Edinburgh through Momentum gave them both an opportunity to see, first-hand, the high quality of work they would need to deliver if they wanted to return with their own work. They set their goals high too, identifying the prestigious Traverse Theatre as their stage-of-choice.
They also saw the benefit of the networking, support and continuity Creative New Zealand is able to offer New Zealand artists, due to its regular attendance at the festival.
“The Creative New Zealand team gets you to networking sessions and helps you cope with the whole festival – you’d get so lost otherwise, it’s so overwhelming,” Rochelle says.
Following Momentum, Daffodils had a second season at Q Theatre, followed by a national tour. The tour, to 12 towns and cities, saw Daffodils presented as part of local arts festival programmes. Rochelle says this network of arts festivals provides an important vehicle for presenting work around the country.
Rochelle also took up a six-month University of Auckland Writers Residency that year, at the Michael King Writers' Centre in Devonport, and the pair also worked on other Bullet Heart Club projects.
Winners on the world stage
In February 2016 Bullet Heart Club made its first international foray, funded by Creative New Zealand to present Daffodils at the Australian Performing Arts Market (APAM) in Brisbane.
“We were continuously looking out for opportunities, and took every single initiative offered at the time. APAM was a huge step,” Kitan says.
APAM led to further opportunities mid-year in Australia, with the team presenting Daffodils in Sydney, Wollongong and Brisbane with support from Arts Projects Australia. Sydney Arts Guide reviewer Lynne Lancaster said the “powerful, electric performances by this fine cast make this bittersweet, moving production sizzle.”
That year too, Bullet Heart Club got its wish and received an invitation to present Daffodils at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in a season at the Traverse Theatre. The invitation followed a visit to New Zealand by Traverse’s Artistic Director, Orla O’Loughlin. Orla was a guest in Creative New Zealand’s Te Manu Ka Tau programme, an opportunity for international arts programmers and presenters to see New Zealand work on home soil and consider presenting and showing it overseas. Funds to help the nine-strong cast and crew get to Edinburgh came from Creative New Zealand and a crowd-funding campaign via Boosted.
En route to Edinburgh, Bullet Heart Club presented Daffodils at the Salisbury International Festival, which that year included a large New Zealand programme supported by Creative New Zealand. It provided another opportunity to share their work internationally and further develop their networks and experiences. Again, the invitation came from a former guest of Creative New Zealand’s Te Manu Ka Tau programme, Salisbury Festival Director Toby Smith, who visited New Zealand in 2015 in advance of programming the New Zealand season.
Also material to these invitations, in 2014 a contingent of 200 visual and performing artists from New Zealand performed at Edinburgh Festivals, the world's largest festival event. It was the first time such a large group from a single country was invited and was where Toby first saw New Zealand art works and performances presented.
Daffodils’ Traverse season won the nine-strong cast and crew a sought-after Scotsman Fringe First Award. Just 19 Fringe Firsts were awarded during the three-week festival, with winners that year chosen from more than 3,200 acts from around the world.
“We really appreciated having Creative New Zealand people on the ground with us, especially when we won the Fringe First. They understood what it meant to us, they know the journey we’ve been on, and they celebrated alongside us,” Rochelle says.
Daffodils was also selected as one of the Irish Times’ Top 10 Shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
One of the biggest learnings Rochelle and Kitan took away from Edinburgh was a sense of identity, finding others at the festival who combined music with storytelling in what the pair learnt was called ‘gig theatre’. Until then, Bullet Heart Club had explained their work as cabaret-style or a play with songs. Gig theatre connected them with others around the world and made them part of a global shift.
Funding and other lessons
There were plenty of other lessons along the way too.
“Early on, I think it was [now retired] John McDavitt at Creative New Zealand who told me you always need to read everything about a funding opportunity, talk with Creative New Zealand, understand what they are wanting and write to that,” Rochelle says.
“Do your homework. Give it your best shot. We’ve enjoyed multiple investments, and we’ve needed those investments in order to do something of the scale of Daffodils. It’s always a lot of work applying, and you don’t always get funded.”
“You need cashflow to cover your outgoings. Funding is essential, as you usually need it ahead of time to say yes to opportunities. It’s also nice to have that feeling of being supported by your country.”
Rochelle adds another learning, particularly important for artists trying to find their feet, is to really know where your art sits and who will come and see your work. “For some people that will mean always going overseas,” she says.
Finding the right opportunities
The success of Daffodils has led to further opportunities for Bullet Heart Club, including the stage production’s transition into movie musical by director David Stubbs of Emmy award-winning production company, Wellington's KHF Media (with New Zealand Film Commission funding).
The story has transitioned well, with the Daffodils movie sitting in the top ten film chart and taking more than a million dollars at the New Zealand box office in its first four weeks of release. More recently, the movie was selected for both the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals.
The movie also gave Rochelle and LIPS a chance to dip into the film world, writing the screenplay and producing the soundtrack respectively, and an appreciation of how different that world is to theatre.
Kitan has recently returned from a directing internship with the National Theatre of Scotland. He and Rochelle have further plans to work with fellow gig theatre artists Louise Quinn and Bal Cooke at Tromolo Productions in Scotland, as well as plenty more work in the pipeline for Bullet Heart Club, some with Creative New Zealand funding confirmed.
“There are plenty of opportunities,” Kitan says. “They’ve got to be the right opportunities.”