Going Solo

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Theatre & Performing Arts
Ahead of the Nelson Arts Festival, an interview with actress Renee Lyons, creator of Nick: An Accidental Hero.

Renee Lyons is a relatively new force on the New Zealand theatre scene, but starting her career unconventionally late has propelled her to create her own show, instead of relying on others for work.

Lyons’s solo show, Nick: An Accidental Hero, premiered in Auckland last August, and has since played in Wellington and recently Edinburgh. Her show tackles a true, kiwi story with passion, humour, and guts.

I saw her show by chance earlier this year at the Edinburgh Festival, and the touching story stuck in my mind, so flipping through the Nelson Arts Festival programme, I was pleased to see she’s coming to my hometown. I caught up with her for a chat before she heads here for two performances.

After living overseas working corporate jobs for seven years, Lyons returned to New Zealand and studied performing arts at Unitec. She graduated in 2008, and entered the competitive acting world at 30, but soon discovered finding work a huge struggle.

“It was hard being 30 and a woman when there wasn’t any work around. I got really frustrated by that and I wanted to do a solo show, so that drove me to it.”

So, a story she came across in 2010 led her to her current role, playing five main characters and a few peripheral ones to tell the story of Nick Chisholm.

An Accidental Hero, because Nick’s story that Lyons tells with her characters, a chair, small stage, and effective lighting, is one of perseverance, inspiration and love.

As Lyons says, there’s a lot of different stories to tell in the 55 minutes she has on stage.

Chisholm was an athletic sportsman, but in 2000, age 27 years, a stroke on the rugby field in his home-town Dunedin brought his, and, as the play shows, many others, world’s crashing down. Chisholm was diagnosed with the very rare ‘Locked in Syndrome’, and was given mere months to live, but his active brain inside his paralysed body wasn’t going to have that, so with the support of friends and family, he battled the odds, found ways to communicate, regain some movement, and even find love. Lyons’s portrayal of this is an astute combination of laugh-out-loud humour and heartbreaking sadness.

The audience experience the play through Nick’s eyes, the characters speaking to him, aware that he can hear them, but is initially unable to respond.

Lyons says she wanted to show Nick’s story because she found it so inspirational.

“It is such a story of hope. His condition is so rare and for him to recover the way he has—the medical profession are baffled by it—I find that really incredible. It was his determination and will that had him make any recovery. He still works hard, and goes to the gym four to five times a week, he’s so driven. And then there’s the love story. He fell in love online, someone who couldn’t see him, so it was just his spirit and personality who she was fell in love with and it worked out, it was really special.”

Lyons first character is the narrator, a (fictitious) Korean hospital orderly, who sews the stories together. There’s also Chisholm’s classic Kiwi mother; his loveable, jokester best mate Boyd; troubled new friend Liam, whose life Nick turns around; and then there’s Nick’s partner Nicola, who he met post-accident over the Internet, and she ended up leaving her life in the UK to be with him. So it’s a story with many layers to present.

And with so many stories going on revolving around such a horrific experience, you’d think the play would be trying to tackle too much, but Lyons manages it well, though does admit it was hard.

“The director all along was trying to say, ‘what’s the story? You can’t tell that its too big’ so that’s how I ended up narrating it, and I also had to cut parts. Matt, his brother (a friend of Lyons, and a well-known kiwi reporter), lived with him for two years, but I had to omit that which was hard.”

With the revolving characters, there’s never a dull moment, and even a hardened theatre goer should flit between laugher and a few tears. If the letter read to Nick from his grandfather doesn’t get you, then I don’t know what will.

There are also some hilarious scenes, especially from Nick’s eager to please, somewhat overbearing mother—shades of my own mother were pouring through.

While Lyons has never met her, she used as much information she could get on Nick’s mother to create the character, and perhaps unconsciously, used her own mother’s ways as building block.

“A friend’s mum’s mannerisms are in there, and some of my parent’s friends came to see it in Wellington and said ‘its your mother on stage’.”

Lyons’s portrayal of the mother’s endless tasks of supplying flowers for the room, sorting out a visiting schedule in the hospital, supplying Nick’s visiting friends with food, and then berating them for sneaking Nick out of the hospital to take him out on a motorbike, all add to the poignant humour of the story.

Likewise, the devoted friends who visit with him through his two years in hospital, and then help him live as normal a life as possible at home, both add incredibly touching moments, especially so for Liam, a somewhat over-the-top character, battling his own demons but finding purpose in caring for Nick.

“I didn’t know Liam existed until I went down there and he came around and was such a character. I know the one I play is extreme but it’s not far off.”

A bit dim but with a heart of gold, in the play he becomes Nick’s career, and Nick his trainer of sorts.

“Liam really took to him. Nick from his wheelchair and unable to talk turned Liam’s life around—he was depressed and overweight but Nick got him to the gym and turned him to a different person.”

And then there’s the love story, a triumph no matter whatever way you look at it. Nick and Nicola’s story has been covered in New Zealand as well as UK media—particularly the UK’s women’s magazines.

Playing Liam as a concerned friend while Nick communicated online, trying to gauge what was going on, and then playing Nicola who came over to New Zealand to be with Nick, Lyons tackles this relationship with heart, but doesn’t shy away from the problems such an unconventional relationship would endure.

I asked her if she found performing all these characters and the subject matter emotionally taxing, considering it is someone’s true story.

“Strangely no, I really enjoy it. In drama school they tell you to find the joy within the hard stuff (scenes) so the audience don’t feel you’re falling apart on them.”

And learning about Nick’s life and struggle, and then sharing it through the stage, has taught Lyons about perseverance.

“When I am finding something hard, like last year I road my bike from Cape Reinga to the Bluff  to raise money for  the Mental Health Foundation, I constantly thought of him, pushing my pedals further, I admire his mental determination.”

It’s this steely determination that is keeping her performing Nick: An Accidental Hero.

When I saw her show in Edinburgh, she was doing it daily in one of the festivals more prestigious venues. There for three weeks, she found being part of this international festival “really tough.”

“It was hard to get audience when where are 2,800 shows to choose from, and being a  New Zealand story, maybe that didn’t have enough pull. But when people were there they enjoyed it and I got really great feedback, but it was hard getting people there in the first place.”

Despite this, Lyons, with a classic Kiwi can-do attitude, and inspired perseverance, sees her coming to the Nelson Arts Festival this week. She is also planning a national tour in July next year, and is in talks about touring the UK as well.

Nick: An Accidental Hero’, created and performed by Renee Lyons, and directed by Abigail Greenwood, is showing at the Suter Theatre, October 16 and 17. The Nelson Arts Festival runs from October 11-28.
Stacey Knott is a freelance New Zealand writer. She will be covering the Nelson Arts Festival for The Lumière Reader in 2013. She has been published in New Zealand, the UK, USA, and West Africa. Read more at weirdwanderlust.com.