“I love acting. It is so much more than real life” – The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
0 Norfolk Island is best known for its second penal settlement in the 19th century. A terrible beauty might be a way to describe the paradox of that era if one considers the harsh discipline that was meted out to prisoners who were in exile here. The convicts lived a cruel and wretched existence against the backdrop of the Island’s impossibly beautiful landscape. In contrast, the opening quote from the pen of 19th century author and playwright, Oscar Wilde, would appear to have little relevance to life on Norfolk during convict times. However, theatre was a part of life on Norfolk in the 1800s, and there are records held of a play that was performed on the Island at that time titled Castle Andalucia. Art and suffering are familiar bedfellows, and Wilde was to create a work of great spiritual significance, De Profundis (Latin: ‘from the depths’) after he was convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to endure two years of hard labour in an English prison. His final work was a poem, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, which described the anguish of his incarceration.
Today, however, Norfolk Island is a microcosm of mainland cities. We spend our time doing many of the same things as those in Sydney or Auckland, but there are some exceptions. When it comes to theatre-going, for example, we are currently blessed with only one venue, Ferny Lane Theatre. The theatre, owned and operated by local business couple, Ian and Monica Anderson, also provides the Island with its only cinema.
Visitors to Norfolk come to experience, among other things, the Island’s serenity; its clean air, the rich and colourful hues of land and sea, as well as the brilliance of stars against a background of velvet-black night skies. It’s a special place far away from all the mainland stresses and pollution. The need to escape from a city lifestyle is not unique to holiday-makers; it is something that Norfolk Island locals also need, despite living in one of the most idyllic places on earth. And the arts provide an opportunity for us all to go beyond the mundane; to be transported to another world and lose ourselves in the atmosphere of a play, some soulful music, or perhaps a movie.
For the last 25 years Monica and Ian have worked hard outside of their commercial enterprise to create a cultural experience for everyone in this little haven through the mediums of theatre and music. Originally from Surrey in the South of England and with 12 years spent in Paris, Monica managed to find her way to Australia through relationship circumstances. Ian, born in Perth, W.A. then spent 20 years moving around the eastern states before settling in Brisbane, QLD.
I was curious to find out how they both got together, and what made them decide to leave a successful fuel and transport business in Australia to live on this remote island in the South Pacific. We chatted over a cup of tea in the foyer of the theatre, and I was intrigued to learn of the serendipitous chain of events that changed their lives forever.
“We both had autistic boys from our previous marriages, and we met through our involvement with Autism Queensland,” Ian explained. “We bonded, and that’s how our relationship began.”
Monica continued the story, explaining how their QLD business had kept them busy and it was difficult to find time for a real break from their busy schedules. “Then, one day I saw an ad in the travel agency for Norfolk Island. Later, we managed to get one week’s holiday just before Christmas and that’s when we made our trip to Norfolk. That was 31 years ago.” The life-changing event was destined; because what Ian said next left no doubt that the hand of fate was guiding this creative couple to a life far different from the one they knew.“At the same time someone made an offer on our business, even though we hadn’t advertised it. So we travelled to Norfolk without making any major decisions.”
Despite the cyclonic weather on their arrival, Ian said that they fell in love with the place immediately. “We realised that if we sold our business in Brisbane, we could buy a business on Norfolk.”
A further surprise awaited them when they returned to Brisbane at the end of their week’s holiday in paradise. They learned that they had yet another, separate offer on their business. This crystallised their decision, and Monica and Ian proceeded to purchase World Traders on Norfolk Island, which they still operate today.
The Norfolk Amateur Theatrical Society (NATS) was already in place when they arrived on the Island, and Monica talked of the president at that time, Roy Shaw. Describing Shaw as the catalyst for NATS, Monica stressed that it was his discipline and sustained effort that made the plays happen. He was a leader and worked hard to cover many tasks. As NATS’ secretary for the last 26 years, my impression of Monica during the interview was that she reflected many of the fine qualities she bestowed on Shaw. Monica is a modest woman, but Ian’s thoughts mirrored my own when he fondly, and with gentle praise talked of his wife’s tenacity. He described her strong work ethic that keeps NATS going, and her commitment to running that well-oiled machine for over quarter of a century.
Ian added, “At various stages the participants did a lot of the work themselves, and that was born of necessity.” He said that both he and Monica appreciated those who helped NATS to continue. They only wished that they could have a pianist who would be able to play accompaniment. Finding a skilled pianist would be easily satisfied on the mainland, but the reality of life on a sparsely populated island makes it a challenge. Then there is the perennial issue of having enough funding for the arts. Ian stressed that NATS was able to continue financially thanks to the locals through their participation; the business people who supported the arts and, of course, raffle prizes.
Monica and Ian collaborate on plays and musicals, and their relationship works well when it comes to writing plays, because they each have individual skills that complement the other. I asked what they considered to be the most successful theatrical program of NATS. Without hesitation, Monica and Ian answered my question in unison. The Norfolk Island Theatre Festival is the longest running theatrical program created. Originally conceived by local tourist operator, Boo Prentice, the festival was taken over by NATS 19 years ago. This year, 2017, is a special milestone because NATS celebrates the Festival’s 20th anniversary in October.
This led me to ask the question, “So do either of you prefer a particular medium, such as music or acting?” Ian quickly responded that music was his favourite by far. His long time love for another theatrical partnership, Gilbert and Sullivan, manifested in a production of their comic operas, which involved pupils from the Norfolk Island Central School (NICS). Ian’s enthusiasm bubbled over as he talked of the fun that the children experienced whilst taking part in the plays. Although the theatre is used for NATS, the school children have the use of it for their performances too, and Monica added that the students will be performing a play towards the end of this year.
Running a theatre program on a small island has its inherent difficulties, and one of those issues is ‘time’. “Finding people who have spare time is difficult. People are busy.” As Monica said this, the irony did not escape me that I was talking with two people in their seventies and eighties who have worked hard and entertained others, but without entertaining retirement! It is true, Norfolk locals can have two or three jobs and the person who greets you at the airport might also serve you in another capacity during your stay here.
It is clear that Monica and Ian are hard workers, but I wondered what they did to relax. Despite being in his eighties, Ian still enjoys playing Masters Rugby for the Creaky Ol’ Convicts. “I gave up running about ten years ago as it was getting a bit too much.” Monica, on the other hand, said that her work keeps her motivated and involved with life on the Island. However, she did concede that there was one thing she loved, but rarely got the chance to do. “If I had the time, I would love to participate more in acting. Not that I want to be the centre of attention so much, but it is rather rewarding to hear the audience applaud. You know that people appreciate your efforts.”
Monica’s sentiment about her love of acting reflects this article’s opening quote, and also explains why the human condition desires to go beyond the mundane. Put simply; “…it is so much more than real life.”
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 01 Issue 02, 2017. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.