Kiwi road workers’ banter makes London stage

Ben Harris and Samuel Gordon Bruce in the world premiere of Waiting for Go in Canberra. (photo/Trevar Alan Chilver)

Her sleep-ins were ruined. But Elspeth Tilley ended up writing an award-winning play based on conversations between road workers she overhead while trying to rest during a break.

The Associate Professor in Expressive Arts at Massey University’s School of English and Media Studies in Wellington had anticipated a quiet week off at her Wellington home to catch up on sleep last year. Instead, she got woken at dawn by loud hip-hop music and road workers chit-chatting outside her window. Much to her annoyance, she couldn’t escape the noise ­– so she wrote down snatches of conversation, stopped in her tracks by the men’s insights and humour. What she heard made her question – why do we all rush everywhere, polluting the planet as we go, failing to take the time to enjoy life? A simple, clear message came through – just slow down. Be still.

Their snippets of dialogue struck her as theatre gold, resulting in a ten-minute play Waiting for Go, which is soon to be performed off London’s West End. The environmental play has been selected one of the ten winning plays in the British Theatre Challenge 2017. Each winning script will get a professional performance in October at the newly rebranded Stockwell Playhouse London, where it will be filmed and considered for publication.

Written in homage to Samuel Beckett’s classic of modernist theatre Waiting for Godot, it premiered at the Short & Sweet Festival in Canberra in 2016 (selected from more than 300 entries), and was also chosen from more than 1000 entries for production at Short & Sweet Sydney in 2017, where it won equal second place in the Week 5 People's Choice awards.

Waiting for Go has also featured in Footprint Theatre's (Pambula, New South Wales, Australia) directing workshop series, and their 'Spring Shorts' festival.

It will have its New Zealand premiere in Queenstown in September as one of the top ten finalists in Pint Size Plays New Zealand.

Ben Harris and Samuel Gordon Bruce as two road workers who discuss the meaning of life (photo/Trevar Alan Chilver)

Environmental theatre not just ‘art for art’s sake’

Dr Tilley feels buoyed that a play such as this one, with a strong political message, can also be popular and entertaining, and that theatre is not just ‘art for art’s sake.’ It goes against the old maxim that political material with challenging messages and creativity do not mix, she says. 

In another example of successfully combining creativity with political awareness-raising, her short play The Penguins has been selected for the global theatre event, Climate Change Theatre Action 2017. Later this year it will be entertaining and educating audiences in Wellington and Perth, Western Australia, with its zany construct in which a couple of penguins reflect on the idiosyncrasies of human behaviour and their absurdly destructive treatment of the planet.

Viewing human behaviour and attitudes from another species’ perspective (one in which the males ‘stay home’ and look after the young) provides an innovative and often hilarious framework into which serious ideas can be woven, she says. “It’s also a way of giving people hope – penguins have been around for 60 million years, whereas humans have been on the planet for about two million years,” she says. “I think it’s important not to hit people in the face with a message.”

Playwright Associate Professor Elspeth Tilley

Creativity and climate change 

The Penguins will be staged at the Theatre Lab at Massey’s Wellington campus as part of the Still Waving: Climate Change Theatre Action Aotearoa programme on October 23, and made into a radio play and podcast by staff and students at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. More performances may follow, with more than 100 global Climate Change Theatre Action events in October and November.

She is also the producer of ‘Still Waving’, the Aotearoa Climate Change Theatre Action event, which will present plays by American, Native American, Samoan, Canadian, New Zealand and other playwrights. The event is a partnership with youth-led climate action group Generation Zero, and all ticket proceeds will go to support Generation Zero’s work campaigning for a zero-carbon New Zealand economy.

Details of Still Waving: Climate Change Theatre Action Aotearoa 2017 are at:

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