Mates & Lovers: interview with Ronald Trifero Nelson

Chris Brickell’s book Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand sheds light on a part of our history previously confined to closets and court records, detailing the history of male homosexuality in this country since the 19th Century. Spark journalist Ian Anderson speaks to Ronald Trifero Nelson, who has adapted this book for the theatre.

To start with, what do you set out to do when you make theatre?

Well it’s an old Fabian idea, to entertain and educate.

Tell me about the book Mates and Lovers. What were your first impressions reading it?

Within 20 seconds of seeing the cover I wanted to make a play of it. That photo is pregnant with possibilities. So I took the book home, thumbed through it, and adapted it for my Masters.

And how did you end up adapting and staging it?

It was during a scriptwriting course at Vic. I’d write a couple of scenes each week, starting with the most obvious ones, and by the time the paper was over I had a script. I contacted Chris [Brickell] through Facebook and he was delighted.

You’ve reworked the play since its initial run, can you tell me about that?

We dropped 4 or 5 scenes, reworked maybe 10, added new scenes, and now there’s a much stronger Maori element.

Can you tell me about the Maori element?

Well there’s very little of that in the book, so I had to do either my own research or make things up. If you know Paul Diamond, the historian, he’s covered this case of a young Maori guy who was jailed for impersonating a house-keeper. The press coverage is interesting, very flowery and senstationalistic, so I’ve got the actors delivering that.

There’s also a scene, if it makes it, about a Maori garage band in the ‘50s. It seems to me that New Zealand pop music during that period tried to pull off these cheesy dance songs, so we’re doing one called the Manatuke Mash.

What do you think of the term “gay theatre”?

I’d probably run like hell from it.

What state is NZ theatre in?

Theatre is pretty damn good right now, it’s the best I’ve seen it in years. New Zealanders are so self-effacing, they never think their stories are worth telling. When I first came over [Nelson hails from the US] I remember noticing phrases like, “Oh they’re okay for a New Zealand band.” Well, I don’t want this to just be “okay for a New Zealand play.”

What impact would you like this play to have?

I want people to walk out and say, “We’re here, we’re queer, we’ve always been here.”

Mates and Lovers will play from the 17th to the 28th of November at Auckland theatre The Basement.

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