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Wednesday 24 May 2023 4:08pm

Hamish Annan 650x400
Hamish performing his solo show Access. Credit: Yuxin Liu

A double major in Psychology and Theatre Studies at Otago underpins actor and playwright Hamish Annan's award-winning performance artwork Access.

Performed by Hamish in close collaboration with audience members, Access is Hamish's second solo show. It has won the 2022 New Zealand Fringe Touring Award and featured in the Dunedin Fringe Festival in March. Described as a semi-interactive performance artwork exploring human connection, emotional vulnerability, and communal empathy, the production involves Hamish alone on the stage, joined by an individual from the audience.

The volunteers choose from six emotional dynamics they want to experience, and Hamish uses his own body to explore and inhabit the complexities of aggression, lust, grief, happiness, fear, and disgust.

As a gay artist, Hamish says he initially developed this work in response to the emotional limitations of traditional masculinity and, more broadly, the stoic, emotionally repressed 'Kiwi' psyche.

"Our relationship to emotion is central to our sense of self. Access embraces expression, feeling, and challenges the rigid concepts we hold about what it means to 'perform' your identity."

After completing his BA and starting on the Clinical Psychology pathway at Otago in 2016, Hamish was invited to Auckland to join The Actors' Program, a one-year intensive acting workshop, and says that took him off in a different direction.

“But I think psychology and certainly the human experience and in a lot of ways the individual human experience, has found its way into a lot of the creative work I've done. Certainly, this show, which is all about emotional connection and vulnerability and sense of communal empathy, I can't help but read it through a psychological lens.”

With a background in playwrighting and writing for TV, he says Access was a bit of an experiment. But after testing it out in Auckland and receiving positive feedback, he applied for funding and developed it to the point where he and his small crew could take it on tour. Winning the NZ Fringe Touring Award has helped with the further funding needed to tour around the country.

“Really what has come out of it is this interesting kind of relationship that forms with the audience. It's interesting to strip away story and character, there's no dialogue, there's no narrative. Yet in an emotional commune with another person suddenly your mind is filled with stories and people bring their own kind of thoughts and memories and feelings to the work.

“That I think is the exciting part. There are a few parameters that we operate in, we're limited to six emotions, six qualities, but within that there are such variety in the extremes, from very subtle all the way to quite overtly intense. The audience in many ways controls what happens in the performance, so it is different every time.”

While he performs solo in the show, behind the scenes he is supported by his Director Katie Burson and Designer Rob Byrne, and he brings in local artists to support the work as he travels around the country.

“It's a very pared back performance, which allows us to adapt to very different spaces. We've done it indoors, at galleries and theatres, but also outdoors, which is very interesting to see how it collides with the sensibility of different spaces.”

Hamish says rather than taking either a psychological or acting route, or relying on memory or personal experience during the performance, he has learned a physical, biological technique to access to emotion, which has its history in Germany and the United States.

“It's really authentic visceral emotion, but directly accessed through physiology, as opposed to through thought and memory.”

He says from an audience perspective it's very different from most shows - the audience is standing, and they're allowed to talk – and they do a lot of work around the show to help guide people into it.

“We're breaking a lot of the rules that maybe a more reserved Kiwi audience will struggle to push against. Let alone it being interactive, which people always baulk against. But time and time again we've been surprised at how many people want to participate, want to engage with it and are letting themselves be moved and have emotional expression in public, which is so not the 'done' thing, especially for men. Seeing very masculine grown men cry in public, it's the connection we need at a time when everything is so tense. I say to our audiences it's not really a thinking show it's a feeling show.”

He says he's the least interesting part of the show, with those standing around the two central performers often saying they are more drawn to watching the effects on other audience members.

“I think there's something about showing people the capacity we have, maybe it gets them to consider moving outside the little bandwidth of expression that they operate in. We're not necessarily pushing people all the way out that far, but if someone leaves that show laughing more broadly than they previously may have, that's a cool gift that I can help people to find.

“It [the show] facilitates discussion, which is all you really want with art. If it's making people think and it's making people feel something, that's all I can hope for as an artist.”

During his tours Hamish takes workshops in this technique at high schools and for the public.

After finishing the tour in March, he is now looking into opportunities to tour overseas, which he's excited about as he says in many ways the show transcends language.

Hamish credits his time at Otago as providing him with the experience needed to launch into acting and writing. Pivotal was the opportunity to write and produce plays at Allen Hall Theatre, and the learning gained from lecturers, especially Associate Professor Hilary Halba and Theatre Manager and Designer Martyn Roberts, who were both teachers and theatre professionals.

“I think because they were so connected to the arts themselves you really believed in what they were saying and you learned from them because they were walking the talk.

“What was really special that I don't have now, was a dedicated theatre that runs shows every week. I think in my first year I wrote a play and they let me put it on and they were like 'that went quite well, people seemed to enjoy it'. For the next three years they gave me free rein.

“That gave me such a useful place to experiment and fail and try different ideas and explore things.”

As well as receiving acclaim for Access, Hamish's first solo show 93% was awarded Best Actor, Best New Zealand Script, Best Emerging Artist, and People's Choice Award at the Short+Sweet Festival. His plays have been presented at Q Theatre, Fortune Theatre, and Allen Hall, and when he's not performing his own work, Hamish takes on a variety of acting roles, including doing voice overs for Power Rangers.

You can watch Access in action in this trailer

Kōrero by Margie Clark, Communications Adviser Development and Alumni Relations Office

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