Who is this young, strong wāhine who's taking the New Zealand theatre world by storm? Emilie Hope decided to find out a little bit more about her.
When choosing a perky spot for a portrait, Eleanor Strathern’s first suggestion was the yellow wall in Milk Crate. I wasn’t waiting long before she promptly walks in with a chirpy “Hi!” and our simultaneous gift of the gab began, covering things like humble beginnings, obstacles, balancing multiple jobs, mental health, and the theatre industry.
Twenty-five year old Eleanor is the woman behind the award-winning theatre production company A Mulled Whine. She’s the BATS of Wellington theatre producers, the champion of the pick-n-mix and the indie. She’s been on my radar ever since I reviewed Discharge is Rotten to the Core for the 2018 Fringe Festival, although she’s been a familiar face in the Wellington scene for a lot longer. The quality of shows Eleanor has produced reflects her much deserving awards, both essentially telling us to keep an eye on this budding producer, and I have been. Enough to be intrigued to ask her a couple of questions, taking time out of her busy schedule. Quite literally. Eleanor has put on a show in February, six in March, two more in April and May respectively, another in June, and we’re only halfway through the year. So how did it all start?
Eleanor falls in love with every one of her projects and gets “very emotionally attached...”
Eleanor has many fabulous friends. There are another two award-winning comedians, Jon Bennett, and Brendon Green, the YouTube famous White Man Behind a Desk, playwright Uther Dean, and just about all creatives she works with become her friends as well as colleagues.
And if the fringe, glasses, and constant smile looks familiar, it’s probably because she’s been on the Box Office for nine years now. First it was the only cinema in Nelson, and then it was BATS, starting fresh-faced in 2014, for almost three years as the Thursday and Saturday night gal. And while she was humbly taking down posters after closing on Saturday nights, a Box Office job opened up at Circa Theatre where she is still working today and is not likely to go anywhere anytime soon: “Circa is really keeping me afloat and they’re very kind to me.”
The transition from BATS to Circa came at the annual stress-inducing but also highly rewarding time in the theatre industry: the Fringe Festival. “I worked both theatres over Fringe. I didn’t want to leave BATS over Fringe, because that would be a super dick move, that would be so mean of me, to be like ‘it’s your busiest time of year? I’m outta here, byeeee!’ So I worked Circa during the day and BATS at night.” And amazingly, she didn’t burn out because it was pre-A Mulled Whine.
A Mulled Whine didn’t originally intend to be a theatre production company either. “I had an idea of a brand and then I actually ended up doing something a little bit different. I thought I was just going to do comedy and storytelling…” because, y’know, a mulled whine. Like, a drink and a chat. More theatre options came her way and she decided, like that San Dolmio taco ad, to do both. “It’s cool to do both.”
Rhian’s show How I Met My Father came about a year or so after finishing her Honours degree in Film Production in 2015 at Victoria University where her main roles were producer, because no one else wanted to do it, and editor, because that’s what she thought she was going to be. Eleanor is often the publicist for many of her shows and these two skills are prominently coming in handy.
When approached, Eleanor was managing a shop on Cuba Street and working at BATS at night. It was “quite a steep incline,” to produce How I Met My Father. Sadly, Eleanor and Rhian did not tour the country in her sweet vintage Mini Cooper. They went “in his car which was definitely worse.” Yet, she reminisces the only time she has been able to go on tour with a show fondly, and driving around in his “filth bucket” Toyota Corona with a gaffed steering wheel, the two got the last laugh all the way to the bank. “I think no one expected that first tour to be as big as it was, people thought it would be four dates and not make any money. But it was twenty-two dates in nineteen locations and it made a profit.”
A Mulled Whine exists to help artists get their work on stage
Fast forward to 2019, and A Mulled Whine has been picking up steam with shows that have strong social justice messages as well as a few political works. “So MANIAC on the Dance Floor is about recovering from bipolar, about how recovery and self-care is so glamourised right now, and actually it’s just really tough and it’s up and down and you’re all over the place. And then we’ve got a couple of political works like White Man Behind a Desk, and with Burn Her, and with The Secret Number, … and Brendan [Green] who’s doing one about morality and the meaning of life. Strong messages. If it’s kind of pithy, I probably wouldn’t take it.” And that’s because Eleanor falls in love with every one of her projects, and gets “very emotionally attached... Like I said, I don’t take on pithy things, so when I get really excited about something and I’m like ‘yes, of course I’ll do it. Of course!’ Or someone will come to me with a problem and they’ll be desperate, and I’ll say ‘Of course I can help.’ And then I sitting back and being like ‘what have I done? What have I done?!’”
And if you thought it was easy being the human shield of your crew, think again. Eleanor burns herself out and admits that mental health is not a priority, “but I’m working on it being a priority.” A lot of it is about working out the Mulled Whine-Circa life balance, trying not to cram everything in at one time, planning “a year ahead for everything, rather than accepting stuff in the final hours, which I probably still would do because it’s in my nature.” Because, at the end of the day, “A Mulled Whine exists to help artists get their work on the stage,” and while Eleanor works with very capable artists, sometimes things get “put in the ‘too-hard’ basket, which would compromise the work.”
It’s getting to the point where she has to say no to projects and be more selective about what she takes on, which is especially important when A Mulled Whine is out-of-towner’s first producer port-of-call when bringing shows to Wellington. Eleanor produced Mating in Captivity by Oliver Page in August last year which was a BATS-led initiative; MANIAC on the Dance Floor by Natasha Lay was given to Eleanor after Red Scare Theatre thought it wasn’t quite the right fit for their programme for the year; she even stepped in to help produce the already well established White Man Behind a Desk. “They really needed the support. I mean, they were going to be fine either way, but I think for workload and mental health and stuff like that, and having someone look after the finicky things like Jack Tame saying yes just two hours too late… So that they can focus on writing and the important stuff.”
A lot of care goes into making the creatives feel comfortable and secure so that they can focus on the work itself
Friend and colleague Maddy Warren acknowledged Eleanor on Facebook last year for “finding nice things to say about me and keeping everyone in our co-op happy and smiling all day every day.” So the simple question is HOW? How does she do this? The answer is in the same vain as Elle Woods’ “What, like it’s hard?” Eleanor has extremely perky, relaxed, and positive communications which are naturally occuring in her personality. You can experience it yourself through her monthly Whine List mail out. Eleanor has a strong sense of exterior personal responsibility. “That’s the place that I come from.” Considering she is personally attached to each of her projects means that a lot of care goes into making the creatives feel comfortable and secure so that they can focus on the work itself. “Start and end on a positive, problem solve in between. And I really reassure people that I’ve got them.” So the answer is that, plus a very basic task of keeping people fed during pack-ins because “that’s something that people don’t do.” I experienced all of this first hand as we wandered over to Goldings and she bought me a beer.
And while there are many people in her life whom she credits to helping her continue this work, family, flatmates and friends, keeping this one-woman company afloat relies on a self-confessed not very good life hack: “never rely on anyone else. Never. Don’t assume other people can do superhuman tasks, but I’ve got a few in my head that I know can.” Considering the success of A Mulled Whine, “Lots of people are asking me if I’m going freelance full time but I think the stress would move from work-mode to ‘how do I stay alive? How do I pay the bills?’ Because Phantom Billstickers don’t pay themselves. And it’s quite interesting doing a whole work [MANIAC on the Dance Floor] on self-care at the moment.”
Eleanor doesn’t let social media affect her mental health. While it is an exhaustive method of marketing, and she does find it tiring at times, “Facebook is business for me, Facebook isn’t fun. Instagram is a little more fun because you get to see people’s pretty pictures,” and Instagram is also used for stories. Luckily for Eleanor, thus far she hasn’t had too many negative messages coming through on cyber platforms. “You need to distance yourself from that. Sometimes if I get a confronting email, a bad news email, that I can’t handle at that point in time I’ll ask one of my flatmates to read it for me and tell me how bad it is on a scale from one to ten, and how much work it sounds like it’s going to be.” For the most part, A Mulled Whine has a sound following of just over six hundred people on Facebook. “I think people like it. I think people like the stuff. And that makes me feel good, I won’t lie. And surely when they hate it, I’ll feel bad, but that hasn’t happened just yet. We’ll see.”
Funding is something that is few and far between. There's so many of us and we're all trying to work together collectively and create a beautiful, creative New Zealand together
And there’s a big scary thing in the corner that all creative industries have to deal with: the funding issue. “Funding is something that is few and far between. There’s so many of us and we’re all trying to work together collectively and create a beautiful creative New Zealand together, creative capital, but no, I’m working with people that live in Christchurch, Auckland, Dunedin, Nelson, and I’m working with them on a regular basis, and we’re all taking money from the same finite pool. And that makes me uncomfortable and it’s not the community spirit that we talk about or that we even act on, when we’re all like ‘Well, I can’t pay my actors for this project because I didn’t get funding from so-and-so but I really love their work and appreciate them and what they did and that’s cool’. So I would like to be semi-self-sufficient. Get some kind of regular funding or a sponsorship situation. I’ve got a patron on the back-burner.”
And if it’s not funding, it’s rehearsal space. Eleanor sometimes gets lucky, nabbing rehearsal spaces at Circa for koha. “Otherwise we’re all squeezing into Anvil [House], which is another problem that’s facing the community at the moment. All the rehearsal spaces are being filled up because we’re in a housing crisis, and everything is earthquake-prone, and everything is super expensive. Anvil is all we’ve got, and we’re all battling it out.”
This is only the road so far, and A Mulled Whine has a very promising future ahead. It’s already semi-international, with Jon Bennett on tour around the world non-stop for nine years now, and other works going to the Orlando Fringe Festival in America. The ideal would be having the ability to hit the road and travel with a project for long stretches of time. “I would like to go to these places, and I think A Mulled Whine has the capability to go international but I would like to take some New Zealand work with me. It’s not just for me to finally do my OE. It’s for me to do what I want, do what I love, take people that also want it with me.”
In almost three years, Eleanor has managed to create an indie and social justice brand for herself with a fierce kaupapa, and is working on making herself “a more permanent fixture.” Her following is large “which is good because it means that each of the works can support one another.” And while her work lifestyle has changed from filling out spreadsheets in bed with her cat Olive (RIP Olive), to working longer, flexible, contractor hours at Circa, her work is “exhausting but it’s good. I don’t take it for granted.”
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