A Model Woman is based on the true story of Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe. Renee Liang interviews writer Phil Ormsby about this tale of love and cross-gender roles.
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Flaxworks Theatre - Alex Ellis and Phil Ormsby – opens its fifth show this week. A Model Woman tells the story of Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe, a famous artist and her model husband who scandalised Paris in the 1920s. Writer Phil Ormsby has fashioned this true love story into a fascinating dissection of societal expectation and gender roles. Renee Liang talks to Phil about Flaxworks and his new play.
Why do you make theatre?
Because theatre ticks all the creative boxes for me. It demands engagement and cooperation and it's made out of humans.
How did you come across the story of Einar and Gerda Wegener?
Reading the history of Fats Waller on the internet, google searches always start somewhere and end somewhere completely different. I wish I could remember the sequence of links but it went from 1920's New York to Paris, to Gerda's paintings, to the story of her and Lili.
What compelled you to turn this story into a play?
It is the perfect story for a play. Romantic and courageous. Two characters who love each other but who cannot both have what they want most without hurting each other.
Do you think their story may have had a different ending today?
The journey would certainly be different but it's hard to know if the end would be. There were no reference points at all in 1930. No one had ever done it before and people didn't understand it and most people didn't want to try. There was no language to describe the experience, Lili had to blaze her own trail.
A Model Woman marks Flaxwork's fifth play. Over the years you've covered addictive substances (coffee and chocolate), death, roadtrips, Hollywood stardom... how do you choose your material for plays? and is there anything linking your work to date?
Possibly I write about people who question themselves a lot, an unexamined life is not worth living etc. When I look back on them all that certainly seems to be a theme.
How has Flaxworks changed since you and Alex started it?
We take more advice. We don't take it all but we take more of it. And we have found some amazing people to come on the ride with us, Nik Janiurek and Simon Coleman must be honorary Flaxworks members by now.
You've been staunch supporters of accessible theatre, touring to places in NZ and Australia big and small... what's been the most rewarding venue you've played?
There's been a few and the rewards have varied. The Swamp Palace in the far north was a highlight on our first ever tour, the biggest audience we'd ever had in the middle of nowhere, it was an amazing experience. The hospitality of places like Akaroa, Hokitika, Oamaru, Golden Bay where complete strangers offered us accommodation, food and drink. The truth is, touring is it's own reward.
I've always admired how Flaxworks has maintained creative integrity while still being self sustaining. What's your secret?
No secret, we just do what we want to do and it works just often enough for us to keep going.
What's next for you?
A play about the rapacious 80's is still rattling around my laptop (cast of ten anyone?) and one about the many manifestations of the New Zealand Secret Service and another one-hander, of course.