Putting Your Body On The Line
From the London theatre beat to Shortland Street - with circus and acrobatics in between - Beth Kayes has learned plenty about her craft and herself in a creative career.
Ahead of her latest production, we asked Beth to review her life and think about what advice she would tell her 22-year-old self. Here are her tales of dedication and most memorable life lessons.
Exploit your adventurous spirit and when obstacles arise, get support to problem solve
The late 1980s. I felt so free. Pack on my back, walking through London. Theatre was everywhere. No one knew me, I had escaped New Zealand. My B.A in English got me a job as a waitress and I spent everything I could afford on classes in theatre, acrobatics, trapeze, improv, dance.
The acting jobs I had done in NZ added up to qualify me for a union card so I worked in a museum where actors played characters from the exhibits and in a touring children’s theatre company.
After two years my visa was up but I wanted to stay longer. I arranged to marry my flatmate. I was offered a job in a circus theatre company and had to go to Paris to learn flying trapeze so off I went. The Dutch trainer wasn’t happy with the state of my muscles. I couldn’t do enough pull ups or push ups. I remember I also had to buy a van, I suppose to live in, and to move with the rest of the performers. I really was running away with the circus!
My hands had holes in them, huge blisters from flying trapeze
My hands had holes in them, huge blisters from flying trapeze. Back in London, I went to the registry office to book the wedding and didn’t even know where my ‘fiancé’ was born. I was starting to feel overloaded. I never thought about asking anyone for advice or support. I should have. I’d been away two years so I was homesick anyway. I flew home.
Do the work you want to do
The circus theatre, physical theatre bug had infected me. It was the early 1990s and I got a job with Sydney company Legs On The Wall. It was an ensemble of four. We were determined not to be ‘ta da’ circus and instead tell a story using our aerial and acrobatic skills. With Nigel Jamieson directing, we made All of Me, a show about a family break up. It struck a chord with audiences, sold out, and toured to festivals for the next decade, with multiple casts.
Beth Kayes in the air, in award winning show All of Me, 'Legs On The Wall' physical theatre, Sydney, Australia (supplied)
All of Me is probably the most impactful show I have co-created and performed. For circus and physical theatre audiences in Australia, it was a breakthrough show stylistically and the content of the show threw an emotional punch. I remember a doctor in Canberra who told us her patient couldn’t stop crying. Together they worked out that it had started after seeing our show.
It hit our bodies hard too. In the first Sydney season, I was covered in bruises and had a tennis ball for a knee until I worked out where in the show I was injuring myself and stopped. I jumped from high on a ladder into a fellow performer’s arms and kept corking my thigh. My colleague dislocated her shoulder. But we were bloody proud of doing the work we wanted to do.
If you live in NZ, diversify!
If you really can’t live without the creative process and you have to keep doing your arts practice, I get you! If you are going to stay in NZ where our population is less than Sydney, then you might struggle financially. Get another string to your bow. Learn another craft or trade. Diversify. Especially if you rely on your physicality to perform.
Learn another craft or trade.
Diversify. Especially if you rely on your physicality to perform
By the time I was 47, every ligament in my shoulder was torn. I used my other arm to lift it. Fuel Festival, Hamilton, went bankrupt so we didn’t get paid! I was so tired of not knowing where my next paycheck was coming from that I finally used that BA and trained as a teacher.
It meant I read plays I would never have read, learnt theatre history and how to direct large groups of young people - aaaaarghhhhh! I didn’t have to chase up any invoices, they just paid me, every week, I couldn’t believe it.
You might not play that second string on your bow always, or forever, but it could support your arts practice. Life’s too short to be miserable.
Beth Kayes (photographed with Katie Burson) is a writer and performer in GET OUT OF MY LETTER BOX. You can see her show at Q Theatre 19–22 February 2020 as part of Auckland Fringe. (supplied)