By Poppy Tohill
Written and performed by the exceptionally talented trio, David Ward, Peter Daube and Dave Kahn, Wheel Of Experience is a unique musical and theatrical experience that paints the lives and legends of early NZ through a collection of stunning original songs. Having recently returned to Auckland from an extensive 26 date tour around New Zealand, I caught up with composer, musician and producer of the show, David Ward, in the middle of Aotea Square where the project first debuted back in 2011, for a chat prior to their upcoming shows at Auckland's Q Theatre in September.
Intrigued with the concept of Wheel Of Experience, Dave kicked off the interview describing just what exactly it is all about. "The Wheel Of Experience show is a concert of epic original songs that draw their inspiration from some of the lives, legends and events from early New Zealand history,"
Ward began. "There's three performers, and it's performed on about 12 different instruments, from banjos, fiddles, mandolins and cigar box guitars to trombones and a huge array of other cool instruments. So each song is a real journey through music and story telling and these characters that we bring to life through the songs," he went on to explain.
"The show was first performed at the Random Acts Festival in Aotea Square," Ward replied when asked how the idea for the show initially began. "So we created an intimate performance space, like a tent shack where people could come inside and be enveloped in this world. They'd spin a wheel and wherever it landed is what song we'd perform," he explained. "Since we performed it there, we got creative NZ funding to write more songs and adapt it to work on a stage and be a touring show. Now we've just completed a 26-date tour of New Zealand in May, and are about to be at the Q Theatre. So it's evolved a lot, but the spirit of intimacy and story telling and being involved in a world is still there," Ward concluded.
The songs featuring throughout the Wheel Of Experience show, were all written by Ward and Daube themselves. When asking about the process the two went through to gather and collate the stories and form them into the songs we hear, Ward began explaining, "We wrote the songs together, so it was really just a matter of immersing ourselves. We read a lot of books and went to the library, where there was also a lot of archives we went through," he continued. "It was really the moment that something intrigued our imagination, peaked our sense of humour, seemed like it was a story that hadn't necessarily been told before, or whatever it was that made us delve deeper into that story and try find a way we could tell it through music," Ward exclaimed. "So we spent a lot of time working on the stories themselves, at the same time working on the music, but probably more than any other project I've done, we really focused in on the way that we communicated the characters."
Mixing their beautiful musical talents with the refined craft of storytelling, I learnt a few of the stories behind the characters of which the songs arebased on as Ward delve deeper into a few of the tracks that feature throughout the show. "One that comes to mind, is the story of a Chinese man, Joe Kum Yung and a New Zealand European, called Lionel Terry, who shot Kum Yung on a small street in Wellington," Ward responded when asked if there was a particular story they discovered which they couldn't pass up transforming into a song. "In cold blood, Lionel Teryy just walked up behind Kum Yung, shot him and killed him," Ward continued. "Then he dined with politicians and journalists and then the next day he went to the police station, handed in his book of poetry and propaganda which was against immigration, and said, "read this book, ‘The Shadow' and you will understand why I did this." So he basically chose this old crippled Chinese man and shot him in cold blood, just to prove his political point," Ward stated. "So that was one of the most difficult stories that we had to tell because it was just so dark, and Lionel Terry was so despicable. So we sort of tried to tell the story from the point of view of both of them."
After admitting that ‘A Hundred Trees' was my favourite, Ward went on to fill me in on the back-story behind the song. "So that was a story that we wrote based on a situation that we read about," he began. "Peter was fascinated with the raurimu spiral which was the feat of engineering which wound this train up, round and round this hill through a series of tunnels. Anyway, it took them years to build and it goes right through the centre of the country. The story about it that peaked our imagination was that people came from all over the world to build it and when they got there, there was no accommodation. They just had twelve families in a tent. Gambling and drugs were rife. Apparently laudanum, amethia and cough mixture all mixed together was their drink of choice and it just sounded like a gritty, interesting place to set a story, so we imagined a story of a love affair between two people who came to work there and the story sort of went on from there."
I could have sat there listening to the story behind each and every song, as it was like being in a really interesting history lesson, although I thought it was best to move along, as Ward continued describing the style of music that features in Wheel Of Experience. "I guess you could call it folk music, but that also has all these connotations that come with it," he laughed. "Its certainly not Peter, Paul & Mary," he chuckled again, before continuing on, "but all the songs are played on acoustic, mostly stringed instruments, and it's definitely about story telling," he declared. "So there's elements of blues, bluegrass, there's a song that's inspired by Portuguese Fado music and one that's inspired by Chinese folk music, so stylistically it goes all over the place and musically it's just whatever happens and is required to be able to express and tell the story of the character appropriately. Even within one song we're often shifting things quite a lot as well," he exclaimed.
With all three members of Wheel Of Experience being involved in numerous musical projects in the past, Ward filled me in on what it's been like working with Duabe & Kahn. "They're a couple of characters!" he proclaimed. "I've played in a few groups with Dave Kahn before, but yeah, they're great," he continued. "Peter's wonderful because he's had a music composing background for years but he's also done a huge amount of acting for stage and film, so although we have very different personalities, he's great in the way that he is really searching for the heart of the story and the way to tell it, and looking to push the boundaries. Then if we've got a musical conundrum, Dave will always produce something that just works perfectly. So we're all so different, but everybody's really got a strong input into the show," Ward concluded.
"One of the things that takes up a lot of my time is working with the Indian Ink Theatre Company," Ward responded when asked if he'd ever worked on a similar musical/theatre combined project before. "So for the past ten years I've been writing and performing music for their theatre shows, such as ‘Candlestick Maker,' ‘Christian's Dairy,' Guru of Chai,' ‘Kiss The Fish,' and ‘Dentist's Chair,' so that was my introduction into theatre. I love music for music sake in an abstract way, but there's something also great about music serving a sort of wider story or context," he admits. "So I guess that was part of my motivation to create Wheel Of Experience, was to kind of have those elements."
Proving a man of many talents, not only composing and performing all of the songs, but Ward is also producing the live stage show. Slipping this into conversation, Ward filled me in on what the experience and process of producing has been like for him. "Yeah! I produced the wheel that was in the Random Acts Festival, along with the arts on tour, tour, we've just done, and now I'm going to do it for this season at Q, also," Ward declared. "It's definitely a different side of the process, rather than just being a performer," he admits. "But I guess being a musician, you always end up doing, maybe not on so much of a scale as this, but creating posters, and doing all your own publicity, so all those skills have sort of been there," he confessed.
"I think it took maybe 9 months to a year to create the original Wheel Of Experience show," Ward remarked when I commented on how long it musttake to put a show like this together. "We weren't working on it continuously, but it was sort of always there, as something we were working away on," he added. "After performing it at the Random Acts Festival in 2011, this year was the first time we really performed it again, so in that time we've had songs brewing away and then come together for intense rehearsals. Sometimes it works really slowly and other times it comes together fairly quickly."
With the mention of performing I asked how the recent 26-date tour went. "It was great!" Ward excitedly expressed. "So the Arts on tour, tour which we completed was throughout May and the beginning of June, and that was amazing. We did town halls, opera houses, theatres and community venues," he happily chimed. "It was an intense tour, where we were travelling every day, setting up performing and then travelling again, but it was great. We did the show again in New Plymouth in the weekend that's just been and you could still feel the strength of the show still there after all that insane touring we had done earlier, so now it's really nice to think about settling down in a theatre for a week and building the show in one space."
With this in mind, Ward went on to give me a bit of a heads up with what you can expect and look forward to from the show, when you head along to see it at Auckland's Q Theatre in a few weeks. "We've had great feedback pretty much all the way, it's been awesome. People say that they've been really intrigued by the characters and the stories, some of which are quite unexpected. A lot of people have also been really struck and fascinated by all the amazing instruments that we play, which they've never seen before, and the musicianship too," he added. "I mean it's called Wheel Of Experience- so people definitely do get a whole experience from it rather than just going and seeing a gig. A gig can be an experience too," he quickly added, "but there's something about the mix of theatre and music that people just get really drawn into an absorbed in."
"Yeah. I think when you create something you always want something to happen with it that ensures it will have a longer life," Ward responded when asked if taking the show overseas at some point was part of their aim. "Often you just focus on the thing right ahead of you, which for us was Random Acts, but once we'd done that, we realised that, the music was so strong we wanted to continue doing it and we wanted to extend it, and so as soon as we finished that we were thinking- how can we keep this alive, keep it touring and adapt it," he exclaimed. "I think the logical thing would be to maybe pop over to Australia, because there's a couple of festivals over there that we've got our eye on, but one thing at a time hey," he chuckled.
As our interview drew closer to an end, I finished off asking what comes next for the Wheel Of Experience show and crew. "I don't think anyone else is doing what the collection of me, Dave & Peter are doing, so it does lend itself to keeping a similar format, but I think we'll just continue finding and writing new stories and music really, so yeah, hopefully they'll definitely be more to come." Enthusiastically chiming ‘Absolutely!!!!' when asked if we can expect to hear and see more of Wheel Of Experience and the three musicians behind this excellent project, in the future.
Wheel Of Experience
Start date: Tuesday Sep 9 2014
End date: Saturday Sep 13 2014
Q Theatre, Auckland
Tickets via Q Bookings